solo cover musician

How to survive as a solo cover musician

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Fashioning a career in music takes – as this author puts it – the skills of a guerrilla jungle warrior. Here are three pieces of advice to help you succeed as a solo cover musician, or in any niche where you hope to make money playing music.

“Never turn down free food.” This is the axiom I tell my guitar students. It’s my own bit of wisdom I’ve gleaned from 20 years of playing music professionally in venues from Carnegie Hall and CBGB’s to the local watering hole in your favorite South Jersey beach town. It’s not exactly advice to be taken literally, but making music for a living as a solo cover musician (or any type of musician) requires the skills of a guerrilla jungle warrior: cunning, stamina, a tolerance for having monkey dung thrown at you when you’re not looking, and above all, a desperate hunger for survival. Hence the free food: get it while it’s hot!

It’s a cliché to say that show business is tough, but the reality is that it’s worse than that. It eats good people alive. Here are three survival skills I’d like to pass along that have helped me get through 15 years playing solo acoustic cover songs in bars, restaurants, private parties, corporate events, and pig roasts in cemeteries.

1. Have at least two sources of income

When I was young and considering entering this business, I was always told, “You need to study something else in college – you need a fallback plan if you don’t ‘make it’.” We’ll talk another time about the idea of “making it,” but my problem is with the word “fallback.” You don’t need a fallback; you don’t need to plan for failure! Houses aren’t built without foundations and crossbeams. You need support to plan for success, and one really necessary support item is money.

You need to eat, you need to pay your rent, you need gas for your car, and maybe – like me – you have a little mouth to feed. It’s pretty impossible to focus on moving mountains and becoming the next Taylor Swift when you’re starving. That approach works for some, but I’ve also known people who lived in their cars for a very long time and quit, because for talented, intelligent, beautiful geniuses like us (right?), that way of life sucks. So don’t look for a fallback. Look for alternative income that will support you in achieving your dream.

My mother always said I’d make a great lawyer, but I still have no imminent plans to go to law school. I have seen people’s “B” jobs devour them, and frankly, I’d rather take my chances with the cruel mistress of showbiz. I have, however, taught guitar lessons, developed my own online guitar lessons program for beginners, worked as a sideman, an engineer, a producer, and even a freelance writer(!). My bread-and-butter music gigs involve playing “Wagon Wheel” in more restaurants than one man should ever frequent in a single lifetime. It is possible to broaden the definition of what you do and still maintain your integrity, even if you are not a “Wagon Wheel” tramp like me.

I don’t work a 9 to 5, I get plenty of time with my kid, I live in a house, and I’m working on my 3rd album of original music. My freelance writing gigs I can do at night while my kid is sleeping. Not too shabby. Justin Tranter of Semi-Precious Weapons initially financed his band with his jewelry business, and his band opened for Lady Gaga on the Monster Ball tour and now he writes songs for Warner-Chappell. That’s one form of the new music business model: find something you love to do that also makes money and use it to support your music career. I love playing other people’s songs. I’d do it at home by myself for fun and now someone pays me to do it. In my mind, that’s success.

2. Seek out like-minded supportive people

It was never my life’s goal to make music in restaurants as a solo cover musician playing by myself to nobody. What surprises me most is how much money people will pay me to do that as long as I sing “Wagon Wheel.” But no matter how much money one is being paid, the psychic toll of this kind of life can be brutal. People need people. And – another shocker – musicians are also people (people who need people). Who knew? Often these people can be other musicians who will follow you through the journey. For every Kurt Cobain there is a Krist Novoselic, who sat there playing bass along with his friend’s crappy first attempts at writing songs. Why? Because he believed in him. That kind of support moves mountains. It’s hard to find and precious when found.

I never met my Lennon (or my McCartney, depending on which day of the week you catch me). I’ve played in many bands with some great players and some excellent people, but I never had the kismet experience of a magic band that clicked so hard on the first day that we all devoted our lives to it and sailed off into the history books. Honestly, I’ve never even met a bass player I really liked. Kidding – I love you all (you bottom-ended flatwound love bugs). But, for whatever reason, the kind of synergy that comes with a great all-for-one, one-for-all band has never been part of my story, so I’ve had to seek out a support network. I have songwriter friends all over the world, many still toiling away in this hostile climate of the 21st Century. And we still have each other.

I also have a good number of people I can text, message, email, or send up flares to when I am sad, lonely, playing to an empty room, mired in self-pity, or resentful at the couple who made me play “Simple Man” and “Turn The Page” and then dropped a handful of pocket change into the tip jar. You need a shoulder to cry on, lean on, throw tantrums at, and discharge all this junk at so you can focus on being a great musician and doing a great show, even if it’s in a restaurant to nobody. Because you never know, that one couple in the restaurant requesting all those Led Zeppelin songs just might own a restaurant and invite you to come play there. That true story just happened to me yesterday!

3. Be good at the music thing

Often I see people swallow uncomfortably when they see me carry my gear into a room. Sometimes they get up and move far from the “stage” before I’ve even started. Maybe I should take off the clown suit? Some nights I think maybe I should put on the clown suit.

