Recording cover tunes is controversial. Always has been. For some musicians there is a “less than” attitude toward anything that isn’t an original. They look down on bands that record cover tunes as second class citizens of the music community. When you work with a cover band, you can be shunned by artists who believe that it’s a cop out to record someone else’s music. If you are touring with a cover band, it’s even worse. You can be dismissed, ignored or even ridiculed.

But what if you are really enjoying it, getting yourself out there to network, making fans and let’s face it, making great money? It’s no secret that doing GB gigs (General Business) can have a very lucrative payoff. Great cover bands have the potential to make thousands of dollars a gig. So, why the stigma?

Many artists believe that you aren’t a real musician unless you are writing recording and performing original tunes. Cover artists are typically labeled “entertainers,” and not considered by many to be artists at all.

So…why can’t you do both? The creative process is what “art” is all about.  If you are an artist performing original tunes, building your reputation and fan base, and slugging it out in the industry today, you know there is little money to be had for original bands. It can take years to build up enough of a following before clubs will book you for good money to perform original music. You supplement your income with a non music related day job and hope for the day when you can quit. Note:…non music related day job…

If you are a full time working musician, you HAVE a day job.

Putting the word “music” in front of the word “job” doesn’t erase all the hard work, long hours and years of training. If you are serious and dedicated, the hours are endless and the work is never done. Can you make a name for yourself doing strictly original music? Yes, but it takes time, patience, diligence and constant attention to the business. Everybody looks for the shortcuts, but they don’t exist. Paying your dues in small smoky clubs playing for 20 people and making $40 bucks for the night isn’t unusual. Demoralizing, yes; unusual, no. Thinking that a booking agent in a large venue will take a chance on an unknown band with little or no fan base is delusional. They are in it to fill the club and make money. Can you prove you can get 200 people to attend your shows? No? Then back up, continue building the machine and take it step by step.

So, what about adding some covers to your set? Do they have to be covers or can they be remakes?

Remakes are a twist on an original tune. It’s not a “Cover” of the original, nor is it intended to be. If you can “hear” a tune performed differently, that song might be a good candidate for a remake. You can change the tempo, feel, chord changes…even the genre can be altered dramatically. Creating a masterful remake is super creative. When it’s done well, people may associate that tune as yours, and never really know who originally wrote the song.

Throughout music history there have been fantastic remakes.

Huffington Post listed their 15 top remakes in 2012. Interesting list. Sorry, but have to give Jeff Buckley the crown for “Hallelujah” written by Leonard Cohen.  Most notably on this list is,“Nothing Compares To You” recorded by Sinéad O’Connor (originally by The Family). I seriously doubt most people ever think of anyone other than Sinead when they hear that song.

Blogger Michele Cantalano featured in Forbes magazine has her own list of top 10 remakes.

While Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” has become the most common answer to “What is your favorite cover song?” that particular tune -while beautifully done – is not something I’d put on my own list simply because it is presented the same way as the original. Same with Gary Jules’’s “Mad World”(Tears for Fears). While the cover is well done, I think it’s popularity came more from the way it was used in Donnie Darko than from any originality brought to the tune.

Who can argue with the legendary Rolling Stones success recording almost all remakes on their first album release. They payed homage to their musical heroes including Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, Slim Harpo, and Rufus Thomas.

Adele, The Beach Boys, The Avett Brothers and The Black Crows just to name a few, have all done remakes of Dylan tunes.  Artists across every genre experiment with other musicians tunes with great success. Cat Power does a great rendition of Dylan’s “He was a Friend of Mine”. Check it out…

BruceSpringsteen has been covered by countless artists and some have really made waves with powerful renditions of great tunes written by The Boss. Eddie Vedder sends chills down your spine with his haunting version of  “City of Ruins”.

If we are talking about covers and remakes, then sampling has to be included as well. Sampling has become common place when recording these days, and when done artfully, can be amazing. A personal favorite is The Strokes “Last Night”, loosely using Tom Petty’s “American Girl.”

