Monday, September 25, 2006

Performing Live Music - Cover Songs, or Original Music?

There is a kind of philosophical debate among musicians regarding the best way to become known and make your way in the music business.
Some musicians just want to play live in front of an audience, and they think the best way to do that is to play cover tunes that people are used to hearing on the radio. Apparently, that is what bar owners think their patrons want to hear and so that is usually what they hire for those venues. People end up going to the bars and hear the same tired old standards played over and over again by an endless line of cover bands for years. But that is how some musicians think the music industry works.

Lots of musicians simply like to play their instruments. They don't really care that much WHAT they play as long as they get to play. There is release in playing an instrument once you get good at it. And there is pride in the skills and talents. It just feels good. It's nice to feel the appreciation of the audience when they do a good job. Also, not all musicians are cut out to write music. They aren't interested, or they just don't have it in them to create in that fashion. So they play other people's songs - popular songs that everybody knows and recognizes. And those who do have a bit of an itch to write a few original tunes might use that as an opportunity to inject them where possible. In between playing "Celebration" and "Brick House", theoretically you might try to slip in the odd original tune hoping no one notices. The idea there is that you first become well known by playing cover tunes in the bars, and then eventually you come out with your own album and launch your own music. The problem with that is that the industry doesn't really work that way. I've done that for a living already. There are two separate music industries with different people in each one and with a wall of sorts between them.

For me, the purpose of having a band is not to 'sneak in' some original tunes to an audience who is there to listen to top 40 songs, or drink beer, or talk while the music plays in the background. I did that for a living when I was young. That was my full-time professional job for about 4 years back in the mid 70's. I was traveling on the road and playing with various bands in clubs steadily that whole time. These were bands like Nightflight, The Ace Baker Band, Rick Corey and Memphis, Luckless Pedestrian, etc. None of them ever amounted to much, really. They were just bar bands playing cover tunes. How could they go anywhere from just that? We played in bars. The managers/booking agents were not looking for ways to record our music and promote the albums, call up radio stations, etc. - they were not even in that business. So they simply lined up more bars for us to play. When there were no bar gigs or tours, then we didn't play, and we didn't get paid. This is why most musicians have to live with someone else who actually makes the money to pay the bills. It's not a very reliable way to make a living. That, boys and girls, is what's known as an understatement. Back then I was the highest paid guitarist on the circuit and I still only made $250 per week. Most made $100 to $150. Even in new math, that still only works out to about $10K per year. Even welfare pays more than that. So I left that world behind. The bars in towns dotted across the country, the travelling ever Sunday, riding in the truck with the equipment - sometimes sitting ON the equipment. The roadside junk food. The cheap hotels. The low money. The lack of any foreseeable better future. It was fun and cool for a while, but after 3 or 4 years, the shine wore off the penny.

But these days, especially in the last seven years, my main focus is all about writing and recording music. And I have recorded 11 albums containing 109 songs so far - with plenty more where that came from! But record labels are not interested in spending money to promote a recording artist that has music but no band to perform it live in concerts to help promote it. And so I decided to put a band together for that purpose. The band is called, "The Val Serrie Project" (or VSP for short). I plan to have us play anywhere we can in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, and I'm very willing to play for free to accomplish that. At least for the first while, until the reputation is more developed. But I want it to be my music that I'm promoting, not someone else's.

Think about all your favorite artists and imagine if they had not chosen to write your favorite music. For example, I think Sarh McLachlan writes beautiful music. Imagine if she had only ever played top 40 music in bars. None of her songs ever would have been written or out there for us to enjoy. It's the same with Pink Floyd, Toto, Billy Joel, Steely Dan, Vertical Horizon, Level 42, Sting, or The Eagles. I'm sure the Eagles could easily have been another top 40 band playing bars in L.A. and we never would have heard of them. If they didn't bite the bullet and just hunker down and write the music and promote it, then all those great songs would never have made it out into the world. The world would be a lesser place without their art in it. Well, I also have music that I want to be born into the world. I think it is worthwhile, that it has value. And I want to see it live.

One of the things I realized when I was a full time musician, was that if you spend your time playing covers in bars, you are not even on the track to getting your original music written, recorded, listened to, evaluated, and promoted. It just doesn't happen. There are two music worlds out there and they are completely separate. It is entirely different people in each business.
One provides living human jukebox services for bars. The managers and booking agents are all set up to place bands in bars, and find bands to place in bars. They set up 'tours', which are essentially a string of bars in a geographical sequence that the bands go to play. These guys have nothing to do with recording contracts, or radio gigs, or concert halls. They know people who own bars. And people who have bands that play in bars. That's their world. And in those bars you generally have a bunch of people who are there to get drunk and pick up members of the opposite sex to get laid. In that environment, the band is just part of the background noise to the setting. It could just as easily be a jukebox in the corner, or a DJ - it's just background. The ambiance of the nightclub scene.
If you look carefully at the picture to the right, you'll see a bar band playing there. However, you may also notice that they are being largely ignored. Of all the people shown in this crowded bar in the picture, only one seems to be even facing the band. How important do you suppose they feel their music is to any of the patrons of this place? To me, this is what it is to be a bar band playing covers in clubs. Some are larger and with a more prominant stage, and many are just like this - a small corner of a pub-like setting.

