We’ve used the tag “cover bands don’t change the world” for as long as we’ve been doing the AC Podcasts. A “cover band” is a band that plays other people’s music. The most extreme example is the “tribute band”, which directly copies another artist’s music and style in the attempt to pay homage to their art. More subtle examples are the college rock bands that fill clubs every weekend playing the radio hits du jour. Occasionally you’ll hear one of these bands rattle off something like “now we’re going to play something we wrote” and a collective protest will arise from the club goers.
Because no one came to the band to hear the band’s original music. They are there to dance, have a good time and hear music they know. The promise of going to hear a cover band is that you’ll be treated to familiar tunes in a dance-friendly format with little variation from the originals. This is the expectation that’s been set. It’s the “brand promise”, and it’s just been violated in a major way.
It’s incredibly difficult for a band to make the transition from “cover band” to “original band.” In fact, it rarely happens successfully. The band is always caught in the netherworld between making a living/earning money and wanting to express themselves through their art. Even if they are able to successfully slip some original music into the mix, they will always have to stare down the vocal requests for the latest top 40 fare.
The only way I’ve seen a band successfully earn a living playing original music is by choosing to do so from the very beginning and by building a loyal audience for what they do. They stay true to who they are and are willing to forgo immediate financial return in order to build a long-lasting and loyal audience for their music. They are patient enough to earn fans one at a time. They don’t imitate others for the sake of quick returns.
This is not to imply that there’s anything wrong with imitation. It’s one of the key phases of creative growth. We must imitate if we want to develop our skills. But it gets tricky when we start making money off of our imitation skills. There is always the temptation to go where the quick money is rather than patiently developing your craft and your audience.
There are a lot of “cover bands” in the marketplace today. If their goal is simply to make money, so be it. But the products and people who really change the game seem to be the ones who are able to stay true to a set of principles rather than being driven to quick returns. They develop a loyal audience rather than a fickle one that turns away the moment they “play an original”.
It’s my desire to continue to strive to find my own voice and to try to weed out all of the places where I’m being “cover-bandish”. In the consulting space, this can be a very tricky proposition because it often means turning down more work than I accept because it’s not what I’m best at. But my hope is that the original value that I bring to the clients I choose to work with will create raving “fans” who want to continue to work with me and trust me when I develop new products or ideas.
Are you playing it safe in your work? Are you going for the quick return, or are you building your following strategically? Are you developing your craft and identifying your unique contribution? By the way, it’s totally fine to do this “on the side”. A lot of musicians are in multiple bands. But somewhere in your life you need to be working toward finding an original form of expression.
Remember: cover bands don’t change the world.