Cover Bands

Written by Paul Harvey from Splitrock Media Productions.

Cover bands have been the preferred option for main stream population to hear their favourite songs being played in a live format. Most musical experiences are best remembered for when they have been attended in person. Although that may sound a bit obvious, take a moment to think about it.

If the only time you were to hear your favourite songs being played live would be that, you had to go to see the original bands performances. It would become a long time between drinks as it were, because original bands that have made chart toppers don’t tour very often. Can you imagine how much music you would miss out on if you could only listen to live music from the original band or artist?

Photo by Corinne Rutherford / Pixel Faerie

There is a special feeling when you walk into a place that has a band playing in the corner or at the end of the room. It can range from a duo, a Jazz ensemble to a full blown rock band, all of which brings with it a certain air of expectation. A live band provides visual interest and hopefully a melodic and in some cases an energy filled night. There is always a sense of expectation with the audience when musicians assemble to perform that is quite like no other feeling.

For those who are participating in the band, irrespective of its size, the opportunity to be a musician and bring your skills and talents to both excite and entertain the crowd is a thrill all on its own. It’s a great feeling to present a well-rehearsed piece of music, deliver it and be appreciated for your efforts.

Without wanting to sound too mercenary about the subject but a man or women is worth his or her labour, and being paid for what is being delivered is always a great feeling at the end of the night. It tends to put the nights effort in a business context and that has a satisfaction all of its own.

It would be fair to mention at this point, that there is a special feeling that unfortunately the ego just loves, which is to stand on a stage and have a group of people applaud and show their appreciation. It can be pretty heady stuff in the right circumstances, and certainly keeps a band coming back for more.

The Rock ‘n Roll Life

Having been a member of a number of cover bands that have done a few mini tours and the like, I can say that there is a special excitement and thrill that comes with the knowledge that you are going to travel with your friends and band mates.

Suddenly distant places take on a whole new charm and romance, even if the place is only a couple of hours away and you get to rock the night away playing music that you love.

Like most aspects to life there are both the good and the bad sides of the touring game and I guess we all want to see just the positives that are attached to what we love. Make no mistake that spending a week or fortnight in the company of people you would probably only see once or twice a week for a few hours brings a whole new light to the dynamics of the band. You discover things about the people you have been hanging around with for months, maybe years that you never knew. Living, loving, playing and being in constant close company with the same people will put unusual pressure on the relationships that already exist.

You will discover aspects to the people who you play with that you might have never imagined and it can change the way you deal with them forever. So my advice would be, be absolutely sure that these same people are the kind of folk you would happily have in your home for the weekend and if not, then consider what it might take to do the tour with these same people, especially if you are going to be on the road with them for a while. If you all travel in the same vehicle, it can bring a whole new level of experience to the band that you never really knew about. Travel is also tiring and the older you get the longer it takes to recover from an extended trip, which also affects your energy levels on stage and your temperament with each other.

To be fair, it doesn’t have to be all bad, there are some great advantages for a band to have when they travel together, it could be exactly what the band may have needed to come together and consolidate as a band. It might also be a time to get some serious planning for the year done and the cementing of friendships. I still have friends today that started out as just being band mates that have stood the test of time some thirty odd years later. I think too that if ever you had the desire to explore different places, meet new people and entertain a room full of strangers, there is nothing better than to do it with a bunch of mates making great music.

Touring with a band can be one of the most exhilarating feelings that you may experience in your musical career. The opportunities to share and grow relationships, the music and to diversify into all kinds of genres that you may never have considered are all part of the cover band dynamic.

Speaking as a musician myself, who has been in many cover bands over a space of 30 odd years, I have diversified and played most of the instruments and held most of the different roles in the band that I would never have experienced if I had stuck to one instrument and just played at church.

Cover Band realities

Cover bands actually present a number of dilemmas for the industry both from a legal stand point and from an ethical stand point. Ethics, you say? Well consider this, there isn’t a cover band that I know of that has paid a royalty fee to the governing body collecting royalties in what-ever country you might be playing. I have played in a number of countries and I know this to be true.

