I’ve talked a fair bit lately about ways to make extra money playing music. There are plenty of ways to monetize your music career as an original artist, but there’s no shame in playing other people’s music as well.
Many great musicians grew up playing covers, singing in lounges, and playing for tips. It’s a great way to cut your teeth, learn a bunch of great songs, and work on your stage presence.
There is much to be learned from playing covers. Every new song you learn will teach you about arrangement, harmony, lyrical style, phrasing, etc. All of these things can become amalgamated into your own original style – you never know when those influences will come out!
On top of all that, you’ll make money. Whether you’re playing covers solo or in a band, you’re probably doing it for the money. A successful tribute act can easily cover all your monthly expenses in just one or two gigs per month.
In this guide, we’ll go over the different kinds of cover bands, what you need to start a successful cover band, and some tips on getting established.
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What Kind Of Cover Band Do You Want To Be?
There are thousands if not millions of cover bands in the world and there are all sorts of formulas that work. Let’s explore a few different successful cover band formulas.
The Tribute Act
You’ve probably seen them advertised – Ring Of Fire: a Tribute to Johnny Cash, Honky Cat: A Tribute To Elton John, The Beetles, Dancing Queen: An ABBA Tribute – and the list goes on.
Tribute acts are usually dedicated to one or sometimes two artists. Their shows are typically a well-rehearsed ode to a famous artist, and the band will try to play the songs as close as possible to the original versions.
Often, this means the band and the lead impersonator dresses up, styles their hair, and imitates the vocal style and even the accent of the original band. For example, if you had a Beatles tribute, you would have Liverpool accents and all four members would try their best to stay in character.
Tribute acts are often heavily scripted and may even include little skits to increase the believability of the tribute. They require quite a bit of work, and it can be hard to start a tribute act that is a) popular enough to get booked, and b) hasn’t already been started in your area.
On the other hand, tributes have the opportunity to make way more money than nearly any other act. There are opportunities for casino gigs, touring, and even getting on a booking agency dedicated to tribute acts.
On the other hand, some tribute bands are put together just to play their favorite music for fun. For example, a tribute to your favorite small indie band may not be a big money-maker, but you’ll certainly have a good time!
The Spin-Off Tribute Act
A common spin on the traditional tribute act is the niche or spin-off tribute band. For example, there is a great Led Zeppelin tribute, but they are called Dread Zeppelin and they play all Led Zeppelin songs in a reggae style.
Similarly, in my hometown there is a Weezer tribute act that does all Weezer, but bluegrass style – complete with banjo and upright bass. There’s a band that tours Canada doing Dark Side Of The Moon bluegrass style as well.
Get the idea? You take a standard tribute, and then you twist it in an interesting way. This opens up opportunities for niche nights at bars and even festival slots depending on the genre. These acts are an easy sell for community events and dance parties.
The Dance Band
Every city has a few great dance cover bands. These bands play Friday and Saturday nights at popular bars, as well as weddings, fundraisers, socials, community dances, etc.
To be a great dance band, you need to either specialize in a specific era (for example, you could be an all-60s cover band), or have a huge selection of hits throughout the ages. People can and will treat you like a jukebox.
“Play Free Bird!” they’ll yell, and then you will play “Free Bird.” You must know the songs that people want to hear. If they ask for “Don’t Stop Believin'”, you had better pull through!
Being a great dance band is hard, mainly because of the sheer amount of songs you’ll have to learn. On top of that, people are usually expecting the songs to sound a certain way, so you’ll need to spend some time setting tones and learning parts.
To set yourself apart as a dance band, you need to have a great set list/selection of songs, and you need to know how to put together a set list that keeps people on the dance floor.
Last but certainly not least are the background music gigs. If you’ve got a small sound system, a nice voice and portable instruments, you’ll be spending a lot of time performing in coffee shops, lounges, fancy events, Christmas parties, etc.
These gigs are usually best suited to acoustic music and solo performers, but jazz bands end up playing a lot of these as well.
I personally lived off lounge piano gigs for about two and a half years. I had three jazz Real Books and a bunch of nice sounding piano/vocal covers (Elton John, Billy Joel, etc.), a portable piano, and a Bose sound system that could handle a piano and a vocal mic.
These gigs were incredibly easy and they were usually on weekdays. There’s nothing like making an extra $200 on a Monday or a Tuesday to pad your pockets.
To do this gig, you need to have a big repertoire of songs, or be able to sight read well (which I cannot). People will often tip you if you play their requests, and it’s nice to be able to read a crowd and play what they want (oldies for an older crowd, Justin Bieber for the millennials).
