By: Jessica Hopper
[Editor's Note: Are you a musician? Is your group having issues? Ask Fan Landers! Critic Jessica Hopper has played in and managed bands, toured internationally, booked shows, produced records, worked as a publicist, and is the author of The Girls' Guide to Rocking, a how-to for teen ladies. She is here to help you stop doing it wrong. Send your problems to her -- confidentiality is assured, unless you want to use your drama as a ticket to Internet microfame.]
I'm in a young band from Reno, Nevada called Memory Motel. We just released our debut 7-inch, and we're getting to the point where we need some form of management. It's becoming increasingly difficult to deal with everything on our own, and as a result it feels like we're swimming in circles. The only problem is that Reno is a town that's not exactly filled with many good band managers/ booking agents/ industry contacts, and cold emailing people doesn't seem to be working that well. Do you have advice for an indie band coming from a small market like Reno, trying to find more contacts? Should we just pack it up and try to make it in a big pond like L.A. or New York?
Huge fan of the column.
Dear Memory Motel,
I perused your band's online presence and looked over what you have been up to and given where your band is at --a debut single-- you are ahead of the game. You are pretty good at tweeting, you promote your shows in a not overbearing way, you get good opening slots for the bands that actually come to Reno, you are networking with other bands regionally. You are building your own studio. Your 7" looks pretty cool; your graphics aren't bad. Judging by your songs on Bandcamp, your sound is evolving, becoming less Radiohead-y. While this may not look like a path to you, it does from the outside.
For a baby band, you have your shit together. And as you well know, even for a newish band in a tertiary market, that takes a lot of work. Looking for management at this juncture is premature though. You don't have an album. You only have 571 fans on Facebook. You want to tour but haven't yet. A 15% cut of your monthly earnings as a band would be what? $35? You gotta finish pre-school before you can start thinking about college.
While being a self-sufficient, hard-working band certainly makes you a more attractive package to a manager or anyone who you might hire to help you, what you probably need is just some help, an extra set of hands. Can someone else in the band step up a little in the band dad department? Could you procure a friendtern for that $35?
So, Reno is a bit of a backwater and you want this band to be your way out. That's only natural. L.A. and NY are a real all or nothing jump though. How about touring for a while and developing as a band? Reno situates you well to go up and down the West Coast easily --do weekend runs to Sacto and the Bay Area and see what you can make happen regionally. Start putting in that work and you will figure out pretty quickly if this is the band to make a big move with.
Is it possible to be a full-time cover band and build a successful following playing our own songs? Our cover band pays the bills and we don't have to work "day jobs." We've done a few college radio / "hot AC" campaigns and had some success with that. We've even been placed in a few TV shows, but it feels impossible to promote ourselves as both the perfect band for your bar-mitzvah and national tour-worthy. Is it? Has anyone been successful at it?
Of course we realize there are issues of legitimacy here. Most people don't take cover bands seriously, we know, but does it completely undermine what we're trying to do with our originals? Someone suggested we re-establish ourselves as two separate bands: one for the covers, one for originals; but we couldn't figure out which version should keep the current band name and just eventually dropped the idea.
Plenty of bands have launched themselves into very successful careers after getting their start as a cover band. Perhaps you have heard of The Beatles? Do not be disheartened by the chasm between your bills-paying music and what is in your heart, but before you mix business and pleasure, you need to consider what is really at stake.
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Your band has managed to attain an enviable trifecta of paydays --you do events, street fairs and you have licensed music to TV and ads-- do not do anything to sully your brand. You are in a band that supports the active lifestyles of five people. The only original bands I know of who are doing that right now sell upwards of 100,000 records and tour internationally and have a retinue of folks they are cutting a percentage to. Sure, you'd probably get all manner of tail in that band, but one day that band's career will die, while you can be pulling checks in a wedding band until you're nearly geriatric. A bird in the hand, etc.
Resist the temptation to make it your originals band, essentially jump starting yourself into something simulating popularity. Being a wedding/events band with a good rep is some buy-you-a-condo, put-your-kid-through-college ish. Do not trifle with those mitzvah bucks! Seriously. BUT! If you absolutely must mingle some original work in, limit yourself to your two very best songs, and only if they are truly in the style of your existing band. And only when you are playing public events; Becky's nana and bubby don't need to hear your ballad of sexual yearning at the reception.
It's a hassle, but do two bands. Then you can slough off this little bit of embarrassment you have about the covers band, play whatever you want and not wonder how your new song is going to work alongside your Kool & The Gang/Gnarls Barkley medley or what have you. And no, your originals band is not likely to be as lucrative as your covers gig, but there is no reason you can't use your connections to get TV and ad license work for your "new" band as well.