Which is better: The Weeknd’s original version of “Wicked Games” or the heartrending cover by Cœur de Pirate? Both are the exact same song in terms of basic harmony and lyrics, yet upon listening, they are worlds apart. This, after all, is the great debate among musicians — can a cover song ever really be better than the original?
On YouTube, a similar debate is evolving around cover music, a genre that dominates the small screen. Browsing through YouTube’s top hitmakers, the overwhelming majority broke through via cover songs. Covers are king on YouTube, but is that what the creators really want?
Violinist Lindsey Stirling is one such creator who has walked the line between original artist and cover artist. Her most popular upload to date is “Crystallize,” a dubstep original, which has garnered over 76 million views. Stirling explained the impact the original had on her career, saying, “ I never wanted to be a cover artist. When that [“Crystallize”] blew up, I was like wow, people were coming to my page to hear specifically my music, it was really exciting.”
Although Stirling has generated million of views from a collection of her originals, cover songs do make up a large portion of her video library. A cover of Imagine Dragons track “Radioactive” is her second most popular video with just under 43 million views. Stirling, with a world tour under her belt is the hybrid YouTube musician exemplified. For her, cover songs are simply part of the YouTube ecosystem. “ It [cover songs] used to be such a faux paus, it was a gray area that was looked down upon,” Stirling explains. She adds: “most people see it as a really influential thing now.”
Producer and electronic musician Mike Tompkins started posting on YouTube, at first, to get his work heard. “ I started YouTube to help promote me as a producer. My goal was to create a video,” he explains. “I never wanted to be an artist, it’s something I fell into.”
In spite of his initial goals, Tompkins quickly became a massive hit on YouTube with his unique brand of cover songs, which are built from his vocals layered over one another using an electronic beatbox technique. Looking at Tompkins channel, one would come to the conclusion that he is a cover artist through and through. His most popular uploads are covers, and the majority of his channel is dedicated to his specific style of remixing. However, Tompkins, despite his success, is now looking beyond cover songs.
“I’m spend a lot of time on my original music,” he says. “I was just on tour. I’m working on my live show and crafting my original music side, which has yet to be unleashed.” And Tompkins believes that a time has come where his audience is ready for something different. “We’re getting to a point where I think they [his audience] are asking for more originals, he says. “I think we’re getting close to the time where I can do a lot more original music.”
Despite his desire to move further into originals, Tompkins, like Stirling, recognizes the importance cover songs have on his career and YouTube. He says that he’ll always do covers and remixes, but instead of doing them solo, Tompkins wants to collaborate with the musicians he’s covering. “I want to be doing covers with the actual artists of those things,” says Tompkins.
For his confidence in his original music, Tompkins is still nervous about shifting to non-covers. “It’s scary, because you’re releasing something that’s entirely yours. The reaction whether they liked your cover or not isn’t as bad as whether they liked your original or not,” he says. For many creators this is a serious concern. When you’ve built a channel around covering already popular songs that people are searching for, what will happen once you shift to your own music?
For a creator like Tyler Ward, who started as a cover artist on YouTube only to gain a higher level of notoriety from his originals, performing other peoples’ music is more of a “marketing tool.” Ward (and many like him) drive traffic to their channels by searching for popular tracks and producing them in a different way. “Well if you look at the charts, it’s almost a marketing tool,” Ward said in an interview with NMR. “It’s like, ‘I wonder if I could do that with an acoustic vibe, or that with more of an up-tempo vibe’ and just being able to scratch that itch of being a producer and taking a song that is already great and making it different than it is.”
For most YouTube creators (and for most artists) the dream resides in producing and creating their own original work. However, as it was for Ward and Tompkins, you’ve got to start somewhere. Whether you love it or hate it, on YouTube, that “somewhere” is with a cover.