Fair warning. This one's going to take a while...
I'm usually not a fan of "listicles"; web articles that are number lists of things you must (or must not) do to be successful at one thing or another. But I did find some at hubpages.com recently that I'd like to discuss for a while. All are related to building success as a cover band. I'm going to attempt to hit what I think are the most important points in all of these articles, and attempt to boil them down into something more manageable.
Over the past 35 years of being involved in music as a production manager, sound engineer, and band member, I've learned that a lot goes in to building a good band.
Let's start with a quick look at what the audience sees (and hears).
One of the biggest things I see that separates a good band from a not-so-good band, is that it's obvious that they've got their act together. A good band comes prepared to put on a show. They're organized and professional. They have good gear and look good on stage. They're moving well through the show, with set lists and good banter. They know their music, are decent musicians, and the vocals are good. They can connect with the audience, their audio mix is decent, they've got good light on them, and they at least look like they're having fun. Behind the band is a snazzy banner, and maybe there's a band name and logo on the kick drum head. Everyone's having a rockin' good time.
While successful bands make all this look easy and natural, it's anything but. It's work. They treat their band like a great part time job. On a gig, there's a job to do: Entertain the crowd, and keep them in the venue; get them on the dance floor; get them to buy food and drinks, and tip the bartenders and wait staff; promote the club, and the band.
We'll circle back around to some of this later. Let's start looking at what went into making all this happen.
Behind The Scenes
But wait, there's more than just the performance -- there's a lot that has to go on behind the scenes. Surprise, surprise. If you want your band to be successful, you need to realize that it's going to take some work. You need to treat it like a job. The up-side is that some jobs can be fun. And, playing music is fun.
What Kind of a Band is This, Anyway?
Probably the most important consideration, before you do anything else, is to sit down as a group and set a clear direction for the band. Things to consider include the type of music are you going to play; how often you want to gig; and when, where, and how often you will hold rehearsals. There are more questions, but those keep coming up as issues in bands I work with.
It's also important to decide on how the band is going to be run. Who will be the band leader? How will songs be selected? Who's going to make the set lists? Who handles bookings?
These questions need to be answered early on in the life of the band, and revisited regularly to make sure everyone is on the same page.
I mentioned already that you need to choose your genre early on in the life of your band. Once that's done, you need to start building your song list. How you choose those songs will be in some part dictated by what you want your band to do. If it's going to be a gigging band, you need to consider what songs within your genre are popular with your intended audience. For instance, you're looking to be a classic rock band, you will probably want to stick with mostly well known rock songs from the late sixties and early seventies. It's fine to throw in a few "deep tracks", but in general, you'll need to stick with well known tunes. For classic rockers, for example, hits from the Rollings Stones usually good bets, but you'd probably want to avoid a song like You Better Move On. Be sure to include a fair variety of artists, though, and try to choose songs that generally charted well. There are exceptions to this rule, of course. Again, using the Stones as our example, The Last Time, Satisfaction, and Play With Fire were dismal chart performers, but have become classics that are very popular with audiences.
On the other hand, if your band is more for your own enjoyment, you can be a little more free with your song selection, and play whatever you might like.
Practice and Rehearsal
Yes, you've got to learn the songs. And, more than anything else, the vocals have to be good. Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to copy the original exactly. But you do have to capture the melody well, as well as any signature "licks". In order to hook the audience and keep them, they've got to be able to easily recognize what it is you're playing. Their minds can fill in a lot of gaps, if you give them the right clues.
On the other hand, you can also choose to really make a song your own. Even major acts do this with their own songs. Bruce Springsteen, for instance, has two dramatically different versions of No Surrender, and Eric Clapton has had two big hits with different versions of Layla. If your arrangement of a song is good, the audience will have a great "Aha" moment when they realize what song you're playing, and they'll be interested to hear what you've done with it.
Use your practice and rehearsal time wisely. In general, the term "practice" refers to the individual musicians working on their own to learn their parts. "Rehearsal" typically refers to the group working together to make sure the individual parts mesh and tighten up the songs. In other words, when the band gets together to work on a song, everyone should already have a pretty good idea of how the song is supposed to go, and what they plan to play.
It's important, too, to have a practice and rehearsal schedule and stick to it as best you can. Much like a business meeting, there should be a plan for each rehearsal, too. Everyone should know which songs will be worked on in advance so that everyone can be prepared. Remember what I said earlier? Treat this like a job (that you want to keep).