Clown suit or not, the reason they move away is the brutal truth: most musicians in these non-musical venues (like restaurants or bars without stages) aren’t very good. Maybe most musicians in general aren’t very good. There certainly are a lot of us these days. Occasionally I’ll walk in and someone will say “Hooray!! There’s live music!” Usually it’s a kid or a drunk woman who’s excited, and that’s great. More often, I see people with a glazed look, blindsided, as if they just got a big, loud, rock ‘n’ roll present they didn’t ask for (even though I am truly not that loud).

You can win these people over if you are good at singing and/or playing. Then they are relieved. Even if you are a musical primitive and you only know three chords and can’t really sing in any traditional sense, be damn good at those three chords and your Lou Reed thing. The crowd who doesn’t know you really wants you to be good. Truly. It’s just that they have been disappointed before, so please, don’t break their hearts again. Practice your singing, practice your playing, do whatever it is that you do very, very well.

Seek out coaches like Tom Jackson who can help you understand the language of communication that audiences understand (his methods work even when you are playing in the corner of a restaurant where nobody can see you!). The more musical moments you are able to create in these settings for the crowd that doesn’t know you, the more successful you will be in entertaining your audience. And the rougher and tougher your musical skills, the broader your definition of what you are and can do will be; it could open up previously unseen worlds to you like film/TV scoring, playing with a pit orchestra, or even the highly lucrative field of jazz. All jokes aside, you may not make much money in jazz, but the ability to play it will give you a higher level of musical depth. So practice, practice, practice – Carnegie Hall awaits! Or maybe Applebee’s. A gig is a gig, right?

Image by DFP Photographic via Shutterstock.com.

Chris Huff has been a professional singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer for over 20 years. He has worked as a sideman with Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul, and Mary), Echo and the Bunnymen, Chuck Hammer (David Bowie, Lou Reed), and Tom Kitt (Broadway composer of Next To Normal). Chris also wrote liner notes for David Bowie’s Live And Well CD, and has two full-length albums of original music available on iTunes.

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38 thoughts on “How to survive as a solo cover musician

  1. Love the advice! I’ve been playing in bands for 20 years and was thinking about trying the solo ( or possibly duet) thing myself. How about a list of “starter ” tunes every solo artist should know before their first solo debut? Keep up the good advice, and always lead with your heart.

  2. If I were rich, I would have majored in music. However, since my education is funded through borrowing, I decided to get a more practical degree that I may repay my college loans, a B.Sc. in social and behavioral sciences. 4 years later, I have completed a 54 page undergraduate thesis and am on the way to a Ph.D. next fall. What is more, my creative flow on the music scene is not diminished by my studies as I am just putting the final touched on my 3rd DIY, double-album, “Psuedosymmetry/Beautiful Borderline”.

    As to the term fallback, creating and playing music, for me, is a spiritual and self-validating process that I do purely because it makes me feel connected to myself and the world at large. This means fans are nice but not necessary. Ultimately, my overall goal is to use music as a tool for effectively engaging in emotion regulation and distress tolerance.

    Overall, my music has not suffered for my academic goals. In fact, the knowledge I have gained has served to enhance my musicality. With a rich scientific and literary background, my lyrics have escaped the trite, uninspired monotony of the LOVE song (which, sadly, seems to be the only topic in the world people can write songs about) and challenged me to grow with technology and to listen to music critically in addition to appreciating its aesthetic.

    Finally, I would like to make a final note regarding career goals. DROPPING OUT OF COLLEGE IS NOT GOING TO ADVANCE YOUR MUSIC CAREER so stay in school! There is no reason you cannot study by day and play music by night like me. Furthermore, since school is out for summer, you can be fully committed to your musical endeavors during the concert season, which is a bonus.

  3. Solid stuff, Chris! Thanks for the tips- and the reminders. There is definitely a side to being a performing musician that is lonely, exhausting, and frustrating, but those moments of introspection and isolation are also important for building your character and maintaining integrity regardless of the gig you play. I’ve had several experiences like the ones you described where you didn’t realize someone was listening- someone that may have an impact on your future.

    1. Thanks man! Between you and I, my character is so built it might as well be the Hoover Dam. But there is great value in, as you said, showing up and standing tall.

  4. I was drawn to this story of how to survive as a solo cover musician, since that’s close to what I am (I play about 50% covers). To tell you the truth, I was pretty disappointed to read Chris’s first tip – basically “do something else.” That made me hate the story from there on in. I’ve been doing this for 50 years (that’s no typo) and I want to know what else can be done with MUSIC to survive. I’m sure I could write a better, more informative, piece than this. If you can afford me, I’ll send it to you for your readers.

    1. I apologize first if I misunderstood you.

      What Chris is trying to say in his 1st tip is people need money for everything. He advises that people have at least two sources of income, or at least an income that can feed the need of musicianship. The list that he mentioned like an engineer and a sideman looks more likely in the line of music. He doesn’t say that people should ‘do something else’. In one sentence, he mentions “Look for alternative income that will support you in achieving your dream”. You probably interpret this as ‘doing something else’.