Most gigs are cash jobs and the only one paying a licensing fee will normally be the venue that the band is playing at. So, the venue is paying the fee so that covers you right? Well actually no. If we want to be legally correct, the band is supposed to be a registered business so that the tax man doesn’t miss out on your evening’s efforts and then the band would pay its own royalty fees for the songs that it has performed. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

Typically the money to pay the fees will come from the money that the venue pays, for the hire of the band. However the venue still has to pay its fees too, despite what the band may or may not do, as it’s just had copyright music being played publically at its venue.

So the first problem that confronts a cover band is to know what its legal obligations are. What does it legally take to be able to go out and play your favourite tunes and get paid for the privilege? I guess the next question is the liability of who is responsible to pay the fine for playing the music at the venue. Ok I’m no lawyer, and I’m not about to dispense legal advice in this article, so you do need to do your research to establish just what the regulations are for where you are.

I know as much as the next guy that most of this doesn’t happen, so there is the first problem, the second one that confronts cover bands is the phenomenon of the music union. Oh boy, I can see the knives being sharpened from here. There are many arguments for and against the benefits and privileges of being in a union and then there are many arguments for why it’s a waste of time.

I have never really understood the need for a union at cover band level, because most people who play in cover bands do it as a hobby. That in its self is reason enough, not to get involved in paying fees for something that most folk would never use.

Unions sell themselves by offering services with help for dealing with contracts, copyright infringement, event management, venue hire etc. all very good if you are a “name” band and hundreds of thousands of dollars are at stake, but to the average garage band getting some pocket money from the weekend gig, not much point. Most of the above mentioned activities would be handled by the members of the band anyway so it doesn’t become necessary for the addition of another parties oversight.

So if you want to be a fiscally responsible business then someone in the band is going to be the accountant and handle the finances in a legal way that allows the band to pay its own way with its members and with the tax man. Then have really interesting discussions with the venue or event that they are going to play at. Look to be quite blunt about this, if you want to take the risk of never been audited by the tax man for what you do, then you probably won’t be.

I have been doing this for 30 odd years and never seen a government representative, apart from the police, at any of my gigs or others, especially looking for money. However if you are visited by the tax man, then be prepared to pay some hefty fines if your books are not in order because the government doesn’t take kindly to being ripped off when it comes to these kinds of things.

Band PA

If ever you want to start a fight in a band, one of the best ways is to decide to take over the PA or start telling the mixing guy what to do with his mixing desk. In all my years of working with other bands as an audio technician/ PA hire service, band performance consultant and as a playing member of the band, the single most unifying thing besides the music is what to do about the sound that the band projects to the audience. Now I know that there are a ton of experts out there who will give you all kinds of advice on how to run the PA, yes and I used to be one too. From long lectures on analysing background hum and dialling in the venue to best eliminate feed-back to, why do we need a fold back for the drummer because he’s right next to the guitarist etc. So there are a multitude of issues that confront the broadcasting of the music that the band makes.

Again the advice that I offer is simply this, if it’s a professional handling the gear and he supplied it, listen to his questions, leave him or her alone to do their job and generally you’ll get a great job on your music.

If you are going to do it yourself, the first thing you need to understand is, what the real needs of the band is. Not what does the ego of the guy who is going to buy and run the PA decide what he or she thinks would fit the band. I don’t mean to offend but many a PA has been purchased on the advice of the salesman who just wants to sell you the most expensive system in the shop, or the vision of the guy with the cheque book who wants a system that could launch a rocket into space.

I guess clarity about the importance of the PA is of the order here, so let me be blunt. Most bands will use the PA for the projection of the singing. Period. Maybe some background filler music in between sets, but that’s about it. The Pa is designed and constructed to do a whole lot more that carry the limited range of the human voice. At times it will also carry some, or all of the other instruments, depending on the size of the venue or event.

For the average cover band, a small to medium size system with enough channels to cover all the singers and a few extra for things like a keyboard, brass section etc. will get you through the night comfortably. Another frequent question asked is how big, (loud) do I need the system to be. To answer this as a rule of thumb my advice would be to add up all the watt’s (sound power)that the instrument amplifiers in the band are able to deliver at maximum level, double it and look for that or around that size PA(Watt’s) for your band.

