Collaborative covers 2.0

We can do incredible things on the Internet. The exchange of ideas and media at the click of a mouse serves to push musicians to new levels. Entire websites are dedicated to how to play songs, ranging from lyrics to tablature to how to mimic effects used by musicians. One of the beautiful affordances of Web 2.0 is the ability to collaborate on musical works. Individuals throughout the world can interact online to produce new songs or, more relevant to this blog, recreate the works of others. The following are a few examples of websites that allow for such collaborative covers:

Digital musician

Digitalmusician.net is a website that allows musicians from around the world to connect to work on projects. The website allows a peer-to-peer connection between up to 3 users, such that computers can directly connect to each other for live recording of songs. While many of the songs are original works, many users also seek out musicians from around the world to help create covers.

In B flat
InBflat.net is a website that embeds YouTube videos from different contributors in the key of B flat. The website designers synchronized the playback feature such that regardless of what order or at what time the videos are played, they come together to form a soothing melody. Viewers can play around with different combinations to create completely different songs.

YouTube: Tyler Ward
Of course, discussion of musical collaboration via Web 2.0 would not be complete without addressing YouTube. Musicians from around the world post covers of songs and comment on the works of others. In this way, networks of musicians can be formed, and if the parties are interested, online collaboration can allow for incredible covers. Some musicians meet on the Internet but record songs in person. Others, though, simply upload the various components of a cover song and allow the piece to come together, one instrument at a time, from across the globe.

Tyler Ward, hailing from Denver, Colorado uploads many covers by himself or with fellow musicians in proximity. However, as his online fan base has grown, so has his utilization of the Internet to collaborate on covers.

Cobus Potgieter of South Africa adds his incredible percussive abilities to remake Flo Rida's Club Can't Handle Me:

Drew Dawson of Illinois incorporates her impressive vocals in the collaborative rendition of Cee Lo Green's Forget You:


This cover was taken a step further as Keith Reber added in a backing drum track:

Tyler Ward is by no means the only musician utilizing such affordances of the Internet. YouTube and other such sites are full of musicians finding others who are geographically distant but share similar musical tastes and talent and want to work together using the Internet to create covers. As musicians grow more accustomed to the affordances of the Internet, and as technology improves, such collaborative works will likely play a prominent role in covers and the music industry in general.


Punk goes crunk

Many music lovers enjoy multiple genres. Sure, most people have their favorite, but there often is some crossover in taste. Covers sometimes bridge genres, and the following CD is a great example of this.

The CD was released in 2008 and features 15 songs from bands ranging from quite famous to relatively obscure in the punk rock to metalcore genre (for those who don't feel like clicking on the link metalcore is described as a fusion genre combining various elements of extreme metal and hardcore punk). They all cover hip-hop, R&B, or similarly categorized music.

Is the CD worth buying?
In all honesty, probably not.

According to Laurie Mercer at allmusic.com:
This record is really unlikable, both in general and specific terms. Singing lyrics meant to be rapped enfeebles the poetry and neutralizes its rhythmic underpinnings, while bastardizing production styles to mimic samples is simply sonic chicanery that doesn't fool the ear.

An amazon.com reviewer believes the CD would be more aptly titled Punk Goes Stupid. Clever, right?

Is it all bad?
Definitely not. There are some well done covers on the CD. The following is a pretty solid rendition of Akon's "I wanna love you":

Punk Goes Crunk also brings up an interesting point about covers worth addressing. Part of the beauty of being able to perform the work of another artist is that covers have no limits. Songs from previous generations or from different genres are all fair game. Songs can be covered in different languages, and altered so greatly that individuals may not even recognize it as a cover if listening to it and the original one after the other.

Mat Weddle's rendition of Outkast's "Hey ya" accentuates the lyrical content in a way that the original version cannot accomplish because of the fast pace.

Bruce Hornsby's "The way it is" took on a completely different tone when redone by Tupac in "Changes". Tupac focused in on race relations from a very personal perspective, while Hornsby seemed to touch on the subject from an outsider's point of view.

Covering a song of another genre allows for different interpretation of the piece and often a focus on a part that the original might not emphasize. In addition, covering such songs allows listeners to appreciate and access types of music they might not otherwise explore.


But that's my song!

Sometimes you can hear a cover and have no idea that it is not the original work. This is especially easy in the case of a song originally performed by a relatively obscure band and then reproduced by a big name. It happens more often than you may think. Remember Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn"? It seemed difficult to turn on VH1, MTV, or the radio and not hear the song back in the end of 1997 through 1998. But unbeknown to most listeners, this song was actually a cover of "Torn" by Ednaswap. "Torn" was Natalie Imbruglia's most famous song, as she was, in the music world, what many may refer to as a one hit wonder.

However, what many would consider the most popular song of a number of artists are covers. Aretha Franklin's "Respect", Whitney Houston's "I will always love you", Soft Cell's "Tainted Love", Quiet Riot's "Come on Feel the Noise", Joan Jett's "I love rock and roll", Cyndi Lauper's "Girls just want to have fun", UB40's "Red, red wine", and many other songs that often remain an artist's most famous work are covers.

