Sounds like a hit: the numbers game behind Spotify cover songs

Who's behind all those cover tracks filling up your Spotify search results?

Everyone knows Taylor Swift’s music is not on Spotify — she made sure of that when she very publicly left the service last year. But if you search her name there, you’ll see multiple songs that are, ostensibly, “Taylor Swift songs”: “Bad Blood,” “Blank Space,” “Shake It Off.” The catch, of course, is that it’s not Taylor singing. Sometimes there will be no voice at all — just a jaunty karaoke instrumental that sounds like a tooth whitening commercial. Other times, there is a voice, but it’s unfamiliar and lacking that Swiftian shine. It’s a cover song.

If you look through Spotify's community forums, you'll see a lot of users complaining about these tracks. "The biggest problem with Spotify is those cover songs." "Many of these are much worse than the originals, or at least not the same." "Too many cover bands."

Spotify will probably never do anything about these complaints, in part because it rarely interacts with artists directly, and the dynamics of the platform make covering other artists extremely attractive. Spotify and, to a lesser degree, other streaming platforms have paved the way for hundreds of musicians to make businesses out of covering popular songs. These artists aren’t all as well known as the kids from Glee or Weird Al; in fact, you probably wouldn’t recognize any of them even if you saw them standing on a stage. Some hope covers will help them stand out in the endless landscape of hopefuls trying to carve out a space online, and that the millions of Spotify users searching for a big hit will find them instead. Others are singer-songwriters who tried to hack it as original solo artists only to find out that it’s way easier to make a living reimagining songs people already know. No matter what they hope to gain, they’ve found a niche in large streaming platforms, capitalizing on the intersection of huge audiences, broad search algorithms, and limited distribution deals that can leave fans searching in vain for high wattage stars.

COVER songs can lead to a far larger audience than original material

The idea of covers as a career-booster isn't new. In the late 1960s, when a poorly aging Elvis Presley began performing live again following an eight-year hiatus, he began to incorporate Beatles covers into his shows in an attempt to attract a wider (read: younger) audience. Earlier this year, Korn reminded everyone that they were still around by covering a Rihanna song.

But cover songs aren't just a way to prove your commitment to novelty or vary the setlist of live shows anymore. On platforms like Spotify, playing riffs on popular songs can lead to a far larger audience than recording original material — all you need is a song people are already searching for. Any popular artist should do — Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, John Legend — but timing is important. The song should be fresh, but with enough mainstream appeal that large numbers of people will be looking for it. Then, with a little creative track name optimization and a halfway decent recording, you could be looking at a potentially huge audience.

Taylor Swift spotify search

Jonathan Young begins each day by combing through the iTunes charts. If he sees a new song climbing the ranks, he'll listen and see if it's something he can work with. It helps if the song is simple, without complex harmonies or difficult chord progressions. He says most pop songs will take him only a few hours to record, because of their repetitive structure. "I can usually record the guitar parts and the chorus once, and then copy and paste that three times," he says.

Young is a professionally trained musician who posts mostly covers and parodies of popular songs on YouTube. He tries to upload a new song to his channel every five days; his previous "hits" include a pop-punk version of The Little Mermaid's "Under the Sea" (205,757 YouTube views) and a parody of Meghan Trainor's "All About That Bass" (640,419 views). Young considers himself a YouTube artist first, but he uses Spotify as an additional platform for his work. In the nearly two years that he's been making videos, he's gained around 60,000 followers. His Spotify follower count pales in comparison, around 2,500. Spotify, Young says, is less interactive and more anonymous, but that hasn't prevented him from racking up 73,000 listens on his most popular Spotify cover: a heavy metal version of Big Sean's "I Don't Fuck with You."

For listeners, the disappointment of expecting one song and getting another is now just an accepted pothole on the road to unlimited free music. You might not be getting exactly what you want, but the only loss is a few seconds of your time. Users might even be more inclined to listen to a faux Taylor Swift song if they paid nothing for it, and this dynamic can lead to large (if initially mistaken) audiences for cover artists. A few mistaken listeners out of a user pool of 75 million translates into a far larger audience than a local bar could ever hope to draw.

