Desperate for Gigs, Performers Don Spandex, Sing at Strip Malls; Glut of Aging Musicians
By Neil Shah WSJ.com 7/16/14
OAKLAND, N.J.—Rock ‘n’ roll is here to stay, Danny & the Juniors sang more than half a century ago. Rockers on the bar-band circuit aren’t so sure.
Among the downbeat is Steve Brown, a 44-year-old guitarist who plays classic-rock tunes for a living.
Despite a brush with fame, Mr. Brown doesn’t shy away from even the most cringe-worthy of gigs. One day he’ll perform for thousands at a festival with his rock band, Trixter, whose videos briefly topped MTV’s charts in the 1990s. The next night he’ll be in a yellow, zebra-print vest belting out Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” at a party in the Hamptons, or singing “Hotel California” as customers examine Buicks at a car dealership in New Jersey.
“Not every show can be Madison Square Garden,” he says.
Mr. Brown is among the many cover-band artists these days who are finding it more difficult to earn a living. The problem is a paucity of lucrative bar-band gigs (thanks to DJs, trivia nights, karaoke, and changing tastes) combined with a glut of middle-aged musicians who just can’t quit the scene.
“If you said Steve Brown would be wearing Spandex pants, playing a hot-pink and green guitar and doing Michael Jackson and Madonna songs three years ago, I would have said, ‘No friggin’ way,’ ” the New Jersey native says. “My career has kind of gone backwards.”
Carla Russell, 46, used to do 150 gigs a year with her band Kozmic Mama. Now she does half that, and the gigs aren’t always all that great. At a wedding in Huntsville, Ala., the crowd was too sober to dance since alcohol wasn’t being served. The singer decided to skip “Sex Machine” and “Let’s Get It On.” “They wouldn’t have appreciated it,” she says.
Bobby Lynch, a 32-year-old pianist, has 12 different variations of his act—ranging from a solo show to a dueling-piano routine—to suit clients such as professional-services firm Ernst & Young, Italian car maker Maserati and Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway, in New York.
Yet he sometimes sings Christmas carols at retirement homes in the winter. “I feel like I came on right at the death of the cover scene,” he says.
Bar-band gigs started getting less reliable about a decade ago, when the music business wobbled and club owners hurt by recession reduced their budgets, industry experts say. Tighter drinking-and-driving laws and costly licensing fees haven’t helped.
Sterling Howard, 67, owner of Musician’s Contact, a referral service, has helped rockers get gigs for 40 years, and he has never seen it so bad. Young men don’t go to bars as much in the hopes of meeting women, he says, while some people prefer open-mics or even silence to a loud band playing Bad Company tunes.
“People are watching their own drunken friends, which is maybe more entertaining,” Mr. Howard says.
By Mr. Howard’s estimate, Top-40 cover-band gigs have declined 80% in the past 15 years. Unemployment among musicians broadly is up sharply: to 9% last year from 5% in 2006, the National Endowment for the Arts says, based on government data.
Nor is pay keeping pace with the times, artists and booking agents say. A band making $400 or so a gig in the 1980s doesn’t make much more now. Inflation has eroded pay.
Brook Hansen is a case in point. A keyboardist with a tattoo of the logo of the progressive rock band Yes on his arm, he once made a decent living, he says, playing honky tonks in Nashville, U.S. military bases in Europe and hotels in China.
He settled in Las Vegas in 1999, earning $700 a week playing in lounge bands. Then casino-owners cut back on crooners after the post 9/11 downturn.
On a recent Saturday, he and a partner sang songs made famous by the group Survivor, in a small casino bar. Their most enthusiastic fan that night seemed to be Mr. Hansen’s wife. Mr. Hansen drives elderly people to medical appointments to supplement his income. He hopes to go abroad, maybe to Bahrain, where demand for musicians is strong. “It’s like Vegas 30 years ago,” he says.
Some cover rockers make good money, especially those willing to live on cruise ships or play in tribute bands impersonating rock stars.
After cutting his teeth playing in New Jersey cover bands as a boy, Mr. Brown founded the pop-metal group Trixter at the age of 12. He wrote most of the songs, and toured the country with rock stars including Poison and the Scorpions.
When his style of party rock lost its pizazz, the spikey-haired guitarist returned to his roots and started a succession of cover bands, including one devoted to his hero, Eddie Van Halen. Mr. Brown retains his youthful enthusiasm. “You have to be like an octopus,” he says. “Your hands, your tentacles, are pulling different income streams.”
On a recent Friday night, he cooked dinner for his family, kissed his wife and baby goodbye and drove his teenage daughter to a sleepover. Minutes later he was pushing his sound equipment into Oakland’s Elm Street Grill, a sports bar in a nearby strip mall.
“Karaoke tonight?” asked a middle-aged man, smoking outside the bar. “No, it’s a rock band,” Mr. Brown said.
Tags: cover bands