Having just recently completed an album of mostly cover songs, I thought I would tackle the topic of artists recording and performing cover songs. My own experience with this topic begins from working as a musician in Oklahoma. There it seemed hard to get gigs if you didn't play cover songs that sounded like the originals. Moving to Portland, I have found the opposite to be true. Many prefer to hear artists that do primarily original material. Instead of spending the entire article on the merits of either model, I wanted to explore the topic of when did it become an expectation that performers create their own material? It seems to be an expectation of rock artists that you don't see in many other musical genres. Many, but not all, pop and country performers rely on professional composers and arrangers. Orchestras and choral ensembles do not typically present original pieces unless they are commissioning a new work from a contemporary composer. Folk music has traditionally been passed down through the generations to be re-used to express the human plight. Jazz ensembles often rely heavily on standards which continue get re-arranged and re-interpreted. Artists such as Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald relied almost exclusively on arrangers and composers to create the material that they performed.
Music composition and arranging are very different skill sets than singing, playing an instrument, and expressing the emotion of a song. So when did we expect that to be a legitimate rock artist today musicians had to excel in all of these areas at once? Don't get me wrong; there are countless performers and bands that are very good in both areas. However, have we diluted the quality of composition and musicianship in the process?
Another point I have often thought about is that when an artist stops performing, does that mean that their music should not have the opportunity to be performed by others? We would not consider a symphony orchestra to be unoriginal because they are performing the music of Mozart. So why would we consider pop/rock act to be unoriginal for performing music of the Beatles?
I don't pretend to know the "right" answer. I guess this also begs the existential question of does one actually create music or is the music just another entity that just uses the composer as a means of getting written down?
It is important though if an artist does choose to record and perform cover tunes that one legally obtain the performance rights so that the original composer or their estate is properly compensated for their work!
For my second CD release I had my own reasons for choosing to do cover songs. My first two personal goals on this album were to improve my technique as a vocalist and also as a recording engineer. I spent a few years working in group and individual voice classes and lessons on the first item while also investing in better recording tools, re-creating my recording space, and incorporating some valuable lessons and feedback with regard to recording technique (these will all likely be topics of future newsletters). My third goal was to improve as a songwriter, and I decided that working with some great, established songs and re-arranging them based on the emotional response that those songs triggered within me would be a good way to become better versed in what it takes to create well composed music.
A big musical influence to me throughout my life has been the late Michael Hedges (http://www.nomadland.com/Point_A.htm). One of the most thrilling parts of his live shows were the eclectic covers that he sprinkled in the midst of his sonically rich original material. In the future, I look forward to again recording and performing original music and have many ideas already in the works! However based on the joy I felt in the experience of recording Under the Covers, I know that in the future I will surely incorporate cover songs that resonate with me personally and that will hopefully complement and enhance my musical catalog!