Monday, July 22, 2024

Why DJs Are Playing So Many Dance Cover Songs

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Early in May, the New York house music stalwarts at Nervous Records were enjoying two hits in the top 10 on the Beatport chart: A zippy, heavily syncopated reimagining of Kendrick Lamar‘s “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” by Liquid Rose and Trace (UZ), and a thunking version of Diddy and Keyshia Cole’s “Last Night” by Loofy. 

In both cases, the older track was outfitted with a fresh vocal and re-tooled for dancefloors, swooping at just under 130 beats per minute. “There’s something special about being able to know all the lyrics and sing along to a brand new song — even though it’s not a brand new song,” says Rida Naser, associate director of music programming for SiriusXM’s BPM and The Pulse.  

Many producers have taken note. Ghostbusterz tackled the Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Running,” while Armonica, Zamna Soundsystem, and ROZYO took on the dance version of Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness;” both hit the Beatport Top 100. (Beatport, a popular site for DJs and electronic music enthusiasts, ranks songs according to the number of downloads.) Mr. Belt & Wezol’s re-do of Whitney Houston‘s resilient late-’90s classic “It’s Not Right But It’s OK” recently surpassed 65 million streams on Spotify.

“We’ve been doing loads of these since 2018,” says Kevin McKay, a DJ, producer, and founder of the label Glasgow Underground. “A lot of artists were shying away from it because they felt it was uncool, or that they would be looked down on for it. Now almost all the labels are doing them.” For a time, Joe Wiseman, head of Insomniac Music Group, “was getting sent so many dance covers” that he considered issuing a moratorium on signing them. 

Dance music has a long history of referencing the past, often through club-ready remixes and prominent samples. But while most aspiring rockers cut their teeth in a cover band, “in dance music, that part gets skipped,” McKay says, “and people go straight to writing originals.” 

Still, as anyone who’s ever attended a wedding knows, many people need to be coaxed onto the dance floor — often by hearing songs they already recognize. Plenty of club-goers need the same enticement.

Dance covers “evoke a sense of nostalgia, reminding [listeners] of the original hits and the memories associated with them,” says Wez Saunders, managing director of the label Defected Records. And those “reworks often serve as a gateway, drawing attention to the genre and leading listeners to discover new music.”

George Hess, a veteran dance radio promoter, believes the lack of shared experiences during the pandemic — when “new memories were difficult to create since people basically weren’t together enjoying each other’s company” — further heightened listeners’ desire for familiarity. 

Around this time, mainstream pop saw a spike in “I know that one!” samples and in-your-face interpolations, offering some potential support for Hess’ theory. And two of the biggest singles to come out of the commercial dance world recently, ACRAZE’s “Do It To It” and David Guetta and Bebe Rexha’s “I’m Good (Blue),” borrowed liberally from old hits by Cherish and Eiffel 65, respectively.

In a world where anyone with a computer can cobble together a dance track, it’s also possible that producers are increasingly incentivized to make covers as a way to lasso listeners overwhelmed with similar-sounding releases. In 2023, Luminate reported that more than 120,000 tracks hit streaming services daily. The flow of new tunes is more controlled at Beatport; still, between 20,000 and 25,000 fresh tracks hit the platform per week.

Nervous Records works with Louie Vega, “who always uses live musicians” to inject different tones and textures into his tracks, says label co-founder Mike Weiss. “With fewer producers doing that, a lot of them are all using the same plugins,” and covers offer a way to stand out. 

McKay believes the covers trend may be more about channeling the knock-out top lines and gleaming hooks of the originals: “We have a dearth of songwriting talent, so when you’re on the dance floor, you get this amazing song from the past and it just blows away a lot of the current content.” Glasgow Underground has done well on the Beatport chart with covers of The S.O.S. Band, Kylie Minogue, ABBA and more.

In addition, the complex dynamics of the music business ensure that sampling or interpolating a song is an arduous process, potentially making covers a more attractive proposition. To clear a sample, a producer needs to obtain permission from the owner(s) of both the original composition and the recording. “Independent artists without representation might struggle to even get a response to their request,” explains Tim Kappel, an entertainment attorney and founder of the firm Wells Kappel. Their request might also be denied, he continues, or be granted only if the artist agrees to pay hefty up-front fees for using the material. 

In contrast, artists can typically cover songs in the U.S. without the explicit approval of the original songwriters, under the somewhat vague condition that their “arrangement shall not change the basic melody or fundamental character of the work.” The original writers receive all the songwriting royalties from the resulting cover. “For a dance artist that just wants to consistently release music, the obstacles to clear samples and interpolations might outweigh the desire for the artist to have publishing on the underlying composition” and drive them to produce more covers, says Jodie Shihadeh, founder of Shihadeh Law.  

While dance music remakes have increased, they are not an automatic home run. In Wiseman’s view, the most obvious source material is “never the best” — he’s not looking for a house remake of Britney Spear’s “Toxic,” for example. “You want to get that feeling where someone’s like, ‘I know I heard that song years ago, and I loved it back then, but I don’t quite remember it,’” he continues.

And several label executives also emphasized that covers are just one tool they use to hook audiences. “As a label who’s been around for 33 plus years, [covers] can’t be our sole focus,” says Andrew Salsano, vp of Nervous Records. 

Nervous Records is hopeful that one more reimagined classic can light up dancefloors this summer: On July 19th, the label will put out a new version of Cher‘s “Believe” from Super Flu. While the original thrums like an overheated racecar engine, the Super Flu release builds slowly, replacing Cher’s Auto-Tune flourishes with a conversational delivery, trading in triumph for something more ambivalent. 

DJs are already testing the Super Flu single in their sets. “I’ve been in clubs when it’s been played,” Weiss says. The dancers’ response?

“Very emotional.”



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