After You’ve Played a Song Once, It Is Forever a Cover

What is the real difference between a cover song and an original song?  For in reality, after a song is beyond the compositional stage of its life, it is forever “covered”, even by the artist or band that wrote it. I have been in cover bands that played three sets of top 40 covers and threw in a couple of originals. I have been in original bands that threw in the occasional cover. Both situations required me to know a list of tunes that I could perform well on a regular basis. Both of these situations can also allow for a song list to become predictable or even boring to the musicians performing those songs, regardless of who wrote them.

It is true that to be in a “cover band” you don’t need to know how to create or write music, but this is also true for many musicians in “original” bands. While some original bands write songs by total group collaboration, many do not. Most super-groups throughout history have had one or two members that did the bulk of the songwriting; Lennon/ McCartney, Jagger/Richards, Page/Plant etc. Regardless of how many members contributed to the songwriting of a given band, that band is still covering their material. How many hundreds or thousands of times have the Rolling Stones had to perform Satisfaction or Jumping Jack Flash? Do those songs still feel “original” to them?

I have been working for a country artist for the last six years, and for the most part, have been performing the same set list, occasionally adding some new material. Although I originally wrote some of the guitar licks and helped arrange some of this material, 200 performances later they feel like covers. Even if I improvise some guitar solos and other subtleties in these tunes during performances, the essence of these songs never really changes. I have many musician friends that work on other tours, and in most cases they are not a part of the songwriting process in those situations. They were hired by an artist or band, learned the required repertoire, and have been essentially “covering” that material all along.

There are many groups trying to establish their followings in the music scene that call themselves “original bands”, and these groups are trying to create a fan base around their original material. They go out and perform shows by “covering” their originals in an attempt to familiarize their audience with their songs, slowly over time. It is perhaps on this level that the biggest difference between covers and originals might be perceived, but ultimately, the typical audience simply hears and categorizes music as familiar or obscure and gives little thought, if any, to who wrote the material. The song either connects, or doesn’t, then this variable can have as much to do with the performance, as it does the song itself.

Many of the great blues and jazz artists of the 20th century had repertoires that were filled with covers or songs that were written for them. Some of the great rock groups that came out of the 60s and 70s started their careers covering blues tunes, and many megastars aren’t songwriters. Did Pavarotti ever write a song? Songwriting is a craft that takes great skill, but then again, so is performing. Why should it matter who wrote the song if you enjoy playing it, and your audience enjoys hearing it? To the audience, a song is just a song, and they either like it, or they don’t. So get used to the idea of covering songs, because the concept is as old as the hills, and in reality, after you’ve played a song once, it is forever a cover.

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