What Are All These 'Karaoke Versions' Doing in My Spotify Search Results?

Recording solo-free covers of hit songs is a surprisingly lucrative business for some companies these days, and becoming their competitor is easier than you might think.
Flickr / Mark Voy

If you've ever gone on iTunes or Spotify and searched for a particular pop song—let’s say Katy Perry’s grandma-friendly “Roar”—you’re likely familiar with the experience of finding both the original song and more than 100 imitations of it, none of which are actually performed by Katy Perry.

Often, a few of these “Roar” copycats will sound like old MIDI cell-phone ringtones; other clones, meanwhile, resemble laborious studio productions. Many are “karaoke editions”—instrumental covers, sometimes with limited background vocals—while some are near-identical renditions belted by nameless vocalists. So where do all these off-brand versions come from?

Well, at least one of them likely belongs to Rick Vogt, who, along with his brother, Doug, has run the Ohio-based Karaoke Warehouse for more than 20 years. The Vogts rent out and sell equipment, produce CDs of karaoke versions for aspiring American idols, and in recent years, as digital music sales have risen, they've been releasing those covers online.

Karaoke in public usually takes place in a bar full of strangers, or in a small, dark, rented room where only your friends can hear you belt out Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn.” But in the era of iTunes and YouTube, plugged-in creative types have found new uses for living-room karaoke tracks, which means entrepreneurs like the Vogts have spotted an opportunityespecially as getting licenses to sell such covers is easier than ever. “Last summer it was ‘Call Me Maybe,’ this summer it was ‘Blurred Lines,’ and next summer it’s gonna be something else,” Vogt says. “As long as the song is popular, there’s a really good chance that someone will want to sing it.”

The covers Vogt and others sell on iTunes don’t come with lyrics, visuals, or the full three-drinks-in, inhibitions-be-damned karaoke experience, but that’s not what customers are after. Pageant performers and hopeful singers will use the tracks as audition material or for talent competitions; other artists study bare-bones versions to learn the notes and chords for their own arrangements; wannabe YouTube stars often record webcam covers seeking a Bieber-like moment of discovery. If you’ve ever watched a “Blurred Lines” parody video—of which there are no shortage—it’s also easy to see how these instrumentals are crucial to the viral web ecosystem, as three New Zealand law students discovered when their feminist Robin Thicke take-down made headlines. “I was trying to figure out if they used mine!” Vogt says of the track.

Matching a karaoke cover with lyrics and visuals requires Vogt to work directly with the songs’ publishers, who represent the songwriters, to obtain the appropriate licenses. But were you to decide to embark on your own quest for karaoke fame, your right to record a regular cover, with or without vocals, wouldn’t require such approval—it’s protected by law. Below, the Harry Fox Agency, which represents music publishers and manages licenses, explains:

Under the U.S. Copyright Act, the right to use copyrighted, non-dramatic musical works in the making of phonorecords for distribution to the public for private use is the exclusive right of the copyright owner. However, the Act provides that once a copyright owner has recorded and distributed such a work to the U.S. public or permitted another to do so, a compulsory mechanical license is available to anyone else who wants to record and distribute the work in the U.S. upon the payment of license fees at the statutory "compulsory" rate as set forth in Section 115 of the Act.

In plain English: You can’t sell Katy Perry’s “Roar” as your own, obviously, but once she’s peddling her track, you can apply for what’s called a mechanical license to cover it and sell your interpretation to people for their own use. To release it as a Spotify stream, an iTunes download, or even as a limited run of actual discs, you just register as a licensee with the Harry Fox Agency, use their online database to find the songs you want to cover, pay small per-song processing fees, and boom—you’re immediately on your way to becoming a viral YouTube karaoke star.

“You click it, and you’re done,” says Maurice Russell, senior vice president of client services at HFA, which issues the majority of mechanical licenses in the U.S. Mechanical licenses used to only be necessary for releasing CDs, he adds, but the advent of digital downloads and streaming services—and these companies’ desire to cover as many hits as possible—has led to a spike in the number of requests coming though. “In terms of the volume of licenses we process, they’ve gone from, when I started 11 years ago, hundreds of thousands to tens of millions,” Russell says.

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Nolan Feeney is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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