  5. This is a pretty cool and informative article. Under #1 you say “I love playing other people’s songs. I’d do it at home by myself for fun and now someone pays me to do it. In my mind, that’s success.” How do you recommend one gets these type of gigs? Thank you

  6. Wow, Chris Huff you really nailed it! Been doing this for about 20 years myself. I’ll have to save this to re read for some inspiration or some sympathy sometimes. Thanks so much for sharing your experience!
    Best of luck!
    Steve

  7. wow lol something new….I have work nat and loc all my life, #1 be great at what you do. #2 love it and owen it. you can go wrong…Rev Dippermouth

  8. Hi Thanks for all the suggestions. I am at this point in my life more involved with writing. Recently I wrote two
    songs for a film which ended up too late as the sound track production was underway. That said, my songs ended up being far better than the ones used in the film. (In my opinion) ,. I love to write songs for film. Its helpful to get the script ahead of time. What is the best way to find out when producers that are looking for songs?

    Thanks

    Jeff Pasternak

    1. Not my field per se, though I have been involved with a few films. My suggestion re: the cutthroat world of film song and scoring is to make relationships with directors. Offer somebody songs and/or scoring for their first film or student films. It’s the director who will ultimately fight for your songs. Sometimes your material will get bumped for someone more famous bc they need the name to sell the film. The ones I knew who got into the final cut got there because the director insisted that they ABSOLUTELY HAD TO HAVE their songs in the film. Become friends with directors! Also lots of great info out there coming from places like Berklee about the business of scoring. Good luck!

    2. Jeff,

      I too am an avid songwriter and have recently begun exploring the world of song licensing. As far as marketing goes, you want to target “Music Supervisors” over producers. These persons are responsible for selecting and and placing songs in ads, movies, television programs, etc. Therefore, you want to start paying attention to how music is used in films/TV you watch so you can start familiarizing yourself with the supervisors that best fit the type of music you are selling. Finally, and this is where I am having trouble, you need face time to stand out among the sea of songwriters. Emailing and phone calls just will not cut it, so songwriters living in L.A. or New York have the greatest advantage. Hope that helps a little.

      Rock on,
      Pinki

  9. At age 8, I announced to my parents I had decided to become a singer. They said, “Oh darling, that’s such a hard life” but provided the music lessons which enabled me to read music and accompany myself with chords from sheet music. At age 50, I enrolled at the New England Conservatory in the Department Of Contemporary Improvisation when it was headed by Ran Blake. In between, I earned a BS and MBA and earned enough money as a corporate manager to retire at 58. I gigged in the senior centers and nursing homes, in restaurants and libraries/museums. I actually made money at those venues but had to schlep equipment and live or recorded accompaniment. In 2003, I got a choice steady gig in a major city at a major club with a guaranteed salary. The salary is enough to hire top flight musicians; however, there is no money to pay myself or the travel expenses involved. After 20 years and using all the business and music skills I could muster, I am still paying to play. If you don’t love the music, don’t bother. Patricia Adams, bandleader & vocalist.

  10. Hello, I’m a self taught, Solo Eclectic Acoustic Guitarist, Buzz Guerra, from Austin, TX. I’m been playing solo acoustic guitar for 20 years now. However, I don’t sing, I just let my guitar do the singing, so to say. I understand what Cris Huff has been through. Imagine going through all that, but, playing only solo acoustic guitar and no singing. 20 years back, before becoming a solo acousti guitarist, I toured & played Electric guitar at the age of 10 through the age of 43 years old. I played every type of music with groups. At the age of 27 years old, I started working with the State Government while still playing music & my wife & I raised two boys. I retired from the State Government with 30 years of service, about five years now. So, now I play solo acoustic guitar full time. I love it & I wish I had played solo acoustic guitar from the very start. Amor Y Paz!
    Buzz,

  11. Yes. Number three, in particular, it’s a big battle. It sounds a little smart a$$, but when people ask what kind of music I play, I answer according to the Duke Ellington genre classifications. “Good music.” Of course, then I have to try and back up my claim. Usually with very positive response 🙂

    RCF

      1. Robert,

        Good music is too generic a term that soooo annoys my inner audiophile. Therefore, when people inevitably ask me, “What kind of music do you make?” I say, “I make TRANS-GENRE music, baby!” Yeeeah!

  12. Great article! I didn’t want to be the starving artist, so I did the college thing, especially because I had four mouths to feed. That “plan b” job has devoured my life, just like you said, and Im trying to find my way out. Fortunately, my now husband is also a musician, so at least now I have a partner who is on the same page as I am…well most of the time! 😉

  13. Good advice all the way around. I especially like number one and wish I didn’t not use the ‘fall back’ strategy in my career. You are so correct, it consumed me to be good at the fall back job when that never should have been my focus.

    1. Definitely check out the work of Martin Atkins, former PIL drummer and music biz professor. I saw him speak last month and he said, “You are never “too” anything – never too old, too young, too fat, too thin, too good, too bad, etc.” Good to learn from the past and not repeat it, but all we really have is now. ha that got cosmic quickly, but I appreciate your story and all the best to you, Tim!

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