“Bye, bye, Miss American Pie. Drove my Chevy to the levy, but the levy was dry… and good ol’ boys are drinking whiskey and rye, singing this will be the day that I die, this will be the day that I die.” Don McLean
Virtual venue and digital technologies provide ever greater opportunities for new artists to build audience and further hone their craft with the same impact as face-to-face venues for developing stage presence and personality beyond the music. As part of this evolutionary process, many artists integrate covers into their performances. Musicians can see the reaction in the audience. It’s palpable. What is it about a well-interpreted cover performance that energizes a crowd? And does it help or hinder the relationship the artist is trying to build with the audience?
Dr. Kourosh Dini, an experienced psychiatrist—and accomplished musician, explains this is really a function of how the human brain works. “Music touches the mind in many ways,” he says, “those parts that are calculating and pattern searching, as well as those that are emotional—not that they are exclusive of each other.”
From this, Dr. Dini notes, the mind builds a series of living templates using both the conscious and subconscious aspects of the mind. He explains the emotional mind is murkier than the reasoning parts. “We often use words such as sad, content, happy, or anxious. But these words are about as descriptive as calling a plant a plant. There is much more there, and the levels of potential description are rich and vast.”
Neuroscience is helping to show that memory is a set of encoded connections across many areas of the brain. Strong connections create strong memories. Because music tickles several parts of the brain simultaneously, it is especially stimulative to recollection. Music has even been shown to help Alzheimer patients remember.
When you have several pathways to recollection, it’s more powerful—and it’s also emotive. Dr. Dini says, “The primal world of emotions is a place we don’t visit often, filled with confusion and often out of tune with the rest of the world.” That’s because it’s pure feeling. “When something touches that world,” he says, “it has the potential to resonate with the entirety of mind. When a piece of music is able to relate to something unconscious, something unknown, something that we had otherwise not considered, it often does so at this level. Music is uniquely simple enough to describe many patterns and emotions that are otherwise inaccessible.” These many associations create powerful bridges for memory.
The reasoning part of the brain is listening for patterns and gets a kick out of anticipating. That part of the mind LIKES knowing what’s coming next. The emotional part of the brain delights in the emotional connection to that some-when. Covers, therefore, are popular in part because they stimulate full memories. While few musicians are as adept as Dr. Dini at understanding how music interacts with the mind, they know covers work for helping bond with an audience.
Covers are, therefore, a popular and shrewd performance strategy to begin a musical conversation between a new artist and the would be audience. Playing something that may already have positive pathways through memory and anticipation, while interpreting and making it their own, creates an openness from which new artists can introduce original music.
But covers also create a cost management and cash flow dilemma for venues. Despite the fleeting nature of live performances, copyright laws are predicated on creative ownership. When performed they trigger a copyright liability or a licensing arrangement intended to compensate the original artists—which the venue pays.
From a pure cost management perspective, many venues are considering banning covers to avoid added cost. The venue aren’t trying to cheat the copyright holder, or the artists they hire to perform. Since the venue is called to pay the licensing fee, however, by paying only for original performances, the venue can trim their costs.
Knowing how covers stimulate the brain and help initiate a connection between artist and audience, venues that opt out of covers might be turning their back on a potentially powerful tool. Before opting out entirely, venues should consider the relationship building assistance covers can bring to developing audience.
Given that technology is changing the music industry with tools that put recording, distribution, promotion and sales directly into the artist’s control, licensing organizations should consider the potentially counter productive nature of blanket licensing arrangements on small venues (seating of less than 100) for fleeting performances that have no shelf life—meaning they are not recorded or distributed further only touching a small audience. These performances help the copyright holder directly as well, by preserving memories that help keep these musicians relevant.