Cover versions get a lot of bad press. They provoke the backward-thinking, reactionary and greedy publishers – and artists doing covers often get criticised for lack of originality or artistic integrity. As much as I love hearing new original music, I can also be inspired by good covers. For this reason, I felt motivated to say a few words in their defense.
The Legal Issue
I’ve been known to do a cover or two myself, in full awareness that they are ‘illegal’. In the same way, I was aware that I was acting illegally as a teenager when I recorded songs from the radio onto cassette tapes – or copied entire albums. The first time I possessed Nivarna’s ‘Nevermind’, it was a copy of a copy on tape. The sound quality was appalling, but it was a welcome escape from the mainstream chart hell of the 80′s!
These two ‘illegal’ activities have a lot in common. They are both rendered illegal by a record industry (and complicit governments, easily swayed by big business) that is determined to shoot itself in the foot at every opportunity.
As kids, we didn’t copy onto cassettes because we were thieves who conspired to deprive artists and the industry of income. We just didn’t have any money. But as soon as we did we went out and bought original copies. Yes, I went out and bought an original copy of ‘Nevermind’. In fact, I’d estimate that for over half of the albums I bought as a teenager, I’d already had a dodgy copy. I used to take great delight in throwing the copy away and relished the sound quality of the original. One other I remember clearly was ‘Dr Feelgood’ by Motley Crue. That illegal copy led to an album purchase and a concert ticket. If the record industry had had their way I never would have got the copy of ‘Dr Feelgood’ from a friend and would never have bought the original or gone to the gig. Passing copies to one another was our way of sharing our musical discoveries – especially for those of us outside the mainstream, who wouldn’t hear new stuff we’d like on Top of the Pops.
These days, digital downloads are much more of a problem for the industry – as people can get hold of high quality audio for free. The budgets to break new acts are shrinking as a consequence of declining record sales. With this in mind, you’d think they’d welcome any new avenue to get their artists heard. If you don’t mind indulging me for a moment, I’m just going to have an imaginary conversation with an imaginary publisher:
“Hey, I’ve got an idea. Why not encourage people to post videos of themselves covering your band’s latest song on the internet – listeners might like it and go buy the album! What’s that you say? You’d rather slap a copyright infringement notice on them and have the video taken down? Interesting tactic. You’d rather they weren’t discovered then? Let me tell you something; I’ve never bought cologne after seeing a TV advert, ’cause I need to know what it smells like. I’m never going to buy a CD after seeing a poster at a train station either – I want to know what it sounds like.”
I posted a cover of ‘Skinny Love’ by Bon Iver on Musicians Together recently. I don’t think it’s quite bad enough to put people off the band for good. In fact, I sincerely hope that someone comes across the cover who hears enough in the tune to want to go out and find out about the band. This is a modern day version of swapping cassette copies. It increases the chances of the original artists being discovered by new listeners – and therefore increases the chances of extra album sales and/or gig tickets. This works the same way for back catalogue stuff too. Here’s a guy I just listened to (Mick McLoughlin) doing U2′s ‘With or Without You’ on his local high street (I think). This song was on ‘The Joshua Tree’ album, released 25 years ago. In my humble opinion, it’s one of the best albums of all time – but there’s a good chance many teenagers today won’t have even heard of it. Why on earth would anyone in their right mind want to stop people doing covers like this? It’s keeping the songs alive and current. What is someone more likely to think as they pass Mick in the street, or hear his version on the internet: “Great, I’ve heard that song this decade, now I never need to hear it again?” Or perhaps “Wow, I’d forgotten how good that song is. I need to go and buy the album, or the ‘best of’?” Mick – and thousands like him – are helping sales, not hindering them Come on publishers, this isn’t rocket science.
Some people find it easy to write songs. Some people don’t, so they do more covers. Sometimes beginners start with covers and move on to writing their own stuff as they progress. The important question is, why do we make music? Generally it’s to express something – and sometimes we can express ourselves best in a song that’s already been written. It could be argued that if that was all there was to it, we could just play the song to ourselves and leave it there. But sometimes covers do add something; a twist, a re-imagining or a new emphasis. Here’s a few random covers that I like just because they take a song in a different direction, or (in my opinion), improve it:
Love Reign O’er Me – Pearl Jam (originally The Who). Incredibly powerful.
Love Don’t Live Here Anymore – Dallas Green (originally Rose Royce). Try and tell me he’s not expressing something here.
Gin n Juice – The Gourds (originally Snoop Doggy Dogg). Hillbilly bluegrass gangsta rap – nuff said.
Hard To Handle – The Black Crowes (originally Otis Redding). I’m a big Otis fan, but this is brilliant.
Occasionally a cover turns out to be the definitive version of a song. Like, for example ‘Twist and Shout’ by The Beatles, ‘Respect’ by Aretha Franklin, ‘Unchained Melody’ by The Righteous Brothers or recently, ‘Valerie’ by Amy Winehouse.
I often get berated for not clamping down on covers on Musicians Together. Presumably nobody would have a problem with the songs listed above. If not, why would a different principle apply to the amateurs and indies? Are covers only for established international superstars? Is it a quality issue then? Sure, there are good covers and bad covers – but there are good and bad originals too. I could list dozens, but here’s just one good cover, posted yesterday: ‘Trouble’ -EddK (originally Leona Lewis). It’s totally different to the original. And I prefer it to the original. So there.
A Practical Point
If it hadn’t been for their version of ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ I may never have heard of Thin Lizzy, one of my favourite bands of all-time. They were in serious decline and probably would have disappeared completely without that song. For artists and bands trying to get heard, covers can be very useful. If someone is Googling a song and finds your cover it could lead them to your originals. Personally, I think music evokes emotional connections – but at first the connection can just be plain old familiarity. When you are established, audiences can connect to you, because they know you – before you are established they can connect initially to a familiar song. I think of it as analogous to drug dealing (stay with me). As soft drugs might be a gateway to hard, covers can be a gateway to originals. This is why it’s so difficult to get gigs playing originals only. Bar owners and bookers know, either instinctively or from experience, that most average audiences won’t connect with a load of songs they’ve never heard from a band they have no connection with. So the vast majority of artists and bands absolutely have to have at least a few covers in the mix.
A Quick Shout Out
I just want to give a quick shout out to the covers bands out there. On Musicians Together we’ve got bands like Steve Webb & EXP, and Ozz Tribute, who joined just a couple of days ago. These guys have obviously put a huge amount of time and dedication into their craft. They do their thing, week in, week out and I have the utmost respect for their musicianship.
As mentioned earlier, I love discovering great new original music. In fact I am extremely passionate about it. And, although I’m not a great writer, I love expressing myself through my own music. I’ll also keep encouraging the posting of originals on Musicians Together (around 2/3 of our tunes so far are originals) – and supporting the great stuff we’ve got going on, like our Songwriter’s Corner writing challenges. However, I’ll still be doing the odd cover myself, and will never become snobbish about other people doing theirs.