Last week I offered a question regarding art and entertainment: what is the difference, to you? How would you define them? Is there a grey area where the two are intertwined?
Now, let me ask you a more specific question: what is the difference between a cover band (performs songs they did not author) and an original band (performs songs they did author)?
If you follow this blog, you may know that I’m a musician. You may have even listened to some of my work. Much of it is free and linked to here. I create original music, and it is art. At least to me. And I do it for me: I would still be writing songs if I were hopelessly stranded alone on a desert island, but that doesn’t mean I’d like it that way. I love sharing the work. The times that I have witnessed others being moved by it are very memorable. Milestones of achievement. I think of myself as an artist, but I am certainly to some degree also an entertainer, simply by virtue of making art in the first place.
Around the end of my college days in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in perhaps ’02 or ’03, I played in a hard rock/metal outfit called Hypertension. We were a three piece that wrote all our own material and played gigs as often as we could. I played guitar and sang, and Dennis and Mike (yep, two Mikes in the band) covered bass and drums, respectively. The songs we wrote were a collaborative effort between us, though for the most part each of us composed for our own instruments. We had some great times, and a strong camaraderie.
I recall one night we played at a venue creatively named The Club. Like the setup at Bob’s bar in Rome, NY that I described last week, there was little to distinguish stage from listening area. I stood in front of a packed bar and played songs that we had composed, and lyrics that I had written in the private crucible of meaningful, introspective catharsis. I belted out the words to expectant faces only a couple feet away from mine, and they were watching, paying attention. Some of them knew the songs, and sang them right back at me. They knew the words. They’d taken these songs home and listened to them, connected to them, and come back to see the songs performed again. This was one of the best moments I’ve had on stage. The way my message was not just heard but felt. I was received.
But some gigs were not so wonderful. Another night, we found ourselves in a playoff for a battle of the bands. The venue was huge and far too well lit, and there were tables and seats arranged in a huge square around the dance floor that the stage looked out over. The audience sat in place in the square and stared, like judges at a panel. Mildly sipping their cheap drinks. They did not applaud our songs. They cared nothing for our work. Deathly silence and vacuous stares from distant onlookers is, to most, worse than boos. Add to that an incompetent soundman who hated us for not doing his job for him, and members of another band who attended only to stand just off to the side of the stage and heckle us, and the evening was shaping up pretty awfully.
Another metal band called Ferrum played after us that night. A real class act, these guys were. But again, they played original music and the audience was having none of it.
The final performance went to a group whose name I cannot remember, of kids with brand new equipment clearly bought for them by their parents. They were a few boys and one or two girls, all high school most likely, all excessively thin and dressed in the latest fashion. They got up on stage and played covers. Skynyrd. Seger. Petty. And they played them badly. Horrible timing, poor tuning, not remotely tight. It seemed that they’d never used microphones before. But the audience roared to life. They approached the stage. They hollered, they danced. They had a great time.
I don’t blame the band for being a bunch of kids playing covers. That’s fine. And honestly you can’t blame people for wanting to hear the same old songs they’ve heard a hundred times, performed poorly by shallow children. It’s shitty, and any real fan of music would at least vaguely appreciate those who try to create it from scratch and do it with some skill, even if the song doesn’t immediately inspire them. But ultimately I don’t think the audience ignored Hypertension and Ferrum out of malice. I think they were just bored. Unmoved.
But there is a fundamental difference between what we did and what the cover band did, and it’s the same difference between every cover band and original band. One is an entertainer, and one is an artist. One is focused on performing for a response, and does not dive deep, does not speak from introspection, does not create art. The other does these things and allows the performance to be a secondary goal.
At the end of the night, the soundman decided a winner by standing in the middle of the room with a decibel meter and prompting the audience to cheer for the band they liked best. Ferrum and our group knew we were going to lose to the infantile hacks that came after. So, when it was time for the applause to be gauged, we walked out on the stage together, stood in a line, crossed our arms, and turned our backs on the audience. Little more than half a dozen men, defying a room full of musically shallow dolts. They booed us hard. The boos might even have been louder than the cheers when the soundman called the final band’s name. To this day I have not been booed on stage other than this one occurrence. It is a unique experience.
After this, because we were dudes in bands, much drinking followed between Ferrum and Hypertension. And friendships. And promises of working together on future shows. The members of the cover band were not allowed to drink, since the bar would not serve minors (and did not serve Hi-C or Kool Aid anyway). They left after receiving a personal congratulations from everyone in the establishment save the half a dozen long haired men in black sitting at the bar.
Conflation of cover bands and original bands still irks me and I get drawn into arguments over it from time to time. Yes, they both play you music while you slurp your drink at the bar. But no, they are not the same. One is bringing you their own art. An expression of the deepest, best within themselves. The other is trying to bring you a facsimile of someone else’s tired old art so that you will clap and they will get paid. For me, this is the difference between art and entertainment. This.
What do you think?