The StrokesIn a 2006 interview with Rolling Stone, Petty commented, “The Strokes took ‘American Girl’ [for ‘Last Nite’], there was an interview that took place with them where they actually admitted it. That made me laugh out loud. I was like, ‘OK, good for you.’ It doesn’t bother me.” The strokes were invited in 2006 to be the opening act on Petty’s tour.

Here is Rolling Stones list of 500 greatest songs using samples.

Even though recording covers, remakes, and sampling is insanely popular, some would argue that it threatens the already fragile music industry. Spotify and Rhapsody are getting thousands of complaints from listeners that cover songs are crowding the airwaves and confusing listeners. One Spotify customer in Denmark actually quit the service because she was following an artist who had covered Adele. She didn’t realize the version of Skyfall recorded by Adele could not be found on Spotify. “Adele’s label, XL Recordings, keeps her music off of all-you-can-listen subscription plans until download sales peter out.”

Alice Bonde Nissen found that out the hard way. She once paid 99 Krone ($17) a month for Spotify’s premium service in Denmark. Bonde found a version of “Skyfall” and mistakenly clicked on a “follow” button to become a fan of GMPresents and Jocelyn Scofield, the name for a cover-song specialist with some 4,600 Spotify followers. Scofield, who didn’t respond to a message seeking comment for this story, has the most listened-to cover of “Skyfall” on the service.”

So, the controversy continues around cover tunes. In a rapidly changing music Industry it’s anybody’s guess how it will play out. But are the artists who recorded the tunes originally being cheated? That’s another blog, and one that is on my radar for next week. Stay tuned. What are your thoughts?

4 Responses to Cover me

  1. Nikki says:

    I see it like this. When someone remixes, covers, or samples a song, it means they are embracing the awesomeness of that song. It brings back the remembrance of who loved it in the first place, and it brings it back to life. For example, kids today are not familiar with songs before their time. So when an artist brings some pieces of that original back, and incorporates it into something new, it is almost reborn (of course, that original can and will never be replaced). As for services like Spotify and all you can listen to subscribed services, they need to label and organize all the music in a much better fashion. I can agree with that personally.

  2. Shecky says:

    Good music is good music and when an artist believes they have created a unique one of a kind sound, they should stepback and realize it has probably been done before. To ridicule a musician for performing covers is like saying someone is crazy for choosing Coke over Pepsi. It takes countless hours of time and rehearsal to learn covers and it is a statement within one’s ability and talent to pull it off successfully. I have been on both sides of this debate and I don’t think it will ever change. But artists who do play covers know that it can be just as gratifying as creating original music. Now as far as recording covers, I think the issues of copyrights and permissions need to be addressed first and foremost. Great article! Thank you

    • Nikki says:

      Great points Shecky. To add to your comment, when someone covers and records a cover of their own style, I think this puts themselves out there to identify what they personally are portraying themselves as. Its almost so personal, the listener starts to dig deeper and learn more about what the artist likes, why they liked that song, why they picked it, and so forth. When someone like Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam sang “Last Kiss” which was originally by Wayne Cochran in 1961, then J.Frank Wilson and the Cavaliers from 1964 made it popular, as many times as I have heard that song, many kids haven’t. And they loved it, and they listened to every single word of it because Eddie Vedder sang it. So, I see covers, remixes, samples as a personal way to give new listeners a chance to hear music they were never introduced to before, and given the influence from an artist they are dedicated to. (I seriously support original artists though and feel a cover or two wouldn’t hurt them).

  3. scott alexander says:

    The highest form of appreciation to any artist is learning their technique, and style, plus seeing the hard work it takes to get on top. If you believe you have arrived, and will be riding tall in the saddle forever, sadly, you have made a serious error. Cover tunes are not for everyone, nor are they a short cut, Cover tunes are a wonderful medium to experiment with what you have learned from something that is familiar and creating something recognizably different. You learn from imitatation and then the real work of pain stakingly loving every minute of the formalities, and the professional side of music, this opens up a new form of cretive process called learning and sharing ideas. It is ultimatley your choice, decision, and your outcome.

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