The online video sharing site YouTube is this generation’s MTV. Artists like Gotye and PSY have found mainstream success after their videos went viral. Yet the number of cover songs — from toddlers singing The Beatles to teens tackling Led Zeppelin — eclipses original work by a long shot. Between those two extremes is an alternative universe of aspiring professional musicians who use cover songs on YouTube to build fan bases of their own. What these musicians once did for love and fame is starting to pay off in cold, hard cash.
If you search for a song called “Payphone” by Maroon 5, you’ll find the original, and you’ll find the Jayesslee version, the P.S. 22 version and one by Tyler Ward, a 24-year-old singer and songwriter from Denver with an all-American look and a sound that lives somewhere between indie pop and country. Ward uses YouTube to promote his music career — he posts covers trying to draw new fans.
"I started, actually, doing cover songs in the bar, trying to make ends meet every weekend," he says. "So when I figured out what YouTube was, I just figured I could put these online, see what happens."
What happened was an opening slot for the Jonas Brothers, a performance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and a headlining tour through Europe, the U.S. and Canada. But he could have made more money back at the bar singing those same songs.
"The challenge is, when an artist decides to cover a song, they don’t actually have the rights to make money on that song," says George Strompolos, the CEO of Fullscreen Entertainment. Tyler Ward is one of his clients.
It’s no secret Justin Bieber’s ascension to pop superstardom started with a cover song (a version of Ne-Yo’s “So Sick”). Could he have achieved an “underdog to celebrity” rise without one? Maybe, but Bieber performed a new spin on a decades-old formula readily available to any recording artist looking to acquire new fans and make additional money from their recordings.
Cover songs (a.k.a. “remakes”) provide an easy path to building audiences. Releasing one is similar to getting introduced to a new person by way of mutual friend (the song) rather than through a chance encounter (an original tune found on a Bandcamp / MySpace page). A positive introduction is more likely when there is immediate common ground.
Cover songs also provide a unique way of tapping into alternate revenue streams for only modest expense (i.e. money spent securing the required mechanical license and paying royalties via Limelight, time spent learning the song, etc.). So why is this an effective way of promoting your music? Let’s explore…
Recording Cover Songs to Meet Demand for Incomplete Catalogue
Digital music services offer instant access for consumers to a 24-hour music warehouse that never runs out of stock. The downside? Two words: incomplete catalogue. Not every track you have (or want) in your vinyl or CD collection is available to buy in digital format for any number of reasons (including licensing issues, artist reluctance, not enough ham sandwiches, etc.).
Just as one person gathers what another spills – “incomplete catalogue” represents a simply supply and demand market opportunity for savvy artists and labels. If an artist’s music isn’t available via an online store, other recording artists can take advantage by recording and releasing their own cover versions to meet market demand.
For example, if you search for Kid Rock’s music on iTunes (one of several mainstream artist catalogues that aren’t available), you’ll notice an early 1990 release, a live recording of “Bawitdaba” from Woodstock ’99, and surprise, surprise, several tribute records. Why? iTunes search focuses on track popularity related to song title, artist name, album name and a variety of keywords. Since the majority of Kid Rock’s catalogue is unavailable, the closest matches are tribute recordings and cover versions of his repertoire. In fact, two separate cover recordings of Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long” charted on the Billboard Top 100 in 2008 (The Hit Masters, The Rock Heroes) based primarily off digital sales alone. The same principle applies for AC/DC, Garth Brooks, and a several other marquee artists whose catalogues have not seen digital release.
Recording Cover Songs to Compete with Album Only Tracks
From a consumer viewpoint, a digital release’s major advantage over its physical counterpart is the ability to purchase individual tracks without spending money on unwanted tracks. While the majority of online releases allow for a la carte downloading, many online retailers give record labels the option to carve out certain releases as “album-only” — the motivation being to increase full-album sales at the expense of individual song downloads (though sometimes done for rights clearance purposes). Needless to say, “album-only” tracks deny consumers the opportunity to download individual tracks without purchasing the entire record.
Once again, obstacles presented by some labels represent a chance for entrepreneurial-minded artists and labels in releasing cover versions. Since digital versions of television and movie soundtracks (such as Twilight and The Hangover) are routinely offered out as “Album Only”, recording cover versions of those songs in particular can present another opportunity in capitalizing on simple supply and demand. If titled via an easy search terms comparable to the soundtrack, the cover versions will appear in search results alongside the original soundtrack.
Selling Cover Songs (and Originals) By Association
Physical retailers are limited – staff on hand, hours in a day, and especially by the product real estate available to them. While Best Buy, Wal-Mart, and other brick-and-mortar shops can only shelve music via singular genre / artist name fashion, digital music stores offer sophisticated search mechanisms, including track title, album name, release year, and even lyric focus.
While many artists may already be familiar with the term “search engine optimization” for purposes of their websites, less have extended that thinking to online music stores. In the digital age, cover songs provide simple, effective music search engine optimization (especially for covering artists who don’t currently appear on iTunes, Amazon, Rhapsody, etc.). The sophisticated search mechanisms afforded by online stores over their brick-and-mortar counterparts grant artists an easy tool to sell more music.
In instances where an artist’s repertoire (such as Journey, Beyonce, Katy Perry) is available via digital music stores, cover songs can benefit by way of song title searches. While common song titles are unlikely to provide any benefit in enhancing search results, cover versions of songs with distinct titles can eclipse the original recordings in search results. For example searching for “99 Problems” (Jay-Z) on iTunes actually results in a unique cover rendition by the artist Hugo ahead of the original. Users who listen to and enjoy Hugo’s cover version are also likely to check out Hugo’s additional repertoire (including originals).
Next Step: Clear the Rights and Sell
Before recording and releasing cover songs, you’ll need to secure a mechanical license (also known as a DPD license for digital downloads distributed via iTunes, eMusic, Amazon, etc.), which provides permission to legally record and distribute the song. Several entities exist to help artists and labels clear mechanical licenses and ensure songwriters get paid, including Limelight — a simple, one-stop shop to clear any cover song and secure mechanical licenses for digital downloads, interactive streaming, ringtones, and physical albums. Artists, bands and other musical groups can clear any cover song and ensure 100% of royalties are paid to the appropriate publishers and songwriters via Limelight.
Article originally appeared on Music Think Tank (http://www.musicthinktank.com/) and written by Alex Holz.