Pop economics and the rebirth of the cover song TIM CARMODY · SEP 08 2015
Why are there so many cover versions of hit songs on Spotify, YouTube, and other streaming music services? It's not just because of searches and the artistic equivalent of SEO, but because there is an economic engine to support them:
Every time one of Scofield's songs is downloaded on iTunes, she makes around 60 cents, after paying a processing fee and, when it's a cover song, royalties to the original artist. But if one of her songs is streamed on Spotify, she'll make just a fraction of a cent. Both Scofield and Young have done the math: "You would have to play one of my songs on Spotify 150 to 400 times in order to equal what I would make from one iTunes download," Young says. Scofield agreed that to balance revenue on the platforms, she needed at least several hundred times more Spotify streams than iTunes downloads...
Spotify's microeconomy of cover artists gave rise to a cottage industry of easy-to-use online licensing services. Over the past several years, dozens of these services have emerged, like SongFile and Easy Song Licensing, an amateurish-looking website that promises it can clear a cover song for you in one to two days. Jonathan Young uses Loudr, a licensing and digital distribution startup that operates in the same way most of these companies do. For $15 per song, plus royalty fees (calculated by the number of times a song is streamed), Loudr will do the work of securing a license and putting the song up online. All Young has to do is pay and wait.
This is essentially an updated throwback to pop music in the 1940s and 1950s (and to a lesser extent the 1960s), where publishers would push hit songs on as many artists as possible to get maximum exposure/run it into the ground. It's fun to look at the recording history of a standard like "Baby, It's Cold Outside":
The following versions were recorded in 1949:
Non-charting recordings were made:
- The song in its original form was released on the soundtrack for Neptune's Daughter sung by Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams.
- The recording by Dinah Shore and Buddy Clark was recorded on March 17 and released by Columbia Records as catalog number 38463. It first reached the Billboard Best Seller chart on May 6, 1949, and lasted 19 weeks on the chart, peaking at number four.
- The recording by Margaret Whiting and Johnny Mercer was recorded on March 18 and released by Capitol Records as catalog number 567. It first reached the Billboard Best Seller chart on May 6, 1949, and lasted 19 weeks on the chart, peaking at number four.
- The recording by Don Cornell and Laura Leslie with the Sammy Kaye orchestra was recorded on April 12 and released by RCA Victor Records as catalog number 20-3448. It first reached the Billboard Best Seller chart on June 24, 1949, and lasted 10 weeks on the chart, peaking at number 13.
- The recording by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan was recorded on April 28 and released by Decca Records as catalog number 24644. It first reached the Billboard magazine Best Seller chart on June 17, 1949 and lasted seven weeks on the chart, peaking at number 17.
- A parody recording was made by Homer and Jethro with June Carter; it went to number 9 on the country charts and number 22 on the pop charts.
- By Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban on April 7, 1949 released by MGM Records as catalog number 30197.
- By Pearl Bailey and Hot Lips Page on June 23, 1949 released by Harmony Records as catalog number 1049.
- By Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton.
I mean, look at the cluster of dates! March 17, March 18, April 7, April 12, June 23. Some of the cover versions beat "the original" to market.
Then as now, the money isn't in the performance, especially on the record; it's in the song.
Today, the [star] artist retains more power than in the 1940s, and there's a stigma against artists who don't write their own material. But I wouldn't be surprised if at some point, we start to see more established artists get into the game of covering new (and old) hit songs, not just young artists looking for a little exposure. The economics of the thing line up the same way for everybody.