Covers of Yesterday and Now

Covers of Yesterday and Now

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The primary questions raised by the practice of covering are more often ethical than legal. Most of the time the making of a cover version of a record doesn’t rise to the level of a legal challenge. Legally, one is free to make a new version of a song provided one pays royalties to the rights holders. Sampling is, of course, a different situation that requires prior agreements between the artist who wishes to use a sample and the artist and label that own the copyrights to the original. Unauthorized “bootleg” copies of an original recording are, of course, illegal and are covered by long-standing copyright statutes. However, ethical issues do exist and are often more complex than they may first appear.

There are numerous examples of “covers” that are exact copies of an original arrangement with different instrumentalists and singers that produce barely recognizable differences from the original recording. While the songwriters may benefit in the royalties that come from a cover version of a song, the artists who created the original recording and arrangement receive nothing, which is obviously troubling if the cover is essentially a reproduction of their original recording. In the 1950s, LaVern Baker attempted, unsuccessfully, to have Congress pass legislation that would prevent the use of an arrangement employed in a recording without permission after Georgia Gibbs covered her recording of “Tweedle Dee” using not only the same arrangement, but the same backing vocalists and many of same musicians. Since it is legally possible to make an exact copy of an original recording – and there are many exact covers made of original recordings – the ethical questions become of obvious importance. Is it important for an artist making a “new” version of a recording to actually make it “new” and clearly different from the original? Is there an ethical, if not legal, obligation to avoid covering an earlier work too closely, especially if the original artist is not the holder of the song’s copyright and will not participate in any royalties produced by the cover?

In a somewhat different context, doing covers of songs by established and important artists is not only nothing new, but has become an important trend in the past decade. Cat Power (Chan Marshall) has released two albums of covers, The Cover Record (2000) and Jukebox (2008). She covers Lou Reed, The Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and others. The Grammy for Album of the Year in 2008 went to Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters, a collection of Joni Mitchell covers by artists like Norah Jones, Corrine Bailey Rae, Leonard Cohen, and even Tina Turner. Rod Stewart has released five “Great American Songbook” albums covering standards originally released by artists like Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald. Even Paul McCartney has announced his intention to release an album of “Great American Songbook” covers sometime in 2012. Most of us would not think these records are in anyway unethical, but the question is “Why are these covers ethical?” and those by the Crew Cuts and Pat Boone in the 1950s somehow different and “unethical.”

Although there are legal restrictions in regards to sampling, there are a number of cases that go beyond simply not ascribing proper credit or paying royalties. In 2004, Danger Mouse mixed The Beatles’ The Beatles (commonly known as The White Album) and Jay-Z’s The Black Album to create a mash-up he called The Grey Album. Although the surviving members of The Beatles and Jay-Z had no objections to the mash-up, EMI Records took legal action to halt the distribution of The Grey Album as the samples from The Beatles were unauthorized. In response to EMI’s attempt to halt distribution of The Grey Album, dozens of Internet sites released copies of Danger Mouse’s mash-up in what was called the “Grey Tuesday” protest.

Remixes and mash-ups raise particular questions in regards to both ethical practice and legal infringement. Lawrence Lessig, a Stanford law professor and the author of Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, sees the remix and the mash-up as examples of a “democracy” in popular expression where young people “take sounds and images from the culture around us and use them to say things differently.” Lessig’s belief is that the remix and the mash-up constitute “a new language,” which has become the common speech of the young and is fundamentally social, participatory, and about engagement. Lessig also believes that legal restrictions limiting the use of materials for remixes and mash-ups are stifling creativity and are terribly injurious to the growth of what he sees as an important and vibrant aspect of contemporary culture (Take a look at Lessig’s presentation at TED:

The topic for this assignment is to examine some aspect of covering recordings made by others. It could deal with any of the above examples or any others that you think are worthy of thought and examination. In the paper, you should discuss the ethical, legal, financial, and creative implications of the examples you choose and explain why you reach your conclusions. You should, obviously, include several different examples of cover songs in support of your argument.

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