16 Tips for Working Musicians on How to Be a Successful Bar or Club Cover Band
If you want to excel in the cover music scene, it’s not always a question of your level of skill, but often just a matter of focusing on the right things that makes a difference.
In just about every city and town in the United States, as well as many around the world, you’ll find a public venue that hosts live music.
Whether you’re a full band, a duo or a solo artist – there’s plenty of opportunity to have fun and make some money.
The most successful bands and artists practice certain fundamentals that have been proven effective time and time again.
In order to get better paying gigs and more of them, you’ll want to follow in the footsteps of those before you that have made a good living playing live music.
Below are some essential guidelines to make a priority whenever you’re playing a show (in no particular order). These are all things that you should focus on collectively as a band to ensure the greatest possible success at your gigs.
1. Make set lists
To some this is a regular, fundamental practice. To others, there isn’t much thought put into it, or they don’t make one at all.
There are several advantages to taking the time to write out a set list:
- When each band member knows what song is next, the show will run much smoother.
- You can properly time your set.
- You’ll learn how to make the show flow and reduce or eliminate “dead-air.”
- You’ll be able to go back over it and review what worked and what didn’t work.
There is a definite art to constructing a good set list – especially one that works well over and over again. When it’s done correctly, you’ll consider keys, tempos, genres, and especially – your audience, and put it in an order that makes sense.
The primary objective is to take people on a ride by dictating the mood in the room with the way you put your sets together.
Creating and utilizing great segues and medleys is also a must to keep things moving and to keep the crowd engaged.
With practice and tweaking, you can come up with brilliant set lists that make your band look like pros.
2. Know how to sound check
This is an important part of the live music experience, and one that you must be cooperative and patient. If you’re fortunate enough to have a professional sound man working your gig, he will generally follow a particular order of operations for sound check. It will usually go like this:
- Any other instruments
- Backround vocals
- Lead vocals
- Full band
This sequence is not set in stone, but it is how many engineers like to work. Every sound man is different, and the order can and will be different, but your job as a musician is to simply follow direction. Some other important things to note:
- When asked to play each individual drum, the drummer should play even, moderate tempo quarter notes and nothing more, unless asked to.
- When another person’s instrument is being checked, you should not be making any noise whatsoever on your instrument, unless asked to. (a.k.a. STFU)
- A good sound man will ask you how you want your own monitor to be mixed (if you have one).
It’s a good rule of thumb to act as though the sound man knows more than you do, because that is usually the case. The guys that work for or own their own sound companies have worked with hundreds of bands, and aren’t impressed by your musical talents, unless, they are first impressed by your professionalism and respect.
If you’re playing a club or bar that has a house sound guy, he usually knows the room well, so you should also play by his rules. If you need something to be tweaked for yourself, be polite when you ask, and be patient.
You won’t always get things to be perfect (in fact, perfect is rare), but you will have a sound man that is at least on your side.
3. Set your stage volume properly
This is an area that a lot of musicians don’t always think about, but is one that should be taken seriously. How you set your own stage volume will contribute to the overall sound in the venue and the clarity of your band.
Keep in mind that how you choose your levels should be determined by the room, the quality of the P.A., and the balance you’re trying to achieve on stage – with all of those factors collectively being taken into account.
If you’re too loud, you’ll blow away your band mates and make it harder to get a proper mix out front. Too low, and folks on stage won’t be able to hear you (unless they have you in their monitor) and the engineer will need to boost you in the house.
You always want to work with the rest of the band and the sound man when it comes to your stage volume.
As a musician, pretty much everyone’s top priority is that they’re able to hear themselves. But always remember to consider the big picture with your overall volume.
4. Stick to set times
In many cases at live shows, you have to follow a set schedule. Since you’re working for someone else at your gig, you’ll want to follow it. There are specific reasons that you are supposed to play at certain times that are dictated by the operators of the venue, and as a professional working musician, you want to respect that.
This means that you have to discipline yourself to accomplish whatever you need to during your break (bathroom, get a drink, safety meeting) and be back to the stage ready to play before you’re supposed to start. This will show your employer that you take your job seriously, and will also make it easier for the crowd to know when you’ll be back up.
5. Have a show
If you’re playing in a band in public in front of people for money, you are in the entertainment business. So even if you put no thought into what you’re doing other than playing songs, you are still putting on a show. It’s in your best interest (and it’s a lot more fun) to have a show that is at least somewhat rehearsed and/or planned, and to perform it with conviction and consistency.
When you have no clue how you’re going to do things before you hit the stage, people will be less engaged in your performance. If you are all great players and are picking good songs, people will still dig you. But they won’t be as excited about what you’re doing, simply because you’re not that excited about it either.
When you make your gig an actual show that has some obvious care put into it, people will have a better time. The more people have fun, the more they’ll tell other people about how great you are, and the more they will also come back. You’ll grow your fan base and you’ll have more people at your gigs, and it will do nothing but benefit everyone.
6. Pick the right songs
This is perhaps one of the most crucial aspects of your live show. There are many factors to consider including your genre, the ability of the musicians in the band, the venue, and the type of gigs you are playing.
The priority here, of course, is to make sure that the crowd is enjoying the show. If someone has walked into the room where you’re performing, they’ll be much more likely to stay if they like the songs you’re playing. You’ll never be able to please everyone, so you want to focus on what the majority of people want to hear.
It’s important to always remember that you are not playing for you, but rather, you’re playing for the people that are listening to you.
