The Popular Song and The Band That Covered It

Or, Can a “serious” musician get away with playing Gangnam Style?

Time for a show of hands – raise one or the other if you’re a musician who’s currently playing with a band. Keep said hand up if your band has performed live recently or is likely to do so in the near future. Now, continue keep that hand in the air if your band makes money from its performances. If your hand is getting tired, you’re allowed to change, because I shall ask you to maintain one or other hand skyward if your band gets paid for most of its performances. And finally, keep your hand up if these performances, for which you’re being paid, consist mostly of original material.

If you still have a hand in the air, I would congratulate you. To most of us, you are one of the lucky few. Not to say that it can’t be done by more of us – I do believe that the growth of online music has made it possible for far more people to do such things independently – but it does seem, certainly here in London, that most people won’t make money playing their own songs. Most of the people I know who make a living from music do so by playing other people’s music.

I’ve been doing the same myself – not enough to quit my day job yet, but I’ve been a stand-in bass player for a few of said friends, and more recently Cherry White started taking up “covers gigs” wherever we could get them. There’s no two ways about it: when you get a good crowd, it’s wonderful to receive money for playing your instrument. But on the other hand, I’ve ended playing songs that I don’t necessarily like to earn said money. I’ve played a few songs that I actually hate, and I only played them because somebody dangled some cash in front of me – does this make me sound like some kind of musical whore?

Fortunately, in the current lineup, I’ve been able to veto the songs I really hate (so no, we will not be playing Wonderwall, no matter how many times you ask), but any musician who follows this route is going to come up against this dilemma: you can play music you’d normally consider beneath you and earn some money, or you can attempt to keep your artistic integrity spotlessly intact and go hungry.

This aimless ramble was inspired by two forum posts I read recently: one about a guy who’d been told by his bandleader that they were going to learn Psy’s Gangnam Style for a function. And another which took a little more liberty with the imagination, but is a question all musicians should think about: if, for whatever reason, somebody offered you the presumably-very-well-paid job of touring in Justin Bieber’s backing band…would you take it?

The first one is a simpler problem and has simpler answers. If there’s any democracy to your band, you should be able to tell your bandleader that his idea is a silly one. Or, you may decide that with the song’s popularity, it would make your band more memorable if you could play it. The danger here, of course, is that you need to play it well: you don’t want to be remembered as “that band who did that AWFUL cover of Gangnam Style/Call Me Maybe/BadgerBadgerBadger”

Better still, how good would it look to the punters if you took a song as daft as Gangnam Style and worked out your own version of it? If your sense of humour will allow you to play a slightly tongue-in-cheek rock/blues/psychedelic/lounge jazz/bluegrass version of it, you can arguably win everybody over: people who still like the song will recognise it and do the silly horse dance, and people who are sick of it will be thankful that you’re doing something different with it, and maybe even enjoy the joke with you. (Hopefully, anyway: there is just no pleasing some people.)

The second one – assuming you hate Justin Bieber’s music as much as I do – seems to be a stickier question for some people. Suddenly there’s no “third option” of reworking Baby into your own insane dub-reggae-space-rock opus – Justin won’t like that, and it will probably scare the hordes of teenage girls who have flocked to see him. No, if you want the gig (or, let’s be honest, the money that comes with it) you’ll have to play Babyface-Beatlewig’s songs the way he intended them.

But, on the other hand, you’d likely make a metric fuckton of money. Suddenly that dream of making a living from music could become a reality, and you’d probably make some very useful contacts at the same time which could help with getting further work. With a few strokes of luck, you could even use this as springboard to help you make the music you actually want to make and still earn some money.

There’s no easy answer to that one. (Admittedly, at the same time, there’s no easy way to get yourself into such a job and see for yourself.) Would you be selling your soul, whoring yourself out and ruining your artistic integrity? Or would it be a necessary sacrifice for a longer-term career in music? Speaking as somebody who grudgingly played not only Don’t Look Back in Bloody Anger but also Champagne Fucking Supernova last New Year’s Eve, I’d say sometimes you do just have to grit your teeth and think of the free drinks and the cash at the end of the night. So if, hypothetically and against all odds, Justin Shortarse-Girlyvoice’s management invited me to play his godawful songs to large, cultish gatherings of pubescent girls around the world, I think I’d probably accept it. Just as, if someone offers me a well-paying gig and Gangnam Style is on the setlist, I’ll go and damn well learn to play it. (What? It’s better than anything Oasis ever wrote…)

I’d be telling myself, of course, that I’d use the money to fund the recording and release of the sprawling, psychedelic jazz-blues-prog-rock odyssey that I’ve always dreamed of. I’d love to see what Justin “Are You Even Old Enough To Shave?” Bieber’s fans make of that.

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