5 Things to Think About for your next Cover Song
Stop me if you’ve heard this one…
“How does AC/DC (or insert some other legacy band) clear out the first 5 rows at their concert?”
Punchline: “When the band announces, ‘Here’s a new song off our latest record!’”
It’s a lousy joke, but it reminds one of a very important rule in the music business: Your average music fan wants to hear songs they already know and love. People like familiarity. They want to hear music they know will move them. It’s an old concept, of course, but it applies to even the most successful artists in the world.
And it’s one reason that many bands, whether you’ve released one album or or twenty, choose to add a cover song to their repertoire.
When you do a cover song, your fans will automatically by default compare your version to the original. Not to get too dramatic, but you’re forever tying your legacy to someone else’s artistic work. You’ll want to get it right. Before jumping into your next cover song, consider these 5 things.
1. Don’t Go Too Obscure
For the unsigned artist, one big reason for performing a cover song is to pump up your audience with a song they know. While you’re doing that, you’re also displaying your artistic talents by giving the song your own unique bent. But if the original is one few people have heard before, you’ve lost the opportunity. Of course, there are plenty of examples where covering an obscure song results in a big hit, but this strategy doesn’t work in a small club setting. Covering obscure songs usually works best for artists whose best talents lie in their vocal performances. They can take a previously unknown song and bring it to life with their voice alone.
Sinead O’Connor Nothing Compares To You (Prince)
2. Don’t get Too Cute
I’m referring to reaching far outside your musical style for a cover song. This route is reserved for already-established artists that have blazed their own original trail. For example, Johnny Cash pulled it off beautifully when he covered Depeche Mode’s Personal Jesus and Nine Inch Nail’s Hurt.But that’s Johnny Cash. If you’re a new band, don’t try this strategy. Wait til you get a little bigger.
3. Go with a Classic, or an Influencer
The main goal of performing a cover at your show is to convert new fans. Your cover song is one song of many, and you’ll probably perform it sometime in the middle of your show. Keep the vibe going with a cover song that everyone knows and has a similar feel to your originals. Your best bet is to cover an old classic, or a song by a band that’s influenced your music.The song will surely be recognized by the fans and you’ll heat up the room as more people get into your music.
Jimi Hendrix All Along The Watchtower (Bob Dylan)
Nonpoint In The Air Tonight (Phil Collins)
Guns N’ Roses Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (Bob Dylan)
4. Don’t Go to the Well Too Often
It’s always possible your cover song turns into a surprise hit with your fans. Be thankful and consider yourself lucky. Just don’t go back to the well too soon or too often. Your fans might decide you’re milking it, or worse, that you’re too lazy to write your own music. Guns N’ Roses had big success with cover songs, but then the magic wore off. Before they broke up, the last songs the band recorded were cover songs that bombed.
Limp Bizkit Behind Blue Eyes (The Who)
Guns N’ Roses The Spaghetti Incident? (Various)
5. Nail It
Make no mistake, attempting to perform and record someone else’s work is a big risk. On one hand, getting a cover song right can do some pretty crazy things for an artist’s career. There are countless examples of artists recording cover songs more famous than than the original. On the other, getting it wrong can be downright embarrassing. Before you record your next cover, perform it live to gauge your fans reaction. Again, the goal with doing a cover song should be to attract new fans with some familiarity and fun at your live performances. And if you really nail it, you’ll show your old fans an artistic range they never knew you had.
Alicia Keys feat. Adam Levine Wild Horses (Rolling Stones)
Destiny’s Child Emotions (BeeGees/Samantha Sang)
The Weeknd Dirty Diana (Michael Jackson)
Manfred Mann Blinded By The Light (Bruce Springsteen)
Hey, what about Licensing and Royalties?
There’s plenty of straight-forward articles already written on this topic, so I won’t re-invent the wheel here. Suffice to say, if you’re only performing the cover song at venues, you don’t need any license. If you record a cover and submit to radio stations, again, you’ve got nothing to worry about. It’s when you record and try selling your cover song that you’ll have some paperwork to fill out.
If you’re not big on paperwork, don’t worry too much. I’ll probably catch some flak for saying this, but you can probably get away with asking for forgiveness in lieu of permission. In the event your cover song becomes a hit, the original songwriter will come after, and get, any and all royalties due. As long as you know this going in, you won’t be disappointed. Nor will you make plans to spend money that was never yours to begin with. The songwriter will be happy - trust me - that’s why many songwriters write songs. When other artists turn those songs into hits, they get paid. No real harm or foul.
But, since I know you’re the type of artist who likes to have all music rights in order, save yourself the headache and use a digital distributor. They’ll take of all your paperwork, permissions and licenses and you’ll never worry about a thing with a cover song.
Here are More Covers to check out….good luck!