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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 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 a song 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.

more examples:

Natalie Inbrulio              Torn                                                  (Ednaswap)

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.

more examples:

Marilyn Manson         Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)            Eurythmics

Limp Bizkit                 Faith                                                      George Michael

 

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.

more examples:

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. 

more examples:

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 the 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 embarrassingBefore 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. 

more examples:

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 planning to record and distribute the song, you should secure the proper mechanical license — and CD Baby makes it super easy. We’ll help you license and distribute your cover song single, all from the same account.

Here are More Covers to check out….good luck!

License your cover song single for distribution today.

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  • brad813

    I pretty much have a rule that doesn’t allow for more than a couple covers per album, if I choose to do one at all. I put the focus on my original music. I would point out that cross-genre covers can work for new artists, if they are done the right way. I do a variation on pop rock that is heavily 80s influenced. I am doing a couple of covers early on, one an 80s rock song, and the other will probably be a converted pop or r&b song from a more current artist. Classic songs do not always appeal to a younger audience, so I am trying to use a cross-genre approach to bridge that gap while using a cover of an older song to reach the people my own age and older. The genres I have chosen to draw from are blues based, like much rock and roll is, so it comes down to finding a new arrangement that works.

  • brad813

    I pretty much have a rule that doesn’t allow for more than a couple covers per album, if I choose to do one at all. I put the focus on my original music. I would point out that cross-genre covers can work for new artists, if they are done the right way. I do a variation on pop rock that is heavily 80s influenced. I am doing a couple of covers early on, one an 80s rock song, and the other will probably be a converted pop or r&b song from a more current artist. Classic songs do not always appeal to a younger audience, so I am trying to use a cross-genre approach to bridge that gap while using a cover of an older song to reach the people my own age and older. The genres I have chosen to draw from are blues based, like much rock and roll is, so it comes down to finding a new arrangement that works.

    • Mike Corcoran

      Thanks for sharing your experience. I agree, you can’t go too “classic” or you might lose the audience to a generation gap. A carefully selected song can bridge that gap while still appealing to your fanbase.

  • David Havrilla

    Very helpful and I will be working on this. Follow me on Spotify. https://open.spotify.com/artist/2dZUYhGTseyhpttJ8aoNaG

  • David Havrilla

    Very helpful and I will be working on this. Follow me on Spotify. https://open.spotify.com/artist/2dZUYhGTseyhpttJ8aoNaG

  • Tom Hendricks

    Please don’t write your own songs. That’s the quickest way to look bad. You don’t make your own guitars, and amps and mikes do you? You leave that to those who have a real talent for it. You may sing well, or play well, or in a rare instance do both, but there are fewer good songwriters than there are great musicians. Wasting time on a badly written song is a mistake. Want to compose? Go ahead, but don’t show anyone anything until you’ve written 100 or so, and then take the single best one. Really. Who ever said everyone can write music after a day, is not telling you the truth. Can you play guitar after a day? Did you get a great voice after a day? Can you build a guitar in a day? Nothing has ruined music more than people thinking they can write songs. 99.99999 can not.

  • Maria Millar

    Thank you for this article; I’m always checking out these blog posts. I have a question – I receive many requests on YouTube to purchase sheet music for a few songs I’ve covered or arranged. I know about mechanical licenses, but I was wondering if you could tell me what the process is for being able to legally sell sheet music of these arrangements. Thank you in advance!

    • I’m not as familiar with publishing rights when it comes to sheet music, and copyrighting arrangements. I’d consult with an attorney on that one. Cool that you’re seeing some interest in that though! Might be worth paying to get all the right info upfront, since it sounds like it could turn into a revenue generator.