Why your cover bands need to keep things fresh

Cover bands can be a great outlet for musicians looking to play out live. Even if they aren’t comfortable writing original material. It is a great way to make some extra money as well. The more experienced musician can do well in a cover band without putting a lot of work into it even. But don’t totally slack once you get a nice chunk of cover songs under your belt. You will want to keep things fresh with your cover band to keep the fans coming back.

I wanted to learn more about cover bands. I asked two friends of mine, Lee Payne and Curt Schreiner, who have been each playing with cover bands for over a decade now. Sometimes even being in multiple cover bands at once. My main interest was to see how often they change things up in their live show.

How often do you add new material?

LEE: We probably add 4-6 new songs per year, more if it’s a really active year.

CURT: The band I’m in now does not learn a lot of new material as we are playing pretty regularly and are not able to get together much outside of shows. It’s frustrating because you want to offer anyone who sees you play regularly new stuff, plus it breaks up boredom with songs you have played a million time. Cover bands I played with before would try to add at least 4 new songs in between 2 or 3 shows.

Do you change up your set lists even if you don’t have new material?

LEE: Yes, we always cater our set list to our venue and who we think our listeners will be.

CURT: We try to change up the setlist as often as we can to keep from repeating the same thing all the time.

Are your fans excited when you play new material?

LEE: Yes, we generally get a very positive reaction from inserting new tunes into our set list, as long as we do a good job of preparing it.

CURT: When we do play new songs, the people that see us a lot are always pumped to hear something different. It usually goes over very well. The band usually feeds off the challenge of playing new things which helps the energy on stage.

Sometimes adding new material is hard because it takes a lot of time and work to learn new songs. So I asked Lee and Curt to see how much time it takes them to learn songs.

How long does it take for you to learn a new song? Both as an individual, and as a band?

LEE: Personally, I can generally learn my part for almost any song within an hour. Less for easy tunes. As a band, we can probably learn the core of the tune within an hour, but it may take a few rehearsals to tweak it. You know, add backing vocals, add or cover additional parts and generally make it performable.

CURT: Learning new songs don’t take me as an individual much time. I put the songs on my iPod, listen to them over and over and work out the parts I may have trouble with later when I sit down at the kit at home. The people I have been in cover bands with are pretty good at picking up new songs so we can usually have them ready to go after one rehearsal. There have been instances where the song may be a higher degree of difficulty so we may give it a few rehearsals.

Do you use tools on stage like cheat sheets, iPads (tablets), etc. to help with new material?

LEE: I rarely need to use a lead sheet for the music, but definitely, need one for lyrics. Usually takes me a dozen or more performances to memorize lyrics for some reason.

CURT: The singers usually have tablets on stage to help remember the lyrics. The guitarist will right down cord changes if they have had limited time to work on a song. We rotate 3 guitarists with the band I’m with as they all have other bands so they all need a fall back when playing with us…just in case.

What processes help you learn a new song? Example: I look for guitar tabs online to jump start my process.

LEE: I usually just learn by ear. Sometimes I will try to watch a performance live on YouTube, and even more rarely I will look up a tab online. But I am always skeptical of a tab that has been uploaded by some Joe Shmoe. I trust my own ears more than I would trust a tab uploaded by the general public.

Do you introduce new material when it good enough or only when it is perfect?

LEE: This is a source of some contention within our group. I prefer to get a song or arrangement/mashup close to perfect before I’m ok with performing it. Other members seem so excited to play the new material that they don’t care about how rough it might sound.

CURT: The bands I’m in always try to introduce the newer ones, even if the song is not perfect.

What are your results if it is only good enough?

LEE: Mixed. Depends on how much of a hack job we did on it. Sometimes we get lucky and do alright on a pilot run.

CURT: If it flops or they love it, I’m told either way so I have no problem letting them know it’s new.

Do you think it is easier to get gigs as a cover band versus an original band? Why?

LEE: Cover band.  People want to listen to songs they are familiar with, even though they may end up really enjoying something they’ve never heard before. Why do you think Juke Boxes are so popular?

