Soundalike Songs Are a Two-Faced Business
Digital music platforms are filled with copycat recordings—duplicitous remakes motivated not by artistry, but by money
Imagine you’re walking down the street and pass a payphone. All of a sudden, the beginning of Maroon 5’s 2012 hit song jumps, unbidden, into your head. “I’m at a payphone, trying to call home…” So you go home, hop on your laptop, fire up Spotify, and type in “Payphone.”
At the top of the page, above a list of songs led by Maroon 5’s hit, are several artists associated with your search term: the word “payphone.” Curiously, you see artists named Payphone, I’m at a Payphone, and the oddly-punctuated Im At A Payphone.
Aside from Maroon 5, all of the other featured artists have only one song listed: “Payphone.” And all of their versions of “Payphone” ape the original in every respect, from the melody to the groove to the guest rap. It’s all the same: the Auto-Tune on the vocals, the phrasing, the keyboard and drum sounds; hell, the singer even sounds exactly like the leader of #TeamAdam.
Welcome to the world of soundalikes. They’re remakes—“cover songs” in the parlance of the music business—except they’re not interpretations or creative variations of the original, but carbon copies.
The cover songs that we’re all most familiar with tend to put a new spin on a tune—think of Jimi Hendrix reinventing Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” or Aretha Franklin giving Otis Redding’s 1965 single a different kind of “R-e-s-p-e-c-t.” Even covers that hew closely to the original will have new arrangements, different-sounding vocals, or jump genres (witness The Lemonheads rocking out a Simon & Garfunkel favorite).
Not so with soundalikes. These remakes aren’t motivated by artistry, but by money. Soundalikes are a completely mercenary venture. The whole goal is to duplicate the original song in every respect, using studio musicians and vocalists, in an effort to lure consumers on digital music services into listening, diverting the pennies from millions of collective streams or iTunes sales into the pockets of the imitators. Sharp listeners may notice a difference within a few seconds, but many consumers won’t. And that’s the whole point.
This scene doesn’t exist just for the benefit of marginal record producers or shady production companies looking to make a quick buck off of a pre-existing hit. Big-name advertisers, music supervisors, and publishers are key players as well. And their practices and ideas are quickly spreading throughout the music industry as a whole.
But before looking at the state of soundalikes today, it’s important to know that this contemporary phenomenon is just the latest version of a very old game.
Before the rise of the recording artist in the mid 20th Century, the songwriter was king. For the first decades of the record business, the song mattered more to the consumer than the singer. Well into the 1940s and 50s, it was not uncommon to have up to half-a-dozen versions of a song by a slew of artists on the Billboard chart at the same time.
But as the industry grew, knockoffs began. The practice began back when 78 RPM records were still the primary format. Carl Doshay founded Tops Records in 1947, and made his first fortune by buying used records from jukebox operators and reselling them. Then in 1950, he had an idea. He was well-acquainted with consumer demand for hit songs, so he decided to make some of his own by simply copying them. Using L.A.-based session players, he recorded almost-identical sounding versions of tunes by the likes of Hank Williams, Frankie Laine, and Pat Boone. But while normal hits would go for 79 or 99 cents, he undercut the market by charging only 39 cents per record. Almost immediately, his idea took off.
“It sold everywhere we put it,” he told the Providence Sunday Journal in 1957. “We were reaching the mass teenage public that couldn’t afford a 79-cent record.”
Tops took their commitment to saving a buck seriously, even figuring out how to squeeze an extra song on each side of a 78. “4 Hits On Each Record,” the label screamed.
By 1960, Doshay sold the company, and Tops went bankrupt not long afterwards. But by 1962, the Nashville-based label Hit Records was there to pick up the slack. They kept Tops’ 39-cent pricing, and every month issued several soundalikes of hit singles on 45.
Their success, much like Tops’, was rapid. Their singles routinely sold well over 100,000 copies each. But by 1969 the label was defunct, a victim of companies like K-Tel, discount retailers who sold cheap compilations of genuine hits to consumers who wanted a whole album’s worth of hot songs (albeit often edited to squeeze them all on one record).
