Following from last weeks' post on crafting a setlist, this week I thought I'd give my thoughts on how to utilise cover songs to boost your own popularity and artistry. As stated in that last post, cover songs are crucial to getting people interested in you while playing live, but how can you ensure that this will be effective?
There are 2 ways you can approach cover songs, copying them with little deviation or developing them into your own style. The first way is obviously the easiest and works best when you are covering a song that already fits into your style/genre. The reason why this is effective is that obviously there will be no way that the audience to your show will be confused as to what the song is. It's a very approachable way of utilising cover songs, but in my opinion in most cases, unless you are just starting out and no one there has heard of you, it will do nothing to develop your style and leave a lasting impression. This is where the second way comes in.
Developing a cover into your own style can be tricky. There are several ways to tackle this but what I find is the most effective way to do this is to pick a song that has at least a decade or 2 since it's release, the older the better. This is for 2 reasons: Firstly genres tend to evolve with the times and 10-20 years should be enough time for most songs to feel a little bit out of phase with what contemporary music is like in the present day. Secondly that song has had the chance to either fade into obscurity (leaving you the opportunity to have people believe it is your own) or develop legendary status making it instantly recognisable when people hear your version of it. If you go with a song that has faded into obscurity then you are banking on people remembering the song but not quite remembering how, this can easily make them mistake the song for yours but due to it's familiarity to them, an individual will be instantly warmed up to your performance unconsciously. The second option is you banking on your version of the song being unique enough that you can make your mark on that song to the listener, this is the harder option but the most rewarding one. There are some songs that objectively are so unique and identifiable that you just shouldn't go there, Bohemian Rhapsody comes to mind, but if you can take a song, develop it from it's original style into your own and pull it off then you can very easily hook an entire bar full of people and get yourself a new team of followers.
Overall nostalgia is a very powerful tool for marketing in general and when you play live you are in essence marketing yourself to the people present. Covers are an indispensable way to get people's attention by tugging on that nostalgia and getting them to pay attention to you, see my previous post on crafting a setlist to learn how to use covers in a live show to exploit their fullest potential. If you can utilise covers effectively then the bridge to your own material becomes far easier to cross, so keep that in mind.