The Price of Not Being a Human Jukebox
by M. David Hornbuckle
Birmingham is a weird town for original bands. Most of the bars that have live music feature cover bands. They start at 10 and play until 1:30 or later. Or in some cases (Marty’s), they start after midnight and play until morning. The bands are human jukeboxes, or noodlers who fill the time with solo after solo. Generally, they are more concerned with keeping the music going and pandering to the crowd’s requests than they are interested in artistic expression.
There’s no doubt, though, that original music has a much higher cool factor. Even when it isn’t as sing-along friendly as yet another rendition of “Wagon Wheel,” it has the potential to be an extremely captivating and memorable experience for all who see it. Bars are aware of this, and they want original bands, but there’s a disconnect between the bars of the “cover band” scene and the bands who play all original tunes. The bars don’t understand that a full show for one of these bands is a 45-minute set, an hour at the most.
Think about it this way. For the average competent musician, it’s a lot easier to learn three hours worth of other peoples’ songs than it is to come up with 45 minutes of original material that is energetic and engaging. Cover bands might feature incredible musicianship. They might not play the same covers as everybody else, or they might have their own take on the standards. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of that. But if you are a musician focused on playing original music, you are working under a completely different paradigm.
Granted, some bands that play the three and four hour gigs around town do some original material. But let’s be honest. They still play mostly covers and sneak in a few original songs when they can get away with it, most of which are likely to be pretty derivative of the kind of stuff they are covering.
If these bars want to move toward having original bands, they should get used to having three bands a night instead of just one. Sure, the bands won’t make as much money. Most original bands know this and are comfortable with it. But with three bands, you also triple the potential audience. Instead of one band doing promotions for the show, you have three. Venues that are known for featuring original music, like the Nick and the Bottletree, have always done the three band thing. It's rare to see a single band play more than an hour at those places.Or you might have only two bands, and the music might be over earlier. That’s really okay too. After the bands are done, you put on a jukebox or somebody’s iPod, and people keep drinking and hanging out until closing time. Personally, I'd rather see 45 minutes of punchy energetic rock than three hours of covers or noodling any day. And I'll happily pay five or ten dollars to see a good band do that.