Original versus Cover Songs: So what’s all the fuss about?

One of the interesting versions of partisan politics I've noticed since joining the local open mic scene is between two apparently opposing camps in the music scene - those who play "original" songs versus those who play "covers". "Covers" is a term, uttered either under one's breath with a hint of shame (by the people playing them) or with a distinct tone of disdain and perhaps a spray of saliva on the "c" sound just for emphasis (by those staunch supporters of playing only originals), used to designate music composed by someone other than the performers themselves. This distinction is a foreign one for me since I grew up in the classical music world, where the Great Composers Of All Time were revered and respected as part of my musical education. Some of these Great Composers were Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, to name a few. I focused all of my attention on training and developing the technique required to execute the intentions conveyed in increasingly complex written notation, leading up to the Great Concertos. These were the truly epic compositions that required a tour de force of virtuosic technique and range of emotional expression imagined to be conveyed by the Great Composer.

There was no talk of writing music.

No conversations about "creating" our own compositions. I had never come into contact with any live person who wrote music. I met plenty of other violinists, who were soloists on the international circuit, or who were in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, or who taught at Northwestern University, or who were members of a Named Quartet, or who were conductors. That was my world.

We ALL played "cover songs".

I was surrounded by people whose world-class careers were made on their ability to interpret, perform, and bring alive the compositions of men whose creations have lived on for centuries. I learned to respect the art of specialization. I learned that there was enormous depth and expansiveness to the art of bringing life to written music through an instrument. By watching the very few artists who I considered truly great, having developed a seamless relationship with their instrument (Yo-Yo Ma and Anne-Sophie Mutter to name my favorites), I learned that a particular performer's rendition of the same song could make the difference between sitting through yet another classical music concert, and being totally transported to another realm. So naturally, when I first began to hear about this imaginary "line in the sand" between "Those Who Do" and "Those Who Don't" play original songs, I was puzzled. When I first heard the question, "Do you play any originals?" I mistakenly thought that it was just curiosity. I was also confused because all of the parts I play on my violin right now are improvised, in other words, composed in the moment by me. With very few exceptions (two pieces right now, to be exact), I don't consult a chart or instructions beforehand, preferring to train my own listening presence and self-trust. From my short time of being exposed to original singer/songwriters, I feel great awe and respect for people who can actually write great songs, with melodies, harmonies, rhythms, textures, lyrics, and emotion, AND perform them with conviction and connection with an audience. But gradually I've learned that there is a dividing line in this particular corner of the music world, between the “Have”s and “Have Not”s. Certain open mics don't even allow acts who play cover songs. And the question, "Do you play originals?" is more a screening question for respect among the Lone Artist masses who make the rounds of open mics.

Does "original" necessarily mean more creative?

My band, which plays acoustic renditions of songs originally written and performed for other instruments (electric or otherwise), is often relegated to the "covers" camp immediately, since we don't lead with the fact that we "write" our own songs. However, what we are doing is creativity in just as valid a form as any other. We build upon great music, we capture the essence of what we feel from that original music, and we make it our own. We create a great experience for our audiences through our particular instrumentation, layered with some improvisation and a healthy dose of passionate feeling (hence the name, "Melodrama"). Right now, we're building on the great writing and musical backbone of songs that came before us. And we're open to seeing where the creative process will take our music next. At the end of the day, I believe that the "original" versus "covers" distinction is less important than the listener's experience. Did our audience enjoy the time spent with us? Will they tell their friends about us? Would they come to another show? Did we as musicians enjoy ourselves while we played? Did we find outward expression for an authentic feeling within us? These are the most important questions. (Just for the record, we are beginning to explore the creation of some "original" songs.)

On Sunday afternoon I went to see my friend perform in a play.

As I sat down in the small experimental theater, settling in to receive whatever the performance would bring me, it occurred to me that I would never ask an actor or actress whether they write their own material. The fact of the matter is, I don't care. A good performance of a good play written centuries ago is no better or worse than a good performance of a good "original" work from the present-day. The same goes for mediocre performances or mediocre writing. The combination of great material AND great performances is what makes a great audience experience. So as a newcomer to this particular corner of the wide, wide musical world, I'm very content to focus on giving great performances of great material, whether or not it's written by someone I know or someone who's in the room. If I can connect convincingly with an underlying emotion in sound and reproduce that in my instrumental rendition of a piece of music, then I consider myself a musician. That's my original sound you're hearing. And that's all I need to be right now.

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