CMU Weekly Editor's Letter

Editor’s Letter: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before

By | Published on Friday 6 July 2012

Andy Malt

They say that if you’re going to do a good cover version of a song you should take it and make it your own. But it seems that can mean more than just being creative with it.

An abiding memory of my childhood is the cassette compilations of pop hits recorded on the cheap by session musicians that used to be sold by the till in Little Chef restaurants. Never, however, did I ever consider that those tapes might leap out of a roadside café and into the charts. But that’s what they’re doing right now.

For the last few years, cheap knock-offs of pop songs, hastily recorded after the original has been heard on the radio for the first time, have occasionally made it into the lower reaches of the charts, via iTunes-style download sales, ahead of the commercial release of the original version. But the whole thing has become a more prominent topic of conversation of late, because one of those cheap knock-offs made it into the top ten last month.

On 17 Jun, ‘Payphone’ by Precision Tunes moved from number 83 up to number nine. To the casual observer, it might have looked like an impressive achievement for an unknown artist. But this unknown artist had the advantage that their song was a version of the latest single from Maroon 5, whose own version was only put on sale the day that Precision Tunes went top ten.

Such covers take advantage of the ‘release window’, where labels release songs to radio around two months before they actually go on sale. The idea, of course, is that those few weeks of radio-play work the public up into a lather, so that they rush out and frantically buy the song in the first week of release, assuring it a good first week chart position.

This tactic certainly worked in the past, and the majors would argue that – for pop releases especially – it still works. So much so, that when Sony and Universal committed in January last year to service new singles to radio and digital services at the same time (responding to pressure from the management and artist communities), the scheme collapsed within nine months. But these unofficial cover versions pose a new problem, and another reason why the ‘release window’ doesn’t really work in the digital age.

In the days of people actually going to record shops, they’d just be turned away if they showed up looking for new songs two weeks early, partly because even the mainstream music stores wouldn’t stock knock-offs in place of original works, and partly because the knock-off makers could never afford to get CD versions of their sneaky covers into the shops in time.

So, no shop assistant ever said: “Sorry, we don’t have ‘The Harder I Try’ by Brother Beyond, but we do have this tribute version you might like to buy instead”. But that’s exactly what iTunes does, when people head there to satisfy their demand for a new favourite pop tune. In the week before Maroon 5 released their version of ‘Payphone’, over 35,000 people went to iTunes, searched for it, and when faced with the option of ‘Precision Tunes – ‘Payphone (Maroon 5 Tribute)’, either out of stupidity or a desperate desire to own the song in any form, hit ‘buy’.

Usually when one of these covers starts to do well in the charts, the label behind the original song rush releases the official version. This negates the supposed benefits of the ‘release window’, but also kills the rogue release. In this case, however, Universal avoided the tempation to rush release the new Maroon 5 single, which may have aided Precision Times’ trip into the Top Ten, though it didn’t stop the original track also going number one once it had been released.

The legality of releasing covers of songs before the original artist has had chance to release them commercially is a bit of a grey area. It’s not illegal to record a cover version of a published song, so long as the relevant royalties are paid to the songwriter, and that is usually done via the collective licensing system (MCPS). However, what should constitute first ‘publication’ of a song, and should an artist have a moral right to release their own song first if they want to?

Barney Hooper from PRS For Music (which incorporates MCPS, and collects royalties on behalf of songwriters) told BBC Newsbeat this week that it was a problematic area, saying: “Let’s say if they chart very highly – that could be quite a bit of money that the performer who was meant to perform [the song] would be losing out on. We want consumers to know that they are buying a track or a song that’s by the people they think should be performing it”.

When The Sunday Telegraph tracked down the man behind Precision Tunes, Joshua Weinstein, he seemed very apologetic about the whole thing, and even promised to take down the covers he’d released and pass all the revenues he’d made onto the artists affected. In a slightly confusing statement, he told the paper: “We have currently restructured the company and its employees, [and] are in the process of issuing takedowns [of our previously released covers] and researching accounting for those releases and plan to relinquish any monies made on the nine releases”.

Whether he actually does any of this remains to be seen. Currently, while the Maroon 5 cover has been removed from iTunes, cover versions of songs by artists such as Justin Bieber, Carly Rae Jepsen, Jennifer Lopez and Nicki Minaj remain available.

Of course, aside from any debate over the legal or moral rights of the artist, this whole thing also re-poses the question about whether the release window should exist in the digital age. As it is, there is evidence to suggest many file-sharers who access brand new music via illegal sources claim they do so because new tracks aren’t available officially quickly enough. So, in a bid to get the high chart rating that they are probably assessed on within their companies, are major label execs losing revenue to both piracy and sneaky cover version makers?

