Cover Bands Don’t Change the World

by Steve Laube

Icon People Line - One Red at the Front

I had been reading and thinking about creativity when I came across the title of today’s post as a chapter by that name in a book called The Accidental Creative: How to be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice by Todd Henry (published 2011). It stopped me in my tracks. I knew he was right. A cover band plays other people’s music. Often it is a new interpretation of a familiar song and sometimes it is a direct copy, like a tribute band. While popular and entertaining for the moment they rarely have lasting impact.

What sells in our market, also known as “trends,” moves like a chased rabbit, very difficult to capture and quickly shifting its path. To our detriment we often chase these trends in order to find success. After thirty years in the book business I’ve seen this happen time and again. Hot trends of the past include non-fiction books on prophecy, angels, spiritual warfare, Bible promises, heaven, and even martyrdom. In fiction it has been novels that revolved around prairie romance, supernatural battles, and chick-lit. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery it betrays original thinking.

Be sure you understand this isn’t a criticism per se, merely an observation. There is nothing wrong with writing what has captured your imagination or what has captured the attention of the buying public (i.e. following a trend). But look again at the title of the post…”Cover Bands Don’t Change the World.” Todd Henry says that when one of these band suddenly declares “Now we’re going to play something we wrote” the audience protests vigorously. Their audience didn’t come to listen to the band’s music, they came to be entertained by the familiar.

Thomas Merton said it a little more forcefully in New Seeds of Contemplation:

“People are in a hurry to magnify themselves by imitating what is popular—and too lazy to think of anything better. Hurry ruins saints as well as artists. They want quick success and they are in such a haste to get it that they cannot take time to be true to themselves. And when the madness is upon them they argue that their very haste is a species of integrity.”
(Quoted in The Accidental Creative, page 201.)

Publishing veterans have seen thousands, even tens of thousands of book ideas and proposals. We have heard so many similar things that there can be a tendency to become cynical or at least immune. I know I struggle with that. I fear that creativity can be squelched by the desire to “write what sells.” As this is being written I feel the urge to create flashing disclaimers so I am not misunderstood. Please see these words as a call for creativity not a condemnation of the marketplace. Nor am I skewering any one particular author or book. Instead I stand here saying, “Be creative!” “Take a risk!” “Follow your passion not the passion of others!” “Be a difference maker.” If you cut your teeth on the “familiar” (see above) then use that foundation to find new ground.

Write what is a passion for you. Your intensity will be found in the words you write. Your ideas will be refined by the fire of life and the forge of Scripture. The slogan for our agency is “To Help Change the World Word by Word.” The books that stir hearts and point readers to redemption are the ones that become agents of change. These are the books that can make a difference. Write your passion and by God’s grace the market will find you. Hey, you might even set the next trend and find “cover bands” in your wake.

18 Responses to Cover Bands Don’t Change the World

  1. lisa April 22, 2013 at 5:17 am #

    I am encouraged by this. My writing journey is finding slow progress. I hope when I look back it is because I took the time to be creative. I hope my WIP can offer something original and inspire.

  2. Diana Harkness April 22, 2013 at 5:45 am #

    Precisely. I have read novels which imitate the styling of Grisham or some other author, but never measure up. It’s not enough to take a form and plug in your own story. Take time to hone your craft. I would love to write like Dillard or Buechner, but I

    • Diana Harkness April 22, 2013 at 5:55 am #

      Sorry, accidentally hit a key before I finished! I would like to write like Dilard or Buechner, but I am not them and can only write as myself. Writing like either of them rings false every time. But when I did take a risk and follow my passions to write something that did not fit either genre I was envisioning, you told me to rewrite. Following my passions for technology and ancient history was easy. Rewriting as historical fiction was much more time consuming, but serious fun as I immersed myself in another time and culture. Ancient 9th C. BC contains minimal archaeological evidence, allowing me great latitude in imagining places and events. It’s been a difficult journey, but one that has helped me hone my craft in the process.

  3. Rick Barry April 22, 2013 at 6:26 am #

    A writing coach once said (more or less), “Be the best you that you can be, not a watered-down, second-best version of somebody else.”

    Steve, your post reminds me that the many of the books I have appreciated the most came from authors who threw away the compass and forged new trails over territory no one else had considered. Good advice for any author!

  4. Robin Patchen April 22, 2013 at 6:46 am #

    Wow. Yesterday during church, my mind wandered to a very strange place, and by the time we sang the last song, I had the seed of a story growing. By bedtime, I’d come up with a unique way to tell it and some of the characters. This morning, I find myself questioning it. It’s dark and edgy, and the way I want to write it would be very different. And very difficult. I began to wonder if I ought to waste my time on it and spent some time praying about it this morning. Why write a story that probably won’t sell?

    And then I read your post. Hmm. Maybe because cover bands don’t change the world.

    It’s times like this I wish I had an agent to bounce ideas off of. All in God’s perfect timing.

    • Wade Webster April 22, 2013 at 7:16 am #

      I covered your situation on my blog a few weeks ago, Robin. Its about the time David is called to play music for King Saul. As he is ushered into the empty throne room the first time he carefully walks around the full-sized harp. David asks, “May I touch it?”
      The servant who walked him in says, “You don’t understand, David. Not only can you touch it, but, the king commands you to play it. Consider it yours.”
      It sounds like God gave you that story to change someone’s life. Take hold of it and follow that course set before you. You won’t be sorry you did.

