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Cover me and I’ll cover you: The impact of music covers

April 12, 2011

*Edited 4/14/11*

I’m a big fan of covers. Covers in pop music history have resulted in an iconic merging of genres such as Johnny Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt” and Nirvana’s cover of “The Man Who Sold the World” by David Bowie, along with many other iconic collaborations of music.

It’s interesting though, to see how 21st-century tools like the Internet and social technologies have expanded the cover or the idea of a cover artist as anyone with a guitar, ukelele, harp or in my case a keyboard.

The core idea of my side music project, and the reason I created this blog, was that an open setting like the Internet, an open mic venue or the outside world as seen in the Play Me I’m Yours project in Austin, TX can become a canvas for inspiration in a “hobby” musician such as myself.

Continuing my last post about the emergence of remixes and copyright laws, I find a lot of similarities between the remix and cover which are interesting in light of heavy copyright and legal action by the music industry in the past few years. Some similarities I find are:

  1. The cover of a song makes it distinctive in many ways. The tempo, restyling of the genre, new instrument, different tonation and changed lyrics can have a powerful effect on the meaning and audience of the song.Jimi Hindrix’s cover of “All Along the Watchtower” as opposed to Bob Dylan’s original version is an iconic example. Bob Dylan’s version reflects a period of political turmoil throughout the world with its brilliant lyrics, while Hendrix’s version reflects an entire generation of people through its masterful focus on the music.
  2. A remix, on the other hand, takes a song and makes it different through elements such as the beat, instrument and a combination of other sampled works to provide it with new meaning. The remix is, in simplified terms, the more technological form of the cover.

This sheds some light upon how the production of music is viewed through different mediums, such as in notorious copyrighting litigation. A remix, even after paying royalties to the writer and producer, can be sued heavily as stealing copyrighted work based on the fact that it was produced through a computer, regardless of how much it was changed in the process.

The cover seems to be a bit more lax in this regard, in that there are technologies in place, particularly online, that can make any musically inclined person a cover artist assuming they have a camera or recording device without much consequence.

Youtube in particular, with its billion range of user-generated content and traffic, has made the cover song a way to practice musicality and creativity in the public domain without the threat of infringement, at least for the time being.

It’s similar to user-generated journalism in that a music community provides feedback, creativity and inspiration for a number of contributions based on the way they reach an audience. It builds and encourages creativity in the open realm, which is extremely valuable were it to stay open and free to share.

As Tom Junod of Esquire states, “This is what covers do. They are gifts and thefts at the same time, shouts of flattery and whispers of ambition- the court jester’s plot against the king.”

In summation, there’s a rich future in music covers, but first we must look to the past.

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