Here's where the rubber hits the road. Let's go with the assumption that you want to play out in front of people, and maybe even make a few bucks (or more). You've put together 45-50 songs that you can play well. Now, it's time to get a gig.
There's no one formula to getting gigs. Mostly, it involves a lot of legwork, and being at the right place at the right time. Of course, you could get yourself an agent, but most agents want bands that are experienced and have a proven track record. Even then, they'll assign their newest bands to the worst of gigs until they know they can trust the band. There are also a number of folks that will want you to play for free "for exposure." Only slightly better are venues that require you to buy (and resell) a block of tickets, allowing you to "make" whatever money you manage to make over the ticket cost.
While I'm thinking about it, there are some times when playing for free is the right thing to do. Make sure that you have discussed this as a band and set up rules to cover what constitute a "good" free gig, and how you want to handle those gigs.
In my opinion, the best way to get gigs is to network. Make friends with other bands. Support their gigs. Politely let them know that you have a band, and suggest that maybe you might open for them some time. Some will like the idea, others will not. In any event, cultivate these relationships. You never know when they might have to cancel a gig, remember you, and suggest that your band might be able to cover the gig.
Without getting too far ahead of ourselves, other ways in the door are more old-fashioned and direct: visit the clubs during slack times and try to get a demo CD and business card into the manager's hands.
Promote, Promote, Promote!
Promotion is hugely important to the success of a cover band. These days, it's important to have a good web site, an active Facebook page, and possibly even a Twitter account. At some point, you'll also want a Reverb Nation page and a YouTube channel to post videos (although, you'll need to be careful here, as YouTube is very sensitive about copyright infringement). Tell everyone you know about your band, and invite them to "like" the Facebook page and follow the Twitter stream. If possible, set your web site up to automatically post to Facebook and Twitter every time you update the site (WordPress and Squarespace websites can do this fairly easily). You also need to post something to the Facebook and Twitter pages at least weekly, and the web site at least every month.
When you get a gig, announce it everywhere. Create an event on Facebook, and have all the members of the band invite all their friends. Update the calendar on your web page, too. I believe that it's important to announce the gig as soon as you know about it, to get it on your followers' radar, and then remind them of the gig several times as it gets closer.
Club owners look at Facebook pages and event invites (and acceptances) when deciding what bands to book, and on what nights. They equate your followers to "draw" -- customers in their club. Customers through the door equals dollars in their pocket, and if you can draw people in, you've got a much better chance of getting gigs.
Back to the Stage
You Got a Gig! Now What?
Let's say you've landed your gig. There are a few things to line up before you show up at the venue. Make sure you know when you can arrive and load in. If this is your first gig at a particular venue, get there as early as management will allow, so you're not rushing around at the last minute trying to get set up. This is especially important if you have to do your own sound. Most venues will allow about 90 minutes to two hours of setup time if there is not a house PA system and tech, some will allow more, and some less. In any event, make sure you know what the rules are, and follow them.
If you're using the house PA or a sound company for your sound, you'll want to talk with their tech prior to the gig so everyone knows what to expect. This is especially important if you're sharing the stage with another band or bands. Remember, the sound guys are your friends, and they want to make you sound as good as possible. They generally have a lot of experience, so follow their instructions and you'll have a good show.
The Sound Check
A good sound check is crucial to a good gig. A good sound check ensures that you can hear yourselves well on stage, and that the audience has a good experience, too. One of the hardest things to do is get a good mix when you're having to do it yourself, from the stage, because you won't be able to hear what the audience is hearing. It helps when self-mixing to have a set of trusted ears in the room to help let you know what's going on.
If you're lucky, and someone is mixing for you from the "front of house" position, you'll need to communicate clearly with them for the best results. Most sound guys have a sequence that they'll run through for getting both the monitor and house mixes done. The better you are at following their directions, the better the mix will be, and the faster the sound check will go. Most sound guys will sound check drums first, followed by bass, guitars, keyboards and horns (if any), and then vocals. When it's not "your turn", it's important to wait quietly until you're call upon.
If this is your first gig with a particular sound tech, make sure that you work out how you're going to communicate during the gig. Asking for changes over the mic sounds amateurish, and should be avoided if possible. I've been doing live sound for quite a few years, and when I'm mixing monitors from the front of house position, I can very often tell what someone needs simply by watching how they're performing, and listening to their singing or playing. I also work out hand signals with the band so they can show me what they need.
