I can’t count the number of times I’ve witnessed arguments in band situations about whether the band should perform original music or covers. I’ve also seen online arguments between original devotees and cover bands, which have essentially degenerated into accusations of selling out as if the concept of walking away from a gig with payment in hand is a bad thing. With bands it seems to all too often boil down to either/or, rather than a happy combination of the two, and it’s often not even a question of whether the band members can write material. Instead, it becomes a battle of concepts and whether or not members want to get paid to play, because somewhere along the line bands that play originals don’t expect to get paying gigs unless they “make it” in the grand scheme. Personally I’m the kind of guy who wants to get the cake and eat it too, so the entire back and forth makes no sense to me. Plus, having come from a conservatory background with intensive training in classical music the whole concept of an evil associated with playing “covers” is kind of preposterous. It’s repertoire, the bread and butter of making a living. Additionally, there is a long history of guitarists producing new works while simultaneously performing other folks’ pieces as well.
Let’s face it, not everyone can, or is willing to put in the time to create their own pieces of music. This does not mean that they can’t be stellar performers of other people’s creations, nor does it mean that they are not creative. It takes an immense amount of skill and creativity to translate someone else’s ideas into a living piece of music. Whether it is reproducing an existing piece note for note, or re-arranging a piece to better fit the performer’s personalities, it is a creative act, and it is work. Simply playing all the right notes at the right time doesn’t breathe life into a piece; there’s something more that happens when the performer has come to live with the music and reflect his or her own experience through it and the relationship that has been built with the piece, whether it is Beethoven, Bruce Springsteen, Prince or Charlie Parker.
And then there’s jazz. Yes, some groups and individuals write their own material, but it is truly amazing how many folks are still recording and performing standards that have been in place for decades. There have even been movements to start incorporating more contemporary pop/rock tunes into a new group of standards in order to break fresh ground while maintaining a common jumping off point. Jazz is particularly interesting from this perspective because it is often based on essentially playing covers, however the end goal is that each time the cover is performed the end result is different due to the improvisational nature of the genre. The individual tune provides an overall structural map, complete with a melodic starting/ending point. There is also healthy respect between those individuals who are writing new pieces and those who are performing standards. Both camps willingly recognize the creativity and skills required by what they are doing. This is also generally the case with much of the Blues that is performed as well.
No, this seems to be something that is relegated to the current pop and rock performers and I’ve seen it everywhere I’ve played; East coast, Southwest and Midwest, mostly among the younger folks who seem to be eager to suffer for their art and decry anyone they deem as not suffering the same way they do. The concept of working out sets of covers that can coexist with the bands’ original material seems to be something from the past, back when you got the gigs and expected to be paid, worked in your own angle on things and gradually worked in your own material until it was what people were coming out to hear, people who weren’t just your friends, current squeezes or coworkers. When you got a gig, you played for the night, at least three 45-50 minute sets and you didn’t wait to gig until you had enough original material. You put together a show, and started moving in your original material as you produced it and mixed it in with other material that made sense stylistically.
We all pay dues, and at the end of the day the real questions are how we performed and who did we touch with our performance. We also all have egos, as well as superiority and inferiority complexes. Over the years I’ve played in fully original bands, cover bands, bands that mixed covers with originals as well as both a classical soloist and ensemble player. The situations that brought the most pleasure inevitably were the ones that mixed things up, which brought the audiences closer to the band. Music requires an audience; for most performers it is not a complete experience without an audience and the more actively attentive and positively interactive the audience is, the better the experience becomes for everyone involved. The whole either/or exclusive approach, particularly when coupled with embattled egos, does no one any good. If anything, it stifles an art that is all about expression.