So, if the guitarist’s and Bass and Keyboards come to about 300-500 watts, then look for a system that will deliver anywhere between 600 to 1000 peak watts for your band, it is always better to have more than is required but not more than double that is required. Of course this will change if you are doing an out-door gig. You could safely treble the power out- put and still want some more depending on the weather.

The requirements for sound broadcast in the open air change radically because there are no walls to contain and shape the sound, so you will need to compensate for that, by having more power and speakers to move the air. It has also been a technique where they may line the sides of the arena/venue with speakers, to get the sound to those at the rear of the venue, without killing the ears of those at the front. This though tends to lie in the realms of the professionals, so I advise you don’t try and set that up unless you really know what you are doing.

Although the level of music at the performance stage can be almost uncomfortably loud, the distance of a few hundred feet with a slight breeze, and the music will have the life sucked right out of it. Every instrument will have to be miked and put through the system, even the drums will need to be amplified for the audience to clearly hear the music. If you think about it, the PA’s can and do handle the thump of the bass kick drum, to the screaming crescendos of the lead guitarist, hence a medium size system will cope with much more than just the voices of the band.

There are many ways to go about solving the issues that confront a band about its PA and I don’t intend to address this here, other than to say that, if ever there were a topic in a band that will get everyone talking, it’ how to get the best results from the PA and who is going to make that happen.

In summary for the joys of PA, may I say that one person should be designated to arrange for and to run the PA. They should be suitably trained or experienced enough to deliver trouble free sound for the band. At this point the band needs to respect his or hers contributions without telling them how to do their job, but rather give them encouragement and assist with the installation and pack down of the system at the beginning and end of the gig. The only other solution is to get someone who is willing to be the sound guy and build his/her wages into the price tag for the band. They can also double as a roadie if you’re lucky.

Band Lighting and smoke machines

Lighting and smoke machines is something that always seems to be almost an afterthought and yet is one of the most visually signature setting devices a band can use to heighten their musical experience. Again there is a plethora of information on systems, capabilities, controls and functions from the new LED systems to the old incandescent bulb systems. There is a vast array of features from such things as frequency activated spots with rotating heads to such things as floods and smoke machines that all go to creating a theatrical atmosphere for the band to play under and with.

I don’t think I can stress enough the impact that a well-lit and intelligently crafted stage can make to an evening’s entertainment, and it can be done quite cheaply too. There are different approaches to how best achieve this, with many different systems being offered on the market that can do anything from illuminating a small single area to multi coloured and shifting hues that dazzle and excite the eye.

For a rule of thumb advice may I say, use the colour sequencing in a way that the gives good visual reference for the band and the audience, especially if the need to read song sheets and chord charts, keep the lights changing colour and be able to lock things at times to highlight a particular performance of the different members of the band so they enjoy the focus for their individual contributions for that song.

In concluding on the subject of lighting the use of laser’s has been a staple for many years and although it can be dramatic in a smoke filled environment, it does present problems all on its own. Lasers can sear the eyeball if placed at levels and directions that inadvertently strike the face. A room full of dancing people moving through a smoke filled environment with flashing lasers goes for a visually dramatic settings combined with a pounding beat and you have got a heady mix going on right there. Interesting enough though, strobe lighting can be deadly to those especially who suffer from brain seizures like epilepsy suffers, which both a strobe and a laser can trigger, so again use it wisely.

Use smoke machines judiciously, at the beginning of the gig and not every set. If you want to make a theatrical point with the next song, maybe something that creates mystery and anticipation. But on this subject, my advice is less is more. The reason is that sometimes members of the audience can be affected by the smoke that the machines deliver. Asthma sufferers are the worst, and also it can linger for too long to become a nuisance on stage or the machine can malfunction and do either nothing or look like an inferno in the background. Simply put there is not much control over the cloud, its density and the dispersant of that cloud in a confined space and a harmless way. There is nothing worse when looking for your distortion pedal for a big lead number coming up and the whole stage is obscured with smoke so dense you can hardly see past your knees.

In summing up the wonderful world of cover bands, it is the best way to deliver live popular music to the public, although it takes planning and hard work to deliver that music, the appreciation and financial rewards can be very fulfilling. At 56 I am still out there gigging and loving it because the satisfaction of a great night out with your mates and a receptive audience all go for making it a truly remarkable and fond memory.