Zac Brown, Economics and Cover Songs

This past weekend, Zac Brown released the track list for his upcoming album and it got my attention. While I do not listen to or like Zac Brown’s music, it got my attention for one simple reason; it contains a cover song by my favourite songwriter, Jason Isbell. My initial reaction was one of shock and contempt. You see, this is not the first time Zac Brown covered an amazing song by an incredible, less popular band. Last year my friend enthusiastically showed me their new favourite song that “I just had to hear”; turns out, it is actually one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite bands, The Muse by The Wood Brothers. How dare this popular musician cover a song by a less popular contemporary! Zac Brown is making millions off the backs of far more talented songwriters while his fans are none the wiser to his theft.

While I was not actually upset, I felt weird about this whole situation. Typically, bands cover songs when they are long past their expiry date and everyone in the audience knows all of the words. This is different; Zac Brown is covering not only young and upcoming bands, but songs that his audience has never heard before. Without prior exposure to the song, its more than likely that many Zac Brown fans will think it is a Zac Brown original, or at the very least, not be tainted like other cover songs rightfully are.

Upon further reflection, I realized that I was fundamentally wrong. More than this, I also realized that the music community (both bands and fans) are missing a great opportunity. The Muse by The Wood Brothers and Dress Blues by Jason Isbell are two tremendous songs. I wish everyone could hear these two songs because they are really that great. Unfortunately, very few people other than fans of these two musical groups will ever hear them, simply because they do not have large enough exposure. Without having your songs on TV or the radio, most people simply will not have an opportunity to hear you. When Zac Brown first covered these two songs, they had already reached their peak popularity. Everybody who was ever going to hear these two songs would have already heard them and there was no untapped future market for them. Zac Brown truly created a win-win-win scenario.

Zac Brown gets to release more great music bringing him additional success. The covered artist gets increased exposure, new fans and a hefty royalty cheque. The fans get more great music and the opportunity to discover a great new artist. This is a pareto optimal situation, where all the parties are better off than they otherwise would have been. As its beneficial to all parties involved, it makes me wonder why covering lesser known contemporaries is not more common.

Aside from Zac Brown, here are some other examples I can think of where the cover proved to be a great success. After Paul Pena tragically had his record shelved and unable to release any new music, Steve Miller covered Jet Airliner to help Pena pay for his medical bills. This song became one of Steve Miller’s biggest hits and propelled him to new levels of fame. The Animals biggest hit, House of the Rising Sun is a traditional folk song that had been covered by everyone in the genre. Similarly, Old Crow Medicine Show revived and altered an unknown Bob Dylan demo sketch into their platinum signature song, Wagon Wheel. Darius Rucker then covered Old Crow Medicine Show’s version of the song winning him the Grammy for best country song of the year and increased levels of success.

Historically, the entire genre of Jazz consisted of ensembles covering other artist’s compositions. Classical music is almost all recycled from different composers throughout history. Similarly, both blues and folk have a large history of borrowing music from other artists. Even pop music essentially follows this pattern as almost all songs are “covered” from their unknown songwriters. I will ask again, given that it is beneficial to all parties involved, why is covering lesser known contemporary bands not more common?