Contributed by Jon Gore of Re-Education Camp. Their album Psyop’s Boomboxis available on iTunes.
You might not know this, but many of the musicians with Bad Apple Records used to be in bands together before they became what they are today. One example of this was the band Brick House Blend, which consisted of Zack and myself (currently Re-Education Camp), Derek Price (currently Sempervivi) and two other musicians, Carl Wilson and Ande Fee, who are also currently in other bands.
Like many band experiences with multiple artists, we had moments when we all agreed on what to do and moments when we disagreed about the band’s direction and sound. For the most part, we agreed on what our sound would be (which ended up being quite varied, possibly to appease everyone’s tastes).
One of the times when we disagreed, however, was when it came to the topic of performing cover songs. Some of the members of the band (myself included) were generally opposed to cover songs. Whenever I would see a cover band with several talented musicians, my first reaction was always, “Oh, that’s a shame.” I thought that it was a shame that these wonderfully talented musicians weren’t able to come up with something original that they could call their own. The other side of the debate was that cover songs were ways that we could connect to the audience and re-energize them to stay with us during our lengthy sets (I think we topped out at 4 hours at one point).
Of course, both sides of the debate had a point. To make things a little trickier, the way to do the cover songs also came under some debate. My tendency was to make it a very different song, something that we could put our stamp on and call it ours. Others contended that it was better to keep the song pure and not change up the sound or the feel. Of course, both sides again had a point. In the end, Brick House Blend provided fond memories for all of us, and we made several great original songs together, as well as some pretty kickass versions of “Jackson,” “Jolene,” and “Bust a Move” to name a few.
A Matter of Taste
For all things musical, you are dealing with a matter of taste, both among fellow musicians and with the audience. In all of these debates with my band buddies, I realized that there was a common theme that also is one debated among musicians and music lovers: whether to replicate or to innovate. This isn’t just reserved for cover songs; it’s related to an artist’s entire repertoire, style and sound.
From a musical standpoint, there is a reason for replication. Replication exhibits that you know what you are doing. If you decide that you want to be a blues artist, then you better do at least one song that follows the 12-bar standard. Otherwise, there is reason to believe that you haven’t been a very good student of the music. Replicating the sound and style of a given genre shows that you understand it and respect it. Another reason to replicate is for the sake of the audience. When people listen to your songs or attend your shows, they have an expectation of what they’ll hear. For many audience members, that expectation is pretty narrow. If you say that your sound is bluegrass, or techno, or country, or trap, then you need to sound like it. Don’t say that you’re electronic and play a banjo for the whole set. Pretty obvious, right? Well, I’ve known some very creative artists who defy convention so much that they consistently lose their audience. It’s only going to appeal to a very small number of people. If that’s your intention, then go for it. If you want to grow a fanbase and make a little money doing so, then you need to consider how much replication you’re doing. As an artist, if you’re doing something so different that the listeners and audience can’t jump on board and follow you for the ride, then what’s the point?
There’s Money in the Covers
I believe that there are several very successful artists who can earn a good living strictly using the replication formula. You can use the same chords as everyone else, sing about the same themes (aka. young, heterosexual, romantic love), have the same style and sound as many others and do all right. There’s a limit to replication, though. The price you pay is that you’ll be hated by real music lovers, fellow musicians, and probably will not leave a legacy on the genre itself. Hate might be a strong word, but at the very least easily forgotten.
I remember a story someone told me of a jazz trumpeter playing at the Bird of Paradise in Ann Arbor, who was soloing over a cover of a Miles Davis tune. Problem is, he replicated Miles’ solo EXACTLY as it was on the recording. Problem #2 was that Mr. Davis was in the audience, shaking his head in disgust. Aw, damn, bad move! The point of innovation is to create something new and to contribute to the growth of the genre. You have to diverge a little (or a lot) if you’re going to have any kind of lasting impression on music. You have to be the artist or band that did “X” before anyone else did it, or you are white noise. As a musician, if you’re doing something that’s completely interchangeable with someone else in terms of style, content, sound and appearance (for live shows and videos), then what’s the point?
Of course, BOTH sides have a point. You can’t lose your audience with outlandish innovation, and you can’t become just another band that does X, Y, Z just to make people comfortable. There has to be some level of strategic risk, or what’s the point? This balance is key to your sound, but it’s something that may take some time to develop. Make it clear with your band (or with yourself) what your approach is so that everyone is aware what your purpose is for making music.
So, assume you and your music buddies get together, and one of them says, “Hey, I really want to do a cover of ‘Let’s Stay Together’ by Al Green,” you have a choice to make. How much will you replicate and how much will you innovate? This is a question that is really important any time you do a cover song, but it’s also important for the entire life of your musical career.