When I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, I was familiar with cover bands. These were what we called ‘garage bands,’ a group of guys who enjoyed occasionally getting together to perform gigs at parties or special events for friends. The band members were proficient enough on their instruments to learn popular songs and play them well, but they weren’t songwriters. Some cover/garage bands were better than others. The best ones spent a lot of time rehearsing and could play a cover song with real gusto and flair. My brothers had cover bands play at their weddings, and they put on great shows.
There is certainly nothing inherently wrong with a band playing and singing the music of other bands. If people don’t have the opportunity or the money to see their favorite band perform live, then seeing a cover band play those songs at a show can be a satisfying alternative. I have had many enjoyable evenings listening and dancing to cover bands.
However, in the last couple of decades, an entire industry has been created to record and market cover music. This industry has nothing to do with weekend garage bands. Like all big industries, it is all about money- big money. The epicenter of the cover music industry is in Asia, where people are absolutely infatuated over cover music. How and why this came to be I have no idea. Cover music is now so ingrained in the culture of Asia that it’s almost become part of the scenery.
I know this because I often visit restaurants, coffee shops, lounges, and bars, and cover music is played in the majority of these establishments. Managers arrive in the morning, press ‘play’ on the computer screen where there is a ten-hour long playlist of cover songs and then forget about the music for the rest of the day.
Cover music, specifically the recored playlists which are widely played in eating and drinking venues, is an abomination, for many reasons. People, particularly Asians, need to wake up to this fact and demand to hear real music again.
First, the songs which are covered are all from English-speaking bands, usually from the United States and England. Most of the people in Asia listening to this music have not the slightest idea what the songs are about. The lyrics are unintelligible to them. Even locals who have a moderate grasp of English can’t understand the vast majority of songs which are played on the sound systems at their jobs. Even worse, they don’t even try to understand the words. The music, being played all day, every day, just becomes background noise, something that is not worth paying attention to.
Second, the young Asian crowds listening to the songs are wholly unfamiliar with the original songs. They know they’re listening to cover songs, but haven’t a clue who wrote the song in the first place. And they couldn’t care less. They don’t know that the original song was sung nothing like the cover version and had a completely different feeling to it.
Third , the bands whose songs are being covered, recorded, and marketed are not given their rightful share of royalties. The musicians who wrote the songs don’t have the time, money, or energy to travel around the world with lawyers and try to rein in the huge and ever-growing cover music industry. Intellectual property rights, contracts, and royalties are not the concern of customers who sit and listen to cover music for hours on end in coffee shops in Seoul, Tokyo, and Saigon.
Next, the songs are all covered and sung by young women who change the tempo and feeling of the songs. You see, in Asia, they love what is called ‘relaxing’ music. Music in Asia is seen as something which should calm the nerves after being out in traffic all afternoon. This is the main reason why Kenny G is a god-like figure throughout Asia. So, in the cover music factory, probably located somewhere in the suburbs of Tokyo or Seoul, the female singers take the songs and sing them in a mellow and ‘soft jazz’ kind of style. Now, that might work for some songs, but the cover music managers have their singers do this for all songs. I’ve been in Asia long enough now to realize that probably every Billboard Top 100 song from 1965 to the present day has been covered, recorded, and sold. I used to think that they just preferred to cover the ‘soft rock’ hits from the 70s and 80s, like the Carpenters and Terry Jacks, but now I’ve heard nearly every genre covered.
For example, I recently heard the famous hit from The Police, ‘Every Breath You Take,’ being played as a cover song in a Japanese restaurant which I frequent. That song was always creepy; after all, it’s about a stalker. Sting sang it with just the right amount of menace in his voice to make it work. However, in the Asian cover version, the female crooner turns the song inside out and tries to make it into a mellow love song! “Hey, I’ll be watching you, la-la-la.”
Recently, I’ve been hearing a lot of Bob Marley’s songs on cover playlists. The gourmet market where I shop has been playing this list frequently in the last month. It is bizarre to hear some young Asian female singing “I remember when we used to sit….in the government yard in Trenchtown.” (From Marley’s famous song ‘No Woman No Cry.’) That woman singing the song probably couldn’t even find Jamaica on a map. It was always bad enough to hear cover songs from the Carpenters, but now they’re covering Reggae and Grunge music!
Herein lies the rub: these companies pumping out cover versions of famous songs can copy the melody and the lyrics, but they can never duplicate or replicate the feeling or the soul of the song. They know this, and they don’t even try. They slow the beat down on every song and just tell the girl to sing it like it’s a lounge song. It simply doesn’t matter if the original feeling of the song is obliterated in the process. The cover music industry managers do this to every song. Hell, I recently heard ‘Come as You Are’ the famous song from Nirvana played on a cover playlist. It’s not a very good song; it’s completely nonsensical and the only reason it had success was Cobain’s hoarse and edgy voice and the thumping bass line.
I’ve asked various people over the last few years, both customers and restaurant managers, why they were playing and listening to cover music. After all, since the original versions of the songs are available, for free on the internet, why not just play the originals? Why listen to a 20-year-old Korean girl sing ‘No Woman No Cry’ when you can just play the entire ‘Exodus’ album from YouTube and hear Bob Marley sing it? I’ve never gotten a clear answer. The customers don’t pay any attention to what’s playing, and the managers always say something like, “Well, we like cover music. Her voice is so good. It’s so relaxing. The customers like it.” Or, “My boss likes this kind of music.”
It appears that cover music has taken over Asia. Not only are the original songs being lost, but the indigenous music of Asia has receded so far into the background that it, too, risks going extinct. I protest as much as I can, but I’m just one person. Unless people demand an end to this nonsense, this is what we will be living with in our future: Soul-less, corporate junk music which will continue to lobotomize the public into a permanent zombie state.