How a lack of venues for original songs affects local musicians

In local music circles there is an age-old debate when it comes to constructing a repertoire: covers or originals?

Some bands prefer to play covers because they simply love the music and they want to rock with an audience that loves hearing music they already know. On the other side of the debate, some bands prefer to play exclusively original music because they are into creating something new, and performing it for an audience that can hopefully see and hear the experience, as well as the performer.

That’s the crux of the debate, the two sides, the black and the white. Some bands play other bands’ songs, some bands make up their own. But, of course it’s not that simple. There are pain points, pressure points, tensions, compromises, yearning, reaching, and a seemingly endless slew of emotions and approaches that guide the process.

I’ve played in both kinds of bands, and while I am firmly on one side of the fence at this point, philosophically, I see and appreciate what’s going on in both contexts. What drives an earnest musician comes from a place of purity.

In defense of cover bands, or bands that mostly play covers, I get it. When I was a kid, nothing moved me more than listening to Bob Dylan’s first seven albums. In his most epic songs, I often felt like he was creating a musical and linguistic map of my psyche. It was so personal and so real. I was driven to learn as much of his catalog as I could, and in my high school days I could perform two sets of Dylan songs, singing all the thousands of words by memory. Rest assured, when I sang the last verse of “Desolation Row,” I was the singer who was too distraught to “read too good.” I was the singer in “Mr. Tambourine Man” who was dancing “beneath the diamond sky with one hand waiving free.” It was legit, and I meant all of it from my deepest recesses.

In defense of original bands, or bands that mostly play original music, I get that too. I’ve played in all original bands, and currently have a mostly original set I do when I play solo. It’s what matters to me most. The goal of playing original music is to create and share, whether that be through performing, recording or simply getting together with others to play through it. It comes from a place of urgency, a place of clarity and a place of simplicity. Language is limited. Words aren’t always enough. Music is sometimes the most efficient way to express profundity, and one of the most beautiful things about life is new songs can always be written.

That’s all philosophy though, and we can talk about it, share it, debate it and keep at it for as long as we please. The business of it is another thing.

One of the root causes of the debate has to do with getting gigs. In State College we have surpassed the point of being saturated with venues that want jukebox acts. Places hire and pay musicians to do what makes the customers most comfortable. It’s an approach designed to cater to the clientele and to bring in more of those people who want the jukebox. The only difference between the actual jukebox and jukebox act is a smiling face and the fact that it’s neat to see someone perform your favorite song. There’s a place for it, and I’ve been amongst the musicians who dig playing those kinds of gigs. The musicians get to drop in to their sacred space, and the customers get to hear what they hope to hear, often with some twists and unique interpretations.

However, it’s very hard for musicians who play original music to get gigs. A few places in our area value it and have a clientele who want to experience it, but it is hard to get gigs at those places, because the supply is higher than the demand. As a result, many of our great local, original musicians go out of town to perform their material. It’s an oddity. It’s matrix stuff. We have musicians in Centre County who are more popular out of town than they are in town. In fact, they can even tour other parts of the country, support themselves, sell merchandise and make it work, but when they’re here they can’t get a gig. It doesn’t make sense. We desperately need more venues that not only support original music, but feature it exclusively.

In addition to all of this, on any given night in Centre County you can likely experience musical acts that are a blended format, acts that do a little of both for whatever their reasons are. Maybe they don’t have enough original material. Maybe people in the bands disagree on what type of music to play. Whatever the case, there is room for all of it, but tipping the balance more equally toward original music sure would be refreshing. Maybe venues could start featuring all-original nights, and I don’t mean open mic nights. I mean nights where one or two bands get to come in and play a set or two each of original music. I’d pay to experience that. It makes good business sense.

Kevin Briggs is a musician, writer and teacher who performs at venues throughout central Pennsylvania. Contact him at KevinTBriggs@gmail.com.