Isn’t it time to close the release window once and for all? Because after all, if everyone did it, then the chart position benefit the current radio-to-release gap allows wouldn’t exist anymore, and labels might lose less sales to pirates and covers (and, by having a more drawn out marketing plan aiming for organic growth, might score more plays on the streaming networks too).

Also creating knock-off versions of songs recently were Def Leppard. Though in this case the songs were their own. The Sheffield hard rock band are one of those acts with a pre-internet record contract that says little about downloading, though they are also one of the heritage artists fortunate enough to have a contract clause that allows them to veto the sale of their music online, so they aren’t relying on possible precedents being set in American courts to up their share of digital revenue. Various artists with the digital veto have employed it in the past, some because they don’t like having their albums broken down into their constituent songs and sold off one by one, others because they just can’t agree with their label how download monies should be split up.

Def Leppard sit in the latter camp, and as a result no one is making any money off their nine Universal-released studio albums through digital services. But the band have come up with a plan to change all that – ie a way that they can earn while their old label gets nothing. So, frontman Joe Elliot told Billboard, they sent Universal a letter saying: “No matter what you want, you are going to get ‘no’ as an answer, so don’t ask” and then set about recording “forgeries” of the currently unavailable old songs to release themselves, ie they are covering their own old work.

They aren’t the first band to re-record old material following a dispute with a former label. However, where, say, Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall recorded new, different versions of old songs, as Elliot says, Def Leppard are making “forgeries”, ie painstakingly attempting to recreate the original recordings. This isn’t as easy as it perhaps sounds, some of their recordings are now almost 30 years old. Aside from the fact that the songs will have changed through years of playing them live, back in 1983 Elliot had a much higher voice and drummer Rick Allen had a whole extra arm.

Elliot explained: “You just don’t go in and say: ‘Hey guys, let’s record it’, and it’s done in three minutes. We had to study those songs, I mean down to the umpteenth degree of detail, and make complete forgeries of them. Time-wise it probably took as long to do as the originals, but because of the technology it actually got done quicker as we got going. But trying to find all those sounds… like where am I gonna find a 22 year old voice? I had to sing myself into a certain throat shape to be able to sing that way again. It was really hard work, but it was challenging, and we did have a good laugh over it here and there”.

The result is two new versions of ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’ and ‘Rock Of Ages’, which do sound remarkably similar to the originals.

As before, this is a little bit of a grey area, legally speaking. So long as they pay the correct royalties to the songwriters (ie themselves), and assuming no clauses in their old record contracts specifically forbid such covers, there’s no problem with actually recording new versions of their old songs. But Universal might have a case to argue that the band are ‘passing off’ – ie attempting to dupe consumers into thinking something is something that it isn’t. The band would point to the fact that they’ve added ‘2012’ to their reworked song’s titles, but it’s debatable if that would stand up in court.

The band seem pretty sure it won’t come to that though, and are planning to press on with more song restorations. As for what they’ll re-do next, Elliot says they’re not sure yet, but after they’ve finished their current tour “someone will pull a song out of the ether and the five of us will stand looking at each other and go: ‘Yeah, why not?’ If we’re gonna do them, it really doesn’t matter what order we do them in. It’ll be something you’ve heard of, no doubt”.

It’s an interesting project, but unlike the rogue covers capitalising on the demand for as yet unreleased pop songs, it’s hard to tell if Def Leppard’s scheme is actually worth the effort. It may or may not be an ethical thing to do, but there’s an obvious fast-buck to be made out of the knock-off new release covers. But how much money will Def Leppard make from their reworks? Will it be worth the clearly considerable effort? And will it be more than if they’d agreed terms with Universal and let them do a big digital reissue campaign?

Who knows? Some fans might be more likely to buy the carefully constructed new version of old. Some may think the original is always the best. Either way, as new business models go, I can’t see this one taking off.

Andy Malt
Editor, CMU

In this week’s podcast you’ll find Chris and I chatting about Frank Ocean’s revelations about his sexuality, MEPs voting against ACTA despite being all for it before, the sale of EMI Music Publishing to a Sony-led consortium, and Def Leppard re-recording their old songs to spite Universal.

You will be able to hear all of this when the podcast goes live later this weekend. Find out how to stream it, download it and/or subscribe to receive it automatically here.

