I was doing my typical boredom-induced zombie scrolling deal on Facebook the other day and happened upon a Woody Harrelson meme that said, “When people who only play “original music” crap on my cover band” and has Woody drying his eyes with money. It made me laugh, but it also made me think of another post I saw a while back that argued that cover bands aren’t “local music.” Both of these polarizing posts kind made me question where musicians place their value in their music, and I just wanted to talk through some of the points here (especially after having a discussion with a friend who has very different opinions than mine).
I’ll start from my end because it’s what I’m most familiar with. I love writing music and creating riffs and songs, but at the basis of my playing, I just enjoy playing covers. They’re fun, they get people up and moving because they’re identifiable and it’s a relatively straightforward thing that you can build from with your own unique flourishes should you choose to or play it exactly like the records...the choice is up to the player. For me, I like playing it note for note with the recording. It’s equal parts nostalgia and the desire for perfectionism is a world that lacks it completely. My OCD makes me want to nail each note exactly how the pros did it, and when I finally accomplish it then I feel successful. That’s been a driving force and where the bar has been set for myself since I started playing. I’ve always played covers because that’s actually how I’ve learned a lot of theory is piecing it together how the pros do it, because I don’t have the focus to sit down and practice scales…I never was a “studier.” When I did learn scales, it turned me into a robot because of that cushy feeling of false safety; if I stayed in the box I knew I couldn’t play a dreaded wrong note. But, it led my lead-work to be…scaley? No emotion, just notes in the scale. So, I went back to piecing theory together from songs, and that’s how I’ve personally connected the dots. It can be considered derivative if you broke it down, but it works for me and makes me happy and I try to play to the song and the band as much as trying to stand out.
My buddy is from the opposite line of thought. He gets ultimate enjoyment from writing songs and riffs. His fulfilment comes when he creates a lead lick or catchy rhythm part that he wouldn’t mind hearing again. He knows a few songs, but 95% of the time he chooses to create something in a jam than to cover a song, it’s just not interesting to him. He’s very into unique tones and doesn’t want to sound like Angus Young or EVH or any of the classics. He wants to create his own sound and for lack of a better description, to leave his own mark on the world. It’s something that I never wrapped my head around as a teenager as we’d go to jams and he’d want to make something up instead of playing a known song (to him that was boring). As we got older we both realized that a lot of what’s so great about guitar is the ability to adapt, so we’ve made stuff work.
Fundamentally, going back to the meme’s as referencing (welcome to citation in 2018), who is wrong and who is right? The answer? Both are right and wrong. I know, that sounds like a cop-out but hear me out. There’s playing music for fun, and then there’s playing music to earn money (surplus income, or sole income if you’re a full-time musician). You’ve taken a lot of time to hone your craft, and exposure bucks don’t pay the rent, unfortunately. So, fair compensation for the service you’re providing is what’s needed. To that end, a musician must be willing to adapt to what the customer is expecting. Whether that’s a bar gig trying to help sell some food and beer for the venue, or whatever scenario arises. In general, however, people are looking for identifiable songs. I’ve had several friends who have gone to bars to find out the band was playing nothing but originals, and they ended up leaving. It’s just the society we live in. Everyone has to start somewhere, and many of the famous acts played covers until they got their foot in the door and added in their own material along the way. I guess my point is that there can’t be a polarizing thought-process when it comes to music. Being part of a community means helping it grow, and admittedly it’s something that you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your own integrity to achieve either. My point is, even the biggest stars in music STILL play covers, because there’s something identifiable and nostalgic about hearing those notes, and sort of tying those nostalgic feelings to the personality of the artist covering them…sort of a way of the person covering the songs to express a bit of who they are and what they love.
In the end, what is the point of cutting down another musician? It doesn’t matter if you’re in a cover band or an original band in the end. If you’re doing what you love, screw it, it doesn’t matter what people think. I’ve seen discussions of covers being derivative, but that’s something that is defined by each player.
Playing music is the greatest, and surely, that should be enough?!