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Copycat cover songs crowd real stuff off digital services
Music » Marketing ploy leaves listeners with fakes on Spotify, rivals.

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"Don’t waste your money. None are as good as the originals," writes another.

While some people make covers to get discovered, others seem to be in it to trick buyers and make a fast buck. A recent search for popular artists on Spotify reveals plenty of me-too bands who pick deceptive artist names like the "Bruno Mars Tributors" or song names like "Firework (As Made Famous By Katy Perry)." The artwork and graphics used for their songs are sometimes a mirror image of the originals.

At a glance

Easy path to a recording license

Obtaining a license to record a cover is easy and inexpensive. Services such as Google Inc.’s Limelight offer commercial song licenses to anyone who fills out a form. For each song they cover, artists pay a $15 fee. By law, Limelight also charges $9.10 in advance for every 100 downloads the artists may sell. TuneCore, which launched in 2006, distributes songs on outlets like iTunes for $10 per track.

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The producer behind that Katy Perry cover says he’s not out to deceive.

"It’s not about trying to live in somebody’s shadow or faking people out," says Michael Vail Blum, the Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based owner of Titan Music Inc. Blum says the cover song business is about taking great material — sometimes written by someone else — and making a great recording. Technology has just evened the playing field for artists who aren’t signed to major labels, he says.

But sounding similar is often the whole point, explains a person familiar with how the subsidiary of music publishing giant BMG works. The executive spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about it. The sound-alike can take the place of the original for businesses like malls and restaurants that want to use the song but can’t afford the original. For example, TV show "Two and a Half Men" licensed Movie Sounds’ sound-alike of "Gonna Fly Now," the theme song from the movie "Rocky," for an episode from 2010.

It’s a big business, with millions of dollars invested, and Movie Sounds’ parent Countdown Media has a catalog of more than 50,000 covers.

Digital music stores have made knock-offs profitable in a way that wouldn’t be possible with physical stores.

When iTunes launched in 2001, bands like The Beatles, AC/DC, Metallica and Kid Rock refused to sell their music online, so cover artists swooped in to profit from the digital demand. Titan Music cover band Led Zepagain was one of them. Standing in the place of originals in search results, sound-alike songs made hundreds of thousands dollars when consumers bought their songs.

That’s not illegal, says Chris Mooney, senior director of artist promotions at indie song distributor TuneCore.

"A cover song does not have to be an entirely original take on a version," he says.

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Brian Felsen, the president of CDBaby, another independent song distributor, says that while a gray area exists today, the deluge of covers can’t really be stopped.

"Everybody polices it as much as you can," he says, adding that his staff attempts to prevent "blatant" knock-offs that copy cover art and use other deceptive practices from being distributed. But he acknowledges that having so many covers isn’t good for consumers. "It may not be illegal or immoral, but it may not be the best thing for society at large either."

In the face of this growing tide, the mainstream music industry is jumping on for the ride.

Warner Bros. Records artist Michael Buble, whose career was made covering singers like Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong, worked with a band that got its start doing covers, Boyce Avenue, to cover his original single, "It’s a Beautiful Day." Buble introduced their version in a video released in April that links back to his original.

The exposure is worth any sales lost to Boyce Avenue’s cover, according to Kayla Isenberg, Warner Bros.’ senior director of interactive media, who reached out to Boyce Avenue on the partnership.

"The trade-off is being able to use their avenue to open up Michael and his music to this YouTube generation," she says, pointing to their 3 million subscribers and their YouTube channel’s 917 million views. "We’re getting massive publicity."

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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