I’ve worked all sides of the equation — bartender, band members, and random drunk guy in the audience. The bar needs to make money, so they’re not gonna hire a band that doesn’t bring in customers. The band needs to make money, so they’re gonna try to give the audience something worth coming back to hear again. And the audience? Well….
Apparently, in this town, the audience is filled with idiots.
I’ve written over and over again about the talent in this town. I’ve written repeatedly about how said talent is apt to leave Birmingham, because they won’t be fully appreciated here. How many great bands have broken in this town?
I’ll give you a second to come up with one.
Now, how many have flirted with or found careers in music once they’ve left? Verbena, Maria Taylor (and her duo with Orenda Fink, Azure Ray), Jacob Bunton — there’s three.
How many more slammed into the glass ceiling over this town? The older you are, and the more you’ve been around the local music scene, the higher that number gets.
You can’t really blame the bands for this. Some are inept at marketing themselves; others think they’re entitled to some amount of fame and fortune by virtue of having played around Birmingham for x years. For the most part, though, the bands do their best to get the word out — whether through fliers and word of mouth or by way of these new-fangled Facebook and Twitter things. They practice, they hone both their skills nad their songs. They listen to bartenders and friends about what they could do better. They practice more, and network more, and book more shows.
And, mostly, the audience ignores them, because the Cheesebrokers or Mel and the Party Hats are playing down the street.
(Yes, those are probably dated references. I’m old, and too lazy to look up whatever the popular frat-house cover bands are these days)
Not to take away from those guys — or any band that plays covers. Hell, after twenty years of playing gigs in town, I still play covers. Because we want to get response form the audience, and we want the bartenders to make enough money that we get to come back and play again, and we want to make at least enough money to cover our bar tabs.
We play covers for the same reason that every other band in town plays covers: because that’s what you people want to hear.
It’s no wonder, really, that Birmingham has had such a strong presence on American Idol (two winners and one runner-up, to date) — our singers don’t have much choice but to practice on cover tunes.
So, yeah – call it my anti-American Idol bias. Or maybe it’s because I spend all day every day in search of and listening to new music, something to get me excited about having two functioning ears. Whatever — I’m tired of cover songs, and cover bands even moreso.
Once in a blue moon, there’s a good cover — usually a radically different interpretation or re-imagining of the original. And it’s all in the eye of the beholder – there are plenty of Bad Brains fans that would disagree with me in my love for the Living Colour cover of Sailin’ On, and personally I find Johnny Cash’s version of Hurt far inferior to Trent Reznor’s original.
Sometimes, the cover versions become the definitive version: think Jeff Buckley’s plaintive Hallelujah, Gary Jules’ bleak and distinctly un-techno Mad World, and Jimi Hendrix’s murderous Hey Joe. I would wager that the majority of people out there couldn’t name the original musicians behind those tracks (but if you want an edge in the bar-bet world — Leonard Cohen, Tears for Fears, and [depending on who you believe] The Leaves or Dino Valenti).
But these things are probably not going to be heard at your local pub. Odds are pretty good that you’re going to hear Brown Eyed Girl, and Summer of ’69, and Jesse’s Girl. And they’re going to sound exzactly like you want them to sound — which is to say, close to the original, not too much deviation from the norm, nothing that would make the audience uncomfortably far away from their CD player.
Why not stay home and drink, and listen to your CDs? It’s cheaper.
No, I know the answer — it’s a social thing, where you can listen to your CDs and still pick up some trashy drunk chick who’s had a couple of Jagerbombs beyond her weight class. And I get that there’s a need for that (although I will unapologetically make fun of those of you who would choose to frequent such establishments).
But what about the originals? Your favorite bands — your Bryan Adams and Rick Springfields and Lynryd Skynyrds — they all played originals tunes. Maybe they started playing backyard parties with whatever was popular at the time, but they didn’t get record deals to keep playing the songs that had already been hits once (except maybe Van Halen, but we’ll just blame that on Diamond Dave and keep moving). Would all of you still love Adele and Rihanna and Alan Jackson and whatever else is popular these days if all they did was put out cover albums?
Don’t answer that. Somehow, I suspect you might.
But if your answer is, strangely and surprisingly, no — get active. Head out to Bottletree or Workplay, or any of the bars that support original local music. Drop a few bucks in the tips jars of whatever musicians you enjoy, or buy a CD. Spread the word to your friends about Caddle or Heath Green or Rick Carter. Swing by some local mic nights and offer encouragement (or even some constructive criticism) to the participants. If you have friends in bands (and you enjoy their music), get to their shows, pay the cover charge, and have a few drinks — it’ll help them get more gigs.
Maybe I’m mistaken, and the collective audience of Birmingham isn’t primarily idiots who want to be spoonfed something comfortable and dull. Maybe you just need a kick in the ass, a little direction on how to make the talent in this town successful with your help.
I have no problem being proven wrong, so get to it.