7 Ways to Be a Cover Artist on YouTube
A Beginner’s Guide to Cover Songs & Building a Social Media Following
Plenty of people post cover songs on YouTube, but what most of them fail to realize is that most people aren’t watching to see the person playing the cover…they are watching to see a song they love with a new twist. So you want to be a cover artist on YouTube? Here are my tips on how to stand out and build a following as such.
- 7 Ways to Be a Cover Artist on YouTube
- Covers Are About Variety
- Finding Your Cover Song Niche
- The Seven Types of Cover Songs
- 1. “In the Style Of…”
- 2. Genre Shift
- 3. Art Shift
- 4. Tone Shift
- 5. Narrative Shift
- 6. Mashup
- 7. Parody
- Do Covers Really Make Me An Artist?
- Advantages of Cover Songs
- Disadvantages of Being a Cover Artist
- Other Articles to Consider
Covers Are About Variety
Cover songs are likes flavors of chips: they’re all just a slice of fried potato, but some taste like cheddar and some taste like limón. People like variety, and if you give them a new flavor on an old classic they will try it.
Finding Your Cover Song Niche
Just like any niche of music, you want to pick a specific style and stay consistent with it. That does not mean you need to perform songs only in one genre or by only one artist. Your “style” is simply a regular and recurring theme throughout all your covers that an audience can expect and therefore keep coming back for. Like I said, they’ll click on the video because they like the song; but if your cover’s flavor leaves a good taste in their mouth they may stick around to see what else you’ve got in your bag.
So how do you find your niche as a cover artist? If you don’t already have an idea, this article is for you! I’ve listed 7 different styles of music that you can specialize in for doing covers.
Some of the examples I’ll provide in this article have already proven successful for other artists, and some may be an untapped market ripe for content. Don’t be discouraged if someone else has already “taken” your idea. First off, someone else having success in your style indicates that there is actually a market for that kind of music—which is a lot better than going into a niche blind.
Also, music is very subjective and art is non-fungible. Even if two people are playing the same song in the same genre, some fans will inevitably prefer one of their voices over another (and vice versa). For the most part, no two artists will do a cover song in the exact same way even if they have the same influences. Furthermore, music is not a zero sum game. Most fans listen to many different artists in the same genre. In that way, other artists in your style aren’t so much competitors as contemporaries, maybe even potential collaborators.
The Seven Types of Cover Songs
With that said, let’s get into the possible ways you can add a consistent twist to the songs you cover. I have identified seven major categories of specialization for covers, each with a variety of sub-style ideas within them. They are:
- In the Style Of… (artist → artist)
- Genre Shift (genre → genre)
- Art Shift (instrumentation → instrumentation)
- Tone Shift (emotional tone → emotional tone)
- Narrative Shift (POV → POV)
- Mashup (Song + Song)
- Parody (Song + Satire)
1. “In the Style Of…”
This style is when you perform a cover of one artist but emulate the genre or delivery of another specific artist. The focus here would be on mimicking how a particular singer or band would have performed songs they did not write. Any combination of X in the style of Y can be done. A few successful combinations I’ve seen include:
- “Wonderwall” by Oasis in the style of Blink-182
- “Comfortably Numb” by Pink Floyd in the style of Dire Straits
- “Come As You Are” by Nirvana in the style of Weezer
- Anthony Vincent has made a career out of doing one song in the style of multiple different artists (for example, Harry Styles in the style of Bring Me the Horizon or Nirvana in the style of Evanescence)
2. Genre Shift
This style is similar to the previous, but here you take songs from one genre of music and perform it in another genre. Rather than focusing on emulating a specific artist, you are attempting to embody a specific style or niche of music. Just a few examples of this format include:
- Pop songs as punk songs. There were entire series of cover albums produced by Fearless Records where punk bands did covers of pop songs.
- Metal as Pop songs. You can take death metal tunes and re-invision them as heartfelt acoustic pop ballads like Stevie T did satirically here.
- Rap as Metal songs. Conversely, you can take hip hop songs and redo them as a specific genre of metal. What would Post Malone songs sound like when done like an Atmospheric Black Metal band? I don’t know, but here’s what Eminem would sound like if he played Metalcore.
- Pop as Rock or Metal. This one may be a bit overdone, but it still pulls in an audience. Take pop songs and make them into harder rock or metal tracks. The band First to Eleven has made steady progress on this idea.
- Trap Remix. Take a pop song but put the vocals over a hard trap beat, like this drill trap remix of Adele’s hit titled “Hello”.
