A cover song COULD help you connect with a wider audience. But sometimes cover songs aren’t worth the effort.
Sure, you’re putting your own personal stamp on a proven tune, which gives you a chance to invite listeners in with a something simultaneously familiar and fresh. However, open TikTok, YouTube, or Twitch and you’ll remember: we’re awash in cover songs. It’s hard for a cover song to stand out unless it checks a few different boxes that we’ll discuss below.
Here are a some things to think about before you commit to making a song cover:
What a cover song CAN do for you as an artist
Whether we’re talking about some of the most iconic covers from major label artists…
… or unknown creators jumping on TikTok and singing a cover song that reaches millions…
… there are countless success stories of people blowing up after releasing a fresh interpretation of another artist’s song. In fact, some newer versions of songs outshine the original artist’s rendition.
As mentioned above, when a cover matches or outshines the original, you have the dual opportunity of inviting listeners into your work — because they don’t have to waste energy asking themselves “Do I like this song?” — while instantly defining your own sound and sensibilities as an artist, since the listener already has a frame of reference to recognize your stylistic differences.
And if we put aside the possible benefit of reaching new listeners, learning covers can also help you become a better songwriter. As you reconstruct a successful composition, you can later incorporate similar musical and production ideas into your own work.
The benefits of a cover song:
- Instant recognizability — which can be inviting to listeners
- Proven value in the marketplace — so you don’t have to stress about the quality of songwriting
- Offers clear impression of YOUR unique sound — since the track will differ from the original
- May have some search benefit — if people are looking for good versions of that song
- An algorithmic boost — if you’re one of the first artists to release a cover of a current hit
- Playlist potential — since there are tons of editorial and 3rd-party cover song playlists
But even a good cover song is no guarantee of success.
What a cover song CAN’T do for you as an artist
The obvious danger of a cover song is that you spend lots of time arranging, recording, and releasing it… and not much happens. The track doesn’t reach as many people as you’d hoped. The cover doesn’t open doors or get you on playlists.
Of course that’s the same danger with any track you release, so it’s not a problem inherent to covers.
But it’s worth knowing ahead of time: You don’t get any extra points just because the song is a cover. You’re not guaranteed results. The track still has to be exceptional, and different enough from the original to offer something new.
There are a couple other dangers of cover songs that may be less obvious.
The first is that if you choose a song that isn’t widely known already — a deep cut by a famous artist or a “cult” classic that’s only adored by a niche audience — you lose most of the benefits of a cover song while keeping all the challenges: making the recording great, properly promoting it, etc.
In other words, you’ll work just as hard to prove the track has value as you would for one of your own original songs, because your average listener won’t recognize it. In which case, why not put that same effort into your own songs instead?
Another somewhat counterintuitive risk is that if you DO find success with a cover song, there’s a temptation to keep a good thing going. That’s not necessarily wrong, but over the years we’ve seen many talented original artists slip (almost without knowing) into full-time “cover song artist” mode.
If that’s a route you want to go down, great! More power to you.
But if it’s a path you’ve found yourself on because your covers were the only songs gaining traction, you may want to reevaluate things and put some renewed emphasis on your original music. As a general rule, it seems wisest for songwriters to use covers as supplemental releases. Covers can be a great thing to try occasionally, but not where you want to focus all your energy.
The dangers of cover songs:
- Covers still require a lot of work to promote — Will you have realistic expectations?
- The cover doesn’t beat the original — So why not spend that effort on your own songs?
- Your cover is too obscure — In which case, why not release one of your own songs instead?
- Success with covers can distract you — Do you want to be a cover song artist or a songwriter?
There’s no correct answer to those questions. Just make sure you answer them for yourself every time you consider releasing cover songs!
Tips for releasing a solid cover song
A few other tips before we conclude.
To make a song “your own,” you have to know who you are as a musician. What are your strengths and weaknesses, and can the cover song you choose showcase the former?
Be bold! You want to take what’s unique about your own songwriting and production styles and bring it to the cover song. Incorporate some surprise elements. There needs to be a REASON for this version of the song to exist.
At the same time, don’t overdo it. The song shouldn’t be so surprising or different that it loses all familiar ties to the original.
Aim to cover songs that you can easily recreate in live settings. That way you can diversify your live set, create live vertical videos, and shows audiences a different side of your musical personality.
Yes, covers can do huge things for your career, but they’re not a silver bullet.
As you develop your craft and grow your audience, just make sure that cover songs are working for you and not the other way around.