What are soundalike songs in commercials and TV called?
November 23, 2007 3:02 PM   Subscribe

What's the term of art for songs that are written to sound very similar to well-known or current pop songs? For example, lots of commercials and TV shows use backing songs which are clearly meant to evoke (rip off?) a song you already know and might hear on the radio.

I'm interested in how people who produce commercials or TV shows ask artists to create these soundalikes. Bonus points if you've actually been involved in such a thing.
posted by anildash to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
They are usually called soundalikes. I wrote a paper about them in college. I'd have to look at it again to remember all the details, but I actually was unable to find much at all on the topic in any of my sources.
posted by fructose at 3:05 PM on November 23, 2007


The place I used to work called that stuff "needledrop."
posted by roger ackroyd at 3:07 PM on November 23, 2007


I know a film score composer who's done that for films, in cases where they've edited using particular music that they then can't get the rights to (or can't afford to). So he's hired to write something that sounds similar enough that the tone of the scene is the same, but not so similar as to get anyone sued.
posted by xo at 3:39 PM on November 23, 2007


One of the very best examples of that kind of thing I know of is "The Rutles", for which the music was mostly written by Neil Innes. None of the songs are plagiarisms, yet you can listen to each, and if you're familiar with the Beatles' work, you can clearly tell in each case which Beatles song Innes was deliberately trying to sound like.

Weird Al does that kind of thing, too.

One word for that kind of thing is "pastiche".
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:03 PM on November 23, 2007


None of the songs are plagiarisms, yet you can listen to each, and if you're familiar with the Beatles' work, you can clearly tell in each case which Beatles song Innes was deliberately trying to sound like.

Innes was a little too successful there:

At the time that All You Need is Cash and The Rutles were released, the rights to the Beatles' back-catalogue were owned by publishing company ATV. Missing the point by several miles, the company sued the producers of the Rutles' music for infringement of copyright. Rather than fighting the case, the decision was made to hand over half of the rights to the Rutles' songs to ATV, instantly halving Innes's income from his music. As a final insult, Innes was obliged to add the names of Lennon and McCartney or George Harrison to the writing credits on his songs.

posted by Lentrohamsanin at 4:38 PM on November 23, 2007


Perhaps the word "parody" - a composition that imitates or misrepresents somebody's style, usually (but not always) in a humorous way.
posted by rupeh at 4:43 PM on November 23, 2007


The term you are looking for is "sampling." It means when a song uses a similar melodie and possibly lyrics to the point where it infringes upon the copyright of the previous "author" if performed w/o his or her permission. A good example of this is Gym Class Heroes' "Clothess Off" and "Cupid's Chokehold." Another example is Sean Kingston's song "Beautiful Girls" that samples "Stand by Me," which incorporates only the melodie, but not lyrics.
posted by dannon205 at 4:57 PM on November 23, 2007


The term you are looking for is "sampling." It means when a song uses a similar melodie and possibly lyrics to the point where it infringes upon the copyright of the previous "author" if performed w/o his or her permission.

That's the most narrow, hostile definition of the term "sampling" I've ever seen, and it certainly doesn't apply to this case, as the OP is talking about tracks that sound almost-but-not-quite-just-like other songs.

I know that I've heard the term "soundalike" used by marketing execs and the like looking for Moby-but-not-Moby.
posted by beaucoupkevin at 5:31 PM on November 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


The "sampling" answer above is a far from wrong as you can hope to be. Sampling (in the context where it doesn't apply to (re)creating a musical instrument) is simply the use of another artists' *recording*, or a segment of it (no matter how short) in another recording. The closest word I can think of to what dannon205 describes, where no recording is used, just a simulcrum of the melody or reuse of lyrics, is "plagiarism", which is exactly what the songs the OP is asking about are designed to avoid.

In general, if I'm contracted to write such a song or piece of music, it's called a parody, although I've been asked to write "soundalikes", "copies (but not too close)" and "repros".
posted by benzo8 at 5:58 PM on November 23, 2007


In Nashville, they're called soundalikes, and there was once a well established cottage industry for turning them out. Basically, they are replica recordings of hit songs, by people who do their own arrangements of tunes made famous by others, for inclusion in low priced, direct marketed compilations. A number of session players, and talented singers (many of whom mastered their abilities to uncannily mimic several better known singers) actually once earned 6 figure incomes doing this as a primary activity.

