Remixes, Covers, and Arrangements.
Andrew Aversa, the designer and co-founder of Impact Soundworks, has made a really helpful episode on YouTube, where he discusses the value of remixes, arrangements and covers and explains the legal ramifications for releasing them. There is also an action plan for how to release covers yourself.
This is what he has to say....
One of the best ways to build a name and a following for yourself is building on the music that other people have written, and far from being inauthentic this has actually been done for over a hundred years.
I’m going to explain why this can be a viable strategy; the legality, how to do it, and then how to go about building a simple action plan to getting started.
First, to give you some examples that you might not know about, let's go back about 70 years and look at artists like Elvis Presley with his famous song ‘Hound Dog’. Except it wasn't his song. That song was written by somebody else and recorded several years earlier. Elvis was just the one that popularized it.
And there’s also Jimmy Hendrix and 'All Along the Watchtower', which is actually originally done by Bob Dylan. But that song helped propel Jimmy Hendrix into stardom, and it was a cover!
You can find the same story throughout the decades. In fact, there are a lot of hit songs that not only were not written by the artists that popularized them, but that were actually recorded by one or in some cases, many other artists. Like Cindy Lauper's ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’, Lenny Kravitz’s ‘American Woman’ and even the song ‘Mad World’ (which appeared in the movie Donnie Darko)... and wasn't actually the original version.
More recently we've seen this huge explosion of remixes and covers on platforms like SoundCloud and especially YouTube, particularly from movies, anime and video game soundtracks.
There are now artists that have parlayed the success of their remix arrangements into these massive careers. There are now international touring artists that have gained millions of subscribers and in some cases even gotten record deals.
And that basically all started out by arranging, and covering, and remixing music. The reason why this is effective is because you're connecting with something that people already know. Everyone has music that they love, could be from any decade.
There are songs that they like to sing in the shower, soundtracks that they associate with good memories or that bring about nostalgia, and all those things lead them to be more predisposed to listening to a cover of that music, because they loved the original.
In other words, when you record a cover song, you're resonating with somebody even before they've heard your music. Just because they know that song, they want to hear your take on it. That really paves the way for somebody to become a fan of yours, not just of the song that you covered, but a fan of you as an artist.
Now, before we go any further, let me try to clarify some of the terminology that I'm using, because I know it can be a little confusing!
We have remixes, covers, and arrangements; and some people use them interchangeably and I have to admit covers and arrangements are pretty similar, but there are some distinctions, including legal ones. So we're going to go through that now.
- Melodies, lyrics, progressions, overall song structure largely unchanged.
- Straightforward interpretation.
Usually a cover is a more straightforward interpretation of a song. It's taking something like the original melody or lyrics (if it has any), the chords, the progression, and then playing it pretty closely to how the original piece was. Even if it's on a different set of instruments, it's still pretty close sounding to the original.
- Harmonic changes
- Modified structure
- Altered lyrics
- Original material
(Arrangements can be transcribed, they require special licensing to be sold as sheet music but recording them first is not required)
Whereas an arrangement implies that there's more musical recomposition happening. There might be new harmonies. There might be new parts to the song, new lyrics, or original material that's being put in there.
In general, it implies that more is being done to change the piece of music from what it was originally. For example, the Grammy award-winning artist, Jacob Collier, is an incredible musician who most definitely does arrangements, in particular of a lot of classic funk and Motown songs. And he's gotten such huge notability because of the very musically interesting things he's done with those original songs.
While a cover means a new recording of a piece of music, an arrangement doesn't necessarily mean that the music is being recorded. You could do an arrangement of, say, ‘Silent Night’, the classic Christmas tune, and you could print that arrangement on sheet music and hand it out to people.
So an arrangement is not inherently a recording, and as such, there are rules and licenses that can be applied when you create an arrangement (to sell your own version of it) that give royalties to the original songwriter. This doesn't really apply to covers because once again, covers are a more straightforward interpretation of the original.
- Uses audio from the existing source recording
- Sometimes adds NEW audio (e.g. vocals, beats)
- Audio only
(For a legal remix you must get permission first but there is no 'compulsory' licence)
And finally, remixes are the most fundamentally different of these three things. Typically if you are making a remix, it means that you're using the original audio. You might be taking some parts away, or adding new things (like new vocals or beats), but it is based on the original audio from an existing recording, rather than being based on a song that could be written on a sheet of paper.
These distinctions matter because the law changes depending on whether you're doing a cover or an arrangement or a remix. US copyright law provides a pretty clear path to making legal covers, and to a lesser extent, arrangements music without even getting the permission of the copyright holder. So that means, for example, you could actually cover a Katy Perry song or a Madonna song without getting their permission, but (at least in the United States) there isn't this sort of guaranteed mechanism for creating remixes.
This means that it is much, much easier to create covers and arrangements as opposed to creating remixes. Which segues into the next point, how do you do this legally? How do you go about creating a cover or an arrangement and make sure that the original rights holder gets paid, if you're selling it?
For remixes, I'll basically just say there isn't any easy, legal way to do it without talking to the copyright holder directly. Now, if it's an indie artist that you're remixing, they might be flattered by the offer to remix their music. So you might just reach out to them and see if you can come up with some sort of simple agreement, on the other hand for major label stuff or soundtracks it's very unlikely.
