They Already Know the Words. But Do They Know You?

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The following is part of a series of articles taking a closer look at covers.

It’s also part of a new sponsorship partnership with Limelight, which specializes in mechanical clearances for cover songs.  See it all works out…  Enjoy!

Is a cover the best way to wedge your foot in the door?  Labels used to avoid the move – with notable exceptions – partly because of concerns related to imaging.  But that calculation was based on a much simpler media landscape.  “It used to be a bad thing, we never used to want to start an artist off with a cover,” Jeremy Welt, SVP of New Media at Warner Bros. Records recently told an industry group in San Francisco.

Why?  According to Welt, the imaging focus needed to be on the artist, not the song, and first impressions can count for everything.

My, how times have changed.  Suddenly, everything is spectacularly visual and immediate, and fans are reacting differently. “Fans seriously seem to like it if you do a good version,” Welt noted, while pointing to examples involving Tyler Hilton.  That includes a simple piano-and-voice cover of Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody,” a video that is now approaching 800,000 views on YouTube.

Actually, just bumping around in the recommended section, there’s also a cover of the same song by Matisyahu.  That performance has garnered nearly 500,000 views, and others have also been drawn to the song.

So what makes this a good song to reinterpret?  “There are a lot of songs out there that are about the music, and how it makes your body feel,” Matisyahu relayed.  “But this is a song that’s not as much about the music as the vocal… and the emotion that comes across in his voice.”

But Matisyahu introduced himself to the world with original material, not a cover.  And at some point, fans have to be led to some great original work – even if the cover got their attention in the first place.

Case in point?  One of the biggest covers of the past decade comes from Alien Ant Farm.  The band’s springboard was a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal,” though it’s tough to name another song by these guys.  Maybe their originals lacked that special something, or maybe the success created an impossible imaging hurdle to scale.

Either way, this is a seriously double-edged success story – one that highlights the original issue raised by Welt.  Perhaps a cover is an effective introductory tool these days, but still remains tricky when it comes to the big push.

Anyway, the long-story-short on Alien Ant Farm is not exactly the best one, though the latest chapter involves a bizarre resurgence.  Immediately following the death of Jackson, Alien’s cover was buoyed by the incoming, posthumous tide.  And, it makes sense: after all, this was a distinctive remake of a huge song by an absolutely immense artist.  But it may be the best – and worst – decision this group ever made.