What Is A Cover

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From Wikipedia: "In pop music a cover version is a new rendition of a previously recorded song".

In MusicBrainz covers are recorded with an AdvancedRelationship using the CoverRelationshipType. The question that this page deals with is how we should define a cover. There seem to be two possibilities:

  • "The Rules" from the CoversProject, which are objective and clear, but somehow technocratic: The simple rule is that the first person to release a song is considered the "original". (see below for more details)
  • Less restrictive rules that would really try to model what recording was the version that served as a model for a cover. This is initially subjective and might be unclear. However, if we state how common/official the opinion is that song A is a cover of song B, then we have again a neutral point of view.

The system for linking cover versions proposed on AdvancedRelationships seems to cover only a subset of use cases and calls for subjective decisions that complicate the moderation process. Some kind of wider, less specific and direction-less link between all versions of a song would seem more appropriate.

The two key problems are identifying the "original" track and the subtly different problem of deciding who covers who.

Some odd cases:

  • A singer/songwriter releasing a version of their own tune made famous by someone else (either before or afterwards). Does Carole King singing The Locomotion really cover Little Eva? Does the reverse make any more sense? Does this disqualify it from being a cover?
  • Someone covering a cover, either when the way the song is played obviously refers to a specific version that is not "the original" as in the case of someone covering All Along the Watchtower by Jimi Hendrix, or when someone covers a song ignorant of the fact that it, in turn was a cover. Are you covering both artists, or just one? If only one, then which?
  • Folk or blues standards may have an original that predates recording technology or whose original authors have been forgotten. Which version is the original is this case?
  • Artists releasing two versions of the same song. If they differ is one a cover of the other? What if they are nearly, but not quite, identical? What if the song has been covered in the meantime? What if the second version is done in the style popularized by the cover of the original?
  • Motown often had different artists try material, sometimes adding their own stamp, sometimes not. How many versions of Heard It Through the Grapevine are referencing the Gladys Knight version that preceded Marvin Gaye's into the charts?

Using the rules from the CoversProject cases like these can be decided objectively: Their simple rule is that the first person to release a song is considered the "original". Case in point: apparently Danzig wrote a song ("Thirteen") which Johnny Cash released in 1994. In 1999, Danzig also recorded the song, so technically (for the purpose of The CoversProject) they covered a Johnny Cash song that happened to have been written by themselves.

The problem with this (and a few of the other problem cases listed above) is, I think, that "to cover" a song means slightly more than do "a version of" or it does to me at least. I think it suggests some kind of link between the band and the named version, rather than song A is the first released version of song B. (Note that if the first version released is considered important, which I think that it is to a certain degree, then this can/should be calculated by the Database from release date info, rather than being redundantly stored as part of the relationship and creating possible data inconsistancies)