These soundalike songs. What are they FOR?
November 8, 2019 5:40 AM   Subscribe

I picked up a "Hits of the 80s" album on YouTube music and only realized while listening in the car that NONE of the songs were originals. They were all soundalike covers. (The Ultravox one really made my eyelid twitch!) I understand such songs are made for advertising purposes... and it didn't cost me anything to download, but why the heck would a consumer buy or want an album of fake songs? In short, what are they for?

Speculative answers are fine! But I'd love to hear from someone who knows for sure.
posted by tomboko to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It was cheaper for them to re-record the song than it was to license the original recording. There's still royalties going to the songwriter, but they avoided paying the record company for the song.

And the royalties are pretty cheap. The Harry Fox agency handles that stuff for most popular artists and you pay them a fee per song to do a cover version, and the last time i needed to do it, the fee was only like $50. Then, the songwriter could get additional revenue through BMI or ASCAP for airplay of the cover version which is unlikely, because who wants to put the cover version on the radio?
posted by jonathanhughes at 5:43 AM on November 8, 2019 [12 favorites]

I know they are cheaper to make. My question is, why are albums of this stuff being marketed to consumers?
posted by tomboko at 5:45 AM on November 8, 2019

Because in a lot of cases, the consumers don't care and/or can't tell the difference. They want to hear the song. If it sounds pretty close to the original, and they can get it for half the price, then that's all the reason they need.
posted by jonathanhughes at 5:47 AM on November 8, 2019 [6 favorites]

My question is, why are albums of this stuff being marketed to consumers?

I'm not sure if this counts as speculative or just common sense. But this has been done for as long as I can remember (I'm 58) first as TV, radio and newspaper/magazine ads. It's to sell records to people who don't know any better or are fooled into thinking they are buying the original songs.

There were also ads for compilation albums "by the original artists" which set them apart from the cover versions, and my friends and I would joke that maybe there was a cover band called The Original Artists.

Here's an interesting related article.
posted by The Deej at 5:53 AM on November 8, 2019 [13 favorites]

Enough people are willing to spend money on “Hits of the 80s” while not reading the fine print to make it profitable for the seller. The people who buy them are in the same position as you, I don’t think there are many people who genuinely seek out a slightly-wrong cover album like this one.
posted by sallybrown at 6:07 AM on November 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

Consumers don’t seek them out, they buy them by accident as you did. Often people don’t notice the difference.
posted by argybarg at 6:26 AM on November 8, 2019 [6 favorites]

I bought a few cassette tapes of this sort of thing back in the actual 80s kind of by accident. They were much, much cheaper than compilation albums that featured the original artists -- like $4 instead of $20. I didn't realize they weren't the "right" songs until after the fact -- and only because for one of the albums, I had the same song on a cassette by the actual artist, and the compilation version just didn't sound quite right. Most songs, I wouldn't have heard often enough to be able to tell the difference or I would only have heard them on AM radio, where the sound quality wasn't that great to begin with.

I have heard that this sort of thing started happening again in the streaming era -- people (and possibly Spotify?) are releasing sound-alike songs in hopes of picking up streaming plays in place of the original artist.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:28 AM on November 8, 2019 [5 favorites]

When I first ventured into album buying as a preteen, I bought several of these (specifically — and now available on eBay — The Living Strings play Love is Blue and the Sears version of Hair, with a hilarious Mt. Rushmore hippie cover). It took me a while to figure out that I wanted original artists. Since you said you're open to speculation, it might work like spam - it's cheap to do, and there are just enough people who don't know any better.
posted by FencingGal at 6:49 AM on November 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Not sure what the numbers are now, but back in 2014 when I worked with the team that fought against this kind of stuff being on our store, so called “deceptive music” was a $30,000,000 a year business. The “artists” are straight defrauding consumers into giving them money. And just because you got it for free doesn’t mean YouTube wasn’t paying them.

We’ve put a lot of resources over the years into catching this kind of stuff, but perhaps YouTube has not.
posted by sideshow at 8:03 AM on November 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

These collections were sold aggressively on late night TV, next to ads for cheap knife sets and the local mattress discounter. Here's an example ad offering 2 CDs for $25 "of your favorite hits". In that era you either bought the whole album or nothing, so having a collection of just the greatest hits seemed ideal. (To be honest I can't 100% tell that this ad isn't original recordings, either the ad is super deceptive or this was a rare legit collection. My memory is often the ads would have a tiny disclosure at the end that they were cover versions.)

I imagine the current era of streaming and easy music piracy has erased the market for these collections.
posted by Nelson at 8:15 AM on November 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Bless your young, K-Tel missing heart.
posted by humboldt32 at 8:44 AM on November 8, 2019 [11 favorites]

I remember seeing a number of these kind of albums marketed for kids. They were covers of pop songs, and I believe the lyrics had been sanitized a little bit as well.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 8:45 AM on November 8, 2019

I downloaded one of these albums on Amazon Music without knowing that it wasn't "real" music. It was free, but I deleted it soon after. It wasn't mentioned on the info and I had no way of knowing the difference until I listened to it.
posted by mrfuga0 at 8:46 AM on November 8, 2019

Bless your young, K-Tel missing heart.

To the best of my knowledge, K-Tel didn't use sound-alike recordings in their compilations.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:48 AM on November 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

Indeed you're probably right. But Kleenex doesn't sell all facial tissue either. My point was that hacky cover albums were a huge thing at one time. The "why" is, "to make money". While the OP may not find good ROI from such albums, that doesn't mean everyone feels (or felt) the same way. The popularity, prevalence and longevity of these cover albums attests to that. Doing a little crate diving will really drive that home. There's a whole universe of Beatles cover albums.
posted by humboldt32 at 9:52 AM on November 8, 2019

This does happen on Spotify. When the original recording/artist isn't available it'll be the only thing that shows up. Some of them are hilariously bad/not remotely a sound a like but the people who put it up get a play (or two or three; I had one of these not even close covers make it's way into my commuting mix and it took me several plays before I remembered to remove the song from the play list once I got home) and some small slice of that subscriber's monthly fee goes to the cover artist for minimal work.
posted by Mitheral at 10:42 AM on November 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

They are often used instead of the popular recording in places where the original would be prohibitively expensive, like the recorded release of something for which only the broadcast rights were originally secured. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio drama and WKRP in Cincinnati are two famous examples where the original music had to be replaced because they didn't have the rights.

I also hear them over the Musak channel at the grocery store a lot. Nothing like being in the grotesquely lit cheese isle and hearing Blister in the Sun sung with a slightly wrong inflection to make you feel like you are in the center of the vortex.
posted by Horkus at 2:54 PM on November 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

I remember traveling in India in the 90s and finding CDs of popular radio hits of the time but when you listened to it it was clearly cover bands and a lot of the lyrics weren’t correct at all. If you looked closely, the albums were made by a Chinese company. From the sound of it, I think they just heard the songs and tried to recreate them without having official lyrics or music. The explanation of why anyone would buy these I was given by family in India is that this was sometimes the only way cool new English language music was available there at all because the real record companies often didn’t put albums out in India till much after they were released in US and Europe or sometimes at all.
posted by Waiting for Pierce Inverarity at 4:33 AM on November 9, 2019

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