So far in the I WIll Thrive journey I haven’t spent much time talking about my passion for music. Which is weird since it’s been a part of my identity for as long as I can remember. There is however just one thing as a musician that I always have conflicted feelings about. That my friends is the topic of cover songs.
Music is in my blood and it stirs my soul. So much so that when people say things like “I don’t really listen to a lot of music.,” I have a hard time thinking they’re real people. Are you a freaking robot or something? You don’t listen to music?! What do you do? A neighbor of mine once told me he never listened to music, only talk radio. He even said “I don’t really like music,” and then I threw up in my mouth. I also never spoke to him again.
At the youngest of ages, when people would ask me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I would answer, be a DJ on a radio station. What could be cooler than sitting around talking about music and playing it for people?
I come from a long line of musicians and writers, on both sides of my family tree. My grandfather, Poppie, was an up and coming opera singer in New York, looking to have a promising career. He was just a young father at the time. I heard stories of that experience in his life many years later as we drove around in his Buick on errands.
I very specifically remembered him telling me that he gave up the New York life, as much as he loved it, because the city and his schedule as a singer was not conducive to family life. He wanted to be a present father. They ended up in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where they had three children and he still pursued his love for music in other ways.
However, what I found ironic, and perhaps even a little sad when I thought back on his life, was that he ended up in a job where he had to travel a great deal anyway. He was a pharmaceutical salesman for many years. Which meant he was away from his family more than he would have liked. I have to wonder if he ever regretted his decision to leave New York, especially with where his career ended up.
Whatever the case, I am incredibly determined to make sure I don’t give up my creative dreams. But, just like my grandfather, being a present father to my kids is one of my highest priorities. Having to work the standard 9-5 jobs has been a splinter in my arse and soul for years. I always felt like I was missing out on quality time with my kids, and that I was spending more time with my co-workers than them. Hey, I’ve had some cool co-workers over the years, but sorry – you’re not as cool as my kids. And some of them poop their pants, and they’re still cooler than you, so you better think about that a little. 🙂
The Dream Of A Creative Life
I’ve dreamt and dreamed and dreamt a few times more of being able to work on my creative projects as a living, while still being there for my kids. The opening statements of the I Will Thrive project talks a great deal about how the pandemic of 2020 finally pushed me into taking the jump into living the life I’ve envisioned for so long. It’s been an incredible time of discovery, and so far so good! I’ve been able to be home with my kids and work on my stuff all year. Just gotta make sure it starts bringing in enough cash so I don’t lose our house.
Ok back to being a music mommies! I picked up the guitar at the age of 10, and I never went back. I have memories of writing songs the very first week I started. They consisted of me just playing the open strings in various patterns, but I thought it was awesome. I know I wrote one about good and evil with the low notes and the high notes. Haha. But the first real song I wrote with lyrics and the whole deal was a song about Pez dispensers. Man, I had a healthy obsession with those candy dispensing magical plastic stick heads of majesty.
Broaden Your Horizons?
Quickly my answer of what I wanted to do when I grew up moved from being a DJ to being a musician. My mom tried to help me explore a few other paths. She put me in karate for awhile, which I was excited about initially because I loved the movie Karate Kid. I think if there had been a little Asian guy teaching, I maybe would have lasted a couple months longer than I did, but I only lasted a couple weeks. Haha.
I played football for a very short stint in junior high. I was a big dude, and my weight put me on the team with all the players that were older than me. While I was big, I wish we would have fought for me to go on the team with the kids my age, then I could have been one of the bigger players there, and maybe I would have lasted a little longer as well.
As it turned out, I was one of the smaller players on my team. One day during practice one of the big guys on the team wanted to teach me a lesson. He pummeled me to the ground as soon as he had the chance. Well, he hit me so hard he knocked the crap out of me. Literally. I was so embarrassed, I never stepped foot on the field ever again. Haha.
Music, It Has To Be Music
Really, the lack of my own Mr. Miyagi, and getting the crap knocked out of me are just rouze anyway. Starting at that young age of 10, I fell in love with writing music, and no other extra curricular activity could ever flush it out of my system to take precedent.
Well, flash forward to present day, and we’re living in a unique time. The YouTube era is a fascinating time to be a musician, and the competition is fierce. One strategy that has been around since little baby YouTube had just left the womb of the mother internet, is to record a cover song and release a music video of the cover. Ideally for the songs that are currently trending. Then, as people search for those songs, the cover songs can gain exposure as well. That strategy has really paid off for a great deal of artists.