- Modern Songs but it’s Bardcore – take pop or rap songs, rewrite them in Old English, and play them as if you were a troubadour in the 10th Century. Or a bard in a high fantasy tavern. It worked well for Hildegard von Blingen.
- Synthwave Revamp. Remake tracks into 80s-licious synth romps. This synth version of “Summertime Sadness” is one of my favorites.
- Chiptune. Take a song and turn it into an 8-bit video game backtrack. Here’s a chiptune version of American Football’s classic track “Never Meant”.
3. Art Shift
This style takes a song and does it with different instrumentation. I distinguish this from the Genre Shift because you are not focusing on moving a song from one clear cut genre to another (like indie pop to melodic death metal) but rather moving it from one form of arrangement to another (like acoustic guitar to big band). Examples include:
- A Capella. This means you perform the song with only human voices. This could fall into several different subsets of vocal music, such as:
- Choral (done in an SATB format like Medieval church music)
- Barbershop Quartet (also known as traditional glee club format)
- Beatbox (where you perform the percussion and instrumental parts with your voice but without using actual words i.e. vocable singing)
- Christmas Carols
- Then there’s this woman whose niche is to sing solo in a stairwell…
- Acoustic/unplugged. A popular cover approach is to simply take a song with full band/instrumentation and strip it down to just vocals and guitar. Or you can take a popular song and redo it as an instrumental guitar piece in the fingerstyle niche.
- Orchestral version. Take a pop song and redo the instrumentation for a classical orchestra. I had some success doing this a few years ago; I searched out vocal stems from the original artists and then arranged orchestral compositions in the same key to fit with the original voice. My most popular one was “Wolves” by Selena Gomez.
- Big Band. A much more specialized technique is to remake modern songs in an old big band style. For example, here’s a group that redid a Dua Lipa single into a 1920s dance hall track.
- Solo Piano. It’s actually quite a big market to take pop singles and arrange them as piano pieces. Here’s just one example compilation to get you going.
- Elevator Music. You may not be aware, but easy listening is it’s own genre of music (commonly called “mall music”, “lounge music” or “elevator music”). You can retake popular hits and make them into elevator jams. Richard Cheese does this by turning metal and rap songs into lounge lizard tracks.
4. Tone Shift
In this style, you take a song but change the emotional tone. If the original song was upbeat and happy, you make it sad and heartbroken. Examples include:
- Major Key to Minor Key (and vice versa)
- Fast to Slow (bringing down the tempo or playing a song in half-time)
- Lullaby to Nightmare Fuel (take a calming lullaby-like song and change it into a creepy tune by shifting the scale and/or adding dissonance)
5. Narrative Shift
This technique is where you rewrite or in some way re-imagine a song from another person’s perspective. Examples of this could include:
- Love Song but You’re the Love Interest. There are plenty of songs in the world written about someone the writer loved, but how about rewriting the lyrics to tell the other side of the story—from the point-of-view of the person being loved, lusted, or yearned over? That’s what this young man did with his version of Taylor Swift’s “Love Story” from the perspective of her Romeo.
- Response Song. In a similar vein, you can write lyrics responding to another song’s message. This especially works if the original song was written to someone. A great example of this young woman’s responding to the song “Hey There Delilah” from the POV of Delilah.
- Male to Female/Female to Male. Sometimes the niche could just be a male artist redoing songs by a female artist from his perspective. Ryan Adams did a cover of Taylor Swift’s album 1989, changing some of the lyrics to reflect a male narrator.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard a mashup before. It’s when you take two or more songs and overlay them in some way to create a unique new blend. They even did this in a popular movie called Pitch Perfect.
DJs have done this for a while now, and there are websites you can use that will suggest song pairings based on key and tempo. But if you are re-recording the parts yourself, the songs don’t need to be in the same key to start with because you can just transpose before you start recording. There are a few ways this can be done:
- Melody vs melody. You take the vocal melody of two songs and overlay them or use them as counterpoint to each other, like this singer did.
- Melody + harmony. Or you can take the vocals/melody line of one song and play it over the harmony/instrumentation of another. A lot of people do this with the original vocals but you can record your own parts as well. Some interesting examples I’ve heard include this mashup of Linkin Park vs Ariana Grande and this guy who put the vocals of “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton over the instrumentation of “Never Meant” by American Football.
- Lyrics + Tune. Or get even more creative by taking the lyrics of one song and play it to the tune of another like this gal did.
