November 03, 2022
The fact is, musicians are creative, and while some get all their joy from playing and none from writing, many working musicians would also like to get their own work heard. Not to mention, if you’ve got designs on creating a bigger act, playing only covers is extremely limiting. At some point, as you grow, you’ll be called upon to create your own sound.
Still, it can be tricky to transition from cover band to original artist, or even just to work a few of your own tunes into the set for fun and satisfaction. It can be done, though – it just takes a little forethought.
The first step is obvious – your originals need to fit in. If you’re playing nothing but jazz standards but your passion is to write death metal, your original song won’t fit in the set, no matter how you interpret it. This doesn’t mean you have to stick religiously to a narrow genre and write exactly like the songs in your cover set, it just means the originals should work in context. In practice this isn’t often hard, because many cover bands have a wide variety of tunes from various genres.
After a while, you may have even developed your own way of interpreting covers, which is great for transitioning to originals, because it means you’ve already developed a unique style. All you’ve got to do is start writing in that style and working the originals in as if they were just another cover.
This is the hardest truth to swallow: originals often stand out in for being the worst songs in a set. It’s hard to admit that but think about it – you’ve just played a half of an hour of some of the greatest songs ever written, crafted after decades of practice by some of the masters of the craft. Plus, those songs have nostalgia going for them.
Even if your song is great, it’s got a lot to compete with. This means you can’t get away with going halfway on your songwriting craft and expect your originals to stand in with great covers. That’s ok – the masters aren’t gods – just good songwriters. Dedicate yourself to that art and your songs will work in your set.
Pro Tip: Lyrics are most often the weak point in originals played on local stages. If you’re serious about doing more originals and you don’t have the gift of gab, get yourself a talented lyric writer or take some classes just for that.
This is a little trick of the mind that can work wonders in any set, covers or not, but can be especially helpful in setting you up for success when adding originals to a cover set. Don’t do the old, “this song is our original…it’s about such and such”.
It’s tempting to do that, to call attention to your songs, but the unfortunate reality is that it sets an expectation in the audience’s mind that the next song won’t be as good as the others. Why is this? Because listeners are conditioned to believe that “famous” songs are better than “your song” – whether it’s true or not.
For that matter, don’t make a habit of announcing song names and original artists at all. Better to let the audience discover a song and go wild when they recognize it. Plus, rote announcements between songs aren’t conducive to building compelling sets anyway. This way, when your cover comes, audiences are more apt to think it’s a cover song they just don’t know and are more likely to give it its due. If it’s great (and you can do that), they’ll discover a new song to love. Later, when they find out it’s yours, all the better.
If you want the audience to learn about your originals, what you can do rather than announce it beforehand is let them know afterward. Once they’re done rocking out and loving the vibe, let them know “that was our tune Such and Such – hope you liked it!”
Finally, consider the venue and the audience before you decide how many originals to include. If your material is well crafted, you’ll almost always be ok to work in one or two, but some audiences or venues may be specific about the material they want. Those aren’t the best situations to bring out more originals.
Instead, you can seek out other gigs where originals will work better, and if you’re interested in transitioning away from covers, doing more of these will help. You can even do some marketing to help you establish originality. For example, as you grow, you might bill cover-oriented gigs as “So and So plays the classics!” versus other gigs where the bill is simply “So and So”. This way you can start to set expectations.
It's perfectly understandable to want to play your own music – after all, music isn’t just for you, and famous people aren’t the only ones with talent and something to say. The main thing to remember is that your musical ideas are just as valid as anyone else’s, and if you want to work covers into your set, you should!
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