The Economic Case For Cover Songs

This past weekend, Zac Brown released the track list for his upcoming album and it got my attention. While I do not listen to or like Zac Brown’s music, it got my attention for one simple reason; it contains a cover song by my favourite songwriter, Jason Isbell. My initial reaction was one of shock and contempt. You see, this is not the first time Zac Brown covered an amazing song by an incredible, less popular band. Last year my friend enthusiastically showed me their new favourite song that “I just had to hear”; turns out, it is actually one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite bands, The Muse by The Wood Brothers. How dare this popular musician cover a song by a less popular contemporary! Zac Brown is making millions off the backs of far more talented songwriters while his fans are none the wiser to his theft.

While I was not actually upset, I felt weird about the whole situation. Typically, bands cover songs that are long past their expiry date and everyone in the audience knows that they are covers. This is different; Zac Brown is covering not only young and upcoming bands, but songs that his audience has never heard before. When Zac Brown releases his version of Dress Blues, his audience will think it’s a Zac Brown original.

Despite my initial shock, I have come to realize that Zac Brown is doing a truly great thing. In economics, there is a concept called Pareto Efficiency; this is an action that makes everyone involved better off. What Zac Brown is doing, or cover songs more generally, are Pareto Efficient actions.

The Muse by The Wood Brothers and Dress Blues by Jason Isbell are two tremendous songs. While I wish everybody could hear the original versions by Jason Isbell and The Wood Brothers, I realize that it is not possible due to their limited popularity. However, Zac Brown is adding so much value to his fans, the original artists and himself, that it becomes overwhelmingly, a win-win-win scenario.

Lets look at how everyone is impacted by this:

Zac Brown gets to release more great music bringing him additional success. The covered artist gets increased exposure, new fans and a hefty royalty cheque. The fans get more great music and the opportunity to discover a great new artist. This is a Pareto optimal situation, every party is better off than they would have been if Zac Brown never covered their songs.

Aside from Zac Brown, here are some other examples I can think of where covering a great song by a less popular artist has produced great results. After Paul Pena was forced to shelve his soon to be completed album and unable to release any new music, Steve Miller covered his song Jet Airliner to help Pena pay for his medical bills. This song became one of Steve Miller’s biggest hits and propelled him to new levels of fame. The Animals biggest hit, House of the Rising Sun is a traditional folk song that had been covered by everyone in the genre. Similarly, Old Crow Medicine Show revived and altered an unknown Bob Dylan demo sketch into their platinum signature song, Wagon Wheel. Darius Rucker then covered Old Crow Medicine Show’s version of the song winning him the Grammy for best country song of the year and increased levels of success.

Historically, the entire genre of Jazz consisted of ensembles covering other artist’s compositions. Classical music is almost all recycled from different composers throughout history. Similarly, both blues and folk have a large history of borrowing music from other artists. Even pop music essentially follows this pattern as almost all songs are “covered” from their unknown songwriters.

Looking at how beneficial it is to all parties involved, I hope to see more cover songs in the future.