Essentially, a fairly loose knit group of session musicians and arrangers would work up independent transcriptions of hit tunes popular within the last 3 or 4 months, book some studio time in independent studios, and produce compilation masters. Any one of a number of independent record producers would handle music licensing payment, and contract for production of records, cassette tapes and CDs with Nashville vanity record presses, sometimes on their own record labels. Some fairly well known music producers were heavily involved in the business, including introducing the innovation of shared revenue cable TV offers (a mechanism for cable TV operators to fill dead advertising slots, typically in late night hours, with ads for products for which they were paid a fixed share of unit sales. Essentially, the "advertiser" paid nothing for ad insertion, and the cable operator got some revenue if product sold off the spots.) Mail order fulfillment houses in nearby cities and towns like Lebanon and Hendersonville, TN would typically handle phone orders, credit card payment, and mail order fulfillment. There was, and still is, a substantial "Point of Sale" retail market for these things in truck stops and convenience stores, too.

Janie Fricke began doing these when she first moved to Nashville, and she did amazingly accurate renditions of Tanya Tucker, Crystal Gayle and a passable Connie Francis. Some singers with very distinctive voices are hard to mimic, but the market for soundalikes was pretty forgiving in the '70s and '80s, when they were commercially most popular. I did some engineering and mixing on some of these sessions (although I never worked with Janie, she was a close friend of my wife), in the mid 70s, on one of the first 8 track 1/2 inch TASCAM recorders that came to Nashville. Many of the people who did these things would be putting out 5 or 6 of these compilation products a year, many of which did more than 50,000 units. So, there are many people in Nashville, whose real names you've never heard, who are multi-million sellers in the soundalikes business. They liked it, because it was great money, and low public exposure, so that there was no need for touring, few problems for their families due to public fame, and no competition with their other song writing and session work.

My remaining Nashville friends say that Internet file sharing/music piracy and the convenience of .mp3 players has put a huge dent in this once lucrative market, which was always very price sensitive, and interested in the convenience of having single cassette tape or CD compilations of many popular songs. Accordingly, you rarely see these things marketed via cable TV advertisements as you regularly did in the 70s and 80s. But there are other markets for similar products now, too, such as the backing music opportunities in movies and TV programs that you cite. But make no mistake that these are anything like as lucrative for the people involved as the direct marketed cassettes and CDs once were, thanks to the greater savvy of musicians and labels with "original" versions of popular tunes. Niche licensing is now a well developed business, and licensing deals for as little as 4 figures and a percentage of profits are regularly cut now, by even "A" list musicians, for applications like corporate video, short form inserts (snippets of music in the :15 to :30 time range), and commercial ads in smaller markets, or different language markets.
posted by paulsc at 6:28 PM on November 23, 2007 [7 favorites]


If it's for a movie, tv show or commercial, it's called "Licensing". If it's a humorous take off, it's called a "parody".
posted by Kioki-Silver at 7:06 PM on November 23, 2007


The term you are looking for is "sampling." It means when a song uses a similar melodie and possibly lyrics to the point where it infringes upon the copyright of the previous "author" if performed w/o his or her permission.

That's the most narrow, hostile definition of the term "sampling" I've ever seen, and it certainly doesn't apply to this case, as the OP is talking about tracks that sound almost-but-not-quite-just-like other songs.

I know that I've heard the term "soundalike" used by marketing execs and the like looking for Moby-but-not-Moby.


Welcome to copyright law. The legal standard to determine whether a performance infringes upon an existing copyright is how similar the two pieces are. It doesn't have to be an exact match. Yes, sampling is where they use a small segment of an older song in a new song. From my understanding, this is the term of art that the poster was looking for.

If, however, the OP was looking for the name for those that immitate a popular act's sound/look/appearance, etc., yes that's sound-a-like. Companies and record labels will often seek to use the same "sound" as a currently popular artist, who obviously has their own original music. E.g., during the late 90s, the next Britney or Christina = Jessica Simpson. Sometimes, however, companies, artists immitate the original artist/sound too closely, where the original artist files suit for trademark infringement/violation of right of publicity. For example, The Romantics recently filed suit against Guitar Hero's music publisher over a violation of right of publicity. They claim that although the music publisher had the right to re-record its song "What I Like About You," the voice of the band hired sounds so much like them that it infringes upon their right of publicity since it imitates their voices. Here's the billboard article. http://billboard.biz/bbbiz/content_display/industry/e3iebeeee1ed78e9c1ceef5777694cf7bd4
posted by dannon205 at 7:54 PM on November 23, 2007


The legal standard to determine whether a performance infringes upon an existing copyright is how similar the two pieces are.