Many have heard Johnny Cash's last song he recorded in studio, titled "Hurt". In case you haven't, here is the video:

This song, while not the most famous Johnny Cash song, was seen as his last legacy. It was his last song and somewhat of a musical goodbye to the world. However, it too, was a cover. The original version was written by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. In an interview, Reznor described his reaction upon seeing the video:

"I was flattered...[but] it didn't sound right to me. You know, that was my song. And it didn't sound bad, it just sounded...alien...it really then wasn't my song anymore...[It is] an unbelievably powerful piece of work."
Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails

When covers become famous or seem to stand for something significant, sometimes the fact that the song is not an original work of that artist can be forgotten. It is an interesting phenomenon, and one that will likely continue.

Here is the original version of Hurt by Nine Inch Nails:


Boyce Avenue: A YouTube sensation

Multimedia sites like YouTube, Myspace, PureVolume, and many others allow amateur musicians to post audio or video clips for the general public. The websites are free to access and free to post on, providing a potentially wonderful marketing source at no cost. Both original works as well as covers are uploaded. However, in terms of the probability of an artist or band being discovered, utilizing cover songs make sense. The following is a story of a band who used a combination of YouTube and catchy cover songs to become famous.

Boyce Avenue is comprised of three brothers from Florida. Although they had pursued musical interests previously, the three brothers officially came together as a band in 2004. In 2007, the brothers started posting videos on YouTube. The content was mostly cover songs, but they did post some original works as well, although songs from other artists initially had many more views. Alejandro, the lead singer, has an incredible voice, and the band often utilizes alternate guitar tunings and a cajón for percussion, creating a soothing and melodic sound. In addition, all are talented musicians and many of their videos are quite well-edited compared to the average YouTube cover song. Apparently, this was a recipe for success.

By the end of 2008, the band had over 100,000 subscribers to their YouTube channel. This YouTube channel currently has over 480,000 subscribers and 250,000,000 views. They are the most viewed band on all of YouTube, which is pretty amazing considering they started in September 2007 with just a few acoustic covers of songs they enjoyed. Here is Boyce Avenue's most viewed online song to date, with more than 10.9 million views:

However, Boyce Avenue's success does not end online. In January 2009 the band had a stand-alone show in New York city. The show sold out. The band subsequently sold out many shows, not only in the United States, but also abroad. Shows in Germany and the United Kingdom were sold out, and the band tours as far away as the Philippines. Universal Republic Records approached the band and signed Boyce Avenue in 2009. This is the same Universal Republic Records that signed Colbie Caillat, 3 Doors Down, Enrique Iglesias, Jack Johnson, and many other big names.

But was this just a fluke?
Obviously just posting videos on YouTube will not necessarily lead to fame and success. There are countless amateur musicians who post on YouTube and never get more than a few hundred views. Certainly the incredible talent of Boyce Avenue helped them attain so much popularity. But they are most definitely not the only group to get their break because of their YouTube videos. Among others, Justin Bieber also was discovered because of his YouTube account. And guess what his first few videos were. That's right, covers:

Multimedia sites allow amateur musicians the chance to access an audience never before attainable. And covers are often a great way to reach out to the audience. Now every time someone searches for "Shadow of the Day" or for "I'll Be", the versions by Boyce Avenue and Justin Bieber come up. With the help of multimedia sites, many musicians will help jump start their career and possibly attain fame and fortune through the digital exchange of cover songs.


Paying for nothing

You have all heard frivolous lawsuits. Everyone has the same incredulous look on their face when friends describe the man suing Michael Jordan for $832 million dollars because he looked too much like him or the prisoner who tried to sue himself. Musical copyright infringement, too, has had its share of absurdity.

A song of silence
In 1952, American experimental composer John Cage composed a controversial piece called 4'33". The piece, created with live performances in mind, was four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence. No instruments, no vocals, nothing. Cage wanted listeners simply to absorb the ambient noise.

Mike Batt released an album in February 2002 called Classical Graffiti. One of the tracks was completely silent. The album was credited to Batt, as well as to John Cage, who had no role in the production of the album. Batt simply respected Cage as an artist and found 4'33" to be an interesting piece. Perhaps to his surprise, Batt was contacted following the release of Classical Graffiti by Cage's publishers. Why? They wanted to sue.

So what happened?
The case never made it to court. Mike Batt, instead, agreed to pay an undisclosed six-figure sum. To reiterate, in case you missed that, Batt payed over $100,000 for having silence on his album. Although Cage's publishers did admit that the case was "optimistic", Batt claimed the payment to the John Cage Trust was made out of personal respect for John Cage. Upon settling, Cage's publishers felt "honour had been settled" because "the concept of a silent piece...is a valuable artistic concept in which there is a copyright."

Perhaps the publishers have a point. Silence comprising the entirety of a musical piece does seem to be an artistic concept. The irony, however, is that Cage was not the pioneer in such a musical work. There are at least four composers who utilized silence as an artistic endeavor within their music for longer durations of time. Cage's publishers might have been at a loss had one asked about such compositions, and the "honour" of John Cage subsequently utilizing the same artistic technique.

