Ah the cover song. Always a risk and rarely as good as the real deal, yet they’re becoming increasingly well used throughout mainstream media.
Anyone who watches TV will have noticed the trend of stripped-down covers of classic songs in adverts, which seems somewhat attributed to John Lewis who, for the past 6 years, have used this musical formula in their festive advertising. And it’s not just ads – covers are appearing more widely in film and TV. Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes has always used the show as a platform for launching new music. For the latter half of the show’s tenth season, she decided to exclusively use modern covers of classic 80’s hits such as The Human League’s ‘Don’t You Want Me’ and Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’. But what is it that makes covers so popular? And how can covering a famous song help an artist?
Firstly let’s look at why advertisers in particular love to use cover songs. We all know that creative budgets are decreasing, so using a cover version helps to save money on the master side, often avoiding negotations with major labels. Another key reason is familiarity. Put simply, we are drawn to what we know – it reassures us. By using covers of known songs, advertisers are trying to evoke that warm and fuzzy feeling associated with the familiar. And of course this gets our attention, which is their single greatest challenge.
Perhaps most importantly, popular songs ignite nostalgia. Depending on a person’s age, taste, etc., hearing a cover of a song might trigger childhood memories, or evoke some other (hopefully) positive association. It’s the emotion generated from these feelings that influences our perception of a brand and what it has to offer. Take the John Lewis Christmas ad example. Each year (with exception to 2013 when a more current track was used), they feature a popular song from the 70’s or 80’s, covered by an emerging current artist. This allows them to tap into the memories and tastes of an older generation, whilst also attracting the fan base of the current artist. Speaking at the recent Festival of Marketing, Simon Robinson from sonic branding agency Pitch & Sync describes why John Lewis’ use of covers is so effective:
“Covers provide that extra comfort blanket of nostalgia, while the lyrics [of the songs they have chosen] are relevant to what the brand stands for and its values. It’s a deliberate, strategic approach which has been consistently used so that they now own this ‘sonic space’. It’s almost got to the point where if you hear a track you’ll say ‘that’s a bit John Lewis’.”
– Simon Robinson, Pitch & Sync
So is recording a cover song a clever move for an artist? It can certainly get you noticed, according to music supervisor Mary Ramos. “We’re often looking for covers”, Mary explains in a recent interview. “It’s a great way to introduce your band and then hook people into listening to more. I just used a cover of ‘Black Hole Sun’ in a cool thriller (Nouela’s version in ‘A Walk Among Tombstones’) and it wouldn’t have happened if this band had not done a really cool dreamy cover with a female vocal”. And that’s the key, you need to record a “really cool” cover, to bring something fresh to the table. “The covers that we use are doing something different than the original” says music supervisor Manish Raval, speaking to Music Times about his work on HBO’s Girls. “Like, the Tegan and Sara cover of ‘Fool to Cry’, is just a completely different voice than Mick Jagger”, he says. “It’s doing something totally different, and it works great.”
In essence, cover versions present advertisers and producers with a low-risk and high-reward musical strategy. But are we being a bit too safe? Have the acoustic, breathy, simplified versions had their day? “We’ve loved and appreciated the stripped back and the emotional covers for a long time now – I’m ready for a change,” says Nisha Lakhani on Storyboard Music’s blog. As media users and creators, there’s a definite feeling that there’s room for more innovation, that it’s time to shake things up a bit. John Lewis have found their tried and tested formula, but the rest of us should keep experimenting. After all, covering should be about creativity. It’s not just a cover of a song, it’s a re-imagination. A mere hint of the familiar is all you really need.