The Telegraph has a fascinating article on the rise of what I’ll call the rise of the “pre cover”. It’s essentially a bunch of studio musicians recording and releasing a a near identical cover version of a song before the original artist has a chance to release their version. I can’t help but find this totally hysterical.
Pop music has almost always gone for the lowest common denominator. Yes, there are periods of exception (think the late 60s & early 70s) but generally we’re talking music that isn’t too challenging to play. If the charts were topped with virtuoso-filled and complex efforts like ELP’s Brain Salad Surgery this sort of nonsense would never work as the sheer effort of replicating such an album would make it unfeasible. But most pop songs are not so challenging. They’re usually 3-10 chords, double strummed guitar, and one of about 30 stock drum patterns. Their artistry has always been more in the writing, performance, and increasingly since the mid-80s, their packaging. If nimble studio musicians can begin to rapidly replicate songs and release them just before or concurrently with the originals will this represent a threat to those original artist’s income?
It’s very difficult to say.
Another issue I find fascinating about this phenomenon are the legal aspects. Legally, in most countries that respect modern copyright, a songwriter is allowed the right of first release. This means that when they right a song they can release it before anyone else. I’m very curios though as to what “release”means in today’s market. In the past it was very clear. When the vinyl LPs or CDs hit the store the music was released. But today bands very often post YouTube videos of the song or demos of the song long before the official version hits the shelves. Is this considered a “release”? What about if the song is played on the radio but he physical product (including iTunes download) isn’t yet for sale? In both examples the song has been placed into the public and the musicians are getting revenue from it. Wouldn’t that be “released”? The rise of the internet and recording technology has allowed songs to be recorded and released with astonishing alacrity. Even if it’s determined that cover bands had to wait until after the iTunes release of a song they could still have their version up for sale digitally within days of the original. Most of these cover acts price their songs a good bit cheaper then the original. If you could get a Maroon 5 song that sounded 99% like the original at 50% the price would you? As a musician I find the idea absurd but I wonder if they’re aren’t a lot of folks out there who don’t be quite so discriminating. It may be that a specific wait period for a cover release will have to be imposed.
Another issue I find really interesting about all this is the technology creating these covers. Recording and synthesizer technology has evolved so much that is is pretty easy for skilled technician to get just about any sound they want using only a laptop and some basic instruments. This is only going to increase till even singers will be able to be replicated with eerie digital precision. Video will be next. There are already “skin smoothing” plugins and “thinning” plugins to improve a subject’s appearance and I’d wager it won’t be but 15-20 years before even the frumpiest of frontmen can be transformed into a picture perfect pop star. Maybe then the ELPs of the world will seem more compelling.