Cover Me!..or not. The Conundrum of Covers vs. Original Music for Working Musicians
For many musicians, this question goes to the core of what motivates them to follow their passion for performance. Does the original music that an individual grew up on inspire one to learn these classic songs to their highest ability, or is the passion rather to use this foundation as impetus to create new original music in hopes of following these past successful examples? These are deep, meaningful questions that dig into the emotional reasons why we take a lifestyle as performers onto ourselves, but there is a concrete reality tied to this question as well: which of these options best lends itself to making a living from your craft? Though no solid answer exists, there are certain options and clear differences to consider in deciding which path best meets your expectations as a working musician.
Cover Songs Are Established - Your Music is Not
The most obvious element that performing covers has going for it is that as opposed to original music, cover songs have an established market demand already in place. Obviously this might not apply if you're only learning obscure 70's progressive rock, but learning music by established artists like Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, or The Beatles will access the ears and hearts of millions of people already exposed to their music. Bands that specialize in top-shelf renditions of popular music are often the first choice for weddings and corporate events, and with proper caliber can ask for legitimate, living-wage payment for their musical services. Going one step further, Tribute bands -those that solely focus on a single band or performer- can be some of the top grossing bands due to their niche market and high demand.
But for some musicians, a life spent meticulously recreating the sound of another performer is the last reason they got into music and tantamount to throwing in the towel. The idea of musician as creative artist is what defines some people's expectations of their work, and thankfully so, else none of the music that performers cover would ever have been created! This creative path through the world of music is one that can be immensely rewarding, but working in this vein presents a specific set of challenges not met by other musicians. Whereas musicians learning other performers' works undertake the challenge of properly learning established music, the challenge of original-works musicians is more often in the realm of promoting and furthering their own music, more often than not putting musicians at the helm of a computer instead of at their instrument. Additionally, a new musical creation has relatively no market demand, and thus gives musicians less power in bargaining payment for services. This can change over time as a performer establishes their name and reputation, enabling them to potentially rise above the limits of even a top-shelf tribute band, but the work (and luck) it takes to reach this point are often immense. This should never deter a truly determined artist, but until that great love song you wrote reaches national airwaves don't be surprised if most brides don't pick your music to walk them down the aisle.
Specialty Genres/Styles with Potential for Creativity
A surprisingly large amount of the North American musicians work within what could be called niche genres, often for events necessitating the given style. Such styles are often regional or nation based, such as German, Czech and Polish music for Oktoberfests, Irish music, Zydeco, Steel Drum ensembles, etc. Though all of these styles have established repertoire, they also often have a general similarity between the songs, and many bands use this as a way to create original works while still following the mold of the established material. Thus they are able to slide between established repertoire and original creations with ease, all while totally satisfying the musical wishes of their given client. Though this still requires taking the time and diligence of properly learning established material, it has opened the doorway for many musicians to establish their creative careers on the shoulders of traditional material, accessing them to listeners and clients via the expected material and over time making a name for themselves with their original compositions.
Mix it Up!
Given the mixed bag of benefits and challenges enumerated here, many performers seek to benefit from both worlds and equally split their efforts between learning established covers and creating their own original works. This opens up perhaps the most potential doorways for opportunity, though also potentially some of the most work if both ends are executed to one's fullest ability. Many well known performers actually started their careers in this way, such as Charles Bradley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Radiohead, and many more. For performers insistent on fostering their own craft, walking this line is often the best method to finance their creative ambitions while still making meaningful income from music performances.
As an example, the Steel Pan quartet known as "Lord Shambleton," located in Gigroster's home city of Seattle, breaks their musical selection essentially into thirds. As a group featuring the steel pan, there is the fact that many potential clients will hire them explicitly to play Caribbean music, thus about 1/3 of their repertoire is made up of established calypso, soca, and other traditionally "island" music. Another set of clients love the sound of steel pan, but have relatively no knowledge of Caribbean music, for whom the band designates another 1/3 of their songlist to recognizable songs for an American audience, from current pop to even the occasional Disney song. Apart from client desires, there is the final reality that the band is made up of individually talented jazz musicians and composers who want a platform for their music, thus allocating the final 1/3 to original works and jazz material. Though this may sound like a lot of work, once all material is taken into account you are left with a band with 3+ hours of performable music spanning numerous genres, and can viably take bookings at far more diverse events than if they only focused on a single aspect, greatly increasing their potential revenue while fostering a desire to perform original music.
At the end of the day, the greatest part of working as a musician is that we are in charge of what we do. Whatever path a performer chooses to take is theirs to decide, be that creating original works, covering established repertoire, or going all in as a tribute band, costumes and all. These paths all require different skills and present different challenges, and making the correct choice means looking inwards to see what You individually want to get from a life of music. Hopefully what we have presented here helps to see and decide for yourself what path best fits your expectations as a performer, and whenever you choose to walk that path we'll be here to help you get booked!
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