Instead I'm just going to focus on the approach to making covers legally. There's a provision in US law that allows people to make covers as long as they pay a certain royalty for each time the song is sold or distributed, as long as the appropriate paperwork is done. The thing that enables you to do this is that the song has to be commercially distributed in the United States by the original rights holder. Which means as long as the song was put on Spotify, or it was sold in stores on a CD or anything like that, then it's fair game. You can get what's called a mechanical license, and then you can do your own recording and start selling it.
But the key thing here isn't the royalty requirement, but actually the requirement that the song has to be publicly and commercially distributed beforehand.
I've been a part of the video game arrangement scene for a while, and that requirement has actually caused us a lot of frustration because there are plenty of really popular Japanese-made game franchises and soundtracks but for many of these, like the Final Fantasy series, or Castlevania, or Mega Man, the soundtracks either took forever to be officially released in the United States, or in many cases, weren’t ever commercially released in the US (even though they were released in other regions like Japan).
Just because the game has been localized and translated and released in the United States doesn't mean the music in the game can be officially covered and licensed. You can still try to reach out to the publisher, but your chances are pretty low. They have to have published the music in the United States first.
And practically speaking, almost nobody goes through that laborious manual process, just because it's very paperwork intensive and you have to stay on top of the notices and the royalty distributions. So, instead of doing that, what you can do is license a song through one of the various services that exclusively handle cover song licensing.
Music Clearing Services
A few examples of this are Soundrop:
and HFA Songfile:
Of course, as time goes on, some of these services might shut down or new ones might come up in their place. That's already happened several times in the last 10 years so it’s important to keep checking that sites are still valid and searching for new ones.
The key takeaway here is that if you're going to sell a cover or monetize it in some way, like on Spotify, you can't just upload it to an aggregator. You do have to get a license for it. And going through one of those services is going to be the easiest way you can do that.
Now, can you make a cover or a bootleg remix and just throw it up on SoundCloud or YouTube? Sure. And are you going to get in trouble for it? Probably not.
Most publishers are not going to go after small fry and even some big channels seem to get away with publishing stuff like that on a regular basis. I think part of the reason is that if a publisher or rights holder really cares, they can engage in various YouTube tools like claiming a video and getting the ad revenue for it (if it's something they feel they own the rights to).
Worst-case scenario; they can send a takedown and the video might get removed, but you're still not going to get sued for doing it.
Create your own covers
Now that you understand the legality and background to making covers and arrangements, let's come up with a simple action plan that you can apply to your own career.
- What type of work
- Consider your choice
- What's relevant/popular
- Avoid excessively chasing trends
- A balanced mix of works
First, think about the type of cover or arrangement that you'd like to do. Is it going to be something more straightforward or are you going to go in-depth and write new lyrics and harmonies and add new instrumental parts?
Personally I think it's a lot more interesting when people put their own spin on a piece of music. I spent a lot of years as an artist on this website called OverClocked ReMix, which despite the name was actually all about arrangements of video game music. And it was actually a requirement to get your music posted. You had to put more of a spin on it than just covering the song straight up.
The next thing to think about, how do you choose what to cover? The most obvious thing is to think about what music you like? What music inspires you? And then cover that. But the downside to that approach is that what you like might not necessarily mesh with what's popular and what people are looking for on a lot of these modern platforms.
For example, if you cover a classical piece of music, e.g. you record your own version of a Mozart or Beethoven piece, that doesn't mean that piece is going to become popular. The kind of people that are interested in that sort of thing are probably not going to be searching on YouTube for the latest Beethoven or Mozart cover recording.
Instead, you want to think about what is popular right now in media. That could be everything from blockbuster movie soundtracks to popular anime video games, and, whilst I I kind of hesitate to say this, even popular memes that have music associated with them can be an interesting source of inspiration.
What you can try to do is identify what people are talking about right now on social media, you can take a look at any sort of video game blogs or pop culture blogs and see what are people talking about. For example, a game came out a few years ago called Undertale. And even though Undertale is not as popular from a sales perspective as something like the Call of Duty series, the music for Undertale was absolutely huge and it got covered and remixed so many times it just blew up on YouTube. And even today it's still popular.
If you can find something like that, something people are talking about, and are excited about then there's a passionate fan base for the music. That's going to give you the best results for the time that you put in.
The flip side is that if you're sort of chasing the latest trend all the time, that can be an easy way to feel burned out because now you're making music just because of analytics and marketing, not because it really inspires you. That's why it's important to mix up the covers you do of more popular stuff with covers of things that you really care about, and that motivates you.
Plus you probably want to mix in your own original music somewhere in that release schedule. You should take it one song at a time, one cover at a time, start with something like YouTube. If you have a very small following or no following at all, don't monetize it right off the bat. Especially if you pay for a license through something like Easy Song Licensing, you can just put it up there with the correct song and publisher attribution in the video description.
If you feel like something is becoming really popular, it's getting a lot of views and comments, then you could pursue licenses if you haven't already and get it out there through an aggregator. And then you get on all those other platforms like Apple music, Google Play, and Spotify eventually with persistence.
As you continue to improve your own craft and technique as a musician, you're going to see more and more people becoming your fans as they stumble on your catalog of covers. This really does work no matter what style or genre of music you do. So as you think about the next piece of music that you do, and the next thing that you put your effort into promoting, think about doing a cover or an arrangement.
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