Wake The Town
Stuck in Motion
Contemplative Reptile
  • International Edition
  • USA Edition
  • UK Edition
  • Australian Edition
  • Canadian Edition
  • Irish Edition
  • German Edition
  • French Edition
  • Singapore Edition
  • Spanish edition
  • Polish edition
  • Indian Edition
  • Middle East edition
  • South African Edition

The Key to the Perfect Commercial Cover Song


Some of the industry’s top musicians speak to LBB’s Josh Neufeldt about reworking classic tunes, critical pitfalls to avoid, and how a well-done cover can add entirely new dimensions to a body of work

The Key to the Perfect Commercial Cover Song

Who doesn’t love a good cover song? After all, a fresh take on a fan favourite can truly be a joy to listen to. Whether it’s an homage or a re-imagining, the novelty of hearing a new form of creative expression around something already well-loved never really wears off, and often, it creates a resurgence of strong appreciation for the original material. 

Of course, that all relies on the assumption that the cover is good. While we won’t be naming and shaming today, it’s fair to say that a bad cover sticks out like a sore thumb, and leaves an impression for a very, very long period of time. So, how does one avoid this? And, more importantly, how does one actually strike commercial gold, connecting with the audience instantly, while also cutting costs in the process? 

To learn the answer, LBB’s Josh Neufeldt sat down with Squeak E Clean Studios executive creative director Rob Barbato, Eclectic Music director/composer Simon Elms, Mophonics creative director Steph Altman, Grayson Music Group's music and voice director Ali Willa Milner and music supervisor Warren Bray, SixtyFour senior producer and music supervisor Julianne Wilson, Yessian Music partner and CCO Brian Yessian, South Music creative director/partner Dan Pritikin, MAS co-founder/president James Alvich, Good Ear Music Supervision music supervisor Danielle Toporoff, BUTTER Music and Sound composer Josh Canevari, Jingle Punks executive creative director Matt Chambless, and BETC music creative director Adam Ghoubali.

Rob Barbato 
Executive creative director at Squeak E Clean Studios

When you get the chance to cover a great song, the first thing you should do is make it your own, whether that is through the reharmonisation of the chord progression, a change in the feel or time signature, or a tweaking of the melody. Through drastic or more surgical changes, you can breathe life into a song and avoid the dreaded ‘karaoke’ or ‘sound-alike’ labels, which not only lack creativity, but can also land you into some legal grey areas.

On Canon’s ‘Inspired’, I took the public domain song ‘Beautiful Dreamer’, which was first published in 1864, and updated it into a more modern indie-folk arrangement. Here is where the music nerd in me comes out. The first thing I did was change the metre from a waltz in 3/4 to a 4/4 feel in the drums, making it feel less ‘old-timey’. The vocals are in a 6/4 phrasing, creating a polyrhythm and subtle odd time signature feel. The icing on the cake was Rachel Fannan’s stellar vocals to make this a more of a match for the film - really driving the commercial with a more current aesthetic.

Simon Elms
Director/composer at Eclectic 

Re-recording a well-known track has always been a favourite advertising strategy. It’s a great formula; bask in the glory of a famous piece and all of the related emotional triggers it already possesses, but then also make it your own by giving it the spin that resonates perfectly with that brand. It’s something that John Lewis has made into an art form. Its success has resulted in an avalanche of ‘style-alikes’ for numerous other campaigns… So much so that I think we’re all now beginning to get a bit weary of the overly emotional, slowed down, simply arranged, usually vocalised by a young female Brit, classic re-record. 

For me, re-records are a fantastic vehicle for humour. I was brought up in the ‘70s - a time when re-records were a plenty. Cadburys ‘Everyone’s a Fruit and Nutcase’ sung to the tune of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker’ was a classic, as was R White’s Lemonade’s rendition of ‘I’m a Secret Lemonade Drinker’, purported to be an original composition… but I’m not sure Elvis would have agreed. As a composer, I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved in a few humorous re-records. One of the first jobs I ever worked on (in the ‘90s) was a trip hop cover of ‘Won't You Stay’ for Boddingtons Brewery, featuring Melanie Sykes. They were a great series of adverts, even though the formula was always the same. They would start out as cool, sophisticated, beautifully styled out intros, and end in a cacophony of ‘by eck’ Mancunian buffoonery. Trip hopping such a camp ‘60s classic was a really interesting reinterpretation. 

Later, we worked on a rework of Pete Rodriguez’s ‘I Like It Like That’ for Orangina. The idea was simple: take this classic ‘60s boogaloo/Latin track, rework it into a sophisticated jazz piece, and then segue into a full four on the floor club version. The ad itself was even odder - a 90-second orgy of animated pornographic animals throwing Orangina over each other. 

More recently we were asked to do an ‘80s Latin American version of ‘I Predict A Riot’ for the feature doc, ‘Kaiser’, which was bizarrely picked up by ‘The Craig Charles Funk and Soul Show’ and has since had over 75,000 hits on Spotify (Os Planatos). It’s success was due to the fact that it was such a strange juxtaposition - freedom that a re-record can offer.

To sum up, none of this has to be that difficult. A simple lyric change can make all the difference. One of my favourite recent re-record experiences came from working on Vanarama’s reinterpretation of En Vogue’s, ‘Whatta Man’, reworked to the lyrics ‘Whatta Van, Whatta Van, Whatta Van, Whatta Mighty Fine Van’. Old school, simple, perfect!

