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Free Bird! (Covers vs. Originals)

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Ari Herstand
Ari Herstand is a Los Angeles based musician, the founder and CEO of Ari’s Take and the author of How to Make It in the New Music Business.

Scott Palahniuk wrote in (via the Request a Topic below) and asked about cover songs and how an opener should order their set. And Ian J wrote in asking: “they ask you to play for three hours, but having that much original material is hard. Is it singer/songwriter suicide to sing covers? If so is there a limit to how many?” Here’s my take on playing covers and cover bands:

The last cover gig I ever played was in a resort town in Iowa (oxymoron?). I had to play 4 hours, solo, with a couple breaks mixed in. Of course I got free drinks all night and the “band house” they put their musicians up in was located right next door. Every few songs the cocktail waitress brought me a shot of something vacation-y. I woke up the next morning in the band house, fully clothed and could not remember how I got there or even finishing my set! I always ended my cover sets with “Piano Man” but I didn’t remember playing that (or the 2nd half of my last set). I didn’t remember packing my car up but sure enough it was completely packed with all my gear (and locked) still parked right out front of the club (thank god) and luckily I found the check in my back pocket.

+Technical Difficulties ARE Your Fault

I quickly realized that I was on a destructive and career killing path if I kept playing cover gigs like this. I made a shift in my direction and haven’t played a full out cover gig since.

I don’t particularly enjoy most cover bands, but the majority of the population LOVES cover bands. I like discovering new, original music and don’t want to hear someone play Lady Gaga or Journey “just like the record, man.” BUT there is a huge market for this. Bands make very good livings off of just that. And that’s wonderful. Being able to make a living playing music is all any of us can really hope for in this day in age. But, unless you have kids and a day job that you love, I’m assuming your aspirations are greater than weekend cover bar gigs.

This, however, is a huge trap. I see incredible musicians all the time join cover bands to pay the bills (while pursuing their original project) and next thing they know, they’re 40 with 2 kids and a mortgage still playing the same 8 bars in their hometown.
+Beauty School Dropout

Early on you’re going to take whatever gig you can to pay the bills. Most likely these will be the 3-4 hour gigs and most of the time the bar will want to hear cover songs. If you’re billed as your original project then push your original songs – work them in to every set and say before and after the song “this is one of ours and it’s on our CD over there.” Make sure you turn every cover song into your own. Then when people take notice of “your sound” they won’t think of you as a cover band, but a great band with a great sound who does covers in their own style really well. When you play 45 minute gigs and don’t play any covers those new fans won’t be disappointed because they’re there for your sound. However, if you build up your name as the hot cover band in town and then get people to buy tickets to your headlining show where you only play originals you will have a lot of pissed off (former) fans.

As far as opening goes, I always try to work in one cover song in the middle of the set (in my own style) to bring back those who got fatigued of so many songs they don’t know and checked out (and as a little “reward” for sticking through my originals – but never call it that…duh). You’re there to showcase who you are and what you do. Even if 50% of the room is chatting through the set, 50% are listening (and the chatters still have 1 ear on you). Show them your stuff! You will sell more CDs and gain more loyal fans in the long run by playing your originals and showcasing what makes you special than catering to the lowest common denominator by playing only songs they know. Playing cover songs doesn’t make you special. Having a unique sound and making cover songs sound different – that’s special.

+The Opener

+Can I Open For You? Maybe. But Probably Not

About The Author

Ari Herstand
Ari Herstand is a Los Angeles based musician, the founder and CEO of Ari’s Take and the author of How to Make It in the New Music Business.

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