Soundscape Signals: Uncovering the Cover

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Think cover artists and the term tends to dredge up Elvis impersonators, mimicking the King’s swaggering hips or the dashing Fab Four as they relinquish their cutesy personas sans drugs.  In the background, the nostalgic audience noisily make themselves known the entire time, singing along to their favorite tunes, as they try to grasp onto the iconography that made all this possible.

These days cover artists don’t carry the same stigma like they once did as gaudy entertainers.  Artists like Alien Ant Farm and Limp Bizkit were first introduced to us via covers – springboards that catapulted them into the public eye that are now haunting them like a tailgating fiend.

According to Digital Music News, Alien Ant Farm’s cover of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal”, “involved a bizarre resurgence” following the death of Jackson.   Alien’s cover was buoyed by the posthumous tide, out-shadowing even their later works.

YouTube sensation, Boyce Avenue also shot to immediate underground fame after acoustic versions of their live performances of covers and original songs surfaced via the World Wide Web a little over two years ago, reports MVRemix Blog.  Their homemade videos of songs like Justin Timberlake’s “Love Stoned”, Rihanna’s “Umbrella”, and Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida”, among others, quickly went viral and today Boyce Avenue is one of the most watched channels on YouTube, with over 165,000,000 views.  They are currently signed to Universal Republic Records and their full-length album, released back in June 2010, has garnered the attention that has enabled them to tour the country and ease into a European tour slated in November.

And you might have heard of Pomplamoose, a San-Francisco based indie-pop duo through their YouTube covers – the most recent being the Angry Birds and The Super Mario’s theme song.  Easily recognized for their witty and quirky vocals, they’ve just released an original song, titled, “River Shiver,” and it could be surmised that without the introductory big push in the beginning via covers, their original stuff would not have generated the same sort of appeal.

But let’s just say, this conversion of talent, could go both ways.

Back in April, Prince reportedly claimed that covers are destroying his original work, saying that cover songs and the compulsory licenses that make them possible are invalidating his music.

So, basically Prince is saying that his version of “Purple Rain” or “Kiss” no longer exists.  Is this even possible?  Rather than claim that the original no longer exists; why not just assume it exists even more because now people are more aware of the original?

The onset of this discussion preludes even Prince.  The war on covers and the sampling business has been a continuously vicious onslaught with many musicians cowering in its wake.  But by the end of the day, the discussion that only seems to look inward into who owns the copyrights to what exists within a bigger context than what any formidable clairvoyant could foresee.

According to MuscianWages’s Cameron Mizell, the phrase ‘cover song’ originated in the early days of the recording era when record labels’ distribution was limited regionally.  When a song grew in popularity in one region, it would invariably get covered by competing labels in others.

This is what Wikipedia has to say on the nature of covers:

“Coined in 1966,[2] the term cover version originally described a rival version of a tune recorded to compete with the recently released original version, e.g. Paul Williams 1949 hit tune “The Hucklebuck” or Hank Williams‘ 1952[3] song “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)“, both crossed over to the popular Hit Parade and had numerous hit versions. Prior to the mid-20th century the notion of an original version of a popular tune would, of course, have seemed slightly odd — the production of musical entertainment being seen essentially as a live event[.]”

So, let’s paraphrase:  It seems that cover music may have originated from record companies trying to cash in on popular songs of the day.  Rather than take the risk of recording and distributing an unknown song, competing companies made easy dough by recording alternate versions of songs that were circulating the country.  This proven formula came into fruition because back then songs rather than artists were the focus of music production.  In a way, this approach of music-making was very much a collaborative effort.

Ethan Hein of “Ethan Hein’s Blog,” is a savvy blogger and musician who is particularly interested in the way technical music production has changed the creation and the way we experience music.  In his blog post, titled, “Samples and Community,” he writes about how samples are a powerful connecting method, casting a wide web that can be as intricate as the Internet.  In the sense that the Internet fosters community so can music samples:

The tribal associations of music operate at a more granular level than entire genres or performers. Any shared musical memes build a network of musical association that can create pathways for emotional connection. Chord progressions, melodic figures, scales, rhythmic figures, lyrical phrases — all the DNA of music draws on a finite pool shared across the world’s musicians, the way that the genomes of humans and mice and fruit flies and daisies all draw on the same basic set of genes.

The above quote from Ethan Hein’s blog, surmises at best how interconnected music is.  To call sole dibs on a piece of music seems gratingly simplistic.

To perhaps get a better sense of the genealogy of a song, watch the YouTube video by rome777, titled, “Collab Episode One”.  In the video, the narrator approaches how collaboration is innate in music by examining how musical influences in Jay-z’s hit “Empire State of Mind” dissolves music ownership into one big community.

To simply say covers are launching pads to the indie artist, or that covers are the ingenuity of lazy musicians, is very unfair.  When the issue of covers and samples get fettered around idle table talk, emotions rise and the conversation immediately gets heated.  This hotplate of a discussion shouldn’t stop at copyrights, and I invite you to join me in discussing how closing the gap between covers, samples, and collaboration can help further music evolution.

To thank those of you for reading this far, here are a couple of recent covers that pay tributes to artists past, present, and of those on the rise:

Photo Courtesy of T Burd via Flickr


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