Life as a Musician: This Dream is Not for the Faint of Heart
It’s Saturday night around 11 o’clock. My band Green Eyed Lady is playing at a small club in our hometown of Fairfield County, CT. About 75 people are crazily crammed on the diminutive dance floor. A man I’ve never seen before, about ten feet back and a little to my right, is standing tall, hands clenched by his side, head thrown back with eyes closed, and he is swaying slightly and mouthing along to every word. He is lost somewhere in a memory recaptured and resurrected in the music that is emanating from us. A nearby couple have their arms wrapped tightly around each other, heads touching, swaying slowly with their eyes closed. Several rows behind them, heads are popping up repeatedly, trying to see the band better. People gaze up at me with huge grins or are singing along loudly. As when people like to direct our attention expressively to something meaningful on social media, I say to myself: This.
This, right here, is a big part of why I do this. It sounds cliché to say that music connects people, yes, but here I am actually experiencing that connection so physically that it takes over the moment and there simply is nothing else. We are all seeking a sense of belonging to the moment, for accessible ways to celebrate life, for encountering and entering in to a positive energy that is us and yet is so much bigger than our individual selves. Beyond the entertainment value of our “show”, replete with timely yowling and dripping sweat, I—we —are helping to create a moment of joy, a new memory perhaps, or a poignant nostalgia of a memory long buried. And damn, I love this song.
Now let me answer your question before you ask it: The band name both features the fact that yes, I have green eyes, and that we are a classic rock band a‘ la Sugarloaf’s 1970 hit song “Green Eyed Lady”. Here’s the one-story Elevator Pitch: Green Eyed Lady is a power trio formed in 2011 specializing in big sound wrapped in a little package. Or this: We are a cover band featuring classic rock and soul hits from the 70s 80s 90s with a broad and ever-changing repertoire.
Each of us in the band – Rick, Tommy, and I - has a particular moment when we made that decision to be a musician as a calling. Tommy recalls getting a job offer for a regular full time job with benefits, and having to choose between that and opportunities like a USO tour to Iraq. He chose the USO tour. In 2011 I faced losing my voice completely when battling thyroid cancer that strangled my vocal chords. After years of struggle my voice came back, though deeper than before. I decided I would never go back to the corporate world. Rick made his decision by the time he had graduated high school, having already been on tour with his band since the tender age of 14. Somewhere along the way, each of us made a personal commitment that had ‘No Turning Back’ stamped all over it. While we have all dabbled in original music and may just end up with some awesome tracks of our own that the fans will chant for, we acknowledge that being an original artist is a long-term game usually best left to the very young.
For some, a certain stigma surrounds cover bands and tribute bands – or even replacement musicians for older Hall of Fame bands who achieved fame for their music decades earlier. The original artists themselves have varied perspectives on other people reproducing their art. Some want to control the expression of their work, as Prince was famous for removing a YouTube video of a toddler dancing to one of his songs. Others appreciate the ongoing promotion of their songs, as Led Zeppelin has been known to do in being supportive of tribute bands in their honor. Of course, all artists are entitled to receive proper royalties for reproductions of their work, regardless of who is doing the performing. In theory, such royalties from cover band performances are provided through annual royalty licenses paid by the venues that hire the musicians. YouTube commercials may also pay a percentage to original artist royalties on popular cover song videos, although original artists still reserve the right to have cover song videos removed if they don’t want them out there. The topic of royalties for cover music is a much larger conversation, but you get the idea. There are pretty mixed feelings about cover music from artists and fans alike. We accept that.
Artistic interpretation is as varied and unique as are individuals, but the songs are still, and always will be, someone else’s creation. My own psyche bears witness to this. I used to have this recurring vivid dream that my band was performing on a large yacht, and the members of the Rolling Stones came aboard as guests. Darryl Jones (the Stones’ unofficial and generally unacknowledged replacement bassist for over twenty years now) silently holds out his hand for my bass, and I take it off and give it to him. I’m a silent voice playing his music, and as it turns out, his voice is silent too. Analyze that! (On a happier note, I also had this dream that I was chatting with Elvis Presley and he gifted me with an enormous green guitar pick. Hey, I know. It was just a dream. But still.)
We have reached a point in music history where those who like to frequent clubs, and spend money, include not only baby boomers, but also GenX and GenY generations. These generations have become nostalgic for their unique musical eras. We all have a job to do. Ours – Rick, Tommy, and I - is to bring the best of these eras back to life for our generational listeners.
Like anywhere, being a band in Fairfield County is not for the faint of heart, and demands enormous flexibility of spirit and humor. Sure, cover bands do have some advantages over original artists. For one thing, there is already a market for your music: your songs are ALL hit songs. And, uh…well that’s kind of the end of the list. Really, it’s more like living inside a 1970s Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther comedy. Without even getting into all the things that can go wrong at any given moment, here’s some permanent harsh, if slightly comical, realities that go with the territory:
Fast-moving fans. In Fairfield County, you can count on two things: the inevitability of everything and everyone in constant motion, and the belief that more is better. Because so many Fairfield County towns are strung so closely together, it is perfectly possible to hit three, or more, clubs in one evening. Many music fans will ‘band hop’, trying to see all their favorite bands on the same night out. For the musicians, this means taking little or no breaks, unless you want to watch a mass exodus during your ten-minute breather. (On the upside, you may get a strange, sudden late-night influx of hoppers.) Since there are several concert halls, including Madison Square Garden, in easy driving distance, any big stars in town may also suddenly leave the cover band’s dance floor swirling with nothing but dust bunnies and drink straws.
