For The Record

In a town this small, I should’ve known better than to think The New York Times had found me on its own.

You’ll recall that The Times called the other day to interview me about fledgling artists using cover songs to goose their iTunes awareness. I was leary (a) I don’t want publishing companies to come running with law suits and b) I don’t want to seem like I have no artistic merit of my own — I record twenty original songs for each cover), but excited. Can’t hurt sales, right? Well, my buddy Ron emails me from the Wall Street Journal today.

So this is how it happened. (Did I warn you? I should have warned you — didn’t think it would actually happen though!)

1) I read this on your site:

Jason, Mike and I were sitting at Hi-Life on the Upper West a few months ago. The guys had flown out to play some shows in the Northeast. I’m not sure the tour was going quite as they’d hoped. Mike was on his third whiskey. We were talking about “Static,” and puzzling out ways for a coupla’ guys to get their music out there. “Dudes,” I said, “Put a cover on iTunes. Worked for me.”

My Uncle Bill suggested years and years ago that I record cover songs. Now, you gotta’ know the guy: super-savvy, super-corporate, super-cool guy. He played drums in high school, so he gets what I’m doing and always encourages me. Still, I was resistant. I’d always performed covers in my live sets as a way to demonstrate my influences: REM, Pixies, Kim Wilde. Still, I don’t want to cheese out.

It wasn’t until recording a countrified version of “Here Comes Your Man” for “Crash Site” that I really embraced the idea. And it wasn’t until my music popped up on iTunes that I could see the value of the idea. People were looking for “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and finding me. then the dug in, and found, ‘Heck, this guy’s all right.’ You’ll find Pixies, Phil Collins, and John Denver covers there now. Within the next few months, live versions of REM, Wilco, and George Harrison will be available on iTunes. And I cover Matthew Sweet and The Nadas themselves on my forthcoming CD, “Heartland.”

2) I say to Jodi, hey this is fucking brilliant – what a great way for a lesser known musician to become better known – basically force people to bump into him while surfing itunes. There’s a story here!

3) Jodi forwards to the new Arts and Leisure editor, and I lose track of it after that. And then, I guess, somebody called? Who? Did they explain that it was my hare-brained idea?

Hope being (fully) called out for your tunes is better than being partially called out for your romantic exploits…

Amen, and thanks, Ron. (Though I noted to him that my parent’s wouldn’t be truly proud ’til my writing is published in The Grey Lady.)

I sent the reporter a follow-up email after we spoke. In the event the article comes out and a) I read like a major opportunist b) I seem like a no-talent or c) worse, an ass hole, here’s what I told her:

1- in nearly fifteen years of self-releasing my own records, i’ve covered the pixies, john denver, rem, aimee mann, wilco, matthew sweet and george harrison. each song choice was intended to a) reflect my interests b) my influences and c) my capabilities, not increase sales.

2- my overall sales are in the thosands of dollars. i am not making a living from this. in fact, i have no savings despite my tony executive title. :}
3- digital distribution (mp3) accounts for roughly 1/5 of my overall cd sales. people still like to hold real live cds.

4- by way of example, my most popular download is my cover of john denver’s “leaving on a jet plane,” from my 2003 cd, “almost home.” that song alone accounts for 1/8 of my total downloads. (note that my download data is based on all digital download services, not just itunes. but i think the data’s valid across the board.)

in conclusion, i absolutely see validity in your thesis that musicians are recording cover songs to goose digital sales. it’s the most recent incarnation of a trend with a long history: limp bizkit used a cover of george michael’s fath to gain radio attention, patti smith recorded bruce springsteen’s “because the night,” smashmouth did neil diamonds “i’m a believer,” etc etc. it goes back to elvis, and probably before.

i’m going surfing now. ;) have a great weekend! feel free to call/email with more questions.

best, benjamin

p.s. the mtv likes it best when i don’t speak on it’s behalf. in the event that i sounded like i was, i wasn’t. i only know my experience, and my perspective. despite the fact that may day job and night job should overlap — ie: i should be famous by virtue of either a) who i know b) who i’ve met or c) what i’ve learned inside the business, it just doesn’t work that way. or at least it hasn’t for me. ok, off to cisco beach…

I’m still leary, and still excited. The reporter’s deadline is tomorrow. So stay tuned…

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