Copyright law can clearly get a little ridiculous. Had the case made it to court, Batt likely would not have had to pay, or at least would have greatly reduced the fee. Regardless, covering songs can get dicey, and though individuals often purport the value of artistic expression, for those interested it can still all come down to money.

Here is a live cover of John Cage's 4'33". As a spoiler alert, this may take easy listening to an uncomfortable level:


The Controversy of Mashups: Girl Talk

A mashup takes songs or sounds from other artists and combines them to form a single unified song. The most famous contemporary American mashup artist is Gregg Gillis, a retired biomedical engineer who performs under the name Girl Talk. Gillis makes musical collages out of short clips from other people’s songs but does not get the permission of the original composers. Here is a clip of Gillis demonstrating how he goes about creating mashups:

A great controversy over the work of Gillis and other mashup artists remains whether mashups fall under copyright law’s fair use principle, which allows online music reviews to use short clips of songs. According to the U.S. Code: 

The fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.

Gillis argues for the legality of his work and claims that there is currently an impetus for a more open exchange of culture and media. Others strongly support this claim such as Congress Representative Mike Doyle who argues that copyright law has grown so restrictive that it impedes creativity.

However, some argue that Gillis and other mashup artists are simply substituting someone else’s creativity for their own and that such actions should be, and in fact are, illegal. Interestingly enough the current record label of Girl Talk is called Illegal Art. Regardless, both sides agree that the current method of distribution of Girl Talk's songs plays a key role in keeping the controversy out of the courts. Girl Talk’s most recent album, All Day, is available for download free online, as are all his other works.

Gillis performing at Duke University in the spring of 2009.

Regardless of the legality of mashups, their impact on the musical community is difficult to examine. Covers of a single song can serve as a marketing tool, helping an artist's work become more popular, or can, if the work is sold commercially, help the original artist make some money. Mashups, though, do not necessarily do either. Gillis takes small clips from songs, often eliminating all but one intended instrument or sound, and combines many songs together to form a new entity which cannot be easily identified with a single artist. In addition, Gillis does not pay musicians to use their songs. They are not necessarily a useful marketing tool for the original artists, and do not allow the creator to gain additional profit. Mashups do, however, contribute to an environment in which digital media and collaboration are encouraged, which, as future blog posts will address, may help change the future of music.

Here is an example of one of Girl Talk's many mashups:



Glee. It has taken television by storm. It combines high school drama with catchy choreographed song and dance in an hour-long series on Fox. A few famous actors have roles in Glee, but the show mostly relies on less-famed individuals with incredible voices. The show was received well by many critics, and the episodes contain multiple covers of popular songs, both new and old.

According to Fox:

GLEE is a biting musical comedy that has quickly become a pop-culture phenomenon. This season's No. 1 entertainment series among Teens and a Top 3 series among Adults 18-49 and 18-34 boasts critical acclaim, a loyal fan base of "GLEEks," two Platinum and two Gold albums, two Grammy Award nominations, more than 16 million song downloads, the record for the most titles on the Billboard Hot 100 by a non-solo act (beating out The Beatles), the No. 1 soundtrack of 2010 ("The Christmas Album"), an incredible 19 Emmy and 11 Golden Globe nominations - earning it the distinction of being the most-nominated series of the year - and four Emmy Awards.

So the show is kind of a big deal.

Why is Glee so popular?
When it comes down to it, Glee is a typical television show about high school. There is the jock, the cheerleader, the tough guy, the gay guy, the fat girl, the mean girl, and pretty much every other mix of high school drama-inducing characters one can imagine. There is nothing new there. However, the characters also sing and dance, but hasn't that already been done before?

However, unlike High School Musical, Glee strives to add in the song and dance in a realistic manner. High School Musical was extremely popular among the teen groups, but the statistics clearly show that Glee is popular among even adults. Perhaps it is because of the more realistic feel of the show. Kids in high school do not just break out into song and dance. Glee incorporates a glee club (hence, the title), and with many of the main characters as members of the club, the show can effortlessly incorporate many covers into each episode in a realistic scenario. The singers are incredible, the songs are generally well-known, and the dances are well-choreographed, making the show a feel-good sing-along type of experience without being quite so cheesy.

Is everyone such a big fan?
No, it seems not all are true "Gleeks". Bryan Adams and Guns N' Roses refused to let their music be used in the show. Slash, the Guns N' Roses guitarist who made an appearance with at the Superbowl halftime performance with the Black Eyed Peas, said he "draws the line at Glee". And it seems that he is not the only one.

This is an image from a Facebook group of the same title. However, the largest equivalent page for Glee supporters currently has over 11 million fans. And this does not even touch the actual number of individuals who in the non-cyberspace realm watch this show. Executive producer Ryan Murphy said the music community has generally been quite supportive, with some artists even offering their songs for free.

Whether or not you like the show, they certainly are doing something right. Here is an example of one of Glee's many covers:

And yes, that is Gwyneth Paltrow.