In my music community, I hear the lectures, debates, and opinions from cover bands: “Crowds don’t want to hear original music!” So every weekend you can go out and be sure you’ll hear Jessie’s Girl, Feelin’ Alright, Don’t Stop Belivin’, and other classics every band plays and every audience seems to want to hear for reasons they no longer remember. Working cover bands want to please their audiences, and are in tune with what their crowd wants to hear, often making the point that playing music people want to hear gets you steady gigs with the most pay. There is truth to this, but established bands with solid fanbases are missing out on a slight opportunity to add additional revenue while making a big investment in their own creativity.

What I’m talking about are performance royalties. As a songwriter licensed with a performing rights agency, I get a small kickback whenever I perform my songs in a licensed venue. Many established weekend-warrior performing musicians don’t seem to be aware of this potential for additional income. Mind you, on a local level the payout is dismal, but it’s still worth it, especially if you’re a band that plays regularly to sizeable crowds.  

This is not your typical “get rich quick” motivational lecture you see in your inbox, this is about getting a little extra boost to your already regular performance opportunities. My intent is to show how an investment in your creativity can provide a bit of revenue that already exists, and how it could snowball into something good for your act and your area – both for audiences and bands.

Here’s the gist:

Most all performance venues pay fees to performance rights management companies, the three main being ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. These fees are usually based on their size, market, etc.

After your performance, you go to their website and submit your setlist. You must have your songs registered with your organization, and you add your songs for that performance along with the details of your show (date, time, venue, crowd size, etc.). Depending on how your organization works, you will get a payout based on their calculations at a certain time-period – like quarterly per year.

Granted, this opportunity won’t likely generate a huge amount of cash, but it’ll be better than online monetization, and it’s a small ROI on getting your creativity and original work to your fans. The best comparison I can make is to the price of gas. In a small club that hosts live music regularly, you may get a payout equivalate to the price of a half a gallon of gas per song. That’s not much, but think about this:

Let’s say your cover band plays two nights a week. Every show you do two originals, you’ll earn about as much as a gallon of gas per show. Two nights a week, two gallons of gas. That’s a small amount of additional revenue for your set that you don’t have to do much to earn (except write a couple songs)! You likely earn less on your interest in your savings account over three months than doing two of your own songs at a show. And if you’ve been trying to monetize over internet platforms, you know that this is much more than the .001c your song earns in a digital playlist! Over time, this little bit of additional income can add up, and you get to do some of your own songs live.

Performance royalties are paid out in a variety of locales and settings. You can even report on the open mics and jam sessions hosted at registered locations. The amount earned varies per venue as well. Doing an original at an open jam garnishes a neglectable amount of revenue, say less than a half-gallon of gas. However, when my band played one of our large sporting arenas in our city, I received a payout equivalate to almost three gallons of gas per song, and we performed all original songs. Some club shows or licensed performance venues would garnish about the cost of a specialty coffee at your favorite shop per song.

Imagine if you were a popular enough act to sellout a venue like the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. According to a contact I reached out to at the US Cellular Center, I was told that royalties for major venues are paid out by the promoter and added into the price of the ticket. So that means that every ticket purchased for a major concert event includes the payment for song royalties. (We can argue the price of tickets, but the fact remains this revenue ALREADY EXISTS and is being provided back to the songwriters of the songs being performed at the concert, and that this price must be included). It would be a huge waste to get an opportunity like that with a captive audience and not perform at least one song you’ve written! Imagine what the major label artists receive when performing on TV or radio, or nightly during their tours and festival shows. We may not be getting anywhere near that, but these small deposits still add up.

And the thing is, these royalties are being distributed whether they go to you or not. The rights management organizations audit the venues, gather reports, and distribute based on what is provided to them. Songwriters, managers, venues, and promoters are submitting these song lists, and PRO reps are also randomly scanning and contacting clubs for set lists. So, your evening of cover tunes still generate income for the artists who wrote the songs you’re performing. Who should get this little boost of income? Journey? Lynyrd Skynyrd? Or you?

“But crowds HATE original music!” Really? Your fanbase is so fickle they’ll run out of the venue when you start into one of your own songs? The 500 likes you have on Facebook will purposely stay home if you post “Come to our show early and hear one of our own songs in the first set”? Putting a two-and-a-half-minute original between “Love Yourself” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling” is going to cause your fans to leave for Chipotle across the street?

For integrating originals, placement is the key. That first set when few are there and you’re not playing you’re A-list material is a good slot for one of your own. Attendees at that time are either not paying attention to you yet, diehard fans wanting to see your whole show, or those who will be hopping from one place to another all night. At the end of your show, people are likely either in the palm of your hand completely absorbed in your performance, or clearing out early. Either way, that’s another opportunity for one of your own. Using these “lull times” in your show is great for experimentation, and earning a couple bucks on your song.

The important element about this is that you’re providing new music to the masses, which happens to be your own. This benefits everyone; other bands and artists, your fans, and yourself. Classic music is only classic because it started out as new music that people had an opportunity to hear. Sure, taking the high road and playing the same songs you’ve done since high school will give the people what they “want”, but doing something of your own allows your fans to connect with you that they can be a part of; the opportunity for them to support your creativity. And nowadays every little bit you can earn from your music is worth it.

And savvy bands can build upon this. Sprinkling a couple hidden originals into your set with the right branding can add to Social Media opportunities for monetization on that platform. Creative marketing and promotion can appeal to your fans, encouraging them to want MORE of your own work, both live and recorded. Imagine releasing your song that is popular live onto Spotify, iTunes, or Amazon; now people are listening and purchasing your music at home. With your strong local following due to cover tunes, you could book a showcase performance where ONLY your originals are played.

So you’ve got a band, you’ve got an idea; write a song. Do it because you want to express your creativity, but at least make a buck off it. Original music benefits everyone: you and your act because it’s your personal creative expression, your audience because you’re sharing a part of yourself with them, the music scene because you’re giving them new music, and the man because you’re sticking it to him getting a portion of the payout normally reserved for corporate rock.  

Dave Paris is a Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based guitarist, instructor, producer, recording engineer, and session musician. He has performed and recorded with several artists, as well as releasing his own music available digitally and physically. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Iowa with an Arts Entrepreneurship Certificate and works at the Eastern Iowa Arts Academy. Learn more about him at daveparis.com.