YouTube cover versions have gone from being unwelcome to broadly tolerated - and why not?
Rhodri Marsden is the Technology Columnist for The Independent; he has also written about crumpets, Captain Beefheart, rude place names and string. He's also a musician who plays in the band Scritti Politti, and won the under-10 piano category at the 1980 Watford Music Festival by playing a piece called "Silver Trumpets" with verve and aplomb.
Wednesday 23 July 2014
Earlier this year, a band that I play in decided to record a cover version of a TV theme tune, make a video for it and put it online in the hope of attracting some attention. What began as a whimsical idea ended up as a severe administrative headache; I discovered that to do things by the book, it was likely that I'd need to get permission from the publisher of the original song to do so. If I didn't, I'd be participating in what Wired magazine once referred to as "quite possibly the most popular creative art that's against the law".
At the time of that article, it was estimated that 12,000 cover versions were uploaded to YouTube every day – barely any of which were authorised – and you can bet that today it's significantly more than that. Our cover version was a tiny drop in a colossal ocean, but I'm always fearful of the consequences of disobedience so I spent several days getting permission anyway.
The worst punishment you're likely to face for uploading cover versions that violate copyright is to have your YouTube account disabled, but the practice is so widespread that you're unlikely to be chased down and interrogated. Which isn't to say that it doesn't happen; in 2012, a Canadian man's drunken rendition of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" while sitting in the back seat of a police car was removed from YouTube, thanks to an over-zealous publisher.
But some publishers have now come to an arrangement with YouTube whereby videos identified as cover versions (using clever software that analyses melodic patterns) are allowed to stay up, with a proportion of advertising revenue going to that publisher. Which seems fair enough. That it remains a criminal offence feels somewhat absurd.
In a few short years, these cover versions have gone from being unwelcome to broadly tolerated, but there are signs that they might now be encouraged. And why not? They're born out of enthusiasm and creative spirit, they serve to publicise the song and usually inflict no commercial damage.
A couple of months ago, the defunct US metal band Pantera launched a competition to publicise a 20th anniversary reissue of their most popular album, requesting cover versions to be uploaded to YouTube. More significant, perhaps, is the launch of an app called Hook'd, by the American classical pianist Robert Taub. Combining the spirit of karaoke and X Factor with the click'n'share of social media, Hook'd lets you sing along to original backing tracks, film the performance and instantly upload your new version of a pop classic.
The catalogue is currently pretty small (tracks by the Ramones and B52s sit uncomfortably alongside others by Christina Perri and Lykke Li) but will soon expand. It's a pretty clever repurposing of the vocal-less versions of tracks originally made for artists' TV performances; they're now being resold to fans who want to sing and show off.
Of course, Hook'd offers little flexibility, and it's clear where the control lies. These are authorised cover versions where every element except vocals is pre-determined, where you pay for the privilege of singing an entire song to camera and surrender the royalties if your version happens to go viral. But it's still significant.
Games such as Rock Band and Guitar Hero have long demonstrated that people want to be part of the music as much as they want to listen to it, and Hook'd represents a recognition that our own versions of popular tunes, as misshapen and unprofessional as they may be, don't compromise the integrity of the original one iota. Indeed, far from being a nuisance, they might actually have some worth.
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