Covers vs. Originals

Covers vs. Originals: The age-old question, plaguing every performing musician. Should you play covers, originals or a mix of both?


“I don’t do covers” I would claim emphatically. 

This was me in my early 20s. I had so much to learn, when I thought I knew it all. 

My reasoning was that if I wrote my own material regularly, why would I want to perform anything but my own originals? I wanted people to connect with me – with what I wrote – not my half-assed rendition of whatever popular song is on the radio today. If ever I did decide to cover a song back then, it was always something that I really connected with and was so obscure that next to no one would actually know it. I thought that’s what made me an “artist”. 

I held onto this idea of being an original-only artist, with the odd sprinkling of a cover song here and there in a set, for over a decade… until I met my husband. 

At the time, Dave was gigging several nights a week to supplement his part-time barista income. His gigs were predominantly cover sets played for wine bars, cafes, restaurants and breweries. He received a guarantee from the venue as well as occasional tips from patrons of the venue. 

Tips? This concept was lost on me as a Canadian musician. Never in the 18 years of playing music in Canada did I ever play a venue that offered a guarantee AND tips. Most of the time, venues would let you play for a portion of the door fee, split between three or four bands on the bill (after paying the soundperson, of course), which usually never amounted to much more than $25 per person in the band. Special gigs would offer a guarantee, but it never felt appropriate to ask for tips in those settings. A lot of smaller venues would have the musician play for “tips only”, requiring their patrons to compensate musicians for their time, energy, investment and talent. I understand in a smaller venue, such as a café, budgets are not as available to be able to afford to provide a guarantee to the musicians… and with Canadian cafés not offering beer, wine or liquor sales, they weren’t making enough money off coffee and pastries to pay their own staff well, let alone any kind of entertainment, especially when a lot of patrons (like myself) don’t drink caffeine in the evening. 

It felt like the scene in my hometown was dwindling. You were either an originals-only artist, who would never make enough to make a go at it (unless you managed to make your way into the clique that got radio play, because you used the right studio for your tracking and/or mastering) or you were making money as a tribute act – playing covers in full costume in large theatres, which also meant taking the show on the road. It seemed there was no real happy-medium at the time. It makes sense though. Happy-hour wasn’t even a “thing” until well after I left Canada. 


Fast forward to where I am now. I am a full-time working musician. Sure, I play cover songs for the majority of my set, but you know what I’ve learned? I absolutely love it. 

I love paying homage to the artists that inspired me to become a musician in the first place. 

I love singing the songs that I grew up singing and songs that remind me of people, places and times in my life. 

I love the connection with my audience when they recognize a song that I’ve managed to make my own in how I play it or sing it. Some songs feel nearly unrecognizable until I get to the hook – and it’s fun for me to see the look on a patron’s face when they realize what song I’m playing. It’s even more fun when they (or should I say “you”) start singing along. 

Live music took a huge hit during the pandemic. It felt like it was one of the first jobs to be shut down and one of the last jobs to come back. One thing that the Covid lockdown has taught me is to find connection wherever possible. We just don’t know when or if it will be difficult to reach out to each other and be connected again, so why not connect and feel at-one with your audience in whatever way fits? Why not enjoy playing the songs that others enjoy hearing? It doesn’t mean I can’t write and play my originals when I play covers, or vice versa. That’s the beauty in it. I can pick and choose between the two for each and every gig. This is what makes every show unique in its own way.