Does the demand for cover songs weaken Maui's music scene?
February 19, 2009It's happy hour on the kind of evening for which outdoor seating was invented. You suck down a discount mai tai and contemplate ordering another in anticipation of sunset. A guy strums his guitar in the corner, perhaps with a drum machine backing him up, and he plays with rare precision.
As his set list unfurls you may experience deja vu, or perhaps the sense that some unspoken rite is unraveling as bar patrons reduce their rumrunners to rubble, as another day in paradise is laid to rest.
The crowd eagerly imbibes "Margaritaville" and "Tequila Sunrise," but the pinnacle of this late afternoon ceremony happens when the sun hits the home stretch and you hear the opening bars of "Baby I Love Your Way."
One can observe this scenario in virtually any subtropical, tourist-trodden locale in the United States, and certainly here in Maui. It is ritual in a time when ritual seldom goes beyond the mundane, but the fact that it hinges on the familiar repetition of the same songs reflects music's ability to comfort by way of reinforcing cultural values.
It also might be bad news for originality.
The proliferation of cover acts, especially in tourist destinations, calls into question the purpose that music serves. While perpetuation of culture is obviously one of its vital functions (something we can especially see in Hawaiian music), innovation among musicians can spark many things, including a strong sense of community among creative people. But is there room for both on the Valley Isle?
There seems to be a profusion of performers from both camps on Maui at the moment. Bands and solo musicians that play mostly cover tunes usually enjoy steady work, while bands with original material, granted they have a following, can play at a number of venues throughout the island, though with less frequency.
People who are heavily involved with the Maui music scene say there are many talented musicians these days, most of whom are willing to work together as a community, and that there is potential for the scene to blow up, to put the island on the map.
Others say that demand for cover tunes among venues is stifling what could be a thriving original music scene.
But it may not be so cut-and-dried.
"It's a mixed bag," says longtime Maui musician Eric Gilliom who, though he respects Jimmy Buffett, has never learned "Margaritaville." "In one respect you have an incredible opportunity for musicians to make a living."
The proliferation of Maui venues that want to bring in tourists—who usually aren't all about seeking out original music—allows for a musician who doesn't mind playing "Brown Eyed Girl" at least once a day to make a living, says Gilliom. Some musicians, after all, are just stoked to be able to support themselves by playing music, and happen to be skilled players and good entertainers.
At the same time, Gilliom says, Maui's population may not be big enough to support a thriving original music scene.
The venues book cover bands because they're a tried and true way to bring people in. Original or not, places want acts with a following. This makes it tougher for original acts to try out new material on a crowd weaned on old standbys.
"It's hard for the music to thrive if [venues] are responsible for generating revenue," says Jerry Kunitomo, owner of BJ's Pizzeria in Lahaina and a longtime player in the local music scene. "I think audiences are asking for something familiar."
But a few places are trying to bring in acts that perform mostly original material.
"There's a handful of venues that are open to supporting the Gomegas and Anuheas" of Maui, Gilliom says.
Prolific Maui musician Kanoa of the band Gomega, who many say is one of the hardest working musicians on-island, has it both ways. He stresses versatility on the part of musicians.
"I look at it as fishing," he says. "You've got to get people in there to listen to you."
Then, once patrons are secured in their seats, you play your original stuff.
Kanoa says musicians who want to play consistent gigs while disseminating their original material have to acknowledge that their role goes beyond that of brilliant musical innovator.
"We're social workers," he says. "We help people through our work."
Having an audience member walk up to you after covering, say, Neil Young's "Old Man" and tell you that you made his day may be just as satisfying as a warm reception after performing a new original.
The difference between an entertainer and an artist, then, lies in the way he or she relates to the crowd. In any case, Kanoa says, one of the great advantages of the music scene on Maui is that it's accessible; there are venues for musicians who can regularly bring in a solid crowd.
"We as musicians on Maui should really appreciate the fact that we get to play," he says. "No matter what, I appreciate all the gigs that I have."
The key for cultivating a strong music scene, he says, is to have a strong musical community.
Ipo Kahele, who manages Gomega among other projects, agrees that it's up to the musicians, at least in part, to build a scene.
"We all try to help each other out," she said. "We help people who are doing music for the right reason."
As for covers, Kahele says, "Sweet Home Alabama" and "What I Got" are not going anywhere.
"Overall, that's part of the business," she says. "In order to make a dollar bill this is the formula that works."
The people it works for are musicians whose strong suit lies in their playing. For example, while they have quality originals, the Vince Esquire Band tears the roof off at every gig because of their impeccable musicianship and high energy. And while an original may be good, audience members often respond to "Pride and Joy" not only because it's familiar, but also because of the band's ability to rock it out.
Esquire said that the band's original-to-cover ratio varies depending on the situation.
"It can vary by venue," he says. "We also play to the crowd. It depends on what the crowd is feeling, the energy."
The degree to which a band's set list contains cover songs often has no bearing on a musician's talent. Esquire said that playing covers can be tougher than playing originals, at least if you want to do them right. When you play an original, you know the song's source of inspiration and can thus infuse it with the emotional gravity it warrants. Covers, on the other hand, can get lost in translation.
Being heavy on covers often reflects the fact that that's what works for a given act, but it could also mean a musician or band, for whatever reason, doesn't write.
If you take it seriously, the songwriting process can be agonizing.
A song can take weeks, or more, to write. Rarely does a composition come together in a flash of inspiration, contrary to popular belief. It's a process.
"You chip away at it," says Gilliom.
So, if you're playing out four to five times a week and want to keep your set list dynamic, you may have to learn some new covers, which can have a silver lining for some.
"Learning covers is a great way to keep your chops up," Gilliom says.
"In such a small area it is extremely difficult to play original music and maintain a busy gigging music business," said Tim Rausch of A Kettle Prime, which plays primarily originals and has a following, though they do not play out as often as most cover bands. "[We play] mostly original music, normally only two or three covers a night. However, we only play twice a month. We play what we love to play. We all have jobs that pay our rent and bills. This is our passion."
The nature of a given cover also says a lot about a musician or band.
"Unfortunately I sometimes assume a loss of creativity," said Chantilly Mers, a musician originally of Maui who is now based in New York. "If the cover song isn't redone or rearranged then it doesn't really showcase the inherent original quality of the musician."
A band can be innovative in its arrangement of someone else's composition. A good adaptation can break down and rebuild a song as something completely different.
Or a band can choose to cover deeper cuts, shedding "Brown Eyed Girl" for a lesser-known Van Morrison track like "Sweet Thing."
Many see development of original material as a matter of ambition.
"I think that doing [covers] in the short term could benefit an artist," says musician consultant and Waiehu Records publicist Jeison Manaois. "When you're known for your music you'll go further. The more creative, the better."
Fortunately, he says, given recent technological advances, musicians everywhere have the advantage of being DIY, from recording to promotion and touring.
"There are so many artists here on Maui who could make an impact," says Manaois, by way of getting their music online via MySpace, among other things.
Original artists, in other words, don't have to rely solely on venues for getting their stuff heard.
To many, now is an opportune moment for Maui musicians to build a scene. There are widely available, relatively inexpensive tools that help artists move forward independently. And then there's an underreported silver lining that coincides with any economic slump: people want to be entertained, to be around something that takes their mind off their troubles. In such times people demand more from their music. The same old tunes may no longer be enough for those who once sought refuge in them.
If so, now's the time for Maui's music community to step up and meet this demand. The sun may never set on "Baby I Love Your Way," but we might be ready for the dawn of something new. MTW
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