There are other aspects that should be considered when choosing songs for performance, which have nothing to do with the type of repertoire or creative ability, but are directly related to the current state of the music industry and the career choices the performer wishes to pursue.
The creative artist will often find themselves in a quandry, wether to compromise their musical integrity and perform cover versions to earn a living or to try and become established using their own original material. Of course there is no reason why the artist cannot do both, but sadly there are some people within the music industry who feel that a singer/band who perform covers are not suitable for signing consideration.
One particular incident that springs to mind is a conversation I had with a Manager whose band was due to appear on my radio show, when the subject of covers vs orginals came up. He calmly announced that he never signed artists who had ever played a cover song in their life. I think he was somewhat taken back when I chuckled and pointed out that as a professional singer and vocal coach this was highly unlikely as vocalists and musicians learn their art by copying other artists techniques and performing cover songs!
As children our first attempts at creating sounds are formed by copying our parents and the noises around us. Singing and music teachers use similar principles, instructing their pupils by using songs as well as scales and other exercises whilst self-taught musicians and singers spend hours singing along to their favourite artists before they find their own style. At some point the majority of these people have performed a cover in front of an audience, to some this may only be their mum or a bunch of mates, but many artists/bands start their career in this manner.
Performing covers does not prevent a singer or musician from also being competent at writing creatively. Many singer/songwriters work with other musicians and bands performing covers to support themselves whilst also pursuing a deal. Although balancing the time between rehearsals and gigs with the need to write and record can be tricky, it can be achieved. Wether you choose to follow this course is entirely up to you….at least until you are signed to a contract that states otherwise!
The majority of venues in the UK concentrate on booking acts that perform cover versions of popular artists/bands. For an act who wishes to find work in these establishments, this means that there are thousands of potential paid bookings available to pursue regardless of the style and genre of music they perform. Wages vary considerably depending on the size, experience and popularity of the act plus some artists are limited to venues who specialise in promoting a particular style of music. Although it is competitive a good singer/band can find work with self promotion or the help of an agent or manager.
At the time of writing this article there is yet another resurgance in popularity of artists/bands re-recording cover versions of songs that have previously been successful hits. This is good news for singers who do not write their own songs and there have always been record labels who are happy to sign an artist who is willing to record songs they suggest or have written specifically for them. If they didn’t then there would be no need for non-performing songwriters!
It is harder to earn a living as a writer and performer of songs that you have created yourself. Sadly there are fewer venues in the UK who encourage and promote unsigned acts, many cannot, or will not pay the artists and some even charge the act/band for the dubious privilege of performing, but it is possible to become established and/or gain music industry attention which could lead to signing a deal and getting paid gigs.
Some bands/artists have managed to cross over into the pub and club circuit by building a good following or performing a mixture of covers and original songs which may also be recorded and sold at gigs. Acts with management or recording contracts may have some or all of their engagements booked for them, which can include supporting established acts. The level of success or recognition gained varies on the commercial viability of the songs, popularity of the artist and amount of exposure that they or their representatives can attract.
Thanks to the internet, the ‘pigeonhole’ mentality that has influenced the state of the charts is slipping. Entertainers who may previously been rejected by established companies due to the inability to catagorise their music/style can post their demos or promote and sell their music from their own website and sites that offer promotional or broadcasting services free or at low cost to musicians, bands and singers. This allows anyone with a PC and internet connection to find, listen and buy new music from unsigned acts worldwide, without being limited to what the industry currently considers to be commercial.
The drawback for cover artists is mainly financial, a performing artist will only receive performance related fees unless they have also written the song and if they wish to record and release a cover version will be required to seek permission and pay royalty fees to the publisher or songwriter. The singer/songwriter receives royalty payments for the rights to perform, record and publish the work. The artist/band who writes, records and performs will earn more money and retains more control over the choice of songs performed or who performs them depending on if they are signed and the terms of their contract.
This doesn’t mean that artists performing covers cannot earn a substantial amount throughout their career and in many cases are far better off financially than a lot of signed recording artists, who may not see any actual cash from their royalties for several years, if at all.
Whether you choose to perform songs by other artists or your own material is a matter of taste and what you are trying to accomplish. Cover acts may earn more to begin with but reach a limit to how much they can charge per performance. Original artists have to work harder but gain satisfaction from performing their own material and can earn a higher income when signed if they become successful.
The Cover Song Quagmire (Mechanical Licensing)
Three Ways to Obtain Mechanical Licenses for Legally Recording and Distributing Cover Versions by Dale Turner.