Uncovering the Power of Cover Songs on YouTube

Any music fan who flocks to YouTube to watch videos of their favorite artists has likely discovered the vast universe that exists on the platform devoted to cover songs. Before we delve any further into what this universe looks like and what it might mean for fans, artists, and music publishers, let’s ask the simplest question first: What is a cover song?

A cover song is any music performed or recorded by someone other than the artist who originally recorded, performed, or composed it. (There are legal nuances too complex to explore here, but quite simply, if you didn’t write the song, and you are performing the song, you are covering the song.)

For example, Taylor Swift’s most recent album, 1989, is a multi-platinum phenomenon that has remained pinned atop the Billboard album sales chart for nearly a year. Ryan Adams, a singer and songwriter—also popular, but not nearly in the same stratosphere as Swift—made news recently by releasing a song-for-song cover of Swift’s 1989. In other words, Adams’ version of 1989 is classified as an album comprised entirely of cover songs.

ZEFR Insights has often written about how fans drive the most-viewed content on the platform. Normally, we highlight this essential fact as a roadmap for brands to maximize the potential of earned media to help shape and disseminate their message. But early on in the first decade of YouTube’s existence, the platform was initially known as a place where recent major pop stars first got their start. Fast forward to the 2.4 billion-view (and still growing) sensation that is Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” and you can now find countless examples of music icons using YouTube to their advantage. (See also: Katy Perry, Lana Del Rey, Gotye, etc.) Justin Bieber, in particular, launched into the mainstream on the power of a cover song he uploaded back in 2007 that caught the attention of label executives and landed him a recording contract.

YouTube as a Jukebox

It is not an overstatement to credit YouTube with the resurgence of music videos in the past decade. With the creation of networks such as Vevo, YouTube has turned into a go-to destination for young music fans to discover new artists, while creating a much-desired new revenue stream for music labels and artists. YouTube has become a preferred method for listening to music for millions of millennials, resulting in huge view counts as fans return again and again to hear a favorite song.

YouTube is, of course, also known for its user-generated content. A lot has been written about the rise of the YouTube star—the personalities that make original content and the lucky few whose homemade clips propel them into a new kind of celebrity—but the cover-song culture is thriving more than ever, years after it gifted us with Beliebers. Record executives, managers, and music publishers take heed: YouTube is perhaps the most unique music platform, where unknowns and Taylor Swift mingle as equals until some surprising cover by a stranger begins to pile up the views and another new star is born (while also amplifying the presence of the artist being covered).

To illustrate the power of cover songs on YouTube, ZEFR explored popular subsections of the cover-song universe on the platform, defining genres that grab the most views, while unearthing some surprising data about five of the top Billboard-charting “summer songs.”

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Acoustic Covers

This genre of covers is fairly self-explanatory. The song is recorded with acoustic instruments (i.e., acoustic guitar, ukulele, drums, flute, violin, etc). Many of these songs feature the creators singing as well, as the covers usually provide a perfect combination of familiarity along with a way to showcase the vocal talents of a possibly emerging talent.

Ryan Adams isn’t the only one giving his spin on Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood.” Covers uploaded by virtual unknowns drive most of the cover-song traffic on YouTube. If you look at the chart below, ZEFR found that the covers uploaded by “famous” (or, established) musicians, such as Ryan Adams, are not driving the view traffic as much as “unknowns.” The cover-song community on YouTube, in fact, accounts for 15 times more views than those performed by well-known artists.

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This is good news for music publishers, and young artists such as Tiffany Alvord, who has attracted over 2.5 million subscribers to her channel along with nearly half-a-billion views across all of her videos. The success of her channel is a result of the insatiable appetite of Swift’s fans, even for virtual unknowns covering her songs. This is a perfect example of how one artist can draw attention to her own talents while amplifying the popularity of a celebrity such as Swift. Alvord, via the music of Swift, has managed to boost her own profile as she extends the shelf-life of an already bona fide hit.


Again, looking at the same chart above, Alvord’s cover would be classified as a “fan/influencer” upload, while the Adams version (below) of the same Swift song would be considered a cover performed by a “famous musician.”

Kids Covers

This genre of cover music is distinct from content originally composed for kids, in that it normally features “clean” versions of popular songs, covered by children. For example, if Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again” isn’t exactly explicit, its themes might be more suited to adults. This is what makes MattyB’s cover version so endearing. With 28 million views so far, it’s not just a cover, it’s a hit too.

Vocal Covers

As distinct from a cappella covers, a vocal cover features a creator singing over the original track (or a nearly indistinguishable version of it). No instruments are played by the creator, but this covers subset isn’t to be confused with conventional karaoke, since the level of performance goes well beyond what you might expect to see in your local dive bar. Take this version of Jason Derulo’s hit “Want to Want Me” as interpreted by the group Cimorelli.

Genre-Bending Covers

This sub-section of covers on YouTube is exactly as its name suggests: A creator covers a song but changes the style (genre) of music. Why? Well, let’s say you’re don’t actively dislike the Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars smash “Uptown Funk,” but you love heavy metal. Norwegian musician Leo Moracchioli might have a solution.

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A Cappella Covers

If you’ve seen either Pitch Perfect or Pitch Perfect 2, you’re already an a cappella expert (of sorts). An a cappella cover is a song performed by an individual or a group using only voice. A cappella derives its signature sound from the the layering of vocal harmonies. Even “individual” a cappella videos often feature multiple tracks of the same singer blended together to achieve harmony.

Walk the Moon’s runaway hit, “Shut Up and Dance,” has racked up over 100 million views on YouTube, thus fueling the million-plus tally for this rendition uploaded by a cappella producer Mike Tompkins.

Takeaway

As we move boldly into fall, ZEFR shares the results of our summer cover-song battle below. This, of course, is subject to change especially if musicians continue to keep covering Ms. Swift’s “Bad Blood.”

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