I’m all for a good cover song. In fact, right now I’m listening to Ambulance LTD’s version of Pink Floyd’s “Fearless.” Hell, on special occasions, I can go for a whole slew of covers in a row. As a musician, I’ve played a few myself, and I look forward to playing some more.
My beef these days, fair reader, is not with the cover song in theory, but with the absolute onslaught of cover bands and cover nights in the Portland area. It’s clogging up the limited venues on weekends and further eroding the atrophied musical taste of Portland with unoriginal, unchallenging and predictable fodder.
Lately it’s like the whole godforsaken town is stuck in the middle of a perpetual wedding reception. I’m on the verge of donning a blazer, slugging bad martinis out of red Solo cups, and making out with the first chunky girl in an off-color taffeta dress I can find. Yeah! Let’s hear that Steve Miller song again! I know this! I don’t have to think!
If imitation is the highest form of flattery, Portland is one hell of a flattering city. You’re welcome, Commercial Music Industry!
I want to tell people from other cities that Portland has a strong and vibrant music scene. And I believe we truly do. But there is something flawed in the scene when I can’t find original music to see on a Friday night. Let’s paint a scenario…
Say I have a friend in town from Brooklyn. She’s interested in finding out what kind of music makes up this vibrant Portland scene. While we’re sitting in my apartment, we check the music listings (at thebollard.com, of course). To my horror, the rundown goes something like this: blues covers, Goth/industrial, 80’s covers, 80’s dance, funk covers, rock covers, country, metal, dance favorites DJ, singer-songwriter, country…
So, short of going out to hear some metal, Goth/industrial, or country (which is probably half-covers, but not specified), I have one singer-songwriter to go see. Out of 17 venues listed, there are three hosting original music, and one that fits my friend’s musical taste. What an embarrassing position to be in for someone who’s been talking about what an amazing, supportive music scene Portland has. Where is the indie rock on that cover-laden Friday night? Where is the hip hop? As we walked to the bar, I with my head hung slightly low, we passed a popular venue. The not-quite-right notes of “Fly Like an Eagle” assaulted our ears — and Portland’s musical taste died a little more.
I keep my eyes open for original music, and I go to a lot of shows. There are some amazing, creative, talented bands playing in Portland. And talking to them, I know there’s frustration when three great bands — bands that have labored over their songs and struggle to pay for their practice spaces and work their second jobs to scrape by — play a show to a crowd of 40 people while elsewhere in the city there’s a line around the block to get into a bar hosting an evening of songs made famous on the radio.
I know this is a controversial subject among some musicians in Portland, many of whom I consider friends. The argument is that without playing the cover songs everyone wants to hear and dance to, a musician can’t make enough money to survive. I understand that argument, but I would like to propose a solution:
Stop playing covers.
The people coming out to dance to Katrina and the Waves are doing so because it’s easy. For Christ’s sake, these same people — who scoff at a $5 cover for three local bands — will pay twice that cover charge to see one or two bands play songs they didn’t write.
If they don’t have this option, what do you think they’re going to do? Stop coming out altogether? I find that hard to believe. By god, they’ll just have to find local music they can dance to. They might have to go to bars that serve beer in glasses, not plastic cups. They might have to go to bars that are a little darker, a little more dank, but a whole lot more creative. Or they might find that because the musicians all stopped playing cover songs, there are a couple additional venues to see good original music on a regular basis. And countless musicians would have a lot more time on their hands to write songs. That is what musicians do, after all.
And when you do throw in those choice covers here and there after a period of cover-song prohibition, the crowd will go wild, the dancing will grow a little more frenzied, and everyone will be talking about the show the next morning.
Unless, of course, everyone would rather just play other people’s songs. I guess I could start bringing a blazer out just in case.
Bollard art director Sean Wilkinson’s column appears monthly — we hope.