Cover songs have always been, and will likely always be, a major part of the grassroots music scene, as aspiring artists with little name recognition will use the popularity of current hits to draw attention to themselves and their performance. For many years, however, singing “someone else’s song” was a big part of mainstream music, as artists would put their own spin on an old song and even reintroduce it to the public by releasing it as a single. Sometimes, a song may go through several iterations of this process over the years: For example, Bill Anderson’s “The Tip of My Fingers” was a single for Anderson in 1960, Roy Clark in 1963, Eddy Arnold in 1966, Jean Shepard in 1975, and Steve Wariner in 1992, and has been recorded several dozen times over the years. Back in the day, there were even several artists (Ricky Van Shelton, Dwight Yoakam) who leaned heavily on cover songs early in their careers to build their reputation! It their own way, cover songs serve as a thread that links different eras together across history, and they show that many great songs transcend their eras and can stand up no matter when they’re recorded.
In recent years, however, cover songs have virtually disappeared from the radio: In the five-plus years I’ve been running this blog, the only two I can recall covering are “You’ll Accomp’ny Me” and “Tennessee Whiskey.” Singer-songwriters now dominate the genre landscape, and while it’s good that everyone is able to tell their own story, I miss seeing artists take an occasional crack at an old favorite to see if they can meet or exceed the original’s standard (for example, I think Ward Davis’s version of “Lady Down On Love” above is better than Alabama’s 1983 single). So why don’t we see more cover songs now?
The issue, like many others in country music and life in general, can be summed up in a single word, or in this case a single cover song:
Specifically, there are two issues with putting out a cover song in the modern era:
- Writing credits are too important of a revenue stream to give up. I touched on this in my analysis of why every country song today covers the same topics, but it’s worth covering again here. Artists are getting squeezed by the broader switch from selling music to streaming it, and getting in on the songwriting royalties helps cover this difference (although I doubt it closes the gap entirely, and probably doesn’t even come close). Labels have to pay mechanical royalties to publishers if they want to use a song under that publisher’s control. For both of these groups, recording a cover song simply doesn’t make sense: The artist gets less money, and the label might have to shell out cash to get permission to do it. You might as well write your own song that kinda-sorta approximates the original song (but don’t get too close, or you’ll have to cut the original writers in on the deal), and keep all the money to yourself.
- Music delivery has changed, and older songs aren’t optimized for it. For decades, purchasing a copy of a song or album was the primary way artists and labels made money from their recordings. In the last 10-15 years, however, streaming has completely upended this model, and is becoming the most-popular (and thus most-profitable) way to consume music. We often talk about “meta” in terms of things like competitive gaming, but streaming services forced a similar meta shift in music, and the industry quickly adapted to their new reality.
Since companies like Spotify pay copyright holders a set fee per stream of a song, the main goal of the industry became getting people to stream as many songs as possible, regardless of what those songs actually contain. Thus, songs have become shorter over time, with the average song length on the Hot 100 dropping 20 seconds just from 2013 to 2018 (why waste those extra seconds on one song when you could make someone stream a second one?), and albums have become supersized and now include far more tracks than before, as they now serve as a set-and-forget playlist that an artist/label can use to squeeze a few more streams out of a listener. (Double albums are starting to become more common as well: Morgan Wallen’s Dangerous, Cody Johnson’s Human, Jason Aldean’s Macon, Georgia, Thomas Rhett’s Country Again, etc.). Furthermore, since there’s usually a minimum time threshold for a song to be considered “played,” artists are optimizing their songs to make sure they keep the listener from tuning out too soon:
“An increasing number of artists are following the trend set by songs like Lil Uzi’s ‘The Way Life Goes.’ The song jumps right into the first beat of a chorus — and ends on the very last beat of one, too — with no instrumental intros, bridges, or even beat drops. This is efficiency at its best and is used when artists know exactly where you’ll fast-forward through their newest single.”—Output.com, “7 ways That Song Streaming Has Changed The Music Industry”
“If I’m writing a song that is for another big pop artist, I want to play all the games…Chorus within the first 30 seconds. No weird self-indulgent intro… Hook at the top in the intro, maybe even start with the chorus, under three minutes. I think that radio songs should be two minutes, 20 [seconds]. Get in, get out, everybody just get on with your life, you know?”—Charli XCX, as told to Dani Deahl, September 2019
Compare this to Wariner’s version of “The Tips Of My Fingers”: The hook is exactly 30 seconds into the song, and it takes nearly a minute and a half to get to what serves as the chorus. Davis takes nearly that long (1 minute and 20 seconds) to hit the chorus with “Lady Down On Love,” and he stretches the song an extra thirty seconds longer than the original (which was already nearly four minutes long when Alabama recorded it). Such moves are no-nos if you’re trying to maximize your streaming revenue, and while there are definitely songs that could still fit within these parameters (Eddie Rabbitt’s “I Love A Rainy Night” comes to mind, and Brad Paisley’s “Me Neither” is just a minute-and-a-half if you cut the instrumental outro), it’s probably easier (and definitely more lucrative) to just write something yourself with these principles in mind.
(A third issue, though not as closely related to money, is the comparison problem: If someone has already turned a song into a classic, why would anyone listen to your version over theirs? Given how accessible music is nowadays, finding the original copy of the song is as easy as typing the title into the YouTube search bar, so you’re already putting yourself up against some stiff competition.)
Put it all together, and unless you really believe in the hit potential of an old song, there’s basically no reason to record one anymore. You’re likely leaving money on the table both from a writing and a streaming perspective, and unless you can convince people that your version is worth listening to (or if people have forgotten the original completely), they’re probably not going to pay attention to your off-brand classic. It’s too bad, because there’s a rich musical catalog across many genres out there for folks to discover, and hearing your favorite artist try their hand at a hit from yesterday might be the impetus folks need to check that catalog out.
Cover songs are out of style, and unless there’s a significant tweak to the industry’s economic model, they’re going to remain that way for the foreseeable future.