When It’s OK to Cover a Song

Let’s settle it for all time.  When considering whether you should record a cover of another artist’s song for your new single or album, there is a list of principles to follow.

The criteria for when to cover a song:

  1. Your version is going to be nearly as good, if not as good or better than, the original.
  2. Your version will differ significantly enough to be a cover and not a discount replica.
  3. Your version is one the original artist would be proud to have heard.

Examples include the following:
“Friend of the Devil” by the Dead, covered by Counting Crows.
“Black Magic Woman” by Fleetwood Mack, covered by Santana
“Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, covered by Jeff Buckley
(I will also accept Rufus Wainright)
“Hurt” by NIN, covered by Johnny Cash
“All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan, covered by Jimi Hendrix
(and even Dave Matthews, if live)
“True Love Will Find You in the End” by Daniel Johnston, covered by Beck
“New York City Serenade” by Bruce Springsteen, covered by Pete Yorn

When NOT to cover a song:

  1. You just really like the song, man.
  2. You don’t have time to write a new song.
  3. You want your new hit single to ride adulterously one the fame of another songwriter.

Examples include the following:
“Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell, covered by Counting Crows
“Drift Away” as performed by Dobie Gray, covered by Uncle Kracker
“Behind Blue Eyes” by The Who, covered by Limp Bizkit + Mr. Spell
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana, covered by Miley Cyrus
“Boys of Summer” by Don Henley, covered by the Ataris
“Wagon Wheel” as performed by Old Crow, covered by Hootie
“Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey, covered by those kids from Glee
Anything Shatner does

These principles to not necessarily apply to live performances, as they are celebrated or tolerated for a moment, gone in an instant, not meant for mass reproduction and, if failures, can easily be forgotten, and will not be played endlessly on the radio for weeks simply because they are a cover.  This includes “All Along the Watchtower” by Bob Dylan, when covered by Dave Matthews on stage, even though they cover it every other day.

One response to “When It’s OK to Cover a Song

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