The (Un)Glamorous Life of a Cover Band
It’s Saturday night. And anyone with a liquor license is luring clientele with whiskey specials, Jell-O wrestling, and free bacon giveaways. With a plethora of watering holes to choose from, drinking establishments need to differentiate themselves among the cluster of weekend hangouts. Enter the live cover band. It is their job to build a set that enhances the party and brings diversity to the bar. Live music is a bold tactic to attract new customers, which is why bar owners seek bands to pump up the bar-vibe for patrons.
“Bands are liquor salesmen in a strange way,” says Ryan Corcoran, a part-time musician who was gigging six to eight times per month between three bands last summer. “I’ve played a lot of shows, and they’re never the same. We’ve played bars, bike rallies, town fairs, and a pig wrestling contest in Hustler, WI.”
Undoubtedly, a blend of disorderly rock n’ roll and hard liquor create a crowd of boisterous revelry. As the night goes on, the party only gains speed. “By the third set, the drunk people show up, dance on the bar, and break my tambourine,” said Corcoran.
“Crazy girls have ended up in our hotel rooms and ex-boyfriends have shown up with guns,” laughed Ken Anderson, who has made a living playing in cover bands for nearly two decades, including his current project Baby Rocket.
Cover bands try to develop a gimmick or a calling card sound to appeal to clientele. Corcoran, formerly of Madison’s Awesome Car Funmaker, currently plays in two cover bands. Git r’ Dun is a four-piece hair-metal cover band that plays all the cheese-rock anthems of the 80’s. “We wear mullet wigs, and fake bad accents,” said Corcoran. Before each show, the band fills a 1.75 of Jack Daniels with Coca-Cola and passes it among its members, simulating the hard-drinkin’ festival world while staying straight for the performance.
While playing cover songs doesn’t hold much creative gain for musicians, it is a necessary complement to their original music. Artists are able to fund their primary bands’ expenses by gigging with a cover band on the side.
Corcoran writes songs for his band Lake Delton, funding the band’s expenses through the cover gigs of Git r’ Dun. “It pays for our practice space,” he says. “We’re not performing for art’s sake.”
On a typical night in Madison, each band member makes around $100 for a 3-4 hour performance. The band typically arrives 1-2 hours early for setup and rocks out until bar time. Drinks are included and sometimes a quick dinner is provided.
But musicians that depend on gigs as their main source of income must reach outside of the Madison market. Heavy travel is thus unavoidable for the most active cover bands.
Ken Anderson, a freelance road musician and Madison native, plays cover material at Casinos across the nation in a variety of bands. “We’ll hit the casino circuit from North Dakota to Omaha, Nebraska, playing a lot of country music,” said Anderson.
Anderson’s band will commonly anchor in one spot, playing Tuesday through Saturday before moving to the next city. Each band member receives lodging, food, and $500-$800 for the week. Accommodations can range from four-star hotels to hole-in-the-wall shacks. “Some band houses are ungodly awful. There’s no plaster on the wall, plumbing is clogged, or the heat doesn’t work in the middle of January. I don’t even treat my dog that bad,” joked Anderson, who has seen what the strenuous travel can do to musicians. “I know guys that have been on the road for twenty years. They’ve become alcoholics.”
Heavy gigging is a demanding and unnatural lifestyle that takes a toll on musicians and their commitments outside of music. Corcoran has cut back tremendously from his relentless gigging of the past, taking some time off and tending to other commitments. “It’s not a burnout on me as much as my girlfriend,” he says.
While Anderson’s love for playing in front of people only grows, he is careful to take time away from the grind of constant gigging. “Take time for yourself. Find a hobby. I’ve got over 250 drum sets stored in my basement. Enough said.”