The other day it dawned on me what the difference is between working as a musician and working as an entertainer. Those two terms may coincide but not necessarily. In the process of trying to get my own game together I not only reflect on my past and present efforts but others’ as well.
Many people in and not in the music/entertainment business consider a career as getting a job or jobs. Most people seek to work for someone else or be a part of someone else’s business venture. It’s the same with the music/entertainment industry. Getting a “job” is getting a “gig”. Doing jobs is called “gigging”. Sidemen and cover musicians do “gigs”. Entertainers do “shows”. Travelling shows tour. A tour is a collection of shows played in locations other than an act’s home base.
Gigs typically have finite immediate and future earning/growth potential. You are usually limited to either the kinds of performances that you perform and what they pay and/or the amount of money that the artist who hires you pays sidemen. There is often little if any equity built up in a project doing “gigs”.
Musicians often show up to gigs and do performances as just another job with little consideration of the quality of their performance, appearance or promotional aspects. Just another $100. Which over months and years ends up being the same kind of $100 gig because the entertaining element of entertainer fades away. As time goes on and technology advances audiences’ expectations go up as the quality of general performances stagnates or falls behind.
A cover musician performs other people’s music for pay. In a perfect world cover musicians would tailor their setlists to accommodate the largest (or best-spending) crowd that they possibly can. For some reason (ego, complacency) cover musicians often instead play what they want to play or dated material that doesn’t appeal to a greater potential audience. The venues that hire them are expecting to profit from having live music and make more back than they spend. At the very least hiring live music should enhance the ambiance of the venue and at least pay for itself. The glut of musicians stuck in old ways playing old music for an ever-evolving audience that tends to be in their 20’s combined with the ever-increasing number of entertainment distractions available to people makes it more and more difficult to get people out to see live music. Add to that the undercutting and cheapening of musician wages by venues and the musicians themselves and you have a recipe for the slow demise of the working cover musician.
As a qualification cover musicians who perform shows tend to make the most money. The shows often imitate or duplicate the quality and production that an original artist might present. If you want to get paid well as a musician or an entertainer you better put on a show.
My second part of this (sorry for the digression on cover musicians) is that original artists are in fact entertainers and do shows (concerts)- not multiple weekly gigs in their hometown. They are expected to present a high level of musicianship and performance when they do perform and typically tour when they do live shows. Promoting the artist and the music involves radio interviews, TV appearances, print features, “promo tours” and so forth as well as regular social media engagement and brand-building. Staying current and relevant is a necessity. Not taking the role of entertainer seriously guarantees that one will not be successful as an original artist.
The kind of work that needs to be done for an original artist at points intersects with playing covers but in many ways diverges as well. A successful tribute group may use many elements of being a recording artist to their advantage but at the end of the day it is someone else’s music and they don’t have any ownership in it. This factor really limits the potential of a cover act. Though most original acts don’t do all that well the ones that are successful create the music that we listen to, copy and so forth and they (hypothetically) get PAID for it. Broadband internet and so forth have definitely changed the business but there is still a lot of money and many millions of fans to be had if one pursues the current methods and streams of income.
The goal for most of my cover musician bretheren is to play a few nights a week for as much money as possible- which often ends up being $100-200 (or less) apiece with occasional spikes for private events and so forth. The thing is that is what I was getting paid for cover gigs 30 years ago. When gas was just north of a dollar and rent was a few hundred dollars a month. This is not really a “career” wage per se. Though there are exceptions in my experience this reflects many, many cover musician’s situations. Learn 40 tunes, book a gig, play the same 40-80 tunes until the bookings start getting thin and then learn a few more (or not). Add, rinse, repeat. Many very talented people that I know have resigned themselves to playing many low-paying cover gigs to cover bills as well as working a variety of day jobs which may or may not involve music or performing. My problem with that is that though I admire the hardscrabble work ethic it doesn’t seem to lead to better paying gigs in the long run. Unfortunately it seems to often lead to less money or at least less value for the amount of money earned. (rising cost of living) This is not a progressive career plan.
The goal for an original artist (entertainer) is to create music and a compelling presence (live and in media) that compels people to want buy their music, merch, go their shows, etc. To create an inspiring and memorable musical experience. Most shows for lower-level artists are door deals and unknowns often don’t get paid. However, more established artists (re: performers with a following) can get concert guarantees of $1,000, $5,000 and upwards into the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars and even millions. This is usually for performing roughly an hour set. Usually no more than 90 minutes. The expectations are much higher than your standard cover band but the payoffs are exponentially higher as well.
I used to live and breathe the life of a recording artist. Producing music, touring, promoting, working the email list, updating the website, etc. Over the years I have allowed myself to fall into more of a hobbyist cover band approach to making music. Learn a few tunes, book gigs, play gigs, etc. etc. Not so much on developing acts or audiences. Just “gigging” and making rent playing music. No diligent day-to-day effort in creating music, an act, a brand, a production or putting on a show. Same old stuff- different day. (same songs and money, too) I can tell you from experience that for me that is neither artistically or financially satisfying. But I blame no one but myself. Just have to do what I want to do and be clear with myself about what it is that I’m trying to do. (and thank goodness for cover gigs helping me to pay the rent in the meantime!)
I just felt the need to air my thoughts about the differences between being in the music/entertainment biz and playing in cover bands. Apples and oranges. Because I got off track. And I’m not getting any younger. (and neither are you) My bad. But awareness induces knowledge and knowledge is power. At least it’s a good place to start.