Many artists refuse to do cover songs, because they want to be successful with their own material. It seems to be a question of pride not to rely on the qualities of a well known classic and to spend all effort to write own songs, which might become classics in a dark future (most likely after your death). Second most cover songs fall short of the originals. Third in today’s jungle of rights ownership and times, when people are sued because of copyrighted uploads, many independent musicans are afraid of the artistic and organisational challenge of a cover song. But if you take a closer look on the challenges, it’s not as hard as it seems at first, and there are also some benefits on the horizon.
First I want to discuss the artistic hurdle of a cover song. When I think on great cover-versions, they all have something in common:
- The cover does not try to copy the original
- The artist, who performs the cover, inserts his/her own style
- Often the song is modified, rearranged, reharmonized
- Sometimes the cover modernizes the original and makes it accessible for another generation of listeners, or for listeners of a different genre
A brillant example of a cover versions is “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” interpreted by the swedish Pop-band The Cardigans. The hard Riffs of the original are removed, replaced by dreamy Rhodes-chords, and of course the vocal-style is everything, but not aggressive like the original. The cover fulfills all points above and transforms the workingclass-riot of Black Sabbath to the clean environment of a 90s Yuppie-apartment.
Now we look at an example, which is not that convincing. Though I really love the band I have to say, that Metal Church’s cover of “Highway star” by Deep Purple is for my taste too close to the original. Okay, it is faster. It applies a Metal-sound, but the basic riffs, the chords, and the structure of the original is not altered too much and the singer even imitates some trademarks of Ian Gillan like the single high screams.
So what can you do to create a highly original cover-song? In my opinion you should avoid to simply copy the original. With milions of online-tutorials available and every known song analysed, transcribed and scored across the internet it’s not hard to find out how to play the original. But does it make any sense to try to sound exactly like The Beatles, Metallica or Taylor Swift? Not really. I like myself to study the songs of famous artists and to learn songs to play exactly likle the original, but I see no sense to publish a pale copy of the original. Therefore when you plan a cover version I recommend to start from scratch, if you want to end up with something original. Don’t look at the original arrangement of the song, don’t look even on the chord-structure. Just grab the basic vocal-melody and the lyrics and try to forget, that you are working with a historical monument (Sometimes it feels like copyîng the Mona Lisa). Don’t be shy to improve it. What had you made different? What instruments can you imagine behind the melody? Could it be played faster or slower? You can create a whole new world for this song
- Alter the melody line
- Find an alternative chord-progression
- Develop a new arrangement with different instruments
Next I want to explain how you can publish the cover-song without being afraid of copyright-infringement and thinking on yourself in prison, while your family and your children stay alone and hungry at home. Of course you can upload your cover anyway, but it’s at your own risk.
The process to get a license for a cover-song was not always that easy. I remember, when I published my first album in 2002 I wanted to use the theme of a movie-soundtrack as the intro. I am still a big fan of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a long forgotten classical composer, who wrote the music for “The adventures of Robin Hood” and “The sea hawk” back in the thirties and fourties of the last century. To get the license to use his music I did not know where to start, so I asked a lawyer and he advised me to search for the rights-owner of the old recording and to ask for allowance. Fortunately I could locate the rights-owner, a publishing company, and wrote a kind letter explaining why I would like to use the recording. I never got a reply and therefore I dropped the idea and the intro and published the album without. Years later I tried again to clear a license and also failed. Somebody explained me, that publishing companies would only allow to use works of their clients, when they could expect high income from royalties. Requests from private persons and independent artists were usually ignored, because expectations of benefits are low.
Today you can get a license pretty easily, if you are willing to spend money for it. The easiest way is to get a license for streaming, because many digital distributing companies offer license clearing. I use CDbaby myself and they offer this service via their partner Easysonglicensing. But you can also create an account on Easysonglicensing and get a license separately (more on that later). When you set up a new single or album in your CDBaby-account you just fill in some required informations and request the desired license. The process works flawlessly and usually after one buisiness day you get an Email, that the song was licensed successfully.
The price for one license is affordable, though you have to keep in mind, that CDBaby charges additionally for distributing the song, therefore the total costs sum up to 25.00$. Of course this is serious money, but when I think on, that I get a legal license to publish a cover of a famous band worldwide it seems not too much. So after setting everything up for distribution your cover will appear on Spotify, Apple music and all the other big streaming players. You can also upload it on Youtube. Youtube’s clever rights-algorythm will detect, that your song is copyrighted, but in the background the rights-holder will get his/her part of the cake and usually you should not get a takedown-notice.
But unfortunately the CDBaby-license does not cover all platforms. If you plan to offer your cover on Bandcamp or on your own Website for download, the license is not valid, because it is only valid for streaming. Therefore (if you are a good boy) you buy an additional license at Easysonglicensing for a specific amount of downloads. In my case I can not expect more than five or ten downloads. For 25 expected downloads you will pay around 18$.
When we add the costs from CDBaby you can expect a total investment of
to get a cover song legally licensed for all digital music platforms.
Okay, we have talked a lot about costs and costs are not a popular topic among musicians. Therefore we head for the benefits of a cover-song.
I state, that a cover-song can become a worthy promotion-action, because it can drive traffic to your artist-account on Spotify and elsewhere. Of course you will choose a song of an artist, whom you admire and who has an emotional value for you, but you can also see it as cold, pre-planned marketing-action. Listeners are searching for well-known songs and will stumble upon your version, when they are searching for the famous artist and likely they will click on your track and give it a listen. A cover-version of a famous song will attract more people than your self-composed strike of genius. My own Spotify-statistics are pretty lame, but one thing I have learned from observing the statistics: The few cover-songs, which I have published have got much more attention than my own songs. Here is my statistic from the last thirty (!) days:
And there are more benefits to have a cover-song on Spotify: The “Blackened”-cover got the most play, because I could place it on a playlist dedicated to covers of Metallica-songs. So far it is the only playlist I could conquer. In my opinion today’s music market looks very much backwards to the golden age of the big rockstars (Just think on the successful movie about Freddie Mercury), so there is an ongoing longing after everything related to this famous past of Rockmusic, while the music industry seems not interested to replace those old idols.
In my opinion you should also think about, which song you want to cover, because very popular song-names like “I love you” or “Rock’n Roll” will generate hundreds of hits in the Spotify-search amd the cover-song, financed by your hard earned money, would fade away in the sheer mass of competitors. And there are also songs, which are already covered to death. For an example, if you want to cover Led Zeppelin I would not choose “Rock’n Roll” or “Stairway to heaven”.
Check out my own music on Spotify here