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COVERS VS. ORIGINALS

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Original article by Tessie Barnett for gigsalad.com

Recently, a few of us at GigSalad were in Toronto, ON for Canadian Music Week. We were lucky enough to meet some incredible musicians, shake hands with a few industry leaders, and talk with visitors from all backgrounds. Every conversation added to the experience, but one in particular inspired us to ask ourselves some pretty heavy questions.

I spoke with one of the conference volunteers about the great bands we were seeing, and he began to explain his background in the industry. His father had been a venue owner for decades so he grew up surrounded by musicians.

“It was no big deal to me to see big names. I mean, I saw Aerosmith when they were just a cover band opening for another act.”

Aerosmith playing covers? I couldn’t picture a young Steven Tyler without the iconic presence he carries today.

Naturally, this made me eager to talk to more indie musicians who were working toward stardom. What was their take on playing covers versus their own music? Between the indie bands we’ve met on our travels and those who’ve contacted us to learn more about what we offer, we noticed that many of them were adamant about keeping their performances authentic. They did not want to play another band’s music.

This brought up a question that we’ve been digging around to answer:

“Is GigSalad useful to Indie bands? We offer gigs, we get you booked, you make money with your talent, but are we providing a way for you to be recognized for your original music?”

I brought this question to Joey Esquibel, GigSalad brand ambassador and indie musician.

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“I think GigSalad can work for indie musicians, but I think it’s how you use it. Some people don’t realize that when you’re requested to play music, whether that be a corporate gig or private event, they don’t really care about your songs most of the time. They want to hear something they’ve heard before or something they recognize. When the crowd can sing along, it seems like they get more enjoyment out of the experience.

There are people out there who do enjoy discovering new bands and they latch onto it, but it seems like most listeners just want to hear something they already like.

That’s how it happened for me. I started off playing mostly my own stuff, and I noticed that only my existing fans—my friends— were coming to the shows. I wasn’t getting a lot of new people in, and the people who were already at the venue seemed only vaguely interested. It wasn’t until I started playing more covers that I started drawing a bigger crowd. What you do is get them out there, get them listening, and then blast them with a really great original song.

But I also get requests for my songs because I have my music up on my [GigSalad] profile. That’s why I say it’s not a loss for bands who don’t play cover music to put a listing on GigSalad. It’s still likely that they’ll be requested to play covers, because that’s a lot of what people want to hear. But event hosts come to the site for a reason—they’re looking for someone to book. They hear your voice and your music first and decide if you’re the performer they want. So, you’re getting their attention in a way that you wouldn’t be able to at a live performance.”

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Vic Vaughan, account specialist at GigSalad, has been in the business for ages. There’s no instrument he hasn’t mastered, and he’s performed with some prestigious bands like Blondie, The Allman Bros., and Luther Vandross. I knew, with Vic’s experience and passion for music, he would offer a unique perspective.

“Well, let me start by saying that I’ve been doing this a long, long time. We started playing covers of Beatles songs in the 60’s, and because of our unbridled enthusiasm, we started writing our own, simple music. Fast forward several years and I’m in a very popular band, and we played all over the place—playing cover songs.

But when the band got together for practice, once again, we began writing our own songs and that’s what we wanted to play. Come to find out, in order to do this, we had to book our own venues. We’d rent a room, do all the promotions, pay for posters. We’d make five bucks. I mean, five dollars to put in our pocket to walk away with. We had spent hundreds of dollars for everything, because we wanted to play our own music. We learned that for us to really get in it and to make money, we had to do some cover songs because that’s what they wanted to hear.

People need music—either to take them away or to remind them of a time and space they’ve had in the past. So, what’s 3 ½ minutes of playing a cover song when you make a whole room happy? And when you’re good at it, they start asking you for your own music. They will ask you for your original music!

And we made it big, you know, but we had to learn along the way. We had to practice so that our music came as naturally as inhaling and exhaling. We needed to dress the part. We needed to act professionally. There was work involved. But the real key is humility. They selected you to create a memory that can’t be duplicated. Make that room happy.”

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For Ryan Westeren, bassist for the Darien Clea Band and GigSalad Customer Happiness rep, he understands both sides of the conversation.

“I can see an artist wanting to play only their original music, because that’s what they care about. That’s what their craft is. But there’s also the art of the performance and knowing who you’re playing for.

When I play with Darien who is an awesome songwriter, we have to think about the fact that her music might not be everyone’s taste. Maybe they’ll think she’s good if they’re intentionally listening, but sometimes we’re hired out for events where people aren’t there to listen.

Recently, we played at a big corporate event, and people didn’t really connect with Darien’s music until she sang a Fleetwood Mac cover. So, we ended up playing ‘Dreams’ for 15 minutes—and it’s a two-chord song. But because people recognized the song, that’s when they became engaged. It’s like the icebreaker. We try to have a few covers in our back pocket, and depending on the crowd and the venue, we can throw those out to grab attention.

For my role as a bassist, if someone contacts me to play covers, I would do that because it’s another job and people love it. But vocalists and songwriters are going to have a harder time with that because they’re attached to their creations. They’ve put a lot of hours into the lyrics, the arrangement, the way it flows. That hurts an artist.”

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The devotion we’ve seen from indie artists who stick to original music is something to be admired. But we’ve also discovered that some of the most successful bands are flexible and driven to understand and engage their audience. There doesn’t have to be a hard division between those who play cover songs and those who play originals. Keeping yourself open to the idea can drastically expand your outreach as well as keep your gigging calendar full.

If do you choose to play your original songs exclusively, it will require some extra legwork to market yourself. We recommend CD Baby to sell your music independently, Bandzoogle to create a website customized for musicians, and GigSalad to get you connected to talent buyers. Cover band, indie band, and every artist in between, we want you to succeed.

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