Just as soundalikes were dying out in America in the late 1960s, the next evolution began in the U.K. Imitation records of hits of the day started appearing in Britain as early as 1961. By 1968, this practice had developed into the huge-selling Top of the Pops series—albums of covers of current hits by anonymous session players (including, at one point, a young Elton John) sold at discount prices.
From 1968 through 1985, Top of the Pops put out over 100 albums. The series even got its name in true soundalike fashion, taking it from the popular British TV show, to which it had no relation. Two volumes made it to #1 before the records were banned from the U.K. charts, a victory for traditional music industry powers who successfully argued that Pops, being so cheap, had an unfair advantage in the marketplace.
Outside of the U.S. and the U.K., the rest of the world got their fair share of soundalikes in the 1960s and 70s. These mostly came through the hands of one notorious record executive, Ed Chalpin. These days, Chalpin is best remembered as the guy behind a series of dubious business moves.
In the 1960s he signed an unknown guitarist named Jimi Hendrix to a infamous $1 “contract” and then used it to release a bogus Jimi Hendrix album at the height of the rock star’s career. Two decades later, he helmed a company called Rhythm Method that took a sizeable chunk of the royalties from rap crews like Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest for years before the groups were able to extricate themselves from Chalpin’s clutches.
But most of Ed Chalpin’s professional life was taken up with creating soundalikes for overseas distribution. You could find records from his company, PPX Productions, from Germany and Italy to Jamaica to Australia. Mark Linett, known for his production and engineering work with the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson, spent a few months in the heart of Chalpin’s operation as a young engineer in the summer of 1974. He explains how the operation worked.
“What they would do is, they would look at the Billboard chart and try to predict what was going to be a big hit three, four, five weeks from now, and those would be the ones that they would cover,” he says. “We would literally get the record, we’d record the [original song] onto a track, and then just start having musicians come in and try and make it sound more or less like the record. I remember doing ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me’ and ‘Rub It In.’ Those two stick in my mind.”
“He tried to get it done as quickly and cheaply as possible,” Linett continues. “It didn’t need to be that good. This was going to be budget stuff for sure. We would do vocals, but they would also offer up the [instrumental] tracks so if you wanted to do a foreign-language version, the [overseas labels] would just record their own vocals.”
The foreign companies that bought Chalpin’s records would rarely (if ever) pay the required royalties to the songwriters.
By the beginning of the 1990s, the budget cover version game had all but faded away, a relic of the swinging 60s, killed mostly by consumers getting wiser. But several factors conspired to bring on a renaissance in recent years—the two biggest being the surge in the popularity of tribute bands, paired with the advent of mass-market digital downloading and streaming.
Michael Vail Blum is a recording engineer and producer who has worked with Madonna, Peter Cetera, Brian Ferry, Fred Schneider of the B52’s, among others. One day in the mid-2000s, a client took him to see a Led Zeppelin tribute band called Led Zepagain. He arrived at the show, not realizing he had also arrived at the precipice of a whole new stage in his career.
After the group was done playing their note-perfect renditions of Zeppelin, Blum noticed something unusual. Audience members were asking the band for CDs, requests that the band didn’t know how to deal with. Blum, however, saw an opportunity.
“That’s the time when the industry was going through a big change,” he says. “People went up to the band all the time and asked them, ‘Hey, where can I get your music?’ People that weren’t familiar with Led Zeppelin and were dragged to the show, or maybe they were younger kids that never grew up with Zeppelin like I did. And the band was saying, ‘Go to Tower Records and buy Led Zeppelin.’ I thought that was a great idea—buy Led Zeppelin and [also] if you had a CD to sell them, because they just watched you perform it, and they wanted your performance of it.”
