Ready for that path to riches I promised? There’s something else we need to discuss before we get there, another factor besides familiarity that plays into a cover song’s popularity: the degree to which the cover differs from the original.
I often hear covers that are so similar to the original that I’m hard-pressed to tell them apart. I’m not going to embarrass anyone by naming names here–I’m sure you can think of your own examples–because the only explanation I can think of for recording a note-for-note cover is sheer greed: crank something out quickly and hope that the sheer familiarity of it encourages people to buy it. (Note that I’m talking specifically about covers on recordings and to a somewhat lesser extent, live performances. Doing this kind of literal cover is an excellent way to learn a piece or get familiar with a style, but one doesn’t normally sell rough drafts or setting-up exercises.)
At the opposite end of the spectrum from literal covers are ones so different they almost become new songs. The quick route to this category is by doing your cover in a very different musical style. Consider, for example, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme’s lounge interpretation of Soundgarden’s grunge icon “Black Hole Sun”.
The video of the lounge version is a fan-production, not an official release; the juxtaposition of the already-disturbing visuals with the hyper-relaxed lounge sound escalates the combined work to levels of brain melting previously only attained by the combination of Frank Zappa and massive doses of acid.
Another example, not so extreme, is the Austin Lounge Lizards’ bluegrass cover of Pink Floyd’s classic “Brain Damage”.
(My apologies for the useless video. I can’t find a live performance.)
(If you really want to mix and match, the Austin Lounge Lizards’ take on grunge can be found here. Yeah, OK, I’m getting a bit off-topic. How about a couple of covers of The Grunge Song to be vaguely relevant? I found a straight-up grunge version and ukulele solo version.)
I’d argue that most wildly deviant covers start out in late night/early morning drug and/or alcohol-infused jam sessions. Most of them are quickly buried when sunlight and sobriety strike; only a few pass the “why the hell not release this?” test a few days, weeks, or months later. As such, they’re something of an artistic quantum element, not truly susceptible to critical decomposition.
There is, by the way, a sub-genre of wildly variant covers that can probably be best characterized as “strictly commercial”. A prime example here would be the notorious “Pickin’ On” series, which renders a variety of popular artists’ music in bluegrass style, with results ranging from “predictable” to “incoherent”–or perhaps “incomprehensible”.
Whether you’re measuring deviation from the original or popularity, covers seem to fall into the familiar bell-shaped curve. There aren’t a lot of examples at either extreme; most of the action is in the middle. As we discussed earlier, popular covers draw on familiarity. They add something new and distinctive to attract attention but don’t go to the extreme of metaphorically slamming the listener in the head with a 2×4.
I have to speak anecdotally here, as there are far too many cover versions in the world for a strict statistical analysis. But it seems only logical that a cover’s best chance of eclipsing the original in the ears–and wallets–of the public is to shoot for the middle of the bell curve.
So there’s the path to fame and fortune I promised you. Find a popular piece and do your own cover. Make sure it’s clearly different, but not radically so. For example, change the mood, alter the instrumentation, or do a gender-swap on the performer and lyrics. Don’t go berserk, though. Stay in the same musical style, don’t change the song from a major key to a minor or vice versa, and definitely don’t change the chorus’ lyrics.
Release it when the original isn’t dominating the airwaves. Again, I’m working without a rigorous analysis, but I’d suggest you time your launch for four to six months after the person who originated the song dies. That way the radio tributes to the first performer will have given the original performance a familiarity bump, but they’ll have tailed off enough that your version will stand out.
Time it right, and presto! You’ll be forever identified with the song. At least until six months after you die, when someone covers your version.
One final note: None of the above absolves you from producing a good cover. Don’t rush it. In particular, and especially if you’re new to the cover game, don’t even try to cover The Thrill Has Gone. There’s going to be far too much competition to cover B.B. King, anyway.
Work on a few projects, build a portfolio, and have patience. Remember: Mick Jagger, Madonna, and–if you’re really patient–Marcus Mumford can’t last forever.