7. Play primarily for women
This subtitle should speak for itself, but if it doesn’t send a clear message, here are the bullet points for why this should be a priority:
- Chicks like to dance
- Where there are women, there will be men
- Drunk males like to spend money on females
- Girls just wanna have fun
If you’re picking songs that are directed primarily at guys, you won’t have as many girls around. And that won’t do your band any good. Even if there are songs that you don’t necessarily like to play in your band; if a lot of women will like them, then it’s a probably a good idea to include those tunes in your show.
Your goal as a musician in a cover band is to make sure that people are spending money. The more ladies there are in the room, and the more they are having a good time, the more drinks the bar will sell. This will lead to your band getting booked more often, and subsequently more money to put in your own pocket.
8. Know your audience
As previously mentioned, your show and song list should be catered to the people in attendance. If you have a regular following, you should have a good idea of the kind of music that they expect to hear you play. Just like a company that has a physical product that they are looking to sell, your band has to have an intimate understanding of what the people want.
One of the best ways to determine the preferences of the crowd is to simply talk to them individually. Ask them what they like and don’t like, why they like you, and how they think you could improve. Quite often, you won’t even have to ask, and people will just voluntarily offer up information. Your job in this case is to simply pay attention and take it all in. Then you can process what you have to work with and base your presentation on what will yield the best results for everyone involved.
9. Interact with the crowd
In addition to talking to people when you’re off stage, you also want to involve them when you’re on stage. Singling out people in the audience to talk to gets the crowd more involved, and also makes them feel more a part of the show. It could be something as simple as mentioning someone’s birthday or special occasion, or even at times bringing a person or people up on stage. It all becomes part of the show, and makes the whole event more fun for everyone.
10. Keep things moving
If you’ve put together a decent set list, then you’ll have an advantage with this simple yet extremely important guideline. As a band performing cover songs live, you are akin to a jukebox, or more accurately, a radio station.
The kiss of death for a program being broadcast over the airways is any prolonged amount of “dead air” – a term used in radio to indicate that there is no sound being sent to your speakers. It’s a major no-no for any audio telecast which invites and even encourages a listener to change the station.
In terms of your band’s live show, dead air occurs at a time when there is neither any music being played nor is there anyone talking on the mic. You can get away with a few seconds here and there, but for the most part while you’re standing on stage, you want to look like you know what you’re doing, and keep the show moving. The difference that it makes in the level of professionalism you present is quite significant, and is well worth being aware of any time you perform.
11. Encourage drinking
Like it or not, your primary responsibility in most cases when your band is performing live is to ensure that the venue makes money on alcohol sales. As the main attraction, you are the host of the party, and you want to make sure everyone is having a fun, in addition to assuring that the bar gets some business.
Often times there will be band members on stage that are drinking as well. Since this is one of the few jobs where you’re actually allowed to drink, there’s no sense in hiding it. Lift up your beverages for a toast or a social and encourage the crowd to do the same. Tell the folks frequently throughout the night to get to the bar and get some tasty adult beverages. This will make for a better time had by the patrons in the venue and will also make your employer very happy.
12. Acknowledge bartenders/wait staff
Bartenders generally work for relatively little pay (often less than you’re making in the band) and rely quite a bit on tips. They’re also people, too, that have bills to pay and concerns of their own. It’s a good habit to not only learn all of the bartenders’ names, but to make sure that you give them their props over the mic several times during the course of the night and remind the patrons to tip.
Off stage, you want to be friendly with the staff that is keeping people liquified and show gratitude towards them. They work there all of the time. You don’t. You are a guest in their house. They will like the band much more and appreciate your professionalism if you recognize this fact and act accordingly.
Most of the time, this will create a solid relationship between the staff and your band, and if you want to work in a venue again, and want to develop and maintain a business partnership, it’s in your best interest to give credit to the folks serving the drinks.
13. Make it an event/party
There’s always a reason to celebrate.
Make each show unique – and a vehicle for everyone to enjoy life.
14. Play to the people in the room
There will be times during your musical career when you’re playing a gig and not a whole lot of people show up. It can be disheartening and discouraging, especially if you’ve put a lot of work into your band. But it’s all part of the job, and it’s in your best interest to never let things like that get you down, and to focus on putting forth your best efforts for the people that actually are there…even if it’s only the staff.
It will do your band a world of good to act as if the room is packed, so that when you’re playing a gig where that is the case, you’ll be ready for it.
15. Record yourself
There are several advantages to having a permanent record of your gigs:
- You can listen back and critique your own performances
- You can upload the good stuff to social media sites
- You can monetize videos on Youtube for some extra revenue
- It’s a great tool to market your project
- You’ll have something to play for your Grand-kids
Nowadays it’s easy to capture audio and video of just about anything. There are free apps that you can download to your phone or tablet that will get the job done. If you really want to go for it, good quality video cameras are very affordable.
If you’re not recording your performances, I guarantee that there will be fantastic moments that you experience that you’ll wish weren’t only just a memory.
16. Have fun
Think about it. The whole reason most people started playing music in the first place was because it seemed like something fun to do. Guess what? It is. When you’re able to work in harmony with a group of people who are all playing different things, but for one common purpose, you start to create magic – and that’s a lot of fun. Let that show.
Any enjoyment that you truly feel has no choice but to shine through in your playing or singing. Make sure to allow it, and have it be glaringly obvious to anyone that sees your band play. That kind of passion is unmistakable, and permeates any and all of your surroundings.
Many see music itself as a gift. Gifts were meant to be given.
The fact that you can actually play music is an amazing reward itself – one in which you get to experience both giving and receiving simultaneously.
Think about that for a few seconds…and then remember to appreciate it every time.