Covers vs. Originals: Why classical musicians might not want to think like rock bands

In the previous post in this series I mentioned that I would be exploring narrow ideas of “Success” in discussions from some Classical Music Crisis folks. I brought up the phenomenon known as Survivorship Bias and how our models for success can be skewed by survivors while missing possibly more relevant data that can be learned from “failures,” which are far more numerous. In this post I’ll be discussing one of the perennial debates that local band musicians love to have, Covers vs. Originals, and how that fits into the wider debate of “Success” and modeling Rock/Pop band marketing, entrepreneurial, or gigging strategies.

Recap: Survivorship Bias

Survivorship Bias is the psychological phenomenon where we use successful examples in a field and uncritically replicate the behaviors practiced by those examples.  There are two unfounded assumptions here, 1) everything about being successful can be found in the attributes of the survivors, and 2) nothing about being successful can be found in the attributes of the failures.

Entrepreneur, Jason Cohen, sums it up by saying:

[W]hat if twenty other coffee shops had the same ideas, same product, and same dedication as Starbucks, but failed? How does that affect what we can learn from Starbucks’s success?

In other words, success might simply be statistical anomalies that happened to be “lucky” in its success.  He illustrates this by using an example from the experimental psychology research on ESP.

In a typical experiment, 500 people are screened for “strong telepathic ability,” measured by significantly above-average performance in a 25-card deck. Those selected are tested again, and more drop away. Tested a third time, perhaps one person passes again and we conclude that such a repeat performance is statistical evidence of genuine ESP.

To see why this is just a different face of survivor bias, consider the following experiment. I believe some people are “heady” when it comes to coin-flipping — getting heads more often than chance alone would suggest. So I put 1000 people in a room and tell them to flip a coin ten times. Sure enough, a woman named Margaret makes “heads” ten times in a row! The chance of her getting heads ten times in a row is only 1-in-1024, so I conclude Margret has special abilities.

Actually that last statement is true but misleading. The chance that Margaret would flip ten heads in a row is 1-in-1024, but that’s not the experiment I ran was it? I let 1000 people flip and “found” Margaret in the crowd.

The chance that somebody in a crowd of a thousand would flip heads ten times is a whopping 62%! Because so many people are attempting the feat, some normally-unlikely events will happen. This isn’t a test of Margaret’s abilities at all!

As I said in the previous post, “if we use anecdotal evidence from a few successful Classical Music groups which have adopted a Pop Music model, I think we should wonder how many ‘failures’ there have been amongst those who have also done the same.”

Not all Rock Bands are Created Equal


Another side effect of the Survivorship Bias is that we might fail to see other types of success. Having a narrowly defined idea of success (e.g. must be “contemporary” or “relevant” or “populist” or et cetera) means leaving out the data that can be gleaned from successes which fall outside the purview of the definition. I’m going to talk about a subject matter that is a favorite perennial debate amongst band musicians: Cover Bands vs Original Bands.

An Original Band is a group that plays music which is written by one or many of its own members while a Cover Band performs music written by someone else. These are the simple and straightforward definition but note how the language used already creates a value hierarchy (which is the point of contention in these debates) in that if Cover Bands aren’t Original Bands, then they are “Unoriginal Bands” (and sometimes, by that meaning they are “lesser musicians”).

Originality in Music is a particularly Western preoccupation and can be used to explain why this debate exists, as well as why we tend to preference the composer over the performers in, say, Classical Music.  For example, when was the last time a Music History text focused on the performers of music rather than the composers who write it?

The debate is premised on this polarization or dichotomous nature of the language but in reality those distinctions are often blurred. For example, some of the music of Original Bands can be as derivative of preexisting tunes as to be, arguably, indistinguishable from them (thus calling into question what’s particularly original about the music). Consider the phenomenon of the Beatles/Monkees or ELO. Similarly, some cover acts have such a creatively ingenious take on the performance of tunes that the original tune is nearly no longer recognizable.  Consider the Leisure Kings, one of my favorite “cover band” acts in Indianapolis who do lounge versions of hit tunes:


The ultimate point is, the Covers vs Originals debate is usually about Musician prototypes which ultimately fall along a continuum rather than being in mutually exclusive categories. These prototypes have particular roles or functions to play in society, which means that there are different kinds of “success” that has nothing to with simply thinking like a Rock Band versus thinking like a Classical Musician.