Led Zepagain recorded a dozen Zeppelin songs in Blum’s studio and released their album A Tribute to Led Zeppelin in 2005. Without realizing it, they had tapped into a vein of gold. The actual Led Zeppelin didn’t have their music on iTunes at the time—it wouldn’t be added until 2007. During that two-year period, the tribute act sold half a million songs on the service.
Blum quickly went full-on into the tribute band game, working with Sam Morrison and Turn the Page, a Bob Seger tribute act (Seger was another iTunes holdout—he only began adding his catalog in 2011). From there, Blum has been expanding, even partnering with AXS TV for a show called The World’s Greatest Tribute Bands.
“Soundalikes really became popular in more recent times for things that weren’t available on iTunes,” says record executive Cory Robbins, founder of Profile Records and current head of Robbins Entertainment. Robbins, a lifelong record collector and chart statistician, first came across soundalikes on cheap compilation albums as a kid in the 1960s. “For a long time, The Beatles weren’t on iTunes, so there were loads of Beatles soundalikes. I think in a lot of cases, people didn’t realize they were buying soundalikes. There were a number of companies that did an enormous amount of sales. When the real Beatles did finally go on iTunes, it dried up the market for their stuff.”
After Michael Vail Blum’s iTunes bonanza, some clients were asking him to record soundalike cover songs for commercials and television, and he became one of the first people to jump into this now-burgeoning field.
Crafting soundalikes for TV and film is more complicated than recording straight cover songs to sell. The license needed to use an existing song in a new recording is compulsory by U.S. copyright law — songwriters must allow cover versions so long as they’re paid the statutory rate and the song isn’t changed in a significant way (by adding new lyrics, for example).
But when music is used in TV, movies, or commercials, there’s an extra step involved. Producers must obtain a synchronization license to use an original version of a hit song. For this, you need the approval of not only the people who own the composition itself (usually a publishing company either owns or administers these rights), but also the often completely different set of stakeholders who own the “master” rights, or the rights to the recording of the song.
In many cases, even when getting the rights to use a particular composition in an ad or a movie is relatively easy, obtaining the master rights is either impossible or cost-prohibitive. Thus, Blum’s hunch to get into this game and provide soundalikes for this new market proved dead-on.
The practice is rapidly spreading. Sean Marquand, a New York City producer and DJ, has been involved in a great many of these soundalike sessions. He recalled once doing music for a film where they had publishing rights, but getting master rights proved impossible.
“We had to replay four songs,” he remembers. “Everyone in the band had to listen to the [original] song while they were recording it to get the cues right, because the edit was already locked. We literally ripped off other peoples’ ideas. The people who wrote the songs were okay with it. We even told them what we were doing, and they were like, ‘Okay, if that’s what you have to do.’”
While the songwriters may have been fine with it, Marquand himself felt more ambivalent. “[The songwriters] came up with all the ideas, and we’re coming in and taking advantage of their work,” he says. “It’s not that cool. You’re taking all their sweat equity, and you’re reducing it to one day’s work.”
Some people feel more positively about creating soundalikes for ads and movies. Gabriel Roth, a co-founder of Daptone Records, has made a career of writing, arranging, and recording music heavily influenced by 1960s and 70s soul, r&b, funk, and Afrobeat. In addition to playing a leading role with Daptone artists like Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and Antibalas, he also has Grammys for his work on albums by Amy Winehouse and Booker T. Jones.
After his time with Winehouse and producer Mark Ronson brought him a larger national profile, Roth started receiving calls for soundalike work. One of these calls from Chase Bank resulted in him creating a note-perfect version of Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” with Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings for a commercial (to hear it, check the 1:13:13 mark of this RBMA lecture). Working on copying that and other Motown tracks was inspiring for Roth.
“As an engineer, trying to cop those sounds, it’s very challenging and it’s very humbling because, especially the Motown stuff, you just can’t touch it,” he says. “By trying to emulate it, you just respect it that much more. You just realize how unbelievable those recordings are for any time.”
