It’s a time honoured scenario, played out in grey community centres almost every week. Down a dingy corridor, the walls painted hospital blue, stands a room. There is a tattered, handwritten sign Blutacked to the door which just hints at what lies within. Inside is the usual collection of debris – metal backed chairs stacked clumsily in a corner, an upended table tennis table with distressed nets and boxes of filthy costumes once used for a pantomime a lifetime ago. As well as this flotsam and jetsam are some human detritus - a dozen men sit in a ragged circle in the middle of the room. All are dressed in various shades of grey or black. None are clean shaven. The main thing they have in common is the haunted look they have in their eyes. These men are pariahs. Outcasts. The dispossessed. Some nurse plastic cups of foul tasting coffee, whilst others stare at their shoes. No one talks. No one has to. Occasionally, one will look at the wall, with its sad collection of posters for Village Fetes which were inevitably rained off or self-help groups which closed due to lack of interest. The pendulous silence is broken only by the ceaseless rain on the fly-blown windows and the buzzing of the strip lighting which casts a sickly yellow glow over everything. I feel strangely comfortable here. These are my people and we have shared much without ever having met. Few would be willing to live how we do. After what seems like an hour, the door creaks open and another grey man enters – younger this time and carrying a brown cardboard clipboard, bristling with curling A4 paper. He talks for a while. No-one listens. The words he speaks are as familiar to these people as The Lord’s Prayer…or The Last Rites. Eventually he stops and gestures to me. Although I have never been here before, I know exactly what I must do. Unsteadily, I climb to my feet, feeling strangely calm in spite of the dryness of my mouth and the clamminess of my palms. I start to talk – my voice sounding eerily distant as the words come forth…
“Hi, my name’s Ian and I play Bass in a tribute band….”
Nowadays, it seems that (to some musicians at least) if you play in a covers, functions or tribute band you are up there with Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot and should be shipped off to some offshore correctional facility and made to play ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ until you chew your own ears off. But to those musicians, the people that write their own material are bungling, deluded amateurs who just get in the way of the real talent and make them look bad.
Erm, aren’t we all on the same side?
If I see one more post along the lines of ‘it’s all tribute and cover bands round here and no-one else can get a gig’ I may cry. Speaking as a humble Bassist who’s done both the covers thing and fought in the trenches playing original music, I think I have a good idea of how it works. Guys (that’s the non-gender-specific use of the word) in covers and tribute bands have an advantage in the early stages of their career as Joe Public kinda knows what to expect. If you see Nearvana or Byron Adams or one of the other imaginatively named combos on the scene advertised on a poster or the Interweb, you know how your evening’s entertainment will pan out. Whether they are any good or not is another thing entirely. With a band that writes their own material, you get people to gigs by sweet talking, emotional blackmail and low level bullying initially. And then you graft. And often it’s the quality of grafting and the tenacity and persistence of the band that are the deciding factors in the success of the group – more than the quality of the material. I can name a dozen great songwriters and amazing musicians who have bowed out of the musical rat race because they lack the stomach for the real hustle. And who can blame them?
As a bassist in a covers/tribute band, I have effectively capped my earnings. With the exception of The Bootleg Beatles, The Australian Pink Floyd and Oasis (KIDDING!), bands like mine never rise above the 200-300 venue ceiling. If your career takes off in an original band – “Hello Wembley”… The other gripe is that ‘Every local venue just puts on tributes’…well, that as we say in Halesowen, is BullPlop. There are a handful of local venues round these parts which specialise in cover/tribute bands, but by the same token, there are WAY more that may turn their noses up at By Jovy or MaltLoaf etc. And if you really are stuck in a venueless void, find a pub, community centre, leisure centre etc, hire/buy a vocal PA and put your own damn gig on. Guerrilla gigs are so 21st century right now.
The prejudice works both ways, with rather superior trib musos looking down their noses at the ‘wannabees’ who write their own material. To them I say that hopefully one of those ‘wannabees’ will hire your band to play at the celebration party for their quadruple platinum album. Right now, that band playing original material may not have ‘the chops’ but they may have something way more useful – potential.
What we sometimes forget is that we’re all in the entertainment industry. Some people like to be entertained by something familiar. Some people like to seek out The Next Big Thing. These people pay our wages and they deserve something which doesn’t insult them. Rather than wasting time bitching, I suggest we go back to the rehearsal room, the kitchen table or wherever the muse may strike and get better at what we do.