It would be easy to say that strategy is dead, but then we still have new cover based channels that crop up today and do well. YouTube is pretty sophisticated these days and in most cases will identify the melodies of the popular songs, and then the cover artist is unable to make money on it inside of YouTube’s system. Even still, with services like patreon, some of them still make thousands a month from their fans support.
But How Do You Really Feel About Cover Songs?
But all that leads us to another discussion point. I have crazy mixed feelings about cover songs in general. As a musician and artist that writes my own music, I can’t say that my dream is to spend tons of time and energy re-hashing someone else’s work. This goes all the way back to when I very first started learning how to play the guitar.
Those early moments of learning an instrument are so stinking awesome, especially with younger children. They don’t care about being wrong, they experiment and play and write crazy things. To date, some of the most musically creative songs I’ve ever written were in my earlier days of songwriting.
I was also never one of those guitarists that learned and memorized tons of songs to play for others. I was even kinda snooty about it, and I remember seeing guys like that in high school. They’d bring their guitar and spend every lunch hour trying to impress others with all the songs they knew. Posers. I’d scoff at them knowing I could play any of those songs, but I didn’t really want to spend my time showing off like that.
It’s impossible to learn to play an instrument without leaning on musicians before you, but as soon as I had little bit of a grasp on chord structure and how the guitar worked, I started writing and spending more time on my own songs compared to learning the songs of others. That has remained true my entire life. I still know very few songs by other artists.
I’d love to hear how others feel about cover songs. In my book, If I’m going to listen to a cover song, I really want a fresh take on the material. If the song sounds exactly the same, then what’s the point? Maybe the musician just wanted to see if they could pull it off?
Some of the most successful cover songs the past couple years have all seemed to come from the band Weezer. I don’t hate what they’ve done in their versions of Toto’s Africa, or Rosanna, but I also don’t think their versions were different enough to really spark real interest for me.. Africa for example is pretty dang close to the original, aside from a little bump up in distortion in the chorus. The keys and percussion I would say are still more technical and interesting in the original version.
Sometimes however, when an artist does a new crazy fresh take, I still hate it. Haha. One example of a cover like is Disturbed covering Simon and Garfunkel’s, The Sound of Silence. It was definitely a different spin on the song, but I’d never choose to listen to that cover compared to the original. Any one else out there agree on that? It’s still a highly searched cover song!
That Was A Cover Song?
There’s also times when artists have covered songs, which became huge hits for them, and the vast majority of the listeners have no idea it was a cover at all. One of my favorite bands growing up was They Might Be Giants. They usually took first place in terms of what I listened to most often, as well as how much money I spent on buying posters and t-shirts and crud. One of the only things I’ve ever won in my life was a radio station contest to see and meet They Might Be Giants at the station.
I later found out that my mom had been fervently praying that I could win because my life had been so hard. Haha. Whether it was a mothers prayer or good old fashioned luck, I won, and it was the first time I’d ever been up close to someone I looked up to in the creative world. My childhood best friend Cam Kendell and I went, and we had a killer time. We did most things together back then, including loving They Might Be Giants.
Haha, the point there was that I was flabbergasted, and even let down a little when I found out that one of They Might Be Giants most successful songs, Istanbul Not Constantinople, was in fact a cover song. It blew my stinking mind right out of my mind.
Sometimes You Gotta Give In
As determined as I’ve been to spend more time on my music than playing covers, I have had to come to terms with the utility of it, especially if you’re looking to create an audience on YouTube. If you want people to discover and find you, they won’t be looking for music that they’ve never heard of.
You could always push it in their face with ads, but unless you have an insane amount of money to make such a push, that won’t move the needle all that much. I currently have 5 cover songs on my YouTube channel, and 4 original songs. I’ve tested driving traffic to some of those videos, and I can attest that you get a way a bigger bang for your buck with cover songs. Far more people click on the ads.
But does recording a version of a trending hit song make a difference in traffic? I’ve given that a shot twice. Once it was a song that was exploding internationally called Mumbai Dilli Di Kudiyaan. It’s actually a song from a Bollywood-esc movie called Student of the Year 2. I tried pulling off a trippy rock cover with a ukulele, all in a language I don’t know at all.
