I hold some strong opinions about the right and wrong way to go about making money making music. Unless you’re teaching a hundred lessons each week––or really killing it with your original music––you’re going to need to play other people’s music at gigs if you want to eat and pay rent. No shame in that––there’s an awful lot of great songs in the world, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t have a great time getting paid to play them.
But I’m absolutely baffled by the songs people choose to learn, and the cover bands they choose to form. On the one extreme, I see otherwise decent solo acts playing entire sets of obscure covers. I see mediocre middle-aged blues-guy cover bands making exhausting ten minute medleys of near-identical songs. And I see way too many acts playing song after song at the same lukewarm tempo, all damned night. It’s like they’re deliberately trying to drive me out of the bar, or lull me to sleep.
On the other extreme, I have a number of wildly talented friends that play in “jobbing bands”: groups constructed specifically to serve the wedding & corporate events market. They play nothing but the hits, and they’re expected to keep current on all the new stuff on the radio. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t get into to music to play songs I don’t much care for. If I was OK with not liking what I do for a living, I would, you know… GET A JOB.
So what’s a gigging musician to do? I heartily endorse (and practice) the third path: build your repertoire from the songs that fall in the overlap between what you love and what audiences love. There’s ample material here to fill an evening with great music. And once you have the audience on your side, you’ll be in the perfect position to introduce them to that deep cut/hidden gem that you love.
What’s more, it’s condescending to think that the average person only knows the music that is or was on top 40 radio. It’s not that those people don’t exist. It’s that a) there are fewer of them than you would think and b) they make crappy fans anyway, so why try to cater to them? The average person has more eclectic taste than you might give him credit for.
As always, I’d love your thoughts on the matter.