How Leveraging Old Music Can Save New Music

If you follow the music industry discussion at all, I’m sure you saw the article by Ted Gioia “Is Old Music Killing New Music?,” or at least the discussion about it.  If you are putting new music out on streamers, this is an important topic for you to understand not just to stay informed about the industry, but to help you make decisions for your personal career.

First, let’s define what we’re talking about. Old music is normally called “Catalog,” and this refers to a song or album put out 18 months ago or older. New music, sometimes referred to as “New Release” or “Frontline,” is music released within the last 18 months. You can already see the problem. If I say catalog music is outperforming new music, am I talking about a song from 2 years ago, 10 years ago, or like, The Beatles from 50 years ago, and then some?

The thrust of the argument and article is based on data from MRC Data—formerly Nielsen SoundScan—which shows that old music (catalog) represents 70% of the current music market in terms of streaming and consumption. Basically, only 30% of all streams are of new releases less than 18 months old.

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That looks bad, right? Well, not so fast.

Again, when you see “catalog,” your mind may go to OLD PEOPLE music, and not just music that is nearly 2 years old, the data certainly does not break that out. For instance. I am listening to “Trouble’s Coming” from Royal Blood as I write this. This is off the album they are touring right now in 2022. It’s not old. It’s their newest release. But technically, this song came out in September 2020. So, it’s catalog! Also, a quick look at Spotify’s Top 20 most streamed songs will show you that minus 2 songs from Ed Sheeran in 2014, every other song has only been out for 5 years or less. In fact, in the whole list of 100 most streamed songs of all time, the vast majority have been released since 2015, and only one song was released more than 10 or 11 years ago. That song is Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” from 1975. That’s right, no Beatles, or Floyd, or Zeppelin, or Stones.

So, the assumption that younger people are just listening to “old” music is kind of misleading. Older music? Yes. But not OLD music. Why? Because we have known those artists and songs for longer, because they’ve been seeded to multiple playlists, because we love those songs, because the production still sounds great.

The other point the article makes is equating drastically falling Grammy viewership with less interest in new music. Listen, I’m a Grammy voter, and even I know that’s bullshit. It’s because the show sucks. It’s because it’s become less inclusive, and the process is deemed unfair. I actually think the Grammys have less importance because there is so much independent music on the rise not controlled by major labels or subs.  Also, if you’re not “in” the industry, there is no way you sit through Geico ads on CBS on a Sunday night to see a bunch of Country artists, then alt-rock, and then Latin artists, when all you care about is hip-hop, or vice versa. But I digress.

Here’s where we get to you, dear artist. What should you do? Well, when was your last release? I bet you are technically catalog now, too!

This particular debate aside, regardless of what the actual numbers are, the fact is that people do listen to older music because it’s familiar, and they know it works for the mood they want to get in. The grander fact is that algorithms will serve fans music with higher stream counts that also “sound” like—and are grouped with–other popular music. Put that together with how SEO and search works, and you can see why your brand-new song might get lost in the shuffle of the 60,000 new tracks put out a day — coupled with all of the older music people are listening to right now.

So, does new music matter? Yes. Does older music matter more? Kinda.

But any song you put out right now, this week, will eventually become older music – and quicker than you think. Hell, most of my label’s new artist campaigns take six months for the lead single. So, you have to play the game. The biggest part of that game is using techniques to drive new listeners and potential fans of what you do to your profiles to even have a shot at them taking a chance on your new release. Sure, some of those techniques are ads, or paying for playlists, guerilla marketing, but what if it was organically through you just doing what you love to do?

Here’s what you really need to know: doing covers is cool again. Seriously. There is zero downside to your doing covers as a way to get people into your new or older music. It showcases your talent, your style, and your taste. So, get over the mental block and make a plan. There are many musicians/artists using this as their only strategy. Rain Paris is a great example – I’m a fan. Check out her YouTube. She covers newly released pop hits as rock/metal versions in her own style and consistently runs 200k views in the first week. Many of her videos on YouTube and stream counts on Spotify are well into the millions. Millions. How many of your original tracks have millions? You can do this exact thing with video or not, and you absolutely should.

Because of compulsory mechanical licenses, you can basically cover any song that has ever been released and put it out as your own version. As long as you don’t add new words or change it drastically, you can do so without any permission. You don’t make anything on the publishing side of the song in terms of royalties, but you do make all of the master side, which is basically where all the money is in streams. So, take advantage of bands that your fans already like and cover them.

No need to just cover every new single by the latest mumble rapper. Set out to release one cover a month. Record them in batches. Mix it up, sometimes do a full production, maybe take a metal song and just do piano and vocals, take an emo song and make it an ‘80s version. Get creative but make it in your style so that fans who come across it will naturally want to check out what you’ve written.  It’s not that daunting if you break it up. You can do interpretations of your favorites from decades back. You should aim to do mostly hits, but absolutely do some deep cuts too.

If you feel comfortable doing the licensing yourself, use Harry Fox Agency/Songfile and do the licensing yourself for about .091 cents a copy if you do a physical release like vinyl, CD, or (hey now!) cassette. If you just do digital streams, put in 100 streams. You will still have to pay a $16 fee to HFA.

However, if you use Distrokid, they do all the licensing for you once you enter in the artist and writer’s names and they pay everyone for just $12 per year per song. (here’s my discount code:  http://distrokid.com/vip/stjames) Now, your cover will go to every single streamer under your artist profile. If you do 12 covers a year, that’s $120 and you only need about 3,000 streams per song to break even. But the listeners and fans you’ll gain is well worth the money.

When fans search that song of their favorite artist, they just may click your version. Plus, there are tons of playlists dedicated to covers. This will increase your monthly listeners and subscribers. It also means that your cover will be available to use on TikTok as a sound. You don’t need to do anything to put it on YouTube (in most cases). But I suggest releasing through Distrokid and then uploading to YouTube to make sure Content ID picks it up correctly. No need for some killer shot video (although, that sells you as a personality and artist), you can do an album cover or lyric video, or use a graphic from Unsplash for free. Just get it out there.

Here’s another bonus of this strategy: as a music supervisor, we often have to fulfill cover song requests because some older artists/labels are so expensive to clear on the master side even though the publishing is cleared. So, this is why you will hear haunting covers used in trailers or TV often – it’s flat-out cheaper. Now, you can play in that sync game too just by having another cover version out there.

So, is old music killing new music? No. In fact, if done right, it just might save it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

-Michael St. James is the founder and creative director of St. James Media, specializing in music licensing, publishing, production and artist development.

Main Image: “Spotify” by Johan Larsson is licensed under a Creative Commo ns 2.0 license.

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