Farcical finances. Financially, it is very difficult to make a decent living as a musician, original or no. Even county or regional bands with a name for themselves constantly struggle for fair pay. If you can support yourself as a musician you are really blessed. Any amount of live performance almost always needs to be supplemented with teaching, studio work, side projects, or some other source of income. And even if you are making ends meet, it’s a precarious life with bleak prospects for retirement.
Ferociously hard work. The physical demands can be extreme, and the hours are very long unless you are fortunate enough to have your own roadie and tech.
No play, No pay. At this level, there are no job benefits. You are an independent contractor responsible for your own taxes and your own health insurance. There is no insurance against sickness or injury that might prevent you from performing. Slam your pinky in the car door, or wake up with a bad case of laryngitis, and you are in serious trouble. Many of the smaller clubs refuse to use contracts at all, or the contracts do not cover bad weather cancellations, and do not cover damage costs if equipment gets stolen or destroyed, for example, due to bad weather. And there is no vacation pay. No play, no pay.
Merciless Mother Nature calls the shots. Bands are often at the mercy of difficult work conditions, such as bad weather or faulty wiring at venues, all year long. For example last summer alone, we performed two different outdoor public events in Connecticut where the heat index was well over 100 degrees. I kept a champagne bucket of ice on a stand in quick reach, and dropped ice cubes down my shirt in between each song and my shirt never even got wet. At several other gigs both in Montauk, NY and Fairfield County, CT we were hammered with sudden heavy storms halfway through the gig and had to scramble to protect our equipment, even under tents. One tent collapsed and I watched helplessly as gallons of water poured over my bass and into my amp. And at another gig in Massachusetts with a big wooden outdoor waterfront stage, I plugged into a nearby faulty outlet, instantly causing a small explosion, leaving both my cord and my hand black and mildly burned. (Pink Panther fans may recall the hotel room scene where Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau tries to screw a light bulb into a faulty lamp. At least frizzed out hair is legitimate rock couture.) One perfectly beautiful day we played outdoors at a private club on a stage built under an enormous tree, and I got hit in the head with a large free-falling nut while I was singing. Owww. Important time to remember that my mic is on and everyone can hear my comments.
Knockouts. Speaking of knockouts....even fans and band mates can be hazardous. Just about any cover band I know has experienced that just-a-little-too-enthusiastic dancer who falls, crashing into the band in the middle of a song, knocking over mic stands and landing right on top of you. It’s like chronically re-living that scene with Peter Sellers as Guy Gadois in the Return of the Pink Panther – suavely grooving across the dance floor only to be socked in the jaw and knocked down by an enthusiastic, if spastic, dancing blonde (see ‘Return of the Pink Panther Dance Knock Out’ scene on YouTube if you never have). Many artists reading this who have chipped teeth will be nodding their heads here knowingly. Just last Saturday, our drummer Tommy was entertaining the crowd with stick tricks during a song, and a stick flew out of his hand, over the top of his Zildjian cymbals to thwack me neatly on my rear. Better than in the teeth I guess. He claimed it was an accident.
Empty Venues. Oh the agony of playing to an empty room. This may not sound like much to you. So what if there aren’t any fans? We all have things about our jobs we don’t like. This can happen to anyone on a bad night. And any musician will tell you, it’s brutal. It’s not about ego. It’s about adrenaline, which acts both as an anesthetic and an energizer. Adrenaline is how a featherweight like me can play a heavy instrument, and constantly fill my lungs with air to sing for hours at a time, without dropping. We once played a big billiard hall in a small town. We set up on a stage fronting a huge dance floor with a half-wall separating the area from the dozen or more billiard tables and bar area. There were maybe a dozen people in the whole place playing pool or at the bar. Two tired out-of-town truckers dragged a little table onto the dance floor and listened politely while they drank their Bud Lights. With a light show that flashed across the echoing empty dance floor and our two truckers, we were completely devoid of adrenaline. That gig lasted forever and my bass felt like a 20-pound deadweight across my tired shoulder.
The agony of that night caused us to recalibrate. While we play for the joy of interacting with fans and sharing the music, my band mates and I also needed to learn to be enough for each other. In the absence of a crowd, we had to take it as an opportunity to challenge each other, interact with each other, push each other to greater levels of musicianship. We had to find the resources within ourselves to have a grand old time. It’s like swapping out that earlier sad vision of dust bunnies and drink straws on the dance floor with that scene in Almost Famous where Kate Hudson with that mysterious smile on her face is dancing alone in the abandoned concert hall while we hear Cat Stevens crooning “I listen to the wind – to the wind of my soul”. Ok not really like that, but close maybe.
Because of all these issues and more, many fabulous musicians have abandoned the local music scene, or have day jobs and play occasionally on weekends. These are the “weekend warriors” that make up a good percentage of cover bands. Weekend warriors can better afford to deal with all these drawbacks and not worry about it. Hey, play some good music out with friends and family, have a few drinks, and maybe even get paid a bit, how great is that? It’s pretty great. The downside is really for the musicians struggling to make a living, because the local band market gets flooded. Unless you have a really good sound, fun-loving stage charisma, and something that makes you really stand out as unique, you just won’t get very far.
Yet here we are, doggedly pursuing our odd dreams of making a life as cover artists one gig at a time. If you are a live music fan, a live cover music fan, I’ll share this secret with you. Those moments when you gasp, when your eyes fly wide open, or when you shut them tight - when your hands shoot up in the air, when you shout ‘YES!’ because you are so blown away by how that song we are performing makes you feel – each time we share that experience with you, you urge us on, you feed us. You help us stay committed to a difficult calling by drawing us continually back into sharing the joy of the moment together. Nothing beats that. Well, and those bills you throw in the tip basket. Those too. Thank you!