Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Everything Old is New Again

C. Engdahl

The Big E of Big E Toys

Like a lot of people, I enjoy listening to music. I mean I really enjoy listening to music. Actually I should say I love listening to music. All kinds. Old, new, classic, modern, slow, fast, short, long, you name it. Rock, Pop, Grunge, Jazz, Folk, Big Band, Reggae, New Wave, House, Classical, Instrumental, Acoustic, Vocal, and more. Just don’t make me listen to Michael Bolton.

Did I mention my affinity for live music?

I once saw an interview many years ago with Bruce Hornsby during which he said he thought people attended live concerts to hear new and different types of music played by their favorite artists. This sounded like a reasonable statement. Right on Bruce. He went further though to say that he thought typical concert-goers weren’t all that interested in hearing familiar hits. Huh? It kind of makes sense that Bruce Hornsby thought or still thinks this way. I never got the impression he ever really got that excited to even play his own hits – like “The Way It Is” or “Mandolin Rain” - during concerts. He seemed more interested in playing jazz at his shows.

In a completely separate, unrelated interview I once saw Glenn Frey (or was it Don Henley, I can’t remember) say that he thought concert-goers are most interested in hearing perfect replications of songs from an artist’s or band’s album. The statement was made as the “Hell Freezes Over” tour began. And given the precision with which the Eagles can actually replicate their recordings in concert, it kind of makes sense that Glenn Frey thought or still thinks this way.

Just so we’re clear. I think they’re both wrong.

Concert-goers I believe are most often interested in hearing variations of the songs they’ve come to love. They want an acoustic version, or an amped-up version, or a piano version, or an acappella version of songs that aren’t otherwise performed that way. Audiences definitely want to hear something new and different. But they want the newness to be in connection to what they already know.

There’s a certain level of security inherent in familiarity.

I can’t imagine an Indigo Girls concert without “Closer to Fine”, a Weezer concert without “Beverly Hills”, an Elton John concert without “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, or a Neil Diamond concert without “Sweet Caroline”. I mean really, has anyone ever been to a Neil Diamond concert and not heard “Sweet Caroline”?

Cover songs represent another variation of music that combines newness with familiarity. There’s arguably nothing like the original, but covers are satisfying in their own right. Some of my personal favorites include Dave Matthews doing “All Along the Watchtower”, John Mayer doing “Free Falling”, Everclear doing “Brown-Eyed Girl”, and The Fugees doing “No Woman, No Cry”. It’s familiar and new at the same time. Can it really get any better than that?

There’s an interesting band out there called The New Standards. They’re sort of a mini-Super Group out of Minneapolis, featuring John Munson (Semisonic and Trip Shakespeare), founding Suburbs member Chan Poling, and vibraphonist Steve Roehm. As their name suggests, they perform covers of relatively new songs in an older jazz-like style. Instead of performing classic jazz standards like “Body and Soul”, “Summertime”, “Tenderly”, “Star Dust”, or “Sophisticated Lady”, The New Standards perform songs like “Watching the Detectives” by Elvis Costello, “London Calling” by The Clash, “Wild Horses” by The Rolling Stones, and other contemporary classics from the Replacements, Bowie, Blur, Neil Young, and more. It’s good stuff.

Solid vocal arrangements, acappella songs, and music in which voices take the place of traditional instrumentation have always been a favorite of mine. Often such songs are only performed live in concert though and thus can never find their way into my regular play list. There are even some classic rock songs I’ve been waiting years for someone to transform with some sort of vocal styling. I play them in my head with my own made-up vocal arrangements. They have in common solid bass lines with intertwined catchy guitar riffs, and include songs like “Baba O’Riley” by The Who and “Good Things” by BoDeans.

Another such song is “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey. I’ve actually been waiting many years for someone to transform this song. I was pleasantly surprised to find this one had made its way into the pilot episode of the Fox TV series “Glee”. In the dramatic final scene of this first episode, the cast performs a unique and powerful rendition of this classic song. Much of the traditional instrumentation is replaced with vocalizations. It’s pretty cool and worth watching.



In the business world, whether working with consumer or commercial products, there really isn’t an equivalent to what would otherwise be considered a cover song. You can get generic versions of products or perhaps a “knock-off”, but these aren’t the same thing. Cover songs don’t really exist in this realm because intellectual property protection makes it illegal. The only exception I can think of is a restaurant that serves a variation on a classic dish. A fine eating establishment might for instance be known for its rendition of a Caesar salad, clam chowder, filet mignon, or perhaps its bbq ribs. Such edible delights can be both familiar and new. But how, aside from becoming a restaurateur, can businesses capitalize on the newness and familiarity of a product at the same time?

One way is to create what would be considered a cover song of their own product. I’m not talking about product extensions. I’m thinking even more basic than this. Some examples that come to mind include: Halloween Oreo™ cookies with orange instead of white stuffing; pastel colored M&M™ candies for Easter; green colored ketchup; and the new Pepsi™ Throwback (made with natural sugar).

All of these are just simple variations on an existing product. But they are powerful innovations none-the-less.

Did I happen to mention that the Glee-ified version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” hit number four on the iTunes download chart? Or that the Journey original recently hit 55 on the same chart?

There’s arguably nothing like the original, but covers are satisfying (and profitable) in their own right.

1 comment:

C. Engdahl said...

taken from a blurb on Amazon.com:

When Glee aired its pilot episode in May 2009, the show only attracted a fraction of the viewers who tuned in for American Idol, shown on the same channel only one hour prior. The numbers looked bleak, but Billboard's singles charts told a different story one week later, when the Glee version of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" became a surprise Top Five hit. Performed during the pilot by the castmates themselves, the song eventually sold over 500,000 downloads and paved the way for Glee's success as a television show and recording entity.

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