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 opportunity—especially 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.
Once HFA grants the license, it’s up to Vogt’s team to re-create the song from scratch. Vogt’s long-time producer gives the song repeated listens to identify its key, the notes of the melody, what instruments are playing, and how to reproduce the exact sounds. If he needs backup vocals, he has a network of session singers across the country who can send in parts virtually. Vogt’s producer can knock out a song like “Royals” in just a few hours—the chart-topping song from New Zealand wunderkind Lorde is just her voice layered over a kick drum, some snaps, and a few other embellishments. But it took several days to unpack the many moving parts of “Thrift Shop,” Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s brassy ode to frugality. “When you get into the Lady Gagas and the Katy Perrys, deciphering what’s going on takes time,” Vogt says.
When the song sells on iTunes, the publishers, who pay the songwriters, usually get about a dime, as determined by the license laws’ statutory rate (Apple's own cut is about a third). The original performers get nothing, unless they have a writing credit. Usually, the performer isn’t missing out on much money—most customers opt for the karaoke cover instead of the original only for rare, particular uses.
In the UK, things are a little different. There, because the charts are based on single sales only, popular songs often have a long lag time between their premieres and their release dates in order to ensure ample promotion time and, hopefully, an impressive chart debut. As a result, there’s actually a history of mimic cover versions becoming hot sellers in the absence of the original. This year, for instance, at least five different versions of Icona Pop’s “I Love It” charted, and in 2012, a cover of Maroon 5’s “Payphone” actually cracked the top 10. The success of the latter was controversial enough that The Telegraph hunted down the label manager behind the song, who promised to swear off such opportunistic releases and return the money he made. (The U.S. isn't immune to this phenomenon, either: As Idolator noted back in 2008, similar covers have reaped significant sales when the originals didn't hit iTunes right away, and the tradition dates back well before the Internet.)
Vogt estimates he has hundreds of competitors in the digital market, but even he’s not entirely sure how many are out there. On iTunes, identical versions of the same karaoke cover are often released with different titles and artwork by generic-sounding record companies that can be difficult to track down, as the The Telegraph and Idolator stories illustrate. Many companies don’t stick around for more than a few years. “I used to try and keep track, and they just come and go all the time,” Vogt says.
Vogt won’t say exactly how much the iTunes covers bring in, other than five figures. That appears to be just a small slice of his company’s total operation—in 2009, Columbus Business First reported that Karaoke Warehouse's annual sales topped more than $10 million with annual growth exceeding 20 percent. But Vogt says iTunes's global stores and the opportunities to sell his digital products internationally make iTunes "a significant portion" of his business.
“We’re bound by our music of the moment, and we all want to participate in it now,” he says. “To me, it’s a crazy cultural phenomenon. They didn’t have that a generation ago. People are out there producing their own creative music and videos. It’s a wonderful thing if you think about it.”