From what I've heard, the most famous and successful cover band in Dallas history was perhaps The Saints. Mike, a friend and longtime professional drummer that did most of the drum tracks on my last album, actually played with them for 2 years at one point. Ever heard of them? I'm thinking probably not, right? That might be because other than providing a live music backdrop to the bar scene at a bunch of bars around town for a few years, they contributed nothing to the music world in general. What would you have heard on the radio? Their rendition of "I'm Still a Young Man" or "Can't Touch This"? People would rather hear the original recordings by the original artists. Sure, playing in the band is a little extra cash for the guys in the band, and helps them make ends meet, but beyond that it's pointless - at least for my purposes.

And the other music business provides new music for the music industry, and plays concerts. They develop new rhythms, new melodies, new ideas. They go where others may not have gone before. Their music touches people when they hear it. They are the originals. I would much rather be in the second world. They are the ones that become famous. They are the ones that could potentially become rich. But, more importantly, they are the ones that contribute something to the culture. They add music to the world. That's what I want to do. I already did the other thing when I was young. I learned my lesson. I realized then that I was going to have to quit playing in bars to switch over to the other track, the original music track. Because I couldn't use my contacts in the live music-bar scene to get me anywhere in the recorded music/concert scene. They were simply not the same people. And since I made my living playing in bars, and that meant I was constantly traveling and never had enough money to launch a project on my own with that small an income, that meant I had to have a real job to support myself and do the music as a non-paying hobby until I could write enough material and produce an album, and then put together a band that can play it, and then promote it to the record industry. That was the way to launch that new music track. It's just taken me 30 years to get there. I'm still not there yet, but I have most of the pieces in place for that to happen. Finally.

Let's look at the parts I've accumulated so far: I have the music - I've written well over 100 songs. I have recorded them in the studio and created 11 albums. (9 albums of actual unique material,), including all the graphics and layout work. I have put together the website with extensive content. I have made up business cards, created a logo, and made up band t-shirts. I have the equipment. 20 guitars, 4 amps, 2 PODs, an array of stompboxes and rack mounted effects, a Pro Tools recording studio, a PA system, lights, etc. I have put a band together and practiced for over a year with the rhythm guitar player to teach him the music - which is fairly challenging to play, I must admit. I have created all the special backing-tracks CDs with special custom mixes for playing with different combinations of instruments, that way, it supplies the instruments and voices that I can't do live, and gives a good, consistent overall sound to the band. Now the band is almost ready. Our first performance is this weekend.

The problem now is that it has taken me a lot of years to get to this point, while doing very little else with my non-working life. I didn't go play golf. Or baseball or hockey. I didn't go fishing. I haven't been camping in over 15 years. I have focused pretty much my whole life on my music. Writing it. Playing it. Recording it. Tweaking it. Getting it right. Making it better. Learning more. In the meantime, I have gotten older. I am no longer the 21 year old, reasonable-looking young man with good hair. Now I am a guy who doesn't fit the profile for a rock star type at all. At least not for teenagers. My shot at fame and fortune has probably passed me by long ago because of that. I gave it up to make a living and support a family. But I have not given up. Now, I just hope for a tiny slice of that world. Just a small wedge of opportunity so that I can pour in my essence and contribute what I have to give.

I know I don't look cool enough to allow a record label to make me into a teenage rock star or anything, and most of the entertainment world is all about the looks, but I'm hoping that there is some part of the music world out there that still is focused on the music, and that might appreciate at least some of what I have to offer in that regard. Teenagers are not the ONLY ones who buy music. In fact, I think Wal-Mart and Target have discovered that most teenagers DON'T buy the music. They download it for free off the internet. The ones who actually BUY the CD's are the older folks like me. So I'm thinking that maybe there IS a market for my kind of music, since a large portion of the BUYING public is of similar vintage to me.

So that's what I am doing, and why. It would be a shame if all this effort for all these years was all for nothing. But we have to try, don't we? Most of us seem to spend our lives watching TV and letting it suck the energy and the life and the potential right out of us minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. At least I am trying to do something with the time and energy and creativity and talents I have. That can't be bad, can it?


At 9/28/2006 7:15 PM, Blogger Igor said...

Read this piece of yours 2 times.

My opinion - Val, you obviously achived more in life than 99% percent of North American population. I am sure Peter would confirm this to you, when the time comes...

Do I understand you correctly that you still feel inferior and want to climb from top 1% into top 0.1%, then to top 0.01% ?


on the live music: I be damned, I had no idea that there is such debate among musicians at all !! When I go to a live music place, the last thing I expect/want to listen to is a "top NN chart".... may be it wouldn't be original music, but, at very least I expect some lesser-known pieces, or some original interpretations/improvisations of a known tunes...

At 9/29/2006 12:07 AM, Blogger Val Serrie said...

Well thanks, Igor. But I think there are a lot of people who have accomplished a lot more than me.
Yes, I'd like to do more before I die.

As for live music, you may notice that usually most bar bands playing cover tunes, don't also have CDs of original music and play concerts.
And big concert bands don't usually play clubs.
Two separate worlds.

At 9/29/2006 8:24 AM, Blogger Igor said...

OF COURSE, you'd do MUCH more before you die, no question about it.

The question is : are you going to do it worrying about how well you're doing, how "high" you're climbing, ... ? Because that worrying is what I see in your post - you even give "excuses" why you're not as "successfull" musician as "others"... who others? michael jackson (irony) ?! pleeeeezeee...

Come on, Val, you ARE successful !


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