I love the old tunes. I played in a cover band. That’s how you learn; and that’s how you develop your own voice. I have nothing against people playing cover tunes or jazz standards or playing in a tribute act.
The problem is, there’s such an avalanche of it now, original songwriting is getting eclipsed. Bookers refrain from booking songwriters of original material. And the idea that there’s a duty to play covers live, as claimed by an article referenced in the last issue of the Hamilton Music Guild’s periodical Libretto, is debatable. This little piece is a retort, if you like, to that article:
I think it’s safe to say that anything that was popular in the past will live on forever now, having been preserved in the Ethernet, with or without bands playing cover sets. Search online and you will likely find what you’re looking for. In addition, the archives are expanding with re-issues, box sets, the proliferation of brand-name tribute bands, and radio stations playing the hits of the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s (which used to be “Today” !).
However, when it comes to live shows, a scene that only rehashes the past is undesirable. People become slaves to ideas like familiarity and relatability. Dumbing-down becomes self-fulfilling – people demand to hear the same things over and over again. Bookers respond in kind. People have lost discernment. Amazon.com’s “If you liked that, you might like this” is actually a constraint.
And then, in turn, the players’ imaginations stagnate. Or they were going after a lifestyle they perceived in the music they heard and loved. People talk about doing a ‘faithful’ rendition of a song, or maintaining ‘loyalty’ to a b(r)and. But if we’re not careful, our map of the pop past for posterity will become so big that it ‘covers’ all of the actual terrain, preventing new voices and original sounds from rising up. We may end up with a self-perpetuating scene where new original music gets stifled by the ‘familiar’ and ‘relatable’ in a sea of mixed eras. The problem with your desert island disc collection is that at some point, you’ll wish you had fresh music.
According to some historians, Bach’s oeuvre was lost for many years before Mendelssohn retrieved it from obscurity. Its perceived value did not extend much beyond the duration of the church service Bach was hired to write for. There was no perceived duty to preserve the music for posterity, even though the means were there. Even Bach didn’t worry about it. As late a figure as Healy Willan agreed. And by then recording was well established!
But nowadays new music, if it gets attention/ gets online, will be preserved anyway. Which is good.
But ‘live’ music is still where it’s at.
New original music:
fires the imagination; fosters wider acceptance, world peace, and free donuts; breathes life into old lungs, opens vistas, builds muscles; presents the unexpected thus breaking down old bad habits; plants seeds refreshing the field (as opposed to slashing and burning, exhausting the soil); awakens curiosity; liberates from the shackles of past routine.
Following your artistic muse and pleasing the masses are often two separate things. The exciting thing about original live acts is that you don’t really know exactly what’s going to happen. It’s like the excitement of a sporting event where the outcome is not already decided.
There are plenty of writers and performers with the integrity and passion of earlier generations. They may be harder to find in a sea of mixed eras and proliferating sameness, but here are three for you: the inimitable pop of Jessica Stuart (including koto!); the smart blend of jazz and rap of Elizabeth Shepherd; the incredible hodge-podge of Sultans of String. In a remarkable twist, all three are from here (Central Canada). And since he just played at SuperCrawl, let’s add the fragile work of Andy Shauf to the deck (even tho he’s from Saskatchewan!).
As artists I don’t think we have a duty to the past but rather an opportunity to honour our imaginations by following our muse in the present. If someone suggests there is a responsibility to play a cover song, play an original song and tell them to cover that. After all, every song is heard for a first time, before it becomes a standard or cover tune.
The real bottom line is having oxygen to breath. Water to drink. Music to listen to (that’s a bio-culture that needs to be nurtured too). Feed your music creators! Or everything will start to sound the same. Wait a minute… ?