Sunday, 28 July 2013

Do You Have To Write Your Own Stuff? Really?

Around the time I was deciding to "turn pro" and make music my life's work. There was a huge Pub Rock scene in Perth, where thousands of people would go out on the weekend and see live bands in the cavernous beer barns around the city. The most successful of these bands were the cover bands, who would churn out classic songs and the latest hits in various measure. There were sixties bands who played songs from that era, Top 40 bands who limited their repertoire to what was in the charts, Rock bands, Pop bands - all playing songs that they didn't write, and doing pretty well at it. The band I was in - Flash Harry - played a variety of classic rock and current hits, and after a couple of years gigging around the traps, we started to introduce our own songs to the live show. It was fun to perform our own stuff, and some of them actually went over well with audiences. I had always written songs and music, and Flash Harry gave me the chance to see how people would react to my work. Throughout the life of the band, though, we new what put backsides on seats and paid the bills, and never really deviated from the classics/latest hits formula.

While the covers bands were plying their trade in the big rooms, there was an original scene that flourished in some of the smaller rooms populated by folks who were after something different, something quirky and non-mainstream, something that they couldn't get from the radio or television. Some of these original bands went on to make something of themselves, but whether or not they made it, they (like us) were learning their craft and gaining invaluable experience as a live musician. The big differences between the scenes were obvious - the covers bands played the big rooms to big crowds for good money, and the original bands played small rooms for small money. In a lot of cases (most, actually), the musicians in the covers bands were better players, since they were professionals and went where the income was. There were some amazing original players, of course, but most of the full-timers worked in covers bands, and had side projects to air their own compositions. There was, however, a gulf between the two scenes that sometimes was less than cordial. Basically, the original musos felt resentful of people that made a decent living from playing someone else's songs. Even the people who patronised the bands had something to say about the matter, and as I made my way around the music industry in Western Australia, I grew quite aware of this "Covers vs. Originals" mentality.

My own reaction to all this was primarily disinterest. I wanted to play my guitar and play music, and wasn't terribly interested in whether or not the songs were mine. In the eighties, there were some great songs on the radio, and I was happy to learn and play them - Springsteen and Mellencamp were releasing career-defining albums, Van Halen were hitting their straps, and Australian music was enjoying unprecedented popularity in the mainstream. Playing covers was fun, profitable, and gave me the chance to learn stuff from some of the best players of the day. Even if you were playing a Michael Jackson song, chances were that you were learning the chops of one of the best session players in the world. It was a good time to be listening to and playing music. While all this was happening, there were still the writers who wanted a slice of that pie, and were doing it hard by sticking to their own values and only performing their own (or band's) compositions.
I could understand where the original bands were coming from, but saw it as cutting off their noses to spite their faces that they refused to do something that would make them money while they were getting their own stuff together - something like play some covers on the weekend. Nonetheless, attitudes prevailed, and there remained the increasingly antagonistic schism within the music scene in Perth. The deciding factor, of course, was the public, and what they wanted. What the average pub-goer of the eighties wanted was to go to a hotel and be entertained by songs they knew and heard on the radio played by a live band, while they were getting drunk and maybe finding some companionship with members of the opposite sex. That was the pub scene, and that's how it was.

While I wasn't too concerned with my own music getting airing and taking precedence over making money, I could see that a lot of musicians were of this mindset, and occasionally, I would hear covers bands get the blame for the failure of original music to take over the scene - "they get all the big gigs, and we miss out" was the gist of it. I found this laughable, but it didn't change the fact that a lot of people were laying blame on others for their own shortcomings. The reason I thought this was that I had seen and heard some of the original bands that were doing the accusing, and they were, almost to a one, terrible. I was once confronted by one of these players, telling me that covers bands were the reason nobody came to his gigs. My reply was to suggest politely that perhaps the main reason for his lack of patronage was that maybe he sucked. Needless to say, the object of my observation was less than happy with my suggestion, but my point was a valid one - you cannot expect success in any given field unless you are good at it, and know how to present your product. Being "original" is no guarantee of a passionate following. You have to earn it, whether you are playing your own music or Born In The USA.

There are always going to be conflicting attitudes about music and its performance, and it is not my place to say specifically what is a right or wrong way to go about writing, performing or enjoying music. However, a little insight and musical history can go a way towards clarifying how the present situation came to be - the "you have to write your own music" school of thought so dominant in today's music scene. Or parts of it, anyway. I will discuss some of this and also my own take on things in my next entry.

Stay safe, and be happy.