Judging A Band By Its Covers

Buying “Tiny Dancer”? Would you prefer the original Elton John, the Ben Folds or the Tim McGraw? “Smells Like Teen Spirit”? Can we interest you in Tori Amos or Paul Anka?

With the advent of searchable music sellers like iTunes, it has become easier than ever to discover — or stumble on — covers of favorite songs. And since it’s only a few clicks from “Heart of Glass” (Blondie) to “Heart of Glass” (Space Surfers), some savvy musicians are realizing that doing their own take on a popular tune is an easy way to increase their visibility and gain a new fan base. ”It was clear to me that people were discovering me by virtue of the songs I was covering,” said Benjamin Wagner, a Manhattan musician who has covered the Pixies, REM and John Denver and who tracks his online sales.

In May, Derek Sivers, the founder and president of CD Baby, the largest distributor of independent music on iTunes, noticed that many of the firm’s top-selling songs were covers, and over all, the albums with cover songs were selling the best. “The cover would become like the beacon to that album,” he said. So he sent out a message to his clientele recommending they find their own slice of music history to record, as long as it wasn’t “Amazing Grace” (762 versions and counting).

“The key is finding a song that hasn’t been done to death,” Mr. Sivers said. His suggestion: “Nobody has covered anything off Alanis Morissette’s ‘Jagged Little Pill.'” (Except, of course, Ms. Morissette, who recently rereleased the album.)

Though Mr. Wagner and other musicians still cite appreciation as the main reason they rerecord a song — “When I did Phil Collins, I meant it,” he said — the bump in sales has not gone unnoticed. Mr. Sivers said the response to his idea has been overwhelming; Mr. Wagner has also advised friends to take the already-beaten path.

But being high profile by association has its downside. “I’ve bought covers by accident,” said Pete Wentz, the bassist for the Chicago band Fall Out Boy, which found itself with some older (relatively speaking) fans after covering Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” “I bought four Jay-Z songs that were actually from a Jay-Z tribute record.” Of course, Mr. Wentz said, he would check out the covers. But he admitted to a bit of disappointment. “I wanted the Jay-Z,” he said.

New York Times

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