Artistic originality has long been a subject of critical debate. When it comes to musicians covering material from other musicians, performances are usually met with particular enthusiasm and acclaim from regular listeners. It goes without question that fans are instantly hit with a wave of excitement when their favorite artists cover a song from another well-known artist, especially during live concerts. From Chris Martin and Ariana Grande performing “Don’t Look Back In Anger” by Oasis to The Killers performing “Starlight” by Muse to The 1975’s cover of Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next,” cover songs in concert have been a common practice for years. However, when an artist attempts to use the eminence of well-known songs to boost their own career or to capture the attention of the public, the results can be bothersome, embarrassing and even legally demanding.
There have been numerous occasions in music history when an artist, knowingly or not, uses pieces of another song in their own and creates issues for both parties. “Bitter Sweet Symphony” by The Verve is a distinctly well-known song with an intro that is recognizable by just about anybody. However, the reason for this is a bit more grim than many would think. While the lyrics were written by The Verve themselves, a peculiar violin excerpt in the song was sampled from a 1965 Rolling Stones track called “The Last Time.” Initially, The Verve had agreed upon a license with the band that allowed it to use the five-note sample. Despite this, former Stones manager Allen Klein soon argued that The Verve had used too much of the song, ultimately removing all royalty rights from the band and attributing the songwriting credits to the Stones. As a result, the song was soon used in dozens of TV commercials, which explains why the tune is so unusually well-known.
More recently, in January 2018, Lana Del Rey tweeted that Radiohead was taking legal action against her due to a claim that her song, “Get Free,” was plagiarizing “Creep,” its debut hit single. “It’s true about the lawsuit,” Del Rey tweeted. “Although I know my song wasn’t inspired by Creep, Radiohead feel it was and want 100% of the publishing – I offered up to 40 over the last few months, but they will only accept 100. Their lawyers have been relentless, so we will deal with it in court.” While the speculative lawsuit has since been dropped, Del Rey has continued to deny plagiarism of Radiohead’s song.
Beyond a history of legal action, a large amount of online musical trends today have tied together cover songs as a basis for modern entertainment. While releasing albums full of covers is quite uncommon in the musical industry, artists covering other artists has become a great form of amusement in recent years, especially due to the growing online presence of singers and songwriters. “Like A Version,” a weekly Australian radio segment, has boomed in popularity as a result of its involvement with international artists who come to its studio and perform live covers of songs from varying genres. These covers are usually posted on YouTube to the delight of millions of viewers, including Childish Gambino’s cover of Tamia’s “So Into You,” Arctic Monkeys’ cover of Tame Impala’s “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” and Tash Sultana’s cover of MGMT’s “Electric Feel.”
While the use of musical covers has been sweeping the industry, the reckless use of popular songs in newer pieces can prove consequential. Still, this shouldn’t discourage the use of song covers when it comes to musical exploration, merging genres or just for fun. When it comes to producing new music, artists should be keen not to accidentally cover older songs and should obtain the proper credentials when covering the music of others.
David Hatami is a freshman majoring in political science.