Multiplicity of Successes

Generally, Cover Bands aren’t the subject of feature media articles on Rock Bands (exceptions might be very successful tribute bands) and yet, in more cases than not Cover Bands are the ones working most regularly, much to the chagrin of Original Bands. This Cover vs Original debate overlaps the Sell Out and the Starving Artist tropes and are often used to disparage Cover Bands which usually have more economic success than the vast majority of Original Bands. Cover Bands also have this success locally, generally not touring, which means that because of this market overlap Cover Bands (and increasingly, DJs) are dominanting the more profitable segments of the local markets.

In this sense Cover Bands are far more similar in function to traditional the Classical Music groups that are local and non-touring ensembles (e.g. Orchestras) which do “Classical Covers” and being a successful working Cover Band is a much more useful comparison and model for these traditional Classical Music ensembles than being in an Original Rock Band. Most Classical Music Crisis discussions don’t seem to be interested in discussing this class of working musicians, which means they are focusing on a small segment of highly successful Original Pop or Rock musicians and ignoring the much more numerous Cover Bands who have a more moderate level of success.

One of the things that can be left out is the hustle of getting gigs as a Cover Band and how that can be significantly different than getting gigs as an Original Band–an important distinction not brought up in the Ivan Trevino Strad piece. As Chris Robley states:

It’s true that getting booked for birthday parties and weddings is different than gigging at bars and nightclubs. For one, the special events often pay more and get you in front of a larger audience” (emphasis in the original).

Those differences are due to the different functions these two Band prototypes have in society.

We should also bring up that one of the socio-economic forces which shapes the touring trajectory of Original Bands as opposed to the local nature of Cover Bands is very different. This has much with the history of music labels using artist as live advertisements for their recording releases via tour support and advances for releases.  This is an economic function cover bands don’t have to endure since they’re not promoting a new (i.e. “original”) product. As a result, Cover Bands do tend to remain more local. It’s usually not in Original Bands’ interests to perform too often in one market, especially as the touring-to-promote-new-record model encouraged audience building (thus consumer building) which isn’t as much of a concern for Cover Bands given the nature of the content of their rep which already has a specific audience and market.

So when Trevino states that:

This is year ten for Break of Reality, and we are fortunate to make a career touring, selling albums, licensing our music, and streaming our music across the internet.

He’s implicitly discussing issues of success tied to an Original Band model which has those ties to an older Label model, which, to be frank is in decline now anyway. Successful, full-time working musicians who play in Cover Bands don’t have to worry about touring, selling albums, licensing or streaming music that isn’t theirs to license in the first place. Consequentially, neither do they have to “think like a rock band” in the way Trevino is characterizing. With audience and market fragmentation, this has only become more acute.

This is not to say that Cover Bands don’t perform originals or that Original Bands never perform covers. In addition to examples of “derivative Original tunes” and “re-imagined covers” I gave above, there’s certainly a tremendous amount of genre border and band function crossings. Given that Break of Reality has an eclectic repertoire and crosses those boundaries in it as well as their instrumentation, then it would probably be helpful to take a closer look at this and how this fits into the earning potential of having multiple income streams as a result of having a diverse skills performance portfolio.  That will be the subject of the next post in this series exploring narrow ideas of “Success” in Classical Music Crisis discussions.


Please read the first post in the series, Survivorship Bias: Why classical musicians might not want to think like rock bands.



3 thoughts on “Covers vs. Originals: Why classical musicians might not want to think like rock bands

  1. Interesting, Jon! I am a member of an ensemble (the Louisville Orchestra) that got it’s international fame by being an original band (commissioning new works) win a world of cover bands, and then lost it’s identity by forgetting that.

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