In the 20-some-odd years I have been writing about music, I have penned exactly one piece on cover bands.
Until now, that is. This is No. 2.
Usually I take the moral high ground and write only about original music, the idea being that original music is culturally important in a singular way, requiring work beyond simply learning a familiar song. You have to write it yourself, find a way to perform it and take responsibility for it. That last part is kind of huge, and it can make or break you as an artist.
But after some deep consideration, I realized every musician on the planet began his or her career playing covers. Every one. Hell, the most respected musicians in the world — classical musicians — make their livings playing covers. Ones written by the greatest composers in history, but covers nonetheless.
So cover musicians: This one’s for you:
Like my brethren, I’ve spent my “professional music” life playing covers off and on since I was 15 years old. That’s more than 30 years. In this time, I have discovered some hard truths about working musicians, and very little of it is pretty. It’s a thankless job, one filled with late nights in dirty clubs competing with belligerent drunks and TV screens. As fruitless as it may seem, I offer this list of eight things you can do as consumers of cover music to make musicians’ lives totally excellent.
• Always approach the band mid-song to request a song different from the one they’re playing. Try to time this interruption so it coincides with the big chorus, because a lead singer wants to be distracted while trying to remember the lyrics to one of hundreds of covers while entertaining a half-interested group of steadily rotating clientele. If you can, grab the singer by the arm and pull him away from his mic, whisper in his ear some unintelligible song title, then walk away mad when he politely rebuffs you. Truth is, he wants to kick you in the crotch for being so rude. You just got off easy.
• Always touch the instruments: Musicians have lots of disposable income to spend on broken gear, and the thing they enjoy most is when strangers — especially drunk strangers — leap onto the bandstand and touch, grab or fondle their instruments. Guitarists love having their pedal boards stomped on. Bass players love having their knobs twiddled. And drummers — oh man, if you can knock over a cymbal! That really makes their evening.
• Do not, under any circumstances, tip the band. They make plenty of bank. Seriously, that jar? The one that says “Tips”? It’s mere affectation, a vestige of the old days, when musicians were paid a pittance to crank out “Mustang Sally” and “Brown-Eyed Girl.” These days, the weekly salary of musicians has climbed to unimaginable heights. (Unimaginable being the operative word.) Here’s the truth of it: A typical cover musician clears about $100 per gig. This may seem at least decent for the three cumulative hours she spends on stage. But a gig night is — including drive time, set-up and breakdown of gear and waiting for the staff to close out the registers at 2 a.m. so you can get paid — a six-hour-plus proposition. Total hourly take for the night: $15. So … do not tip. At all. Ever.
• Yell “Free Bird!” as often as possible. Because it’s really, really funny. At least your drunk friends think it is; that’s because they’re really, really drunk. The band thinks it’s hilarious, too, because their version includes ripping your face off and throwing it at your really, really drunk friends. In my cover band, we honor that request — then butcher the hell out of it. Many times, the requester and his really, really drunk friends will leave the bar. More often, they’re so wasted they sing and dance right along. And that’s so awesome and fun!
• Always ask if you can sit in. Be sure to say things like, “Yeah, I played the Branford County Annual Muffin Festival with Gregg Allman’s cousin’s band.” Or, “Yeah, I know how to play.” If you really want to endear yourself to professionals, ask if your entire band can play a few songs. You know, get the guys up there and do “Mustang Sally,” “Brown-Eyed Girl” and maybe even “Free Bird.”
• Watch sports. Musicians know you’d rather stay in the comfort of your own home watching the big game, and we appreciate that you made the trip to the live local music venue to watch it instead. It’s an effort to focus on those TV screens while musicians are making all that racket, and we know that you sitting there with your back turned is a labor of love. When you and your jersey-wearing buddies cheer mid-song for your team doing that special thing they do, we just pretend you’re cheering for us. Win-win.
• While the band’s setting up or breaking down: Hover. Get up real close and chat up the guitar player about his rig. Tell him how amazing your gear is, and that it’s pristine because it never leaves the house. Stand on his cables, if you can, as he tries to roll them up. Ask the drummer if you can help him strike his kit, and before he answers, fold up his snare stand in a way that makes it impossible to position the snare correctly ever again. Get in the bass player’s face and tell him you have a six-string bass. A six-string!
• Finally and most important: Always, always, always … request “Piano Man” from a band that has no keyboard player.