Making a Case for Covers
Throughout my career of more than 35 years, the subject of whether to play covers or not has come along more times than I’ve tuned my bass, or so it seems. There seem to be two camps of extreme opinions bookending the middle ground in which most players camp. One extreme opinion is that anyone who plays covers isn’t a “real” musician, is a sell-out. And it’s to this camp I’d like to offer some thoughts.
Playing covers isn’t inherently bad. Sure, there’s some pretty awful music being played today. Don’t forget, however, that this music was written by someone, and for them, it’s original music. It’s also important to remember that not every band or singer does their own music exclusively. Often they are singing songs written by someone else, or with a co-writer who may be provided by the record label or producer to help the artist write something worth recording.
For those wanting to build a career in an original band, covers can be an excellent way to hone your songwriting skills. Learning a few hundred well-crafted songs helps you understand the fine art of arrangement, melody, word play and more. And, while there are a few writers who have an innate gift, most have practiced their craft, studied the greats and worked hard to get to where their songs were worth listening to. Learning covers can be a very productive part of your studies.
Learning covers is also a great way to improve on your instrument. By learning, and then analyzing hundreds of bass lines, you learn how to craft your own. You learn nuances of groove, style, dynamics and rhythm. You learn new ways to use the same twelve notes we all use.
Often, I’ll record for a client but won’t be a part of the “touring” band. Numerous times over my career, I’ve gotten calls from the “touring” bassist asking about certain parts of the songs I recorded. “What the heck is that turnaround you used into the bridge?” That kind of thing. In my opinion, this has less to do with my skills than it does with a lack of their own knowledge. I’m using the same notes we all use; I just put them in a slightly different sequence, or with a slightly different rhythm. If the bassist had spent more time analyzing the work of others, chances are they wouldn’t have to ask me so many questions. In other words, if they’d spent more time learning covers, they’d have a better understanding of how to craft a bass line, and would have more knowledge on which to draw.
Another reason to play covers is to gain stage experience. I can’t tell you how many “original” bands I’ve seen that don’t know how to work a crowd, how to entertain. Now, you can tell me all you want that they just didn’t rehearse enough, but rehearsal only goes so far. You need to gain real-world experience performing for strangers. Playing in the basement for your friends and girlfriends doesn’t count. This goes triple for any of you playing in jam bands.
Until you play in front of audiences, you don’t really know if your set will keep an audience entertained. You don’t really know if that cool new song you all wrote the last time you practiced really is a good closer. You don’t know if the drum solo really works where you think it will. You don’t know if your lead singer is able to interact with the audience in a way that will keep them interested. Playing in cover bands can help you learn these things and more.
Before I finally stepped out as a band leader in my own right, I had worked in dozens of bands. I’d watched, and learned from, dozens of band leaders and frontmen (and women). I had played covers and originals – which, for me, were still covers as I had nothing to do with the writing. I still had to learn how to pace a show and interact with the audience as the frontman. For me, it was a lot different than just being the bassist. Those first few months taught me a lot, and helped me put on a much better show when we got to the point that we were doing “showcase” performances that consisted of all original music. I would never have learned how to be a frontman by practicing in my basement. I had to get out on stage and do it.
I know several bands who play out under two different names. They use one name for cover dates and another for their all-original shows. Others have a dozen originals they use for “showcase” gigs and fill their club nights with covers. Either way can work; it’s up to you to decide which way is best for your situation. For the most part, I prefer the latter solution as it allows me to build a brand image – an important part of marketing. However, others use the former because their “cover” band plays music that is very different from their originals. Which brings me to my next point:
Covers can make you money. Oh, sure, you can remain “pure” in your art by refusing to play covers, instead keeping yourself alive with a “day job”. I can’t tell you how many “real” musicians I’ve met across the counters of fast-food joints. However, there are two things wrong with this (in my mind): First, the pay is lousy and second, jobs of this sort have nothing to do with music. At the very least, if you’re playing covers, you’re playing music. And you’re involved in the music business, learning what it takes to get ahead, making contacts and more.
One four-piece band I know writes and performs heavier rock material. On the side, they hire on a saxophone, keyboard and female vocalist to play wedding and corporate gigs. They make $300 each – minimum – per gig. They also put money away from each of these gigs to cover expenses for their original project, things like promotion, photo shoots, recording time and more. In addition, they make about $100 each per original gig, at the rate of about two per week. So, they’re pulling in $500 or more a week and have money to pay for the original project. Doesn’t that sound a lot better than standing on your feet all day in some grease-pit, wearing a paper hat and a name tag, saying things like, “You want fries with that?”
As you are working toward your goal of stardom, covers can help you learn the things you’ll need in order to succeed. They can also help you pay the rent. So go ahead and work on those original songs. But don’t turn up your nose at the things playing covers can help you learn. After all, chances are that the bands you admire played covers at one time or another. Above all, Keep Thumpin’!
Aim High – Play Low!
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©2010, by Lane Baldwin – All Rights Reserved. Permission to republish on the web is hereby granted, provided the copyright notice and following statement immediately follows the article:
With more than forty years on the bass guitar, and three decades of professional experience, Lane Baldwin (known in the music world as Lane on Bass) has a sound and style that’s all his own. A gifted teacher, Lane has helped hundreds of students learn to navigate the deep end with authority. If you’re ready to learn how to be “rock solid and pocket wise,” visit LaneOnBass.com.