Digital mixers are becoming increasingly popular because they offer great control options. I've been using a Mackie digital mixer for a couple of years now, and most of the bands I do sound for have downloaded the appropriate control apps to their iPhones. This allows them to handle their own monitor mixes, which is especially useful when the band uses in-ear monitors. I also save every mix and setup to the mixer application, so that when I do sound for a band again, I have a starting point. This saves a lot of time in setup and sound check. This something you might want to talk to the sound guy about. If you know you'll be mixing yourself from the stage, you might want to look into doing this yourself -- once you dial in the sound for a particular venue, you simply load it back before the gig and make any minor adjustments needed. This helps your sound become consistent. You can read more about my conversion to digital and my selection of the Mackie DL1608. [I've added a follow-up post covering moving from the Mackie DL1608 to the Behringer X Air XR18 which might be of interest]
No discussion of stage sound would be complete without talking about stage volume. Here's the deal. Turn down, and then turn down some more. Nine times out of ten, if you're in a rock band and you're using a PA, you're playing too loud. Your stage amps and monitors should be loud enough to be heard on the stage, not in the house. If you've got a sound guy, and he asks you to turn down, dammit, do it. Drummers need to learn to "turn down" as well. If you don't know the quiet hands technique and how to control your volume, find a good drum teacher and learn it. The bottom line is that if one or more players is too loud on stage, you'll never achieve a good monitor or house mix, there will be feedback, and you will sound like crap. Period. End of story.
Of course on smaller gigs, or gigs where you're mixing from the stage using a small "vocal PA", you will need your amps to project into the room as well, and the drummer will have to play louder. This is where your friend in the audience is crucial to you sounding good.
During The Gig
Here's where all that stuff up at the top of the page comes in. You're playing, singing, selling, and, most of all, you're entertaining. Remember that people came for a show, and it's up to you to give it to them. Try to keep the music flowing as much as possible -- that's why you have a set list, so there are no unplanned pauses in the music. Nothing looks worse than a band trying to decide what to play next for 30 seconds. Save that for rehearsals!
Do remember to work in those plugs for the bar specials, to introduce the band, tell the audience the name of your band, thank the bartenders (by name!). If you're going to play a song that's not particularly well known, let the audience know what song you're playing, and maybe tell a story about why it's important to the band. Thank the audience for coming, for goodness sake!
Don't worry about making the occasional mistake. It happens. To everybody at every level. The key is in recovery. To quote Pee Wee Herman, "I meant to do that."
Obviously, you want to keep the flubs to a minimum. If you need to have music or lyrics on stage to do that, guess what. It's okay. Even most major artists have teleprompters on stage these days.
While major acts have a crew person (or people) dedicated to operating the teleprompter, most of us who are weekend warriors can't afford that. But, if you have an iPad, you can get an app like OnSong and an AirTurn pedal to handle the chore.
OnSong handles much more than just lyrics -- it's a full performance management app. Through inexpensive add-ins, it can be used to change keyboard settings, control light shows, manage set lists, and more. If everyone in the band is using OnSong, everything can be synchronized such that one performer can control the app for everyone across iPads and iPhones. There's even an add-in that allows importing charts and tabs from most popular online sources.
Oh, by the way, don't forget to have fun.
Everybody needs breaks, and your band is no exception. This is why you've been booked to play three or four sets of songs through the evening, or why there are multiple bands on the bill. If you're the only act, it's generally accepted that before leaving the stage, you'll let the audience know you'll be back "in just a few minutes." Remind the people of who you are. Again. Don't forget to remind the crowd that the beer is cold, and of whatever the shot special is. Sometimes, major brands will have reps in the bar pushing the drinks. Jägermeister is particularly well known for this. Make sure you know the names of the Jäger girls, and direct the audience to them for shots. These promotions make a lot of money for the bar, and if you can make money for the bar and the crowd likes you, you can be sure you'll be asked back.
Once on break, take care of any business you need to quickly, and take some time to mingle with the crowd, grab a beer, or whatever. Try not to let yourself get monopolized by one person for too long. And, pay particular attention to the women. Seriously. Girls dance more than guys, and if you can keep the girls excited, the dance floor stays full, and more drinks get bought.
