While I don't approve of the gratuitous sexual aspects of the tv show Nashville, I do appreciate the realistic storylines and characters which are smack-dab in the midst of various stages of a career. In one episode, a song-writer was crooning a new song in his livingroom with his guitar while another artist watched him "create" on the spot. The artist shook his head and said that he finally understands what kind of artist he is. He told the song-writer, "You are a true artist, because you can create amazing music from nothing. I am a true performer, because I can take someone else's creation and perform it well."
That statement stuck with me. It occurs to me that some artists are not truly innovators of music, but just performers. They are able to take someone else's creation and make it sound authentic. This is the essence of the COVER SONG.
Many artists are passionate about singing "covers" of other artists because they are able to "sound similar" to those famous artists. Many fans hear those cover songs and become interested in that artist. Youtube is full of artists that sound like someone else, but in the business side of being an artist, a few things will happen when you build your hopes on using cover songs to start a career. You will either become a well-known cover artist or band, or people will move on to the next cover artist who creates a fan base doing what you've done. Singers like Tori Kelly and Joseph Somo, for example, have huge fan bases from their covers, but they've taken the approach of NOT sounding like the original artist and making their own version of the same song. This is a very useful method of growing beyond the karaoke track method most artists are content doing.
However, there will come a time in a career when creating original music must happen, and that introduces a whole different set of challenges and hills to climb.
My son, Spencer Kane, has gone through some frustrating live concerts where he is annoyed by fans not reacting and just staring at him when he thinks he's pouring out everything he has on stage. I've taken him aside a few times to remind him that he is not a "cover" artist and most fans are seeing him perform his original music for the first time, so they don't know words, can't get excited about what's coming next, etc. They are more evaluating whether he is a true artist or not. There is no relatability for them. For that reason, he started putting a few covers in his live set and that added some relatability that fans could connect with and sing along. It actually helped them relax and have fun. I told him until he has a radio hit that fans come to the concert to see him perform, it will always be a "cold call" sales job to a degree. At least they are a captive audience saying, "I'm here, now entertain me."
A good friend and multi-Grammy and Dove nominated and winning producer told me some great advice about Spencer's career. He shared that it is very important for Spencer to understand that every performance is like a politician speech. Every business meeting is a politician fundraising event. Every press interview is like a politicians interview. The audience (fans) are like constituents that need to believe in the politician. They need to be convinced that politician cares about them and their ideals, passions, and goals. In that sense, doing cover music makes the artist more likeable to a lot of fans. But it's a delicate balance when people finally get to know the artist and keep hearing the same stuff over and over. They get bored and want something new. So in that sense, the cover song can be a great door opener, but as soon as you have "sold" yourself to the customer (fans) then you need to show that you are more than just a door opener type act. I want to get back to that politician metaphor in later blogs. So remember that.
Covers can be a curse too.
Some artists will simply never have a performance that is strong enough to exceed the original artist's version. Simon Cowell said it often on American Idol about contestants that would take on songs from divas. Unless you are able to exceed the original artists version, it can be a mess, or in a more kind way, just "ok".
When dealing with young people (kids and teens) who are trying to make it, cover songs are the most logical step, but even then, song choice and lyric content are critical to having authenticity. This is probably the most critical part of dealing with young people in the industry, song choice and authenticity.
One thing that we've learned is that "industry" people (labels, managers, venue owners, etc.) are quick to spot authenticity. Does the artist come across as authentic or as a puppet? This was perhaps the hardest lesson to learn when developing Spencer so far. Does he come across as authentic?
Authenticity in cover songs is tough to pull off. Matching the emotion, interpretation of lyrics, the energy or lack of energy in the music are all part of being authentic. A lot of young kids have skill in their voice. They can do "runs" or "adlibs" that seem authentic. Compared to sports, it's like they are able to do the spin move on the court before making a layup. You can tell they've practiced the moves (vocally). Or in some cases, you can spot voices that are "trained" with coaches, because they hit each note, they visually take their breathing cues on time and their mouth moves properly. This isn't bad, but it can come across as being a "trained puppet" who lacks authenticity. It doesn't mean you shouldn't practice or get training, it simply means that how you perform after having those can make a huge difference on authenticity. Sometimes kids who are voice trained with certain techniques are unable to come across as authentic because of song choice of covers.
For example, it seems that most kids feel that if they can pull off R&B like vocals (runs, adlibs, grunts and groans) they are supposed to be gifted artists. They choose R&B cover songs that have amazing melodies and require serious skill to sing, but they forget that some of those songs are about adult themes that just do not ring true when a kid sings it. So regardless of the skills shown, they can seem "inauthentic" because the lyrics just don't work.
I filmed a music video for a 16 year old female singer once. She was a trained gospel singer (church singer) who obviously had church choir solo vocal quality, but she was singing a song about going to a club and getting into it with another girl about a guy. It was everything I could do to film that video without wanting to grab her parents and say, "Why is she singing about a club when she's not even old enough to get into one?" I just didn't believe her performance or the song. It featured her vocals nicely, but it just didn't work. Unfortunately, the parents spent thousands of dollars on her album, which was full of "inauthentic" songs, and she never continued pursuing singing after her album never sold much and her concerts dwindled to nothing because the "cute" factor went away when she was trying to be Beyonce.
The fact is, choosing a cover song is hard. It should be. Most kids choose songs they know their fans listen to or a song where they can feature their skills. That's a short-sided view with short-sided result potential. It's not going to build long-term success, but it may create short term hype.
Looking back at some covers Spencer has done over the years we realized that he simply did them to show skill and neglected to realize that he wasn't authentic. Now, when he chooses a cover, he tries to find topics in music that the listener would believe he could sing about and be genuine. Simply, age appropriate.
So, what's the bottom line here? In order of importance:
- Lyrics are believable for the age of the singer
- Vocals are sung in an original way without trying too hard to sound like the original artist. Make the vocals your own.
- Choose songs that the primary audience (fans) know the words to and can sing along.
- If possible, find an arrangement or create an arrangement that differs from the original so that it presents the artist as innovative more than trying to be a sound-alike.
It's not easy to find songs that meet all 4 criteria, but when you can, it will make the artist stand out above the thousands of other artists doing the same song. Even then, sometimes there are factors that will not cause the song to be so amazing that fans jump on board as much as you'd like.