Karmin & 2CELLOS: Using Cover Songs To Find Fame And Fortune

image from www.google.com Playing cover songs is an odd phenomenon that's often considered a crowd-pleasing yet uncreative approach to music. Yet occasionally, we see examples of cover songs done in such a unique manner that the artists can achieve a higher profile and sometimes find breakout success. The recent examples of Karmin and 2CELLOS show how to boost a career by doing creative versions of covers; though not without possible downsides:

Karmin Covers Chris Brown's Look At Me Now

Karmin is the duo Amy Heidemann and Nick Noonan who describe their work as acoustic pop. Their YouTube covers of hip hop, rock and pop hits draw on their original approach but their cover of Chris Brown's Look At Me Now, which first attracted me, is rather different from their own compositions.

The original song features Busta Rhymes and Lil Wayne but I found it rather lackluster despite its popularity.  However, seeing Karmin's version, especially checking out Amy's persona and performance style, totally hooked me and I admit to having watched the video over and over again. I'm not alone in appreciating this video as a recent appearance on Ellen, an appearance with The Roots and 13 million plus views on YouTube demonstrates.

2CELLOS (Stjepan Hauser & Luka Sulic) Cover Michael Jackson's Smooth Criminals

The above video of Stjepan Hauser and Luka Sulic, as 2CELLOS, covering Michael Jackson's Smooth Criminals has been a huge YouTube hit, earned them an appearance on Ellen and led to a recording contract with Sony MASTERWORKS and a spot on Elton John's upcoming summer tour in Europe.

I actually found out about them through Mike Relm's video remix of their video with the original Michael Jackson Smooth Criminal video. Now they have an album on the way in July that will include additional works by Guns N' Roses, U2, Trent Reznor and Kings of Leon.

Unlike cover bands for whom success is both defined by and limited to nearly exact reproductions of well-known hits, both these acts have succeeded by reframing the originals with unique takes. This works particularly well for 2CELLOS since classical music is primarily made by cover bands. What will happen for Karmin feels a bit less clear since they probably don't want to make a career out of covering other people's music but are getting known for exactly that.

Both Karmin and 2CELLOS show that covers can be done in a manner that demonstrates one's own artistry and allows for commercial success. It's certainly not for everyone but, if you're able to bring a fresh look to a classic as, for example, do great jazz musicians, then it's definitely worth a shot at combining artistry and marketing without shortchanging either. And, hey, you might get a cosign from the originator as did The Gourds for their cover of Snoop Dogg's Gin and Juice.

Hypebot contributor Clyde Smith is a freelance writer and blogger. Flux Research is his business writing hub and All World Dance is his primary web project.

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  1. We have an artist named Dave Patten who started doing covers on YouTube way back in 2007 before even Boyce Avenue. This was a good way to get a bunch of views, but over time, we found that it didn’t really lead to any real fan base. His original songs would get a small number of hits and the covers would get a ton. New fans always look at the videos with the most views which were covers. He didn’t want to get typecast as a cover artist, so something had to change.
    As a result, his strategy switched to posting only original music videos and after an initial drop in viewership, over time his following has grown to the point where he has now had over 6MM views on his various music videos. All the old covers are no longer available for viewing, so only his really long term fans remember the early cover days.
    If you are interested, you can see some of the videos on http://www.DavePatten.com
    In fact, his song “Back” was played during the credits of the Audrina show on VH1 last night.

  2. I’ve tried to share some guidelines for artists doing covers on YouTube. From what I can surmise, most artists do the covers, upload them on YouTube, and never obtain permission from the songwriters/publishers. This appears to be norm for two reasons:
    1. So many artists are already doing it that most people assume performing a cover song won’t require obtaining permission from the songwriters/publishers. They either assume they don’t have to obtain permission or that nothing will happen if they don’t get it.
    2. There doesn’t seem to be an easy way to obtain permission to cover the songs from songwriters/publishers. You can go through Harry Fox when you record covers, but videotaping cover songs falls under synch rights, which need to be obtained directly from the songwriters/publishers and fees can be all over the map.
    YouTube has a content ID system so that if you upload something that the copyright owner doesn’t want you to upload, it can be flagged and taken down, which has happened in a few cases for uploaded cover songs. But most people who upload themselves playing someone else’s song never have an issue.
    So those of you who have done cover songs, what has been your experience?

  3. The rights can be licensed from Limelight (songclearance.com) for $15. I’ve only heard of one cover that was taken down. It was one of the really popular cover artists, though I forget which one. I would guess that 99.9% of the covers are not licensed properly. Most are just amateur efforts, anyway. A professional cover band like Boyce Avenue probably licenses because they sell their versions on iTunes.

  4. No, Limelight doesn’t handle this. Here’s what it says on the FAQ:
    Limelight does not offer licenses for the following uses
    * Synchronization (use with a visual, including Film, TV, User Generated Content, and other)
    * YouTube (this requires a synchronization license secured directly from the publisher)
    * Background music (i.e. music played in a restaurant or retail store)
    * Karaoke
    * Sheet music
    * Lyric reproduction
    * Public performance (such as radio airplay – these licenses you can get verify easily with ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC).
    * Samples.

  5. I think what it offers is similar to Harry Fox. I’m not sure there is a lot of difference between them, but I haven’t done a side-by-side comparison.

  6. The Hampton (Rock) String Quartet (www.HamptonStringQuartet.com) started the classic rock/string quartet genre in 1985 with its first recordings for RCA in the “What if Mozart Wrote…” series. They now have nine CDs, distributed by Mona Lisa Sound (www.MonaLisaSound.com) with their arrangements and performances of songs by Led Zeppelin (“All Zeppelin”), Queen, The Eurhythmics, the Rolling Stones (“Take No Prisoners”), the Beatles (“The Off White Album”) and more. Check HSQ out on You Tube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ea6p7MrP_Yk&feature=mfu_in_order&list=UL
    And their Grammy nominated video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eEckAj7-944&feature=BFa&list=ULg2AvtWsvW_Y&index=2.

  7. Janna, thanks for sharing that. The blogging format, focused on what’s new and now, means that we don’t usually get to provide a historical context. So it’s nice to have readers add to the post!

  8. This is such a powerful tactic…
    The best thing about cover versions is that you get to ride the wave of massive interest in the original song.
    The record company may have spent thousands promoting the song and your standing on the shoulders of those marketing giants.
    I absolutely love it!
    – Chris

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