The Spotify Cover Game

by Bob Schwartz

Note: Two online music services launched in 2006, one in Palo Alto, California, one in Stockholm, Sweden. Both shared a vision of offering on-demand, track-by-track access to streaming music. Lala, the American service, was a simple and usable platform. It was offered free, and was based on an evolving business model that had something to do with future subscriptions and music sales. It was a wonder. In 2009, Apple bought the company, possibly to integrate the platform into a future streaming service of its own. That vapor service never materialized and, instead, Apple killed Lala.

At the same time, Spotify was developing its own more sophisticated service in Europe. Music licensing held up its introduction in America until 2011. Lala lovers, still smarting from its demise, have to admit that Spotify is indeed everything Lala was and more. Spotify is flourishing, though it still has to prove the viability of its business model, but we enjoy it while it lasts. Maybe Apple will buy it and kill it too. Sorry—still a little bitter.

Spotify has changed the way we listen to music. What music lovers hoped would happen in the future happened: Click on a track, there it is on your computer. The future is here.

Spotify enables a lot of listener creativity and sharing. There are thousands of playlists created and available. Of course, commercial media, artists, and labels are drawn to popular platforms like moths to flame, and there are now plenty of those generated playlists too.

Spotify also allows unlimited exploration and discovery. Among the unique paths is what might be called the Spotify Cover Game. You can choose any song and listen to nearly every version of it ever recorded, minus the small number still unlicensed and unavailable.

The Spotify Cover Game is fun and educational. To try it, take any popular song from any era. Search for the track, and the results will list all—sometimes dozens—of the recorded versions from different artists.

To demonstrate, Mad Men fans might pick The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows from Revolver. (For non-Mad Men fans, this is the track that in a recent episode young and sexy Megan Draper plays for her older and sexy husband Don Draper to introduce him to the Beatles in 1966.)

Here is a very partial list of artists you can hear performing Tomorrow Never Knows on Spotify:

Phil Collins
Junior Parker
Jimi Hendrix
Michael Hedges
Danielle Dax
The Pink Fairies
Cowboy Mouth
Wayne Krantz
Living Colour
Tangerine Dream
The Mission UK
Dwight Twilley
Herbie Hancock & Dave Matthews
Dweezil Zappa
Grateful Dead
Phil Manzanera

The proof of the song is in the covers, and Tomorrow Never Knows doesn’t fail. Whether vocals or instrumental only, it pushes artists to rise to the occasion as they aspire to recreate a cultural milestone.

Best: Herbie Hancock and Dave Matthews. A surprise, given the competition from Jimi Hendrix, Living Colour, and others, and given that neither Hancock nor Matthews are noted for this kind of psychedelia.

Worst: Grateful Dead, hands down. They are noted for their psychedelia, but in this particular live version from a 1992 concert in Oakland, the vocals are literally unlistenable and the music isn’t all that great either. Probably better the next night or if you were really high.

Most Interesting: Legendary bluesman Junior Parker, who recorded it as part of a Beatles album. His smooth and full-bodied voice is in stark contrast to the usual ethereal takes. Accompanied by a spare arrangement of hypnotic bass with a touch of guitar and keyboard, this is a perfect realization and transformation of the original. One of the most interesting Beatles covers ever.

In addition to hearing the multiple ways that the strongest songs are treated, the SCG—and Spotify itself—is about serendipity, the exploration and discovery of unheard artists and tracks. The Hancock/Matthews track, for example, is from a 2010 collection of collaborative covers called The Imagine Project (containing Imagine, but it’s not a Beatles-only collection). There you will find a cover of the Peter Gabriel-Kath Bush anthem of hope in hard times, Don’t Give Up, with John Legend and P!nk performing. Nearly (only nearly) as good as the original, it is mesmerizing, heartbreaking, and uplifting at the same time:

No fight left or so it seems
I am a man whose dreams have all deserted
I’ve changed my face, I’ve changed my name
But no one wants you when you lose…

Moved on to another town
Tried hard to settle down
For every job, so many men
So many men no one needs

Don’t give up
’cause you have friends
Don’t give up
You’re not the only one
Don’t give up
No reason to be ashamed
Don’t give up
You still have us
Don’t give up now
We’re proud of who you are
Don’t give up
You know it’s never been easy
Don’t give up
’cause I believe there’s a place
There’s a place where we belong

That’s the Spotify Cover Game. Try it. Enjoy. Explore. Discover. And don’t give up.