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One Thing Cover Artists Can't Cover: Their Cost of Living

Lina Bina and he band performing pre-pandemic.
Lina Bina and he band performing pre-pandemic.
Janis Cable

Performance artists faced massive setbacks through the pandemic as restaurant, bar and venue closures left them primarily unemployed. 
Songwriters, DJs and other creators of music may have found ways to write and expand their online presence during quarantine, focusing on their original content on streaming platforms or livestreamed performances.

Cover bands — musicians who perform tracks originally recorded by other artists — have had few performing opportunities.

Musicians whose focus is tribute bands for major artists (such as local favorites Le Cure or PriMadonna), normally make large portions of their living with major events like weddings, theme nights at music venues and corporate gigs. No matter their talent, the pandemic brought about one thing they have not been able to cover: the cost of their own rents.

“COVID taught us a lot about how our economic structure doesn’t work,” says Bryan Mills as he sits across the table with three other artists, or “family,” as they refer to each other. Mills is a cover artist and live sound engineer for several bands in North Texas.

“There’s a community of cover artists here, and there [are] families within that community that have had to suffer,” he says.

Mills says there's a largely hidden community of cover artists in Dallas-Fort Worth that, he believes, is the biggest cover scene in the country, next to Las Vegas. And with such a surfeit of artists, those who operate primarily as freelance performers are suffering.

“You know what the main benefit to 1099 is?” Mills asks gravely, referring to a federal tax form for reporting freelance income. “There isn’t one. It’s a way for companies to get away with not insuring their employees. Then those of us with 1099s are taxed as high as the 1 percent.”

One of the cover artists at the table is Dave Corley, aka “Guitar Dave,” who says he plays guitar and sings “all around DFW.” Corley and Mills agree the cover artist community can seem a bit incestuous as scenes and band members overlap in different cover bands.

Since the pandemic hit, their pay, the group members say, has fallen to levels that make it difficult to survive.

“I can’t afford some sound gigs that I’ve had for many years,” Corley says, explaining that all cover artists are going through similar issues. “Broadway shut down for another year. Vegas touring is done. Cruise ship employees are out of luck.

“Unfortunately, it’s us at this table who are at a small enough level that we can pick up gigs here and there," he continues. "When you’re filling thousands of seats, you’re out of luck, because that’s not feasible right now.”

Despite their individual struggles, the group is high in spirits, laughing while recalling drunken stories and wild performances from the past.

“Sometimes we won’t see each other for a year and a half and it’s like we don’t miss a moment,” Corley says.

The other two musicians at the table are Lina Mayoux, aka “Lina Bina,” and David Whiteman, bandleader of David Whiteman Band and “registered asshole,” a title the group doesn't dispute. Both have had their share of setbacks since COVID-19 hit.

“Mine is convoluted because I have a 13-piece band,” Whiteman says.

Since the pandemic hit, his band has had only had two shows.

“With a band my size, it requires a certain amount of space or a certain size patronage that is necessary to continue performing,“ Whiteman says

While Whiteman's band members have found other means of employment, the struggle of having 1099 employees hit him on a personal level.

“As far as the band goes, I was helpless,” he says. “If you’re working in an office, you’re with people you might not necessarily like. But onstage, it’s people you care deeply about. It hurts in a different way.”

Lina Bina was one of the luckier ones, she says.

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“I was blessed that my husband was able to pick up where I wasn’t able to,” Mayoux says, although as a Canadian resident, she faced distinctive problems.

“Not being a permanent resident, you have to go through more loopholes than others," she says. "This makes it harder because you don’t get the benefits that other citizens do. So when all the gigs went downhill, it was all hope lost. What else do you do? We were the first ones to go, and we’re still not fully back.”

Though many cover artists have managed to bounce back slowly as cities reopen, there’s long-term financial damage that may never be reversed for many.

“I had to put my retirement plan into motion faster than I expected,” says Mills, who has taken personal pay cuts and seen many friends return to school or move homes to fix their financial state. “I was blessed that I had that much [in a retirement plan] in line. But as far as what I do, my career is over. As far as my passion goes … I lost my passion."

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