A classically trained pianist posts a cover of a rock band’s track--and winds up on stage with them. A piano instructor draws on favorite game tunes on Instagram mini-etudes for students--and ends up working together with a popular composer on an album of arrangements, complete with sheet music. It’s all thanks to covers and social media, and it’s changing the way music gets made in some of the most productive, lucrative niches of the music industry.
Covers have had a decidedly mixed reputation for several decades. They are seen as the easy way out, the stuff of middle-of-the-road bar bands, but they have also sparked some creative revolutions in popular music. There’s one underway right now. And digital-first distribution platform Soundrop has witnessed how social media and creative arrangements are transforming the ways artists--the covered and the covering--interact. “Covers are working to connect artists at different places in their careers and with remarkably different backgrounds,” says Pony, brand manager for Soundrop. “As cover song licenses are built into what we do, we make it easy for covering artists. That means we get to watch these trends firsthand.
Take Soundrop artist Summer Swee-Singh, a classically trained pianist, whose ear and love of post-hardcore and prog, emo bands, led her beyond the traditional repertoire. She discovered bands like Thrice and Circa Survive in high school, and over time began developing medley arrangements of her favorite tracks from their albums. She found her own arranging style, eventually arranging tracks by Justice and Skrillex, who shared her arrangements on social media.
“I first covered Skrillex just for fun, with a piano quartet,” Swee-Singh recalls. “When he started reposting my arrangements, my YouTube channel blew up. It was the first time I thought I might have a viable career in music.” Swee-Singh faced the usual challenges and bumps most working musicians do, but was able eventually to quit her job at a law office and focus exclusively on music.
She decided to move abroad for a year, and during that time began to compose her own pieces, but continued to work out arrangements. Eventually, she turned to arrange songs by her favorite rock-oriented artists. “My boyfriend told me that Metallica had previously played with the San Francisco Symphony and I found it to be the coolest thing, a rock band performing alongside an orchestra. The juxtaposition of a metal band’s vocals and electric instrumentation layered over acoustic orchestral instrumentation created an amazingly rich texture which made me find the performance even more grand. I then decided that all of my favorite bands should follow suit, and that I wanted to somehow become the person those bands called upon the write those orchestral arrangements and perform keys”. Choosing to try out a proactive approach, she began writing her own counterpoint string accompaniments to her piano cover arrangements, uploading medleys of Thrice and Circa Survive songs to her YouTube channel.
Through social media, Circa Survive heard her “Instrumental Thrice & Circa Survive Medley” and reached out to her. “Summer’s video showed a pretty intimate understanding of our core melodies and movements but a brilliant voice of her own as a composer,” says guitarist and Circa Survive co-founder Colin Frangicetto “She was an obvious first choice when we thought of asking someone to add strings and keys to our recent show at [L.A.’s] Shrine. The only potential issue was the fact that we only thought of it about a week and a half out.”
The tight timeline didn’t stop the collaboration and the band decided to fly Swee-Singh to join them for a few East Coast shows as well. Swee-Singh then called on her NYC-based network of professional string players and put together another keys and strings ensemble as well as another arrangement for those East Coast shows. “Summer is part of the extended Circa fam now and we will be working together again at some point, no doubt,” he adds. The experience has driven Swee-Singh to push herself further as a composer, arranger, and pianist, she says.
For video game composer and Soundrop artist Disasterpeace, the cover relationship went the other way. “I stumbled across David on instagram. He would post these snippets of piano arrangements of different material,” short exercises for Peacock’s students. Disasterpeace recalls: “His interpretation of my music from FEZ explored the piano in a really impressive way. I loved his sense of style.” He reached out to tell him so, and the two struck up a conversation.
That conversation blossomed into a collaboration. Disasterpeace let Peacock have access to his entire, extensive catalog. Peacock arranged the pieces, and eventually the duo created sheet music, both the full arrangements and more simplified but still fun versions for beginning pianists.
“Approaching Rich’s music, I had immersed myself in the games and films whenever possible, and as a result I think there were considerations with regards to the visuals associated with it,” says Peacock. “I really appreciated Rich’s trust in my ability to explore his compositions without placing restrictions on the process. These pieces went back and forth repeatedly between us to shape the mood and sound that, I think, encompasses both of our personalities.”
“People don’t realize how substantive and innovative cover versions can be, from artists that use YouTube or other platforms as their go-to first line of distribution,” Pony explains. “Yet these tracks can foster real artistic relationships. They can spark anything from live performances by chamber ensembles to books of sheet music. By getting their ideas out there quickly, then distributing the music widely, artists are discovering how covers can transform their careers. Because Soundrop doesn't charge recurring fees to keep a cover song in distribution, artists can experiment and over time, start to see what connects. There's no financial risk to building up a large and diverse catalog, active across multiple music platforms.”
Photo by Mia Baker on Unsplash