These gigs are a dime a dozen, and restaurants love them, because they only have to pay one person between $150 – 300 for the entire performance. Very affordable, and a very good gig for the average working musician.
How To Set Up Your Cover Band For Success
As with any other artistic career, your cover band will need a few basic promotional materials and resources to maximize your bookings.
Here are a few things you should get in order when you’re starting to promote your act.
1. Live Video
When you’re getting booked, most people will want to see a bit of decent live video. It doesn’t need to be anywhere close to the quality that you would invest in your original music, even just decent iPhone footage can be okay.
If you can, it’s best to make the live video truly live. Get a friend to stand a little ways away from the stage and take steady video of a few songs or even your entire set. That way you can pick and choose the best songs to use in a promo.
2. Promo Shots
Most venues and events will require some sort of promo shot to use on their website or social media. They’ll also use it on posters and sometimes even tickets.
These don’t need to be complicated and you can use the same picture for literally years. Nobody cares if a cover band has an out of date promo shot.
3. A Dedicated Email Address
Just to keep everything simple and separate from your regular artist career, make yourself a separate email address for your cover gigs. This gives your cover band the appearance of being very separate from your original music and it also keeps you more organized.
4. A Simple Website
You don’t absolutely need a website. Most people won’t care. However, every once in a while you’ll run into a venue owner or event organizer who expects a website. If you don't have one, you could miss out on opportunities.
In my opinion, you don’t even need to own a domain name. You can build your website on a platform like Tumblr, and that’s fine. Include a live video, a picture, and your contact info. Just make it simple, clear, and to the point and people will thank you for it.
5. A Facebook Page
Again, it’s not totally necessary to have a Facebook page, but it doesn’t hurt, especially if you’re a tribute act. If you choose to make a Facebook page, you don’t need to put much effort into it.
You only need to post if you’re playing a show, and even then nobody will care if you don’t. Your Facebook page just makes it easy for event organizers to get in touch with you.
6. Business Cards
Sometimes people booking wedding bands or those organizing a community dance (or something like it) will ask for business cards. Personally, I find business cards annoying, but if that’s your clientele, you should probably have them.
Vistaprint has great rates and good-looking cards for cheap.
How To Position Your Act & Decide On A Set list
The real fun comes in choosing what kind of band you’ll be and planning out a set list. This will depend on your personal goals and your particular set of skills. If you already have a band but want to make more money, you may choose to start a tribute. If you’re just looking for easy weekday gigs, you may be more interested in performing background music.
Here are a few tips for figuring out your niche and planing a set list:
Find Out What Cover Bands Are Already Playing In Your Area
Usually, cover bands are area specific. Having three great Beatles tribute in one area may get a little competitive and will definitely make it harder for you to book gigs.
If you think you’ve got a great idea for a tribute, do your research and make sure that it’s not already being done. You’ll have a much easier time getting booked.
Determine What Makes Sense For Your Locality
I’ve always wanted to start a Talking Heads cover band, but I feel that in my area it would be hard to get consistently high-paying gigs. Instead, I’m in an Eagles tribute, which in the prairies goes over super well.
It’s totally cool to start a tribute band for your own enjoyment, but know that the more obscure the tribute, the less money there will be in it.
Consider How Many People You Want In The Band
I’ve always wanted to start a Beach Boys cover band. To do so, I would need to hire at least six, probably seven musicians. And they would all need to be able to sing. And we would have to split the money seven ways.
Organizing this for that little money sounds terrible. If you can find a tribute that is doable as a trio or a four-piece, that is ideal.
Refer To The Charts To Choose Songs
If you’re doing an era-specific cover band, take a look at the charts from that era. You may not have been around in the 60s, and I guarantee there are a ton of great 60s songs you’ve never heard.
Take a look at the charts, and commit to learning a bunch of hits. The more singable and recognizable, the better.
Learn Popular Karaoke Songs
When you’re playing in a dance band, you want people to: a) dance, and b) sing along. If you can get a group of people singing along to “Under Pressure”, you’ll win them over.
There are a ton of great lists of popular karaoke songs, and you should absolutely learn a bunch of them.
There is no reason why a cover band should be doing freebies. Sometimes, as an original artist, you’ll need to lose money on a gig because it’s a good opportunity. When you’re playing covers, you are working.
You should not be afraid to charge at least $150 per musician, and more if it’s a big budget event. My band mates have a Buddy Holly tribute, and they do not play for less than $700 per musician.