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Party On 

Corporate cover bands play psychologist -- and "Mustang Sally" -- as times get tough

Wednesday, Aug 22 2001
Keyboardist Tony Lufrano is a veteran of the corporate entertainment scene with long-running act Big Bang Beat. He has played sales incentive banquets and company Christmas parties from Burlingame to Borneo. But of the hundreds of business gigs he's done, one of the most memorable was a party for an ailing software company.

"It was a Blues Brothers theme," says Lufrano, "and [the company] had done a script of Blues Brothers dialogue about their operating system."

Lufrano and his bandmates (not Big Bang Beat in this case), dressed in the Blues Brothers' trademark dark suits and sunglasses, acted out the script with gusto. They ran through the product plugs as energetically as possible, trying to loosen up the assembled company clients. There were two problems, however: The whole crowd knew the operating system was a clunker, and the party was taking place at 8 a.m.

"It was not pretty," Lufrano remembers. "These people were bombarded with this terrible dialogue and this loud music at the crack of dawn. They were looking at us, going, "Why are you doing this?'"

For Bay Area musicians like Lufrano -- who make part or all of their livelihoods as the featured entertainers at business events -- the occasional debacle is all in a day's work. For the most part, things run smoothly: Corporate jobs tend to be tightly scheduled parades of hits, where the bands coax reluctant employees onto the floor with soul classics from the '60s, funk and disco numbers from the '70s, and Top 40 hits from the '80s.

But there's more to the corporate party scene than just showing up on time and knowing the chords to "Celebration." The bands are there with a long to-do list: capture the audience's attention, make the person who hired them look like a hero, and send everyone home happy and excited about themselves and their company. Over the last few years, these local bands have also had a front row view of the corporate extravagance and hubris that defined the Bay Area work world. And now their unique position finds them struggling to hold things together as the companies fall apart.

For most young bands, the decision to go corporate comes down to numbers: Groups without major label deals have to fight to land $200 gigs in clubs, while the same bands can play covers-only shows at company parties and clear $1,000. An in-demand band can make 15 times that amount.

For Bay Area musicians like blues guitarist David Landon, the economics are hard to argue with. "Ideally, myself and any other musician would probably be happiest playing big concerts and theaters and having people coming and listening to our original compositions," he says. "But there are very, very few musicians that actually are able to do exactly what they want. And if you want to make a living playing music, there's not too many ways around [corporate parties]."

Getting added to the Rolodexes of company event planners, though, takes some time. Unlike club gigs, which theoretically can be nabbed with a CD-R and an inkjet-printed bio, business party functions necessitate a promotional video, a CD, a Web site, and a pile of referrals. Most important, though, the band needs to be able to read a crowd of mixed ages and varied musical tastes and get them socializing. Transforming cube neighbors into good friends -- even for a couple of hours -- is a magic act on a huge scale, one that takes a special know-how and charisma to pull off.

Not to mention a judicious amount of restraint. Companies are like families -- some are healthy and happy, others are wildly dysfunctional. For the latter, mixing co-workers with loud music and alcohol is a recipe for disaster, and local bands often have to pull double duty as entertainers and caretakers.

"The hardest thing," says David Martin, leader of David Martin's House Party, "is playing for an extremely conservative company where the person who hired you is at the party and is really, really intoxicated. That can be pretty tough because you're trying to protect them, and they're up there onstage with you, grabbing the mike, slurring their words, wriggling around suggestively, and you're thinking, "Man, I wonder if this person's still got a job next month.'"

Being dropped into the middle of company politics can also result in some sticky situations, especially when the band hasn't been briefed beforehand. Martin remembers a particularly unsuccessful party.

"We played 2 1/2 hours, and people were barely dancing," he says. "And I was going, "I guess I've lost it -- what the hell is going on?' People were leaving early. At the end of the night we found out that one of the managers' wives had died that day. And we didn't know this. Nobody had told us."

Dealing with tragedy has been an even bigger part of a band's role since the economy went south. In the late '90s, when computer companies would send employees on cruises through the Greek Isles and to bacchanalian blowouts in the Canary Islands, local bands went along to entertain the dot-com troops. These days, almost every band has a story about playing a poorly timed party where the opening act is a layoff announcement. For Coleman Burke, guitarist and bandleader of the soul cover band Pride & Joy, the mass shuttering of Internet businesses has meant being unwittingly cast in the role of the orchestra on the Titanic, offering musical reassurance as people say their last goodbyes.

"I did a party just a couple days ago for a company that just got bought out by another company," Burke says. "Most of these people were losing their jobs. But it was interesting [because] it seemed to me that people were more committed to having a good time than they would have been normally. They danced really, really hard. And at the end of the night, I believe it was the CEO of the company who came onstage and wanted to take the opportunity to have everyone look at someone in the room that they had something to be thankful for from that person and to express it. It ended up happening within the band, too."

The post-boom economy impacts local bands in less dramatic ways as well. Doug Carlson, drummer and co-founder of '80s cover band Tainted Love, points to the mood-dampening trend of not allowing spouses at events.

"We were playing a huge party for some big securities company," he remembers, "and the company forbade the employees from bringing their significant others. The employees were all just mortified at asking their co-workers to dance because they have to work together afterwards."

Along with timid, diminished audiences, these bands have to face the derision of their musician peers, for whom playing "Mustang Sally" to bank middle managers constitutes an unbearable sellout. According to David Landon, changing the impression of cover bands as pandering schlockmeisters is the obligation of individual bandleaders.

"There's no rule that says, "Party music equals crappy music,'" Landon explains. "Some bandleaders go to the absolute lowest common denominator because they know it will work. When I'm leading a band, I just won't do it. I don't want to play "Hot Hot Hot' and "Macarena' and "Twist and Shout.' There are just some songs that you've got to draw the line on."

However fresh their individual set lists, though, corporate bands are still cover bands, tilling the same fields party after party. Mustering enthusiasm for another version of "Respect" can be hard, especially without the twinkling dreams of fame that keep original music acts motivated through the hard times. For unlike their counterparts -- the midlevel successes of the rock world -- corporate party players are usually working far under the radar of the mainstream press. Even the indie bands who struggle to land the $200 Bottom of the Hill opening slots can go to bed dreaming of possible critical acclaim and a major label deal. Playing covers for a living means setting aside aspirations of glory and the possibility of the superstar lifestyle.

Good riddance, says Tony Lufrano, echoing the sentiment of many players. "[Corporate gigs] pay better than playing in a nightclub, and you can actually have a life," he says. "I live a middle-class existence. It's been a nice career. I haven't burned out on it. It's not being a rock star. But I've played with plenty of rock stars -- they don't seem any happier to me."

About The Author

Chris Baty


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