Of course, while you're doing this, keep track of time. You told the crowd you'd be back in a few minutes, remember? Breaks should be 10-15 minutes long, 2o minutes absolute max. Any longer, and you'll lose the crowd.
The End of the Show
At the end of your show, once again, thank everyone. Thank the audience for coming out. Mention the name of the venue. Remind everyone what your name is. Direct people to your web site. If you have another gig lined up at the venue, tell people when it is. Something like this: "Thank you Cantun Cantina! You've been a great audience. Don't forget to take good care of your bartenders, waiters and waitresses! We'll see you back here again in three weeks! And, remember to check out our website at www.thesidewindersband.com. Goodnight!"
Once you've said your goodnight, tear down quickly. This is especially important if you're sharing the stage with another band. The idea in these cases is to get the bands turned over as quickly as possible. By the way, if you are opening for another band, make sure to thank them for having you, and tell the crowd to hang around for more great tunes. If another band opened for you, thank them, and pump them up. Build that network.
If you are the only act, or the closer, you can spend a few minutes with the crowd before breaking down, but keep it to a minimum, just like a break. At 2 o'clock in the morning, everyone wants to go home as soon as possible, and most everyone is waiting on you. Help out by cleaning up after yourself. If you have empties on the stage or on the band table, throw away the bottles and take empty glasses to the bar. Thank everyone -- by name -- and remember to say goodnight as you leave. These little things are definitely noticed, and will set you apart in the eyes of the staff and management.
Pictures, Videos, and Sound
This is partially gig related, and partially promotions related. In this case, you almost can't have one without the other.
Pictures are important, both on the web site and the social media pages. Shoot from the stage, and encourage the audience to take pictures and post them to your Facebook page. From there, you can copy them to your web site. Take pictures at rehearsals, too, and post them regularly between gigs -- it lets your fans know that you're active between gigs as well.
Since we're talking about photographs, it's important to have some good, professional photographs made, both of the band and of the band members, for use on your web site, social media, and any "collateral" you may create to promote the band. While there's certainly a cost associated with the photography, good photographs can set your band apart. Some professional gig pictures look good, too, but they're not entirely necessary, as you'll find that some of your fans can get some great shots with their cell phones.
Almost as important as pictures are videos from gigs. Again, your friends and fans can help with this. Most modern smart-phones can make amazingly good video at a gig. No, it's not professional, but it's better than nothing, and in some ways, better than having a professional video done, because it shows that your listeners are in to what you're doing.
While we're on the topic of media, record everything you do -- rehearsals and gigs. Good sound clips are great for letting people know what you sound like, so post them on your web site, Facebook, and Reverb Nation pages. I personally like to hear non-studio recordings, because they're much more indicative of what your band will sound like on stage. You should also use the recordings to critique your performances, to listen to what worked ... and what didn't.
All of this media is important when you're trying to "sell" your band to club owners or managers.
Stay in Touch the Old-Fashioned Way
I've already mentioned using social media to keep your fans informed. There are other ways to keep your name in front of your fans, though. While the days of snail mail are generally behind us, do remember that e-mail is still a valid way to get the word out about your band. Believe it or not, there are still people who don't do Facebook. Always have a way to collect names and e-mail addresses during the gig. You can also solicit addresses on your web site. Squarespace includes a basic MailChimp account, which keeps your contacts' info private. And, you can add the names and addresses collected at the gig to your MailChimp mailing list. Then, when you can easily and automatically keep your fans up-to-date on your band's goings on.
There's So Much More...
I've only begun to scratch the surface here, trying to sum up a half dozen articles and over three decades of experience and observation. I could probably write a book about it, but I doubt anyone would read it. If you've got friends in other bands that are doing well, talk to them about their experiences. If you've got friends in bands that are just starting and trying to figure all this out, I hope you'll share this with them -- and share you're experiences with them as well. We're all in this together, and the more we help each other out, the more fun we can all have!
For Further Reading
- Creating a Money-Making Local Band
- 16 Tips for Working Musicians on How to Be a Successful Club or Bar Cover Band
- 14 Tips on How to be Successful as a Musician in a Working Band
- Stuff You Should Say on the Mic When Your Band is Performing on Stage
- 10 Easy Ways to Get More Likes on Your Facebook Music Page
- Top 10 Reasons Why Your Cover Band is Not Successful