But many artists are banking on the idea that this "mistake" will translate into attention for their original work, or at least provide an income stream while they work on their primary catalog. Jocelyn Scofield has been self-recording and releasing albums — four so far — since the early 2000s. After she left high school, Scofield pursued a music degree in college and lived in Chicago and Los Angeles, playing simple, sweet folk tunes in coffee shops and small venues. At first, she performed all original material — her 2005 debut featured eight jaunty pop songs that wouldn't sound out of place in a Nora Ephron movie. She dipped her toe into covers now and then; her 2007 version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" was on her second album, Unplugged & Unorganized.

Prior to Spotify's launch in 2008, Scofield had been uploading all of her music to iTunes. But Spotify offered a large distribution platform and a new way to gain exposure. The only problem: exposure is difficult if your songs are just a few dozen singles in a sea of tracks. Scofield's early listeners were still the only people who knew enough to search her name, but on Spotify, she needed to reach a broader audience in order to make anything near what she could make selling digital downloads. That's where cover songs came in.

Every time one of Scofield's songs is downloaded on iTunes, she makes around 60 cents, after paying a processing fee and, when it's a cover song, royalties to the original artist. But if one of her songs is streamed on Spotify, she'll make just a fraction of a cent. Both Scofield and Young have done the math: "You would have to play one of my songs on Spotify 150 to 400 times in order to equal what I would make from one iTunes download," Young says. Scofield agreed that to balance revenue on the platforms, she needed at least several hundred times more Spotify streams than iTunes downloads.

There was a period of time when the top search result for "Adele" may have been Scofield's cover

Because of the payment discrepancy, Scofield has taken to keeping her original songs off streaming services, at least for the first few months. On Spotify, Scofield finds it difficult to break even on her originals, because they're more costly to produce than covers. But her covers will go up on Spotify immediately, because, in the same way Young copy-and-pastes verses, Scofield also cuts corners when a song isn't her own. She won't rent a studio like she does with her originals, and she'll edit the songs herself, rather than paying a producer. It's faster that way, and cheaper. Plus, on Spotify, it doesn't really matter what a song sounds like — it can still find ears. Lots of them. Scofield has a handful of songs with more than 1 million listens, and many more with a few hundred, none of which are originals.

Spotify's broad search algorithm is to thank and blame for this. The service doesn't set naming conventions for cover songs, so a track can be titled "Love Story" with no indication that it's not an original, except maybe in the album name: Sounds Like Taylor Swift. So if you search for "Taylor Swift," Spotify might present you with a banjo-plucked version of "Love Story" by someone named Miss Sweet. Or you might get Scofield's cover of "We Are Never Getting Back Together" which she sings accompanied by a single piano. That cover can be found on an album Scofield released through her friend's production company, GM Presents. It's titled Skyfall (ADELE/James Bond Covers/Etc), and it features Scofield's most popular stream to date: a 2012 cover of Adele's James Bond theme "Skyfall."

Adele is another artist who has had an off-and-on relationship with Spotify. She originally wanted her 10-million-plus-selling 2011 album, 21, to be made available only to paid subscribers, but Spotify didn't want to wall off any of its catalog from freemium users. She eventually caved, and the album is now on Spotify, but there was a period of time when one of the top search results for "Adele" may have been Scofield's cover. So did Adele's brief absence boost Scofield's exposure?

"I don't think I realized at the time if she was on [Spotify] or not," Scofield says. "I don't think anyone would listen to my cover and confuse me for the original artist — I don't think I sound like Adele. But it makes sense that if a song's really popular, people are gonna look for it."

Most of Scofield's original songs from 2005 have fewer than 1,000 total streams. The "Skyfall" cover, in its three years on Spotify, has accumulated almost 22,000,000.

Adele Spotify search

Of course, it's not legal to just toss any cover song up on Spotify — you need to obtain the publishing rights first. For artists on labels, Spotify will often clear publishing rights depending on its terms of agreement with the artists' distributors. But non-label artists need to obtain a mechanical license for streaming someone else's song (a sync license for video) and pay royalties to the original songwriter each time a cover is streamed. It sounds complicated, but musicians aren't doing this on their own.