  5. Jan Cline April 22, 2013 at 7:35 am #

    I think for myself and other writers I know, one issue is finding the time and environment for creativity. I try to cram creativity into places that don’t inspire and into time slots that are too short. Taking time to rest and clear our cluttered minds would no doubt induce more creative thought. I hope to do more of it.

    • Jeanne Takenaka April 22, 2013 at 7:52 am #

      Your thoughts resonate with me. I need a still heart and time for creativity to flourish. That time may be in the shower, or chopping vegetables, but if my heart is still, I find the creative juices start to flow. When I’m too busy, I rarely have a creative flashes of brilliance. 🙂

  6. Ronie April 22, 2013 at 7:38 am #

    It hard not to want to “write like [insert fave author here],” when you see them meeting with success. I see Dan Walsh’s incredibly moving books hitting home with so many readers and bestsellers. I see Jim Rubart exploring spiritual truths in powerful ways. And I caught myself thinking, “If I could just combine what they write…”

    The conclusion of that statement SHOULD Be: “then I wouldn’t be me.” I wouldn’t be writing what I’ve been asked and gifted to write. Still…I’m always looking to grow, seeking new challenges to conquer.

    • Bethany Kaczmarek April 22, 2013 at 3:18 pm #

      If you wrote like anyone else, the world would be missing out.

  7. Jeanne Takenaka April 22, 2013 at 7:57 am #

    The word picture of a cover band is so apropos for this topic. And this topic is timely. In some ways, it seems like it would be easier to just imitate a successful author’s techniques and to try to write to the “in” genre. I’ve never really been part of the “in” crowd, though, so I don’t think I’ll start now. Your call to creativity over familiarity takes a little courage, and the willingness to step out into the unknown. I loved this quote you shared, by Thomas Merton:

    “People are in a hurry to magnify themselves by imitating what is popular—and too lazy to think of anything better. Hurry ruins saints as well as artists.”

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts today. I needed to hear them.

  8. Ron Estrada April 22, 2013 at 8:12 am #

    Fantastic post, Steve. I find that I don’t like to read trendy books so it’s a bit easier to avoid the impulse to write them. Though I have been tempted a time or two. The vampire novel never made it past chapter 2. Following trends is the temptation in any field. It takes experience and confidence to break from the pack.

  9. Meghan Carver April 22, 2013 at 8:36 am #

    My own cover band? Groupies, too? Thanks so much for the encouragement to keep striving, Steve.

  10. Pat Jaeger April 22, 2013 at 9:02 am #

    Great post, Steve. Thanks for the encouragement. One of my best friends is a doll artist and she was told her dolls were “not the style” and wouldn’t sell. She refused to fall into the latest fad and is now known around the world for her dolls.

    When I write my heart and wonder if that’s okay, I remember my friend, and now I’ll have your post to remind me, as well.

  11. Rebecca Barlow Jordan April 22, 2013 at 12:45 pm #

    Steve, I love this post and couldn’t agree with you more. Wade mentioned about King Saul and David. One thing that I’ve kept remembering during the years–especially while “waiting”–was how David played the harp/lyre during those many years while shepherding. His audience? No one but the sheep and His faithful God. But one day the king needed music for his troubled spirit. King Saul’s servant had seen a simple shepherd faithfully playing his harp and recommended David. So the king called for David. And we are the recipient of His beautiful music in Psalms, a bestseller for over 2000 years. He was faithful to God’s gift of creativity in his life, and God did the rest. I love it when the King calls our name!

  12. Bethany Kaczmarek April 22, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

    Wow. I love this post–at once challenging and encouraging. I want my writing to reflect the passion I pour into it, and that doesn’t have to do with the market. It’s all about the brokenness in the world and the need for redemption. I want to tackle tough topics in groundbreaking ways, and I always, always want to write like me. (Okay, maybe a little like Leif Enger, but just a smidge.)

    Thank you, Steve.

  13. Marci Seither April 23, 2013 at 7:42 am #

    Last summer I went to a concert with my mom and sister. It was a musician I really admired and literally wore out her first two C.Ds. But when she started playing songs from her newer releases I cringed. I would have never paid for a ticket to listen to the newer music that didn’t have the same flavor as her original pieces. In her attempt at growing and evolving as a musician she lost her original voice. It was a shame. I wouldn’t go back to see her if the tickets were free.
    I think the same thing can happen with authors. I think of Judy Blume, who wrote amazing books for younger readers and later released novels that were very sexual and inappropriate for readers of any age. As a writer it is important to stay original, but also find a balance of staying true to your core values..since that is what many readers may be expecting. There is a balance that is important to find and maintain…which is why a good author need a great agent.

  14. M grossan April 26, 2013 at 3:20 pm #

    Actually creativity can be learned and enhanced as a means of gaining youth and health
    Practicing creativity does make you younger
    Go to a senior workshop see the seniors doing clay or paint
    Note that they look younger
    For creativity practice if the exercises does make perfect

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