San Diego’s live music scene is not nearly what it was back in the 1980s and 90s. That’s a sad fact that music-seeking residents have had to live with for a while. Venues are expensive to run, [good] bands or musician don’t play for free/cheap, liquor laws are strict, and DJ culture has boomed.
That said, a good cover band can always find work in a big city. Cover bands play other artists’ music (transitive v. “to cover”), and typically function as “draw” entertainment in clubs, or as the dance facilitator/MC at private events like weddings, corporate events, holiday parties, etc. A cover band musician needs to be very skilled at duplicating the sounds you hear on recordings—guitar tones, synthesizer/keyboard patches, vocal styles, backing harmonies, and auxiliary instruments like percussion or horns. A cover band’s goal is to create a listening/dancing experience for the audience that transports them to whatever feeling they had when they enjoyed the original song.
I’m the bassist in Betamaxx—a 7-piece cover band that only performs music from the 1980s (a “genre” band). For the last five years, we’ve performed throughout California, Las Vegas, and even Canada for private and corporate clients, as well as local clubs. If there’s a live music venue in San Diego, we’ve probably played there.
To give you an idea of what kind of work goes into being a cover band musician, I thought I’d sketch out a typical club gig (from 9:00 p.m. – 1:30 a.m.):
- Arrive at 7:00. Turn on hazard lights and unload my car: bass(es), 50-lb speaker cabinet, crate with amplifier and equipment bags, backpack with cables, stage clothes, guitar, and mic stands. Take everything into the club via the side door, be quiet so as not to interrupt the dinner entertainment (usually a singer/guitarist). Get hassled by the SDPD for blocking a street, and explain what I’m doing and that I’m leaving in one minute. Drive away to try to find free parking within 5 blocks of the venue. If it’s a Padres home game night, I’m screwed, and I have to pay $12 for all-night parking at a structure.
- Get back to the venue and relax a bit while the opener finishes up. As soon as he’s off the stage, begin loading and setting up my personal gear. Don’t make noise because there’s still a dinner crowd wrapping up. Tune up. Make sure batteries (instrument wireless and IEM [in-ear monitors]) are fresh. When the drummer says he doesn’t have enough room, hurt your back by trying to slide your entire rig 6” to the right.
- Sound check at 8:00. First I line-check. This means the sound guy at the other end of the venue is getting a “hot” signal from the back of my amplifier. He also checks all the drum, vocal, and guitar mics to ensure they’re sending signal. Then every musician does a brief sound check. When it’s my turn, I play a little bit at what I consider a reasonable stage volume. The sound guy feeds my signal into the “house” PA system, so the audience will be able to hear it. Then he adjusts my IEM so I can hear (in my ears) exactly what I want during the show — usually myself, lead vocals, keyboards, and some guitar. IEM systems greatly reduce the need for outrageously loud stage volume, and 100% of touring professional musicians use them. With IEMs, I can actually talk to other musicians on stage without shouting, and the audience hears a full, club-volume band.
- After sound check (and the obligatory technical problems that crop up), I get about 15 minutes to grab a drink, change into stage clothes, and take a peek at the set list. An average night means I’ll play about 40 songs. These are all memorized, and are part of a band repertoire that is probably about 90 songs total. We go from the end of one song directly into the start of the next, so there’s no “dead air” on the dance floor.
- At 9:00 sharp, we’re on stage, get introduced, and begin Set 1. Of course technical problems immediately arise (someone’s monitor mix is suddenly bad, a guitarist breaks a string, a wireless mic battery dies, etc.), but we do our best to soldier through an hour straight without letting the audience know.
- First break—we have about 20 minutes to hit the restroom (get in line), get a drink (get in line), fix whatever problem popped up during set 1, and try to talk to customers/network. Sometimes a customer will ask for a request. If we don’t do the song, we might say that we can do another song by the same artist. Requests are tough—all 7 band members have to know the whole song, the singers have to know all the lyrics, etc. It’s not something we can just wing on the fly. Sometimes we even say, “we played it earlier!”
- Sets 2 and 3. The night is happening, the audience is having a great time, and so are we. Occasionally, inebriated women (bachelorette parties are notorious for this) will try to come on stage to “help” us. This is a gamble. Sometimes they play along, can sing a little, dance, etc., and have fun. But most of the time, they’re stumbling over equipment, crashing into people, and generally being a nuisance. But I have to keep smiling.
- LAST CALL! The night is over at 1:30 a.m…. for the audience. We wrap up the last set, play one encore, and now it’s time to break down. Equipment gets wiped down (spilled drinks, sweat, etc.) and put away, then moved off stage. I change back into jeans, grab my keys, and then hike to my parking spot. Drive back to the stage door, load up my car, grab my check (not as much as you’d think), and head home, avoiding the brawls, drunk girl street drama, and bouncers clearing out their establishments. By the time I actually get home and relax my brain enough to sleep, it’s probably close to 2:45 a.m. If it’s a gig at a casino (Pala, Viejas, etc.) it’s more like 3:30.
The old musician saying is “I don’t get paid to play. I get paid to set up and tear down,” and it’s still true. Bands can be a lucrative business, but can also be a grind, like any job. But now, when you see a live band or a musician at a club, you’ll have an idea of the process.
Andy McRory is a San Diego photographer and an alliance partner for Parallel Interactive. He specializes in portrait, interior/exterior design, and commercial photography. Visit his website.