The Strange, Strange World of “Sound Alike” Songs

Is extrememusic.com providing a needed service while exploring songwriting challenges or is it doing something more insidious? Perhaps taking credit for an established artist’s work? You decide…


A couple of weeks ago, I attended a great conference hosted by the folks at HHB Canada where three top-notch TV and film composers talked about their industry. However, the most interesting take-away for me was my introduction to a service that film and TV folks use, known as “Production Music”.

In my day job as a marketing and advertising guy, I’ve used many a stock music track for videos and presentations when the client doesn’t have the budget for a composer to provide a custom score.

The main difference with this service is that it provides “Sound-Alikes” of popular and recognizable songs and artists, among its more generic offerings.

https://www.extrememusic.com/

The service provides music reflecting an “era” or a “mood” or to “sound like” an established artist, when the original TV or film production company doesn’t have the budget to license a track by the original artist. Sometimes the tracks are in the background of a scene.

Take for instance, their version of Queen’s Somebody to love:

The Original:

 

The Sound Alike: Just Belive

 

And this could be an unreleased Queen track: Runaway Train on Extrememusic

They really nailed it. The voice, Freddy Mercury’s approach to melody and chord structure. Wow.

Apparently, after production each track is sent down to a Music PhD fellow in LA who gives an opinion on whether or not the track is “too close” to the original. If it is, he provides recommendations and they go back, make the changes and then publish it. The tracks are even registered with CAPAC.

Initially, it’s fascinating. Going through the catalog one can’t help but admire the care and attention that the creators of the tracks go through to match the mood, sound, production styles, arrangements, playing styles, vocal style and even the lyrical approach of the original artists, while using different chords and melodies.

I would imagine it’s a blast to create these tracks, and a great way to really understand how these brilliant writers and performers did what they did.

But after a while, it gets kinda creepy…

The seem to have lots of U2 styled tracks: (Listen)

Some great Led Zeppelin tracks (Listen)

Even niche bands like The Jam aren’t safe. Take for instance a brilliant song written by the AMAZING Paul WellerThat’s Entertainment

and the Sound Alike: Dreaming of the Weekend on extrememusic.com

Notice how the approach to the arrangement is the same, although not quite. They found a vocalist that even sounds like Paul Weller (although, who wouldn’t want to sound like Paul Weller?).

Type in your favourite artist in the search field and you’ll find (although not the first result interestingly enough) tracks that sound like that artist. Sometimes disturbingly close.

And it gets stranger.

This isn’t done is some basement sweat-shop in Asia somewhere, but in some of the top recording studios on the planet – and often with the same producers who had a hand in the originals. I wonder if this is a sign of how much harder it is to make money in the industry these days that these titans of production need (want?) to do this (although it’s probably pretty fun for folks at their level – trying to nail down that Motown drum sound).

Even the immortal Sir George Martin is there. Listen and weep as he (said with the upmost of respect) rips off his own work:

The Beatles (Tax Man I think)

 

Beautiful Day on extreamemusic.com

and another:

Be with You on extrememusic.com

I asked the rep on the site if the original artist gets any royalties for the tracks. They replied that “they work with producers and composers to create original tracks in various ‘genres’, so they don’t provide any royalties to the artists as they don’t copy them”. If that’s true I’m not sure why they send stuff to that LA guy.

Now, I’m no stranger to thinking about intellectual property, music and copyright. Back in the 90’s I was in a band called “Surface Noise” where we’d sample popular tracks and then recombine them into something new. We’d sample tracks containing previously sampled tracks (like sampling MC Hammers “Can’t touch this” which contains a sample from Rick James “Superfreak”). We’d explore how deep you could go sampling samples; where does an original idea start and end and a new work begin? What makes something “recognizable” in a cultural and emotional sense?

Sampling something that wasn’t “recognizable” (and therefore not carrying any cultural relevance) wouldn’t work as it just sounds like a new work. Sample “Woodstock” by Joni Mitchel however, and you’ve brought along a whole level of cultural, emotional and historical baggage that can be referenced in the new work. Of course, included at the end our CD (and limited run of 8-Track Tapes) were tracks of soloed our original vocals, original guitar tracks and beats so others could sample us.

But this is quite different.

The only way anyone can “communicate an era” or a “mood” with a piece of music, is if the original art permeated the culture to a point where it can act as an emotional, intellectual and emotional shorthand to that era or mood. And that’s not easy. (And perhaps from this point on from a mass-cultural standpoint, impossible).

It’s one thing to make something “sound like the Beatles” – like in the brilliant “The Ruttles: All you need is cash” movie:

But it’s quite another to create a work with the intent that someone doesn’t have to purchase the original work and yet get its benefits.

After all, the only way to make someone think they’re hearing a Queen song is after Queen toured for many years, recorded, produced numerous hits and worked to make that sound “recognizable”.

The creators of these sound-alike songs are far more talented and successful than I’ll ever be, and I do admire the care of the endeavor as well as the final result (and it IS quite fun to listen to). But to be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about all this, although in the end it all feels a bit “off” somehow. But I could be completely on the wrong side here.

What do you think? Is this copying or just a reference to the originals?

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