That might be true, but recording a song that sounds an awful lot like another, more popular song is not sampling. Sampling involves taking parts of someone else's recording and putting them into your own song. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with writing a song that sounds an awful lot like a pre-existing track. I can insert a sample of radio static in my piece without violating any copyrights or mimicking anyone's intellectual property. In fact, I believe there are cases where an artist has re-recorded material specifically to get around laws intended to stop sampling—White Zombie is one such example, if I remember correctly.

Sampling may infringe on copyright in similar fashion to outright plagiarism, but we're talking about the difference between, say, including a large quotation from a book in your own writing and lightly rewriting that entire book and publishing it as your own.
posted by chrominance at 8:31 PM on November 23, 2007


paulsc, thanks for the great backgrounder on soundalikes, but I should clarify: I *don't* mean covers that are meant to sound like a popular song. I mean original compositions (like the Rutles) which are obvious nods to popular songs while still being nominally new creations. I'm also most curious about the "we need something that sounds like the #1 song right now" thing that happens in car commercials, more than "give me a new act that sounds like this popular one".

Also, this has nothing to do with sampling.
posted by anildash at 8:40 PM on November 23, 2007


I've always thought that The Home Depot theme song sounds like Jesse.
posted by jpdoane at 9:00 PM on November 23, 2007


I can insert a sample of radio static in my piece without violating any copyrights or mimicking anyone's intellectual property.

Yes, but that's because no one person can be credited for the sound that static makes, whereas others can be credited for the beat for "Under Pressure." In other words, you can't copyright the sound of a dog barking, a rain falling, brakes squealing, etc. These are un-copyrightable elements that may exist in a song, or any song, tv show, movie etc. What copyright law intends to protect is an novel creations.

Sampling may infringe on copyright in similar fashion to outright plagiarism, but we're talking about the difference between, say, including a large quotation from a book in your own writing and lightly rewriting that entire book and publishing it as your own.

We are in complete agreement here. The law encourages the discussion of prior copyrighted works. Thus, a quote is ok, while a paragraph or greater in a song, may be considered to infringe upon a copyright. It's a fine line, b/w a reference and copyright infringement. Consider Avril Lavigne's recent legal troubles. Her song "Girlfriend" has two lines in the song that sound like an older song. That's it two lines. Yet, she's being sued for copyright infringement. In determining whether she infringed upon the other group's copyright, the court will look at how similar the two pieces are as well as public policy arguments such as referencing other pieces of work.
posted by dannon205 at 9:09 PM on November 23, 2007


My closest involvement dates back 20 years, to when I worked for the ad agency for Cover Girl. They really, really wanted Vangelis for a particular ad, but they also really, really wanted Vangelis to accept a limited amount of money. They actually went out and got a soundalike track from some session musicians as leverage, but the group didn't bite, so in the end they went with the soundalike. It cost them about a tenth as much, if that.

My best understanding of how they went about getting it was just that they had a go-to producer for such things who rounded up the necessary talent.

This was just before Bette Midler's lawsuit against Ford, which had a chilling effect. (That article has some relevant process information, Anil.)
posted by dhartung at 11:16 PM on November 23, 2007


This doesn't help the OP but I love how FOTL channeled Coldplay for this one.
posted by PFL at 6:25 AM on November 24, 2007


Thats interesting. Watching the FOTL video, I would say its so obviously trying to copy Coldplay, that its a parody. Whereas the Home Depot example I gave is more subtle, and just steals a bit of the melody.

Perhaps the difference lies in whether or not the listener/watcher is supposed to be consciously and/or humorously reminded of the original artist (=parody), vs if the watcher/listener is merely intended to be subconsciously reminded (=soundalike?)
posted by jpdoane at 7:52 AM on November 24, 2007


A composer friend of mine once did one of these for a commercial. They asked him to write something that sounded like "Walk on the Wild Side," but not so much so that they'd get sued.

And to reiterate, neither sampling (re-contextualizing a pieceof recorded audio) or licensing (paying an artist for the permission to use their song for your purpose) are the right terms here.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:46 PM on December 3, 2007


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