It was a fun test, but it didn’t get anywhere traffic wise. My friend Clark said he’s kids loved it, so that’s cool. The song does have a line of lyrics in english that say “Girls, girls, girls, you know they want to party all night, you know they to party till the sun comes up, you know they want it.” So, it’s totally a kids song. Haha.
My latest cover however is wearing a different pair of pants. What? I just didn’t want to say my latest cover is a different story, so a different pair of pants seemed better, it wasn’t. If you look at each of the 5 cover songs I’ve recorded, I’ve tried to follow the model of what most interests me in a cover song.
I covered the Twenty One Pilots song, Truce. That song is a piano based ballad. I didn’t change the vibe or the energy, but I added some extra harmony and I played it on guitar instead of the piano.
Then, I’m a huge Bill Withers fan, and I thought a rocked up version of Aint No Sunshine, would be fun. It was in fact a blast.
Next I did a cover that was stinking insane. I have a good buddy that is a fellow rocker. We’ve been to many concerts together and we have even been doing semi-regular zoom calls lately to share rock anthems with each other. That tradition started almost ten years ago when we worked together.
Well, for years he challenged me to turn one of the most non-rock songs on earth into a rock anthem. It was finally time to take him up on his challenge. I turned Savage Gardens, Truly Madly Deeply, into a rock song. You’ll have to let me know if I succeeded. The head banging man, the head banging.
Now I am moving into this year, where I was blessed enough to start playing in my studio with a drum set. The premise of this entire cover song is that I always wanted to be a drummer, but without a set, I’ve drummed in my car like a mad man.
So I sat down to see if my car drumming skills would translate to an actual drum set. That, while playing Stone Temple Pilots, Vasoline. I changed this one up in that instead of the straight forward rock song that it is, I removed all guitars and played it with a banjo. An over sixty year old banjo that is my prized possession from Poppie.
Before I get to new latest cover song attempt, I thought I might share how I go about making covers. While I’d rather record and release my own music, there are parts of releasing covers that’s fun man fun man… fun. I’m not trying to brag here at all, but just to tell you my method. I find it way more fun to just try and use my ear when I decide to cover a song. I listen to the song, and then just figure it out on the instrument of choice. I intentionally don’t look up chords or tabs, or whatever. It’s more fun that way for me.
I go in knowing I want to do a different take on what the song already is. Either rocking it up, or banjo-ing it down, or having all our moms sing in an angelic mom choir, just something so it’s a bit different from the original.
Picking A Relevant Song
So just a couple weeks ago I again wanted to try out doing something that was currently very relevant and getting a lot of airplay. I thought I would go to the charts and listen to the top songs and just pick one. Now, I’ve done this before and in all honesty, one of the things that’s stopped me from recording covers is not being inspired by what’s popular. I have to at least like a song a little if I’m going to cover the thing.
Luckily for me, this time, the third biggest song in the world was Blinding Lights, by The Weeknd. A song that I think is interesting, and I don’t change the station when it comes on. Off to the races. After listening a couple times, I knew I just wanted to do a straight up rock version of the song. The original is all synths, computer effects, and vocals. So I figured a rock version would be fun, and I gravitate toward rock a lot. Funk is always fun too, but with dudes like Scary Pockets out there I don’t know that I’ll do a lot of funk covering.
Well, the main reason for writing this post is to simply verify what I’ve heard time and time again. Maybe some other artist or new YouTuber needs to hear it. But, doing a cover of something crazy relevant right now can work. My video isn’t exploding by any means, but it’s on it’s way to over 20,000 views, and I’ve gotten some new fans from the experiment. That is my biggest music video to date. So yeah. Riding the YouTube trending waves does make sense, and maybe some of us will get lucky.
But, take a word of advice that took years to figure out. If you’re gunna do it, don’t start with the motive of doing it just because you want views. You may never get them, and that’s an emptiness none of us need. Do the art, even if they’re covers, just because you love it. The music will sound better, and you will feel loads better than the alternative. Plus, then the day when you start getting some exposure, you are pleasantly surprised, instead of the bitter entitlement you could feel otherwise.
Also, please listen to music so we can me friends. Don’t be one of those “talk radio only people.” The world doesn’t need any more of those either. Haha. We already have my old neighbor.
VIDEO version of this episode HERE
PODCAST version of this episode HERE