Make a great cover tune with 3 basic rules

Making a great cover song doesn’t take a genius. Anyone who plays live should have a few in their repertoire. If you’re performing for public audiences without playing any cover songs at all, you’re missing out on a slam-dunk trade secret.

Everyone loves to hear music they recognize, regardless of who is playing it. You can make your audiences love you more simply by doing a song everybody knows in your own style.

But! it can be done wrong. Here are the three rules you should follow in playing or recording cover tunes.

Rule 1: Don’t cover music you can’t improve somehow

If you go out and just perform a Beatles song as closely to the original as you can, you’re going to disappoint your audience. You aren’t the Beatles. Why would you do that to yourself?

Pick a song pretty much everyone knows, something flawed, something you can do in a new way everyone is going to appreciate.

Protip: there are lots of one-hit-wonders who weren’t very good but made a song everyone loves. Those singles are often pretty easy to improve on. People will think you’re really hip for remembering that one song they haven’t heard in years.

Rule 2: Perform the song in your own style

If you’re a hip-hop band, do a hip-hop rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Bad.”

If you’re a country band, do a country/western rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Bad.”

If you’re a metal band, do a heavy metal rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Bad.”

(Except, you know, it doesn’t have to be Michael Jackson’s “Bad”).

If you think people don’t frickin’ love to hear familiar songs played in totally different styles, you’ve got another think coming.

How many people in the audience have forgotten that time Rob Zombie played the theme from 1960s TV, “The Munsters?” None of them. Or when Green Day recorded the theme for the movie version of “The Simpsons?” Exactly zero. People love that stuff, and admit it, so do you.

Rule 3: Don’t introduce the song when you play it live

Introducing your songs before you play them is pretty tacky most of the time, anyhow, but it really stinks when the song is something everyone knows already.

What’s more fun? The vocalist goes to the mic and says, “You guys might remember this one from a show back in the nineties called ‘Friends,'” or, nobody says anything and you just break into the song. A few seconds later people start murmuring to one another. Now there’s a ripple of applause and everybody’s smiling at the stage. Seriously, how is that even a debate?

Don’t announce it. Just play it and have fun.

BONUS Rule: Maximum two covers per set

Play your music. That’s what you’re here for.

The covers are just a sneaky way to get people paying attention.




4 thoughts on “Make a great cover tune with 3 basic rules

  1. The landscape of Covers is changing

    Lets take Mr. Sam Cooke’s “Everybody Loves The Cha Cha Cha” for example. Look at it like this. Mr. Cooke did two versions of the song, one with one musical composer and he as the Artist, and one with another musical composer, with that other being you for another Artist.

    With that in mind, one can expect the music to be totally different and diverse from one another, because the odds of two composers coming up with the same music is very very high. Now you have two original versions of the same song. This does not mean that the rights holder will give you license to use Mr. Cooke’s words/lyrics though. But it’s worth a try. What do you have to lose? Nothing, depending on how you look at it. The only thing you lose is the expense of the vocal track(s) with the verbatim/consecutive flow of Mr. Cooke’s lyrics/words.

    Since it’s your music, just write new words and record a new vocal track with those words. So keep that in mind in the disappointing event that the rights holder will not give you a license to use Mr. Cooke’s lyrics as another original version. Also, give this second version a new title like, “Lets Cha Cha.”

    But most importantly, include some incentives in the agreement or modified NOI.

    Don’t offer to pay Mr. Cooke the statutory $.09.1 %. Do you think Mr. Cooke would agree to you making $.90.9% while he doesn’t even receive $.10? No! So offer him half as though you and he wrote the song, which in reality is what it is. Same goes for Publishing. Offer the Publisher even more than half, like at least 65%. And even with this, you may still have to negotiate. You might have to pay Mr. Cooke 60% and you take 40% or the Publisher may ask for 70% and you take 30%.

    Can you imagine how good this look. Although Mr. Cooke is no longer with us (no disrespect intended), it looks very impressive that Lets Cha Cha, was written by you and Mr. Cooke, which again, is the reality of the thing. Is that not worth more than giving he and the Publisher more? Besides, they might help you move the song.

    Again, this does not guarantee that the rights holder will permit you to use your version as a second original version. They may only allow you to use your version as a cover. That’s why it’s important, at least in my view, to have alternative words so your hard work won’t go to waste if you choose not to accept your version as a cover or any negotiated offer(s).

    Bottom line. Don’t be greedy.

    Your R2M Songwriter and Musician,

  2. What is the easiest way to find the proper rightholders and then contact them? I’ve been on the cover / remake / remix route a couple of times, but it was very hard to find the right person and when I found them, most of them are unwilling to even license their rights. Especially the big lanbels like Sony and Universal are difficult to deal with. Sony does not even respond to inquiries, and Universal is so big, I ended up in a discussion between the Netherlands, Australia and UK, before they themselves figured out who actually owned a track.

    1. Thanks for reading, Beati Sounds,

      Frankly, the easiest way is to simply do the cover and wait for them to be upset, if indeed they are upset. As you pointed out, most major labels and licensing companies won’t even respond to an indie artist doing their due diligence. That’s because there are too many people using their music illegally already to reply to all of them. To get their attention, you need to be on their radar.

      The advice I’ve gotten is: send the emails to the appropriate people, then go ahead and play the songs you want to play. If they come back with legal beef, you simply show them that you tried to get their attention and were ignored.

      If you do get replies and they send you around the world to speak with the owner of the rights, well that’s as easy as it gets, I’m afraid, unless you know exactly who to talk to ahead of time and what email address to use.

      I’m afraid that this is the best I can do for you.

      Thank you very much for the question!


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