In addition to commissioning cover versions, Sean Marquand says that the advertising business has a similar, even more ubiquitous practice. Companies will often score an ad to a particular song whether or not it’s clearable. They then contact jingle houses and ask them to make a new song for the ad, with some conditions.
“Every single ad you get, they send you a [song], and they want you to rip it off as closely as possible without being sued,” he says. “The client will tell you, ‘We actually approached this artist already, so it has to be pretty different. But it still has to be on the beat, because the editing is already finished.’”
This is not without its risks. The Black Keys have been especially vigilant about suing for songs in ads that sound similar to their hits. One of those instances was a commercial for Pinnacle’s L’Auberge Casino that was done by MPM Music, a Manhattan production company. The Keys maintained that MPM’s song “The Howler” was a direct copy of their hit “Howlin’ For You.” Matt DeSteno of MPM counters that, despite the name, their number was a generic song in a blues-rock style, not a copy of any particular Keys tune.
“That’s a great example of, sometimes you get a little too close by accident,” he explains. “[The Black Keys have] gone after lots of people. There’s some people who have blatantly ripped off their tunes.”
According to DeSteno, though, that wasn’t the case with MPM. “We have CDs of that style of music,” he says. “That’s not biting on them. They didn’t invent that style of music. It’s very commonplace, because they’re just modernizing the blues. Some of their songs are ripoffs of Muddy Waters tunes. So then it just gets into sonic things, where it’s a very convoluted grey area.”
Charlie Zeleny, a busy New Jersey-based drummer, producer, and solo artist under the name DRMAGDN, frequently plays on soundalike sessions, and has performed with about a dozen tribute acts. One thing he has noticed is that sessions for original songs by actual artists have become almost identical to the ones he’s done for soundalikes.
“A lot of producers will sit down and put the track [they’re copying] directly in ProTools and you just reconstruct it and change a chord or two,” he explains. “Most of the time I get called to do something like this, we’re playing the exact same groove that was recorded before or barely changing it.”
Zeleny says he’s now done these copycat originals enough that he can instantly spot this model for new songs he hears on the radio. He listened to Meghan Trainor’s album, for example, and caught all the reference points quickly. Zeleny is quick to note that he enjoyed the album, and that the updated production style, perfect for clubs, works well with the album’s Motown-era models. But he still sounds somewhat undecided on his final verdict on Trainor. “[That album] is like, holy crap, I don’t know if that’s cool,” he recalled, adding that every track sounds like it’s literally created from some other song. “There’s a line to be crossed or not crossed when you deal with sampling versus replaying things note for note, and then creating original music.”
“And that line,” he laughs, “is being extremely blurred.”
Nowadays, looking at popular music as a whole, it quickly becomes difficult to see where soundalikes end and the rest of the industry begins. Now some soundalike cover songs even take advantage of the “release window” between when a tune goes to radio and when it’s available for sale to become best-sellers in their own right.
Groups even do soundalike covers of their own hits. Tons of acts have re-recorded their old songs, usually in near-identical arrangements, for a variety of reasons. You can now hear “Pour Some Sugar On Me (2012)” because Def Leppard wanted to make the same dough on iTunes downloads as on physical sales. When their record company refused, the band simply remade their old songs, gleefully calling them “forgeries.” Kiss re-recorded fifteen “Klassics” because they had a couple of new guys in the group. And the group Wang Chung redid their music so everybody can Wang Chung tonight and the band can keep more of the ad money.
But in the midst of the principles and aesthetics of soundalikes spreading throughout the music industry, there are looming difficulties for the practice. iTunes released a new style guide this past month, setting out rules regarding which songs will be allowed onto its service, with very explicit language banning soundalikes with what Apple calls “deceptive” artist or song names.
“They never really allowed you to cite another artist in the title of a song,” explains Ari Herstand, a Los Angeles-based songwriter, journalist, and actor who has covered issues of digital music extensively. “So when you submit a cover song, you can’t say ‘Originally performed by Ed Sheeran’ or whatever. However, some artists were slipping through and doing that. They’re starting to crack down harder on that kind of stuff.”