Of all the news stories in music this week, one seems to have got people talking more than any other. Odd Future member and R&B soloist in his own right Frank Ocean this week published an open letter revealing that his first love had been a man, rather than a woman. The beautifully written letter was originally intended to be published in the liner notes of his new album, ‘Orange Channel’, but he seemingly released it early after rumours about his sexuality began to circulate.

For someone operating within a notoriously homophobic genre (something his own group is regularly accused of) and at such a crucial point in his career, it’s both a very brave and hugely significant moment. Or as Odd Future leader Tyler, The Creator put it: “My big brother finally fucking did that. Proud of that nigga cause I know that shit is difficult or whatever. Anyway. I’m [going to the] toilet”.

This time last week, a Sony-led consortium was handing over $2.2 billion to Citigroup to complete its purchase of EMI Music Publishing. Having received European approval earlier this year, US competition regulators also gave the acquisition approval late last week, allowing Sony and its various partners on this bid to close the deal.

But the EMI sale isn’t all done and dusted just yet, there’s still the matter of the record labels, which Universal is still hoping to get its hands on. The fact that the recordings half of the company is being bought outright by one company (the biggest music company in the world, no less) makes it more problematic. This week Universal was preparing its response to EC regulators about their concerns over the deal. Meanwhile, UMG chief Lucian Grainge was reassuring staff that the recent (and quite sudden) departure of the CEO of its parent company was not a sign of trouble ahead.

In other music company news, HTC’s Beats (the electronics company founded by Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine) confirmed rumours that it had bought music streaming service MOG, the All Tomorrow’s Parties promotions company went into liquidation, though all its events remain unaffected, Coachella announced it would move to another city if its current host Indio attempted to force new taxes on it, and police in Ottawa were investigating the theft of $600,000 from the Escapade festival, apparently by one of the founders of the company behind it, DNA.

Over at the European Parliament this week, MEPs voted 478 to 39 against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, with plenty outside offering their opinions on the matter. The global intellectual property agreement has been in the works for several years but became more controversial in the wake of protests against SOPA and PIPA in the US, opponents claiming (mainly incorrectly) that ACTA contained similar anti-piracy provisions. The European Commission and various European governments that support the treaty will likely wait until the European Courts Of Justice rules on whether the agreement violates fundamental EU rights before deciding their next move.

In other piracy-related news, the BPI asked its members if they had any business relationship with a number of BitTorrent websites, presumably before launching attempts to force ISPs to block them, MegaUpload was allowed to attempt to have the case against it dismissed and its founder Kim Dotcom accused US Vice President Joe Biden of leading the shutdown of the website, and one of the Pirate Bay’s founders Peter Sunde pleaded with the Swedish government for clemency rather than sending him to prison for his involvement with the file-sharing service.

Still on piracy, and PRS For Music published a joint report with Google on trends within file-sharing services and their funding, while the BPI’s latest stats showed that digital sales were up in the second quarter of 2012, but album sales overall were down.

In one of the more unexpected stories of the week, it was revealed that Lamb Of God frontman Randy Blythe had been arrested by Czech police in relation to the death of a fan at a show in Prague two years ago. Blythe is accused of pushing the fan off the stage, leading him to sustain fatal head injuries. However, the band’s manager says that a video of the event proves that this is not true.

Meanwhile, Andrew Lloyd Webber accused the Eurovision Song Contest of racism (which the show’s organisers countered by saying that there had been at least three non-white people involved this year), and there was the big Blur-related news that some of Alex James’ cheeses had been withdrawn by Asda.

For our interview feature this week I spoke to Dan Le Sac, chatting about his new album and taking bigger risks than Deadmau5. The playlist was put together by Anna Vincent of My Tiger My Timing. The Beef Of The Week was more on Def Leppard recording new versions of their old songs. And, as ever, there were a load of festival line-up updates.

In the Approved column we had new music from rock troupe Fang Island, garage rock band Sic Alps, the mysterious Society and dream pop duo Evy Jane, plus a tip for a performance by Norwegian jazz pianist Bugge Wesseltoft next week.

As well as that, we had the video for Muse‘s hilarious Olympics song, new contributions from Dappy and Fazer in their new found solo guises, plus more music from Wiley, Little Music, Tilly And The Wall, Jai Paul, Clark, Dum Dum Girls, Planningtorock, Meursault, Amanda Mair, and Sleep Party People. As well as that, you can check out the trailer for Ice-T‘s new rap documentary, some kids announcing Tall Ships‘ debut album, and Kiss talking about their utterly ridiculous new book.