Making a living from Deja Vu

By Jared Adams

It’s a problem many musicians face: whether to break new ground or follow in someone else’s footsteps.

It’s the basic conflict between playing in a cover band and one that performs all-original music. One will make you large amounts of cash on a regular basis. The other just might make you a career.

A cover band plays material originally written and performed by other artists. According to Helen Belvin, special events co-ordinator for the Rolly Hammond Agency, an Ottawa booking agency, this makes them naturals for big events, such as weddings and concerts.
“People want to hear the tunes they know, the way they want to hear them,” she said.
It pays well, too. Belvin says the bands she books make from $1,000 to $2,500 for a typical four-hour set at a wedding or convention.

But it’s not for everyone. Bill Harrison plays bass for Planet Zero, a young band that has just made the transition from playing mostly covers of ’90s alternative rock to playing their own original alternative tunes.

“Covers in themselves are great,” he says. “We just felt that we wanted to be known for our own original music.”

Harrison says he doesn’t regret the decision, even though as an original band, Planet Zero usually takes in about $50 to $150 per show, less than they made as a cover act.

“We’re making enough money to cut a CD,” he says. “And the crowd response has been good, because we’re making music — not regurgitating it.”

John Hummel, a musician who runs Zoek Management, a booking agency, says many musicians are attracted to cover bands because of the financial prospects.

“Anyone who plays in a cover band does it because they know that there’s more money available,” he says.

“And there is — but you end up selling your soul doing it,” he says, referring to the fact many bands find playing covers too lucrative to give it up.

One of the main attractions to watching a cover band is hearing a favorite song performed live, especially if the original artist is no longer performing. Hummel says this results in cover bands catering to certain age groups.

“Demographically, cover bands tend to attract the 19 to 29 age group,” Hummel says. “They tend to pour in because it’s danceable, where original bands attract people who have grown up with the band.”

But for Brendan Powell, from the cover band Where’s Mike, which performs a mix of ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s rock, the motivation is a little different.

“We thrive on the crowd,” he says. “If it’s having a good time, we’re having a good time. And we find that they enjoy covers.”

Despite having released their own all-original CD, Into The Night, Powell says there are no plans to go all-original soon.

“It’s a dream,” he says. “Maybe if we could get enough original material to play all night, we would, but we’ve got the CD to pay off, and that means playing covers.”

Powell says Where’s Mike averages about $400 per show.

But the response isn’t the same everywhere.

Bill Macy, general manager at The Cave, says although cover bands are an “easier win,” audiences generally appreciate original bands more.

“If the original band has a following, the audience is happy. If the band is new, and hasn’t tried all its songs live yet, the response is a little less. But on the whole, if the original band is good, then the audience gets excited, which is something that doesn’t happen with cover bands.”

But Harrison sums it up simply: “How many cover bands do you know that are world-famous? Cover bands go nowhere.”