He quoted from a section of the guide that explicitly rules out the kind of soundalike cover songs that are so omnipresent on Spotify. “Album titles or artist names must not be deceptive or misleading,” he reads. “Do not use genres, popular song lyrics, or the original artist names as the album title, track title, or artist.”
This rules out titling songs and artists in the search-friendly “Im At A Payphone” style that exists on the more liberal streaming services. “A lot of these companies that built up their business on tributes and soundalikes and karaoke versions are going to start to take a hit,” Herstand muses.
As if that didn’t make things difficult enough, cover songs that sound too close to the original are actually not allowed on iTunes at all—though, Herstand says, the company almost never enforces this rule.
“I haven’t heard of anyone’s cover songs that sound so similar to the original that they’re getting ripped down, but iTunes is not going through their songs and literally listening to them,” he explains. “I think they just put it there so that if they start to get complaints about a song that’s confusing, then they have the power to take it down if they feel they need to. That’s to prevent customers from accidentally downloading the wrong version and being upset.”
Cory Robbins, for one, is strongly in favor of the new guidelines.
“It’s good that iTunes is now tightening up their rules about this,” he opines. “If people want to buy a soundalike, that’s fine. But they should know, and I think it wasn’t clear to a lot of people that they were buying a soundalike until after they bought it. I think iTunes making it a little more strict and having rules about how soundalikes are listed will be good for consumers.”
Streaming services like Spotify are far more forgiving than iTunes when it comes to these practices. (Even Rhapsody, which has in theory banned soundalikes for years, still has them). However, iTunes’ new rules are likely to have a ripple effect. When artists add their songs to digital outlets, Herstand explains, they almost always do it through a digital distributor. These places submit the song everywhere at once, and demand the song and artist be called the same thing for all the places they submit. Thus, if certain naming practices are ruled out for iTunes, those conventions will likely make their way to Spotify and other streaming services as well.
In addition, Apple is starting its own streaming service this spring, and it seems likely that this new service will have the same harsh attitude towards soundalikes as its sister business. This could not be confirmed, though, as iTunes refused to comment for Cuepoint on the new rules. Digital distributor TuneCore was unresponsive as well, despite long discouraging soundalikes and following the same restrictive song-naming rules as iTunes.
Likewise, representatives for Spotify repeatedly refused to talk about any issues related to soundalikes. It is documented that those songs can be very lucrative for the service, which may explain their reluctance. To get an idea of the scope, note that just one tribute act, the previously-mentioned Led Zepagain, was making six figures a year from Spotify streams up until the real Zeppelin joined the service in late 2013. For context, that’s about as much in a year as a chart-topper like Iggy Azalea makes from the company in a month.
As opposed to tribute bands, the legions of anonymous pop clones take a smaller individual bite out of hit songs. A close look at “Payphone” on Spotify reveals that a handful of soundalike versions have collectively garnered over 300,000 streams. That works out, at Spotify’s famously stingy (and ever-changing) royalty rates, to about $1,800. While that might not seem like much, dishing that out for copies of every hit song past, present, and future may ultimately take up a noticeable chunk of the company’s rapidly increasing annual payout.
Soundalike #6: You be the Judge
“Since U Been Gone”
“Since U Been Gone”
While soundalikes may be facing some difficulties from Apple, in some ways they’ve already won the larger war. Television, movies, and advertising have given the practice an entirely new world in which to operate, one free from the constraints of the iTunes store. And at least for now, streaming services are putting few restrictions on their existence.
Soundalikes have come a long way since their creation in 1950 as a way to hear the hits (sort of) for half the price. The practice of copying hit songs—whether it’s near-duplicates or “new” songs closely modeled after the original—has become a major part of the music industry as a whole. If the inventor of soundalikes Carl Doshay were still around today, even he might be shocked to find so many entrepreneurs with ideas that, well, sound a lot like his.
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