The State of the Cover Address, 2010

By Chris Moore:

Greetings, my fellow musicians and music lovers.  I come before you tonight in the form of an actual blog post, airing my thoughts and feelings for the Internet to read.  Take them for what they are.

Ever since Jeff’s Eagles cover songs posted on YouTube were tagged for copyright infringement, I’ve been increasingly interested — and concerned — about the state of the acoustic cover song.  Now that I’ve been hit for alleged infringement by corporate superpower Sony Music, I find myself having a personal stake in this debate:

Should it be — and, perhaps a more pressing question: is it — illegal to post acoustic cover song music videos on YouTube?

I’d like to start at the beginning.  A cover song is a performance by one singer/musician of another songwriter’s composition.  For as long as there has been music, there have been covers.  It is through cover songs that we learn how to play guitar, not to mention how we feel out our own songwriting styles and preferences.  Cover songs provide an avenue for us to explore our influences in a very personal manner, as we must take in every nuance from the original performance, decide which work for us and which do not, and attempt to recreate the song in a way that is fitting to our own abilities.

Finally — and this is where the legality of it all comes in — cover songs are what listeners are often interested in before they listen to the original music of a new songwriter.

The members of the Laptop Sessions music blog have spent countless hours preparing for and playing shows at bars, restaurants, fairs, and other venues at which we would have loved to play all original music.  However, most promoters and managers required that we bring songs that were more well-known to their customers.  Thus, we set out to learn some of our favorite rock songs — the standards, in most cases, from mainstays like the Beatles, Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, and others.  Although we made money here or there, even this was never for profit.  Over the years, considerably more money has gone into these ventures than we have ever seen in return.

No, and perhaps this is a point that multi-million dollar attractions like the Eagles and Bob Dylan have forgotten, the point was never to make money.  The point was to perform in front of an audience, to have our music heard, and to practice with the intent to become better musicians, songwriters, and performers.  This desire naturally progressed into Jim’s conception and development of the Fusco-Moore blog, better known now as the Laptop Sessions acoustic cover song music video blog.  Week after week since its 2007 inception, the Laptop Sessions performers have chosen songs that they loved, practiced them tirelessly, run through multiple performances until a satisfactory recording could be captured, and posted a textual component to augment the video, explaining trivia about the song, as well as commenting on the quality of the song (such as why we feel it has been underrated, forgotten, honored for good reason, etc.).

The point is that our cover songs have been labors of love.

(At this point, I will highlight the fact that I speak only for myself by switching to the first person singular, but I do believe the other contributors would agree, at least to a degree.)

Although I hoped that people would naturally gravitate toward my original music if they liked my cover song performances, it was never a necessary component.  I haven’t sold even one track since I started contributing to the Laptop Sessions 192 original and cover song music videos ago: if profit were my intention, I would have stopped months and probably years ago.

These cover song performances have allowed me to study a variety of songwriting styles at close range, artists as wide-ranging as Bob Dylan to Pearl Jam, Tegan and Sara to the Lovin’ Spoonful, and even, most recently, Pink.  The experiences I’ve had have fueled my commentary and criticism in my blog posts, as well as the direction my interests have gone, most directly affecting the CD’s I buy (yes, corporate music labels, we are among the few people still buying music in legal CD and vinyl formats on a very regular basis).

Which brings me back to the present.  Last week, I was hit with a copyright infringement notice from YouTube that was brought against me by Sony Music on behalf of Bob Dylan.  Why my cover of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” was chosen among my other Dylan covers, I can’t be certain, but I’m sure that more allegations are on the way.  It would appear that my only recourse is to file an official DMCA counter-notification.  Before I do this (and sign my name to the promise that “I consent to the jurisdiction of the Federal District Court for the district in which my address is located, or if my address is outside of the United States, the judicial district in which YouTube is located, and will accept service of process from the claimant.”), I want to be certain of what the law states.  While I agree with Jim’s reading of the fair use provision in Section 107 of the Copyright Act of 1976, I have also found legal forums where members disagree with our reading and proclaim cover song music videos to be a violation of copyright.

My correspondence with the YouTube Copyright Team has thus far only yielded a reply in which they simply copied and pasted text from their FAQ section, but I have restated my email to be clearer.

Essentially, I want to know (and have asked) if acoustic cover song music videos posted for non-profit, personal use on YouTube are in fact illegal.

When I receive a reply, I will add it here.

Until then, I am left frustrated by the irony of Bob Dylan — Sony Music, technically, but in the name of Bob Dylan — attempting to intimidate me out of posting cover songs on YouTube.  This is the same Dylan who earned a living, albeit a meager one, playing covers in Greenwich Village in the early sixties.  This is the same Dylan accused in the interviews of multiple friends from that period of literally stealing music, lifting vinyl from various people’s collections.  This is the same Dylan who has built his early respect and his contemporary catalog on the foundations of the music of the past.

Why has he not been shunned, brought to court, or otherwise attacked?  Because anyone who cares to look more closely at these aspects knows he has undertaken each of these actions in the name of honing his craft, experiencing and adding to his influences, and continuing to create thought-provoking, entertaining performances.

He is my acoustic, folk, rock, and just plain music role model, and frankly I am left with a sour feeling in the pit of my stomach as I obsessively review the censure I have received from YouTube, staring at my hundreds of dollars of Dylan music and merchandise and wondering how such an insignificant figure in the music industry as myself could be perceived as such a threat, such a criminal, by the establishment.

I await an answer from YouTube.