Spotify's microeconomy of cover artists gave rise to a cottage industry of easy-to-use online licensing services. Over the past several years, dozens of these services have emerged, like SongFile and Easy Song Licensing, an amateurish-looking website that promises it can clear a cover song for you in one to two days. Jonathan Young uses Loudr, a licensing and digital distribution startup that operates in the same way most of these companies do. For $15 per song, plus royalty fees (calculated by the number of times a song is streamed), Loudr will do the work of securing a license and putting the song up online. All Young has to do is pay and wait.

With all these fees, it's hard to justify the fact that, unless they've reached a certain level of popularity, most artists will only make pennies from Spotify streams. But it doesn't make sense for young artists to keep their music off streaming services entirely. According to a report by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), digital downloads accounted for 37 percent of US music industry revenue in 2014, while streaming accounted for 27 percent — but streaming percentage is the one that keeps climbing. Since 2011, the number of paid subscriptions for streaming services has more than tripled, and in 2014, 7.7 million Americans were paying for some kind of on-demand music subscription. So despite the minimal profits that come with it, streaming is the future (or at least the present), and no one is going to pay to download your songs if they don't know who you are.

When the Led Zeppelin cover band Lez Zeppelin joined Spotify in 2009, the real Led Zeppelin was still holding out. Zeppelin was among a group of musicians like AC/DC and Neil Young who reacted to the emergence of streaming services with immediate and continued disdain, and initially refused to join at all. Led didn't arrive on Spotify until the very end of 2013, which means Lez had several years to fill in the gap they left.

But Led Zeppelin's absence didn't boost Lez Zeppelin's stream numbers the way Adele's boosted Scofield's. That's at least in part because of the volume of Led Zeppelin tribute bands already on Spotify. Scofield and Young gamed Spotify's system by hand-picking popular tracks from different artists; their catalogs are diverse enough that any number of searches could lead to one of their songs. "Led Zeppelin" is the only search that might accidentally lead you to Lez Zeppelin. After more than 11 years as a band, Lez Zep joined Spotify and were suddenly, literally, stacked up against other Led Zeppelin cover bands. A Spotify search in 2010 would've directed you to much more popular Zeppelin tributes like Great White (21,376 followers) and Led Zepagain (65,786) before it would've brought you to Lez Zeppelin (4,640 followers). Led Zeppelin's absence did help some cover bands (it made big bands bigger), but smaller tribute bands were pushed to the bottom of the list.

Traditional cover bands like Lez Zep focus on one artist, but Spotify makes it more appealing to cover artists who latch onto of-the-moment popular songs from any artist. Spotify’s search algorithms favor already-popular streams, and the gap left by big-name artists can only house so many alternatives. While Young and Scofield entered a Spotify community composed of artists about as popular as they were (that is to say, not very), Lez Zeppelin found Spotify’s crowded arena made self-promotion difficult.

getting millions of listeners isn’t the same as getting discovered

Each of these artists has different goals — Scofield wants to write her own music, Young sees Spotify as a complement to his more impressive YouTube channel, and Lez Zeppelin want to promote their shows — but they all end up doing basically the same thing: reinventing songs that someone else wrote. Stories like these highlight the sameness that services like Spotify can exacerbate. Search for Taylor Swift, and you’ll get dozens of songs, many of which are indistinguishable, and none of which are the one you actually want. On the surface, this makes it seem like Spotify is creating a level playing field, but what it’s really creating are plateaus; between signed and unsigned artists, original musicians and cover bands. And the easiest way for a lower-plateau artist to reach a higher plateau is to try and mimic what someone up there has already done.

But getting millions of listeners this way isn’t the same as getting discovered, so these musicians are stuck in a bind created by Spotify’s design. Original music is what gets rewarded with obsessive fandom and a secure space in pop culture, but the best way to get listened to as a newcomer is to copy it. If streaming services are in fact the music-listening platforms of the future, expect a world with a few originals surrounded by dozens of copy and pastes.