This method needs little introduction as it’s been a popular format since the days of the VHS (maybe even earlier, I’m too lazy to do a deep dive). Take a song and rewrite the lyrics as a way of lampooning the song or the artist (or any related topic really). Some examples include:
- Weird Al Yankovic whose entire career has been parodies.
- This satire of Ariana Grande’s hit “7 Rings” but “on a budget”.
- “Like a G6” but it’s about Harry Potter.
- “Old Town Road” but it’s about a Mexican ice cream cart.
- Mac Sabbath is a tribute band that does Black Sabbath parodies about fast food.
- Bart Baker also made a name for himself online by recording parodies of pop and rap tracks.
- Then there are people like Nick Lutso, who lampoons other artists by putting their public quotes to music, like Kanye West’s most ridiculous interview lines set to music in the style of Tame Impala.
Do Covers Really Make Me An Artist?
After all this talk about covering other artists’ songs, it’s inevitable that someone will poise the question: “am I really an artist if all I do is cover other peoples’ songs?” I would say yes, you are still an artist if you sing other peoples songs. While you may not have written the composition, you are performing it and imbibing your own nuance into the track. It requires skill to use the voice as an instrument of artistic expression. Furthermore, arranging the song into your own style will require some expertise in music theory and rely on your own artistic design choices for the instrumentation and tone.
Advantages of Cover Songs
So why would you want to record covers of popular songs? Well, obviously, if you’re a big fan of the song and you enjoy singing it…that may be all the reason you need. But there are also distinct advantages to playing cover songs for both casual and business-oriented artists, including:
- Cover songs attract listeners. A casual music fan is more likely to click on a cover of a song they know than a completely original song from an artist they’ve never heard of. Consistently posting covers of the same artists or genres can draw in a pre-existing fanbase.
- Easier for beginners. Composing original music requires a different mindset than arranging another person’s song. It’s far easier to learn the chords and lyrics of a song you like than to build an original song’s melody, counterpoint, harmony, bass, percussion, etc. from scratch.
- They prime your audience for your own style of music. Most music listeners are passive fans—that is, they don’t go searching for new artists, they let the algorithms or Billboard charts dictate what they listen to. If you play covers of artists similar in style to your own songs, and casual listeners are lead to your channel by your covers, they may end up browsing your original songs as well.
Disadvantages of Being a Cover Artist
Covering popular songs comes with distinct advantages. However, there are also a number of drawbacks to being a cover artist on YouTube (or any medium for that matter). If the majority of your content consists of covers, you will likely get typecasted into that role. For those who do not write their own songs, it’s not even an issue. But please consider the following caveats before making a final decision:
- Fans will be less likely to listen to your original music. If they subscribed to your channel because of your covers, your listeners will be less likely to show interest in your original songs. It’s not what drew them in. People who search for covers are more likely to be fans of the well-known artists you’re covering. They aren’t necessarily the same kind of people interested in discovering new, independent artists. You will get some converts, but don’t expect the view rate on your original songs to match that of your covers.
- Other musicians may label youas a sellout or gimmick. I maintain that performing covers is an art form in their own right; however, some musicians are more narrow-minded than I am. They may accuse you of following fads or say that you are a “poseur”. If you start to gain any notoriety or sizable fan base, expect a few musicians to deride you for “piggybacking” on other artists to gain attention.
- Not much money to be made. Because you are performing songs written by other people, you will owe royalties to the copyright holders of the composition. On YouTube, the ContentID system will automatically determine that the song is a cover and—if you do have monetization possible on your channel—you will not be allowed to monetize that cover video. Suffice to say, you will make very little if any money directly from a YouTube cover video. Your best bet for monetization then would be third party or affiliate links in the video description.
- Risk of copyright strikes. With the YouTube ContentID system, the copyright holder of a song has the right to run ads on, block, or copyright strike your cover song video. Most of the time, major label publishers will take the first option: running ads on your video and collecting any money made from them. However, there is a small risk that some publisher will have a no-tolerance policy and give you a copyright strike. It’s essentially pointless to dispute it and if you get three strikes YouTube will permanently ban your entire channel.
So those are just a few ways you can gain traction in your YouTube presence by employing covers. It’s up to you whether they fit into your musical interests or goals. If covers are a path you want to take, be sure to find your own flavor to differentiate yourself on the supermarket shelf that is social media.
Other Articles to Consider
Thanks for reading! If you found this article helpful, here are a few more for your consideration: