Top 10 Reasons Why Original Bands Should Still Embrace Cover Songs
Artists are supposed to be passionate about their music. This is proper, correct and awesome. Some artists can become so hyper-focused on performing their own material that they sometimes will bypass performance opportunities because they might have to perform covers.
Some artists apply a stigma to any band that performs covers. However, an artist that limits their performance opportunities because they refuse to do anyone else’s music may find themselves performing very little. Many venues that still book live bands/artists may want 3 or 4 sets of music that is going to keep people in the seats. Young artists might struggle to fit that bill. In the end, how do emerging artists perform as much as possible and still bring their own music to the world? By embracing cover songs and getting everything they can get from each one of them.
Here is my list of reasons why every “original” artist should continue to show those cover songs of yesteryear some love.
1. More Performance Opportunities: The number of live music venues that feature only original music is VERY small in comparison to those that offer live music. Most venues will be happy to allow you to sprinkle your originals in with your cover sets, especially if you are bringing people to their establishment. Meanwhile, because you have been performing and working on your originals at all of these traditional club gigs, you are able to refine your originals by evaluating audience reaction and thereby improving those originals every day. Gauging audience reaction on a regular basis is a skill that takes time to develop. If you are only performing your originals once in a while, it is going to take longer to find the sweet spot for your song. Why not speed up the process?
The willingness to perform covers at a high level will allow a young original band or artist to work infinitely more, especially in the beginning, than a band that only wants to perform originals. The greatest band in history did it until they were firmly established on their own. The Beatles developed their chops as performers, musicians and songwriters performing the most popular cover songs of the day for thousands of hours. In fact, their album, Introducing… The Beatles had no less than six covers! If they had never gotten the chance to hone their skills on-the-fly and in the trenches, it is quite likely that we never would have had this most influential of bands.
Those popular standards like Meredith Wilson’s Till There Was You and Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode shaped their artistic vision for the future. There is no substitute for experience. There is no substitute for knowing how to find a way to succeed when the sound system stinks or if the crowd is dead or if you just aren’t in your best voice. These are things that performers have to learn how to deal with and if you are only singing your songs in your dorm room, you are not building your skill set appropriately. There is no substitute for experience, and performing on a regular basis is how to build it.
2. Performing Covers can Improve Your Songwriting Skills: Every musician who has ever lived started performing music because they heard something that they wanted to emulate or recreate. We learn everything by copying. There is no shame in that. We should acknowledge and embrace it. True creativity comes from what we do, once we have learned how to copy something. Kirby Ferguson eloquently describes the creative process in this way - “Copy, Transform, Combine.” (Check out his amazing Ted Talk here https://youtu.be/zd-dqUuvLk4) The skills we learn when we do this, shapes us. Learning new ways to do things through the process of learning a new cover song adds to your creative ability in the long term. Every bit of information, every riff, every embellishment feeds your creative process in the future. Your musical past will always influence your future. This is something to be embraced, not shunned.
3. Covers Can Help to Improve Your Vocal Abilities: The process of learning covers leads to vocal versatility. The process of figuring out the sound of a singer’s voice and emulating it leads to vocal exploration and an analysis of where your own voice’s strengths and weaknesses lie. It can also help to expand your vocal range as far as pitch and expression. Exploring how to deal with and successfully perform notes that are outside of your sweet spot informs your decision making when writing, producing and performing your original material. It also develops a vocabulary among your fellow musicians. This can be helpful when trying to describe the way you might want something to be performed.
Important tip: Just because you CAN actually “hit the note,” DOESN’T necessarily mean that you SHOULD. Believe me, that information is valuable too. If you are unsure, run it past someone you trust first before running up to the stage. (My apologies to anyone who heard my solo version of Fleetwood Mac’s - Don’t Stop back in high school. That was one I should have gotten some advice on!)
4. Cover Songs Can Improve Your Ability to Perform and Write Harmony: There is harmony all around us, but it is surprising how difficult it is for many singers to actually perform harmony successfully. One of the best ways to be successful in accurately performing vocal harmony work is to really analyze and practice finding every bit of harmony in a cover song. No singer has ever gone through a true submersion into Simon and Garfunkel, The Eagles, Crosby, Stills and Nash and not come out on the other side a better harmony singer. If you don’t believe it, try spending a few weeks really listening to some harmony-driven artists and see if it doesn’t become easier to sing. New twists and turns will show up in your own songwriting and production as well.
5. Covering a Song is not a Cop-Out, It’s an Opportunity: I know what you’re thinking, “If someone asks for Brown-Eyed Girl or Margaritaville one more time, I’m going to flip out.” There are songs that are popular that might not be your cup of tea, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be an opportunity. There is a chance in all of these songs to improve as a performer. You can avoid boredom by focusing on a particular skill you need to improve when the songs you are less thrilled to perform show up. For example, you can choose to focus on playing your rhythms cleaner, sing with better diction and clarity, try to work on a specific stick technique or challenge yourself to experiment with a different scale in a solo. The choices are endless and it is a great way to wake up those tired songs that you have stopped thinking about. There is a lot to learn from these classics. Try looking at them as a way to improve your skills and suddenly they will become vital again.
6. Reinterpreting a Cover Can Be Every Bit as Inspirational to an Audience Member as the Original: History will look at James Taylor as a prolific and ultra-successful singer-songwriter. However, some of his biggest hits were cover versions of other songwriters like Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend, and Holland/Dozier/Holland’s, Up on The Roof. The reason that these covers were so successful was because they were completely re-imagined. Taylor and his team created new ways of looking at songs that were already beloved, but he used his musical sensibilities to further popularize them for new generations. Billboard’s charts are filled with examples of such brilliance. Certainly, enough to create a daily blog on that topic itself. (Bonus example: Johnny Cash - Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus and Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt.) T
These covers can and do have a real impact on listeners. They can generate a new audience for an artist who might not normally be on their radar. For many the cover version becomes THE definitive version of a song.
7. Covers Can Create Big Opportunities in the Sync and Ad World:
Commercials, TV and movies are using cover versions of songs today more than ever. If you are out there performing and experimenting with covers on a regular basis, why not record the versions that you see resonating with your audience the most? Hook yourself up with a publisher and see what happens!
Artists with new and interesting takes of familiar songs, with familiar messages, make things easier for music supervisors and others looking for music in their projects. The number of re-arranged cover songs in commercial television today is amazing. It seems almost every pharmaceutical or car commercial is a classic pop/rock song from the 1970’s with a word or two changed to include the name of the drug! (Watch any news broadcast for 30 minutes and see if I am not correct! ex. Whoa, Oh, Oh Otezla - to the tune of Pilot's Magic...)
A single placement of a song by an artist in a Netflix movie, national/cable series or national commercial can lead to big things and potentially big money. Don’t forget, once that song is out there- It can continue to make money for generations to come. (ex. Stranger Things - Think of all the money those 80’s artists made when their songs were chosen to be part of the series. When was the last time you heard Never-Ending Story?)
8. Money From Cover Gigs Can Fund Original Projects and Improve Production Value:
Producing a recording costs money. Theoretically, the more you have to spend, the more options you will have and the higher your production value can be for that recording. Why not develop your talents and perform in the venues that are still offering money for live music and invest that fee into your original material? The fees from these gigs can be put into producing your next great original album or single.
While we are talking about money- Don’t forget, there are more ways to make money at a gig than just the cover charge or performance fee. An artist can make a significant amount of money selling their merch at cover gigs as well. Sell those T-shirts, posters, CD’s, Vinyl, tote bags, guitar picks, stickers, patches, hats…. You get the idea. Having it on display at gigs is the best way to do this.
9. Covers Can Help You Build Your Fan Base: Chances are that when you look for cover songs to perform, that they will most likely align with your musical influences. The artists that influenced you have a built-in fan base. People who are fans of the artists that influence you, will probably like your original music as well. That certainly makes finding your audience a lot easier! Why not use those influences to solidify your audience. Develop your fan base, create email-lists, create content and expand your social media reach. Fire up a website! Every artist has to build buzz. It is easier to do if you can build an army that is out there singing your praises and bringing new loyal listeners into the fold. This will only add to the chances of success for your original projects because you will have a large group of supporters already.
10. Cover songs on YouTube: Your version of a cover song on YouTube is a legitimate way to find an audience. YouTube allows people to hear you and become aware of you as an artist. It is a way to develop content for your fans while you are working on your next original song. Use it and put it out in the universe. It is a great way to generate content and keep your fans engaged in your career. (You never know Ellen DeGeneres might find you and ask you to be on her show too! Not likely, but hey, dream big!)
So, what’s the argument against embracing covers? Time restraints. That is all. It takes time to decide which covers are the right ones for you to perform. It also takes a lot of time to learn them well. To make them REALLY work for you, you have to do more than approach them like a chore you have to get through. Get your hands dirty. Really listen to those riffs, harmonies and progressions. Chances are that there are so many more things going on than you ever imagined.
Deconstruct the song and and rebuild it in your own unique way (copy/transform/combine). Remember, a band that performs covers does not have to sound exactly like the original artist to work. Do something bold and exciting. Take risks. Choose songs that resonate with you. Choose music you love!
At the end of the day, we are all in the music industry because we heard a song that moved us and inspired us to begin a pursuit of that indescribable thing that makes us artists.
It all started with someone else’s songs… Why not celebrate those that inspired you?