CURT: Yes, and I hate more than anything to say it, but the area I live in and the venues I play….people want to hear something familiar. The clubs in the sticks in southern Wisconsin, you better know some songs people know or they won’t be back to see you….nature of the beast. I’ll be the first to admit I would rather slit my wrist then play some songs for the millionth time, but if that’s what the club wants and it keeps people in the seats…I can’t argue with it. I will say it’s a different time for bands. Even cover bands don’t get the number of people they used to unless you are one of the bigger bands in the area. I don’t think most bands, original or cover get the accolades they did maybe 10 or 20 years ago. I have a million reasons I think why…but I won’t bore you.

How often do you play in repeat venues?

LEE: Annually for sure.

CURT: I will play a certain venue about 3 to 4 times a year on average, about every 3 months is pretty accurate.

How often (weeks/months between gigs) do you repeat?

LEE: Some venues 2-3 times per year, some just annually.

Do you have the same fans at those venues at most shows?

LEE: Regionally, yes.

CURT: We have some diehards that will be at most shows, but for the most part it will be a few familiar faces or new ones at each venue. To that, each one is different. One place I play often, I will see the same 20 or 30 people all the time…as where another venue I play may see all new faces.

Do your fans travel to different venues to see you play?

LEE: Sometimes. Would they come to multiple shows in a week/month? Maybe, if we were more popular. Also, many of our members don’t like to play more than a couple shows per month. We have families and jobs. And we’re getting old.

CURT: It usually ends up being different crowds at each venue depending on the traveling distance someone who likes the band has to go.

Why did you choose to play in a cover band?

LEE: I prefer to play for a crowd. And while I do enjoy writing original music with an original band, I still get more of a thrill for performing in front of people.

CURT: I love playing music, drumming is something I live for. I love the challenge of playing a song as close to the artist rendition as I can. I also like to play with a song and change it up and give it a different feel or sound. Honestly, it is a good part-time job as well. I make some good money to do what I love to do…play drums. Would I rather play in a band that plays all originals or some originals….absolutely. I got so frustrated with past experiences and getting something great going and creating something wonderful….only for it to die and your originals go the way of the dodo. I would still love to be in an original band, but unless the vibe between all the players is honest and feels right….I’ll do what I can with a cover band to get my music fix.

How many covers band do you play with at the moment? 

LEE: 1.

CURT: I currently play with one cover band. I play fill in when needed for other bands because of my experience.

How many cover bands at one time was your maximum?

LEE: 2, but then I would sub with another band on occasion.

CURT: 2 is the most I had at one time and that’s enough for me.

I also asked Lee about his time in a Sublime tribute band called Jose and Sumlimes.

How often did you change things up as a tribute band?

LEE: Good question. While we didn’t learn all of the Sublime catalog, it’s pretty safe to say we learned most of it. Once we had 3 full sets of music, we sort of went on autopilot. We’d only add a new song here or there (on the order of a couple per year, maybe). We did expand out into doing songs from the Sublime off-shoot Long Beach Dub All-Stars and even covered a single by the Dirty Heads featuring Rome of Sublime, but a combination of laziness, an ebbing of interest and drive, the starting of other side projects by almost every member, and the distance that came from members moving away from the “band house” and literally “on” with their own lives was the slow undoing of the band.

Stop being bored…

You can see that both musicians play in bands that like to change things up from time to time. Both also talked about getting bored if they didn’t keep things fresh. If you are bored as a musician on stage then you can believe the audience will be bored as well. If you are excited about playing music because you have your new favorite song to play then that translates into a better live experience for your fans. A better live experience for your fans means they will bring more friends with them next time. A bigger crowd next time means the venue is happy. A happy venue means they will book more shows with you, and that makes you happy. All of that because you added a few new songs here and there into your setlist.

Lee Payne plays guitar for the band, Honeyshot. Below are the links to find out more about his band.



Curt Schreiner plays drums for the band, Country Wide. Find out more about Country Wide here: www.countrywidemadison.com

This post was originally written for the Tip Jar Blog featured on the CJS Productions website.

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