Musicians must write and record their own music!

A recent discussion on Facebook pointed out some interesting challenges and issues within the Musician’s Collective, a “community of interest” of which I am a member, and it compelled me to comment on the pages of GuitarAttack.  The discussion focused on whether or not musicians should focus their energies on writing and playing original songs or play in a cover/tribute band.  While this may be a false choice, or false dichotomy, the discussion was interesting with the most emotional statements focused on “Nobody will come to a club to hear original music.”  While that may be true  I say musicians will only develop their own styles and make an impact if they “do their own stuff”.

A friend of mine said that playing in a cover band is kind of like karaoke in that in both art forms the “performer” is being judged against the standard of the original artist.  That being said, karaoke is an interesting phenomenon.  There is nothing like trying to sing somebody else’s song around a bunch of drunks.  I guess it would have to be around a bunch of drunks to be acceptable, much like playing in a cover band.  The first time I ever saw Karaoke was in Seoul, Korea in 1988.  That setup was an old guy playing old American standards on a Lowery organ and two big binders of lyrics.  It probably had more in common to a scene from the “Rat Pack” than today’s alcohol-fueled shouting masquerading as music. 

As entertainment, is karaoke good?  Is it great to hear other people try to sing songs we are familiar with?  Is it like American Idol?

Regardless of whether or not it is good, I think most guitar players out there are perfectly happy with doing the “karaoke thing” because it appears that most of us spend a lot of time playing rock and roll karaoke.  No, we don’t change singers every song, but we might as well.

If you accept the model that the only way to get good at playing your instrument is to play covers in a bar band, go for it.  If that is your way to get 10,000 hours of playing time, I suppose the model is valid.  However, I think playing in a cover band is a dead-end and the only way to really get good is to write and play original music.

It reminds me of the scene from one of my favorite movies, “Rock Star”.  Chris (played by Mark Wahlberg), the lead singer of a “tribute/cover” band is arguing with Rob (played by Timothy Olyphant), the lead guitarist about “direction” for their “Steel Dragon” tribute band.

     Chris: I don't want to be in some cut-rate cover band that butchers the music the people come to hear, just so you can play your crappy originals!

     Rob: Crappy originals? I think "Whole and a half" kicks ass, and I'm proud to have written it.

     Chris: Yeah? I guess that's why we get so many requests for it.

The fight continues between the two, and the real problem emerges:

     Chris: We are NOT a cover band, we're a TRIBUTE band!

     Rob: No Dude, WE are a cover band! Problem is, we've been covering the tunes, you think you're in Steel Dragon... I love you man but you're mental, you really are. You need to get a grip on reality, man, you don't know where Bobby Beers ends and you begin.

     Rob: Wouldn't you rather fail as yourself than succeed as some Bobby Beers clone?

     Chris: Well yeah Rob, maybe you can write me a song about why the hell I would ever want to do that!

The movie goes on to describe how Rob was really right, and Chris got tired of living somebody else’s life.

Most people do not buy “cover” versions of popular music by a bar band, unless you exclude Van Halen’s “Diver Down” or Metallica’s “Garage Days Revisited”, of which both are pretty good.  No, while people are drawn to original music due to a variety of factors, but conventional wisdom is that they normally will not sit through several sets of it at a bar. 

When I was in my 80s metal band we figured we needed to play originals, but the bar managers would say things like, “People don’t buy drinks when you play originals.”  To get around this challenge  we would introduce original song as being originals by other bands.  For example, our lead singer would say, “This is a new song by ‘Spider Web’” so the club manager wouldn’t freak out.   Originals by someone you’ve never heard of is OK; originals by the band in front of you is bad.  Maybe the assumption was that if you wanted to play someone else’s song that it must be killer.  Your guess is as good as mine.

I also have to say that we didn’t put much effort into our originals.  Even my college band had some original songs, but they were sporadic and we tended to put more effort into our expanding catalog of AC/DC covers.  We set-up a little studio in our jam room, and recorded some pretty cool original stuff.  We even went to a real studio – one with an 8-track reel-to-reel recorder, and recorded two originals.  I can't believe I don't have a copy of those songs today!  Again, most of our effort was on playing clubs, learning covers, and buying PA gear.

It seems like all of the hangers-on with the band tended to latch on to the covers.  There is lots of ego involved with the band, but you know that already.  Bands like to please the people who praise the band, and that cycle tends to prevent the band from trying anything too extreme or new.

Like the self-professed beer connoisseur who talks about beer, drinks Miller Lite, and would never consider expending the effort to make his own beer, the average musician never makes the jump to original music.  Even those who talk a lot about original music will not support listening to original music, particularly if they know the band personally.  Criticism is tough to take with original music.  I think those with the thickest skins eventually win the crowd over.

Supporting a local original artist is tough, too.  I remember I played in a band with a local singer/songwriter named Seth Kerr back in the late 70s.  He was a good musician, and wrote an album of original music which he recorded in Nashville.  Now he had a garage full of unsold albums from the project but he was really brave in that he decided to go original.  I thought it was great.  Seth had a pretty unique style that he developed by writing and playing his own music.  I think this is the only way to develop a unique style.  I wound up getting kicked out of his band; guess I was too “metal” and not into originals.  He was right; I deserved to get kicked out.

Is it that we resist free thought and artistic expression?  Has our society devolved to that?  I sure hope not.  It appears that my friend, Eric Pegram was right back when we were in high school.  I wanted to be Ace Frehley in KISS; he wanted to write and record originals.  I wanted to be a Rock Star; he wanted to be a musician.  I wish I would have listened to him!

A word of warning – I have found the most vocal advocates of “original music” will not support their acquaintances in their respective original music.  When the ego gene kicks in, you may find that all of those bemoaning the lack of “new” and “original” music will avoid yours like the plague, no matter how cool it is.  Never mind – keep charging the line and eventually you will get through because you will find your greatest support in total strangers.  Yes, total strangers.  You'll see all of those Facebook likes and not a single sale on iTunes.  Keep moving....

The next time you want to get a cover band together, think about this collection of thoughts and just focus on your originals.  I believe it is the only way to become a musician and a rock star.   Hey -- and those cover bands need plenty of new material.

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