One of the biggest divides in this thing of ours is between those who play their own original material and those who play other people’s songs in cover bands. If you believe the arguments that continually rage on the forums and on craigslist, original bands are made up of self-indulgent wankers that really believe their take on the two-note power chord will land them on the cover of Rolling Stone a year from now and cover bands are full of boring old sellouts who blindly play the same tired songs over and over. As usual, however, the truth of the matter is somewhere between these two positions. In keeping with Fight Club traditions, we here at Gear-Vault will pit these two views against each other in an effort to understand why these two camps hate each other so much. In truth both sides are needed to keep the music world/economy in fighting shape, so let’s square off and see what all the fuss is about.
Musicians in original bands prize creativity about all else. Self-expression is pretty important, too. Their whole reason to be is to get their particular view of music across to the public at large. They will often do anything to accomplish this, including driving long distances to play for little or no money, investing everything they have into producing their CDs, artwork, and promo material, and all the rest of the typical ‘starving artist’ trip. This is really a great and noble thing and the world would have no source of new music if many brave souls chose to not do this. It’s not an easy life, to be sure, and the degree of stress it causes often leads to disgruntled rumblings about those who take what is perceived to be an easier and less-than-noble route and play covers.
Cover bands tend to focus more on business than art and are primarily concerned with giving the people in the audience what they want. They tend to play songs that are already popular, which is the part that gets them the ‘sellout’ tag. They usually make lot more money than the average original band, due to the fact that popular music tends to bring in a bunch more people than originals that no one on the crowd is familiar with. The most hated of all are the tribute bands who dress up and perform as a famous band, be it Elvis, The Beatles, or whomever, and really take the show-biz path to payday.
What musicians need to realize is that there are many levels of the music business and many varied consumers of live music. Some people really like following original bands and seeing them grow and like the indie cred they generate by listening to obscure bands and artists. Others prefer to hear music that they already know and like when they go out. Many original musicians want to believe that the cover band fans don’t exist, are less than worthy, or just plain stupid for liking what they like, while those in cover bands usually don’t have the same bile for the original music fans, accept their place in the food chain, and concentrate on doing a good show for the money they are being paid. If you follow the forums, you get the feeling that original guys and gals would like to see some kind of law that makes it illegal for anyone to play music they didn’t write and often try to bring ASCAP and BMI into the fray. This is where they go wrong. They don’t get that most people don’t want an all-original punk band at their daughter’s wedding. The music at such an event serves a different function; it is there to entertain the guests, not enlighten them to a great artist they don’t know of yet. To not get this or refuse to believe it is the height of arrogance.
What really matters isn’t whether or not we play covers originals, but that we play what is in our hearts. If you burn to be a songwriter, then be one and don’t worry about the consequences or what other folks do. If you love playing to crowds of dancing people every weekend and enjoy popular music but don’t want to tour in a van with four other sweaty people, then be the best cover band guy you can. There is plenty of room for both positions and they both serve important functions in the big picture of the music scene. The big thing is to be ok with whichever path you are on, rather than looking across the divide wishing you were on the other side. To this writer, that is where the heat in this conflict develops. If you are all good with what you do, you will too concerned with your own business to worry much about what anyone else is doing and will spend your time playing cool music, whatever that means to you. Isn’t that why we all got into this game in the first place?