A cover song, on a typical definition, is a recording of a song that had earlier been recorded by someone else. Philosophers of music considering cover songs have debated the adequacy of this definition, argued about the aesthetic evaluation of covers, and worried about their metaphysical status. This panel asks instead about ethical issues that arise from recorded music. Are there obligations which artists have when recording covers? If there are, do they arise from general ethical considerations or from norms within musical communities?
I just found out today that my book on the philosophy of cover songs has been accepted for publication! Both referees said that the manuscript could be published as is, but of course went on for pages with comments about how it might be improved.
One side effect of the pandemic is that I’m out and about less, so I hear less programmed Christmas music. Here’s a flashback to pre-pandemic times, when I did a series of posts about my favorite holiday songs. I’m not sure the list would be any different this year.
I’ve mentioned in passing a few times that I’m writing a book on the philosophy of cover songs. I now have a complete draft, which moves it to the rock tumbler stage in which I roll around the prose to remove rough edges and add polish.
Andrew Kania poses what he calls the striking cover paradox. The idea is that there could be a series of covers, each making small changes to the one before it, so that the final product sounds nothing at all like the original.
Today I attended part of a regular seminar series at Uppsala University. An upside of a dire times is that it was on Zoom, so I was able to just drop in. The talk was by Brandon Polite on The Fine Art of Sonic Duplication.
Polite discussed artists remaking their own tracks for licensing reasons, the paradigmatic examples being Def Leppard (who remade a few tracks so as to squeeze their record label for a better deal) and Taylor Swift (who is in the process of remaking her first six albums so as to crush misogyny and master her destiny). These are cases I’ve also been thinking about recently, so it was interesting to hear his take on them. The questions from the Uppsala folks were also top notch.
John Stuart Mill makes an argument that there will come a time— if it has not been reached already— when all the great works of music have already been written. He writes:
The octave consists only of five tones and two semi-tones, which can be put together in only a limited number of ways, of which but a small proportion are beautiful: most of these, it seemed to me, must have been already discovered, and there could not be room for a long succession of Mozarts and Webers, to strike out, as these had done, entirely new and surpassingly rich veins of musical beauty.
His idea is that there are only a finite number of notes which can be combined in only a finite number of ways. Many of the ways will be awful. Of those that are not, many have already been discovered and documented by great composers.
Although Mill only addresses instrumental music, we could extend the argument to songs. Any lyrics which can be written down with an alphabet are built from a finite number of letters which can be combined in only a finite number of ways. Many possible lyrics will be bad. Of those that are not, many have already been written— and each new song further reduces the remaining number of unwritten songs. So there will come a time when all of the great songs have been written.
Some people have argued that the phenomenon of cover songs is inexorably bound up with racism— white musicians lifting black music. For example, Don McClean wrote that “A ‘cover’ version of a song is a racist tool.” I don’t think so. Here’s part of what I say in a current draft…
…although covers were sometimes used as racist tools, racism is not intrinsic to the concept of a cover as such. As Michael Coyle puts it, crossover covering of R&B hits by white artists “exploited racist inequality but did not arise because of it.” The word cover originally had a sense of coverage which was not in itself tied to race, and covers in that sense continued.