Steph Altman 
Creative director at Mophonics

Some of my absolute favourite commercial work has come from doing covers. We all have these classic songs bouncing around our heads - they’re part of the tapestry of our lives - so it’s really satisfying for a well-loved story to be retold. But, it also means you have to tell it well, and make sure your vocalist is able to win over the listener, because the bar is high.

Carbon-copy remakes often scream ‘this brand didn’t have the money for the original!’. Having said that, faithful remakes of American songbook classics can be great. Many years ago we covered Sinatra’s ‘Mr. Success’ for a Visa spot, and because most ‘40s/’50s songs were recorded by many different artists, we had freedom to legitimately sound like a long-forgotten recording from the Capitol Studios vaults (as long as nobody mistook the singer for Sinatra). More recently we did a similar thing with Peggy Lee’s ‘It’s A Good Day’ for Trulia.

American songbook aside, I prefer covers to be a departure from the version that everyone knows. It can be a privilege to work with these exalted pieces of pop culture, but you have to do so with immense love and care. When making a cover of ‘Manic Monday’, I kept thinking that Prince wrote it, and I couldn’t help but be inspired by that. And, our vocalist added a ton of warmth to the piece; it felt like she belonged in the spot. The result? It ended up being one that got people on YouTube, looking for the full-length version.

For me, the best challenge is when the work needs a cover to be totally re-imagined. We did a lovely Christmas spot for Facebook about a kid who doesn’t want Grandpa to go home, and we proposed a cover of The Jackson 5’s ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’. Since Rachel McDonald's film demanded something warm, cosy and wintry, we wrote a completely un-motown piano and strings arrangement of the song that only reveals itself towards the end. I love that ‘stealth’ approach: that someone might not fully realise what they’re listening to at first, go ‘Ohhh it’s that song!’, and then want to re-watch the spot.

Ali Willa Milner
Music and voice director at Grayson Music Group

Landing on a song to cover is more than half the battle, and an exciting adventure in and of itself. Depending on your goals, you’ll typically be looking for recognisability. A nice rule of thumb is that if it’s a song you can hum or half sing to someone and they’ll recognise it, you’re in a great place for that. Songs that have more than one hook (a lyrical hook, an instrumental hook, a melodic hook, or even a hooky percussion element, etc.) that you can pull from are also a great start for covers. It then allows you to reimagine a number of elements, while still being able to lean on familiar melodies to maintain recognisability. Budget and willingness of the original artist are, of course, huge factors as well, and so leaning on a great music supervisor to help guide you on all of the above is crucial.

Beyond that, my opinion is that when creating a cover, it should feel totally re-imagined. Creativity should be flexed! The original is a hit for a reason and can’t be matched, so why try to? Attempting anything close to it will make your cover feel subpar, so bringing new textures to the instrumentation, and perhaps utilising a voice that brings a very different tone and timbre to the song, is pivotal. Get creative by having the human voice sing what used to be an instrumental hook, or vice versa. Think outside of the box!

Finally, when re-imagining a well known song, don’t stop at swapping out sounds or pulling in a wildly different voice. Exploring a new tempo or entirely stripped back production could reveal a brand new takeaway or feeling from a song’s lyrics. Grayson’s cover of ‘Higher Love’ is a great example of discovering a new feeling. By drastically dropping our tempo and supporting the topline with simplified production, we found the warmth the campaign needed. 

Julianne Wilson
Senior producer and music supervisor at SixtyFour Music

Covers can breathe new life into a classic tune. The key to tracking down a great existing cover is to reach out to the publisher of the composition, as they tend to have lots of master recordings of their songs on hand, and are a great resource if you want to explore high quality existing options. Creating your own arrangement, however, allows you to actively choose whose voice you’d like to deliver your message with, and it gives you the freedom to cherry pick appropriate lyrics and create a structure that supports the visuals of the spot.

One pitfall that should be avoided is creating a sound-alike to the original master recording, in order to cut down on costs. The original rights holders of the song need to grant approval in order for a cover to be used, and if the cover sounds too close to the original, they may not approve it. Plus, using or creating a cover gives you the chance to tell a story in a new and fresh way. To try and copy the original recording instead of putting a fresh spin on a song is a missed opportunity for creative excellence! 

An example of a cover I was proud to have a hand in is Photay and Madison McFerrin’s contemporary, colourful, and impeccably scored arrangement of Johnny Mercer’s ‘Dream’ (made famous by Etta James). This modern reinterpretation of a classic was produced in partnership with Droga5 for Accenture’s award winning spot, ‘Bubbles’.

Brian Yessian 
Partner and CCO at Yessian Music 

One of the very first and most important aspects of the cover creation process is identifying the right song for the brand. Is there a lyrical connection to the brand or message? Is there an artist connection to the brand? (Because they will become part of that brand representation). Is there a theme or style that connects to the brand? These aspects play a role in overall brand messaging.   

The financial aspect of creating a cover can play a big part, especially when you want to be as close as possible to the original style and intent of the song. Brands can benefit from cost savings with the combination of equity and original style of a well known song. However, the idea of developing an original creative POV in a completely new music style - one that connects with the concept and brand - can lead to an even deeper impact. In turn, this creates two forms of equity: the familiarity of the song, and the creation of a bespoke music arrangement that not only connects to the brand, but gives the brand a unique ownership in the rearranged music style.  

This is where the real magic is. It’s about creating an original cover of a song that is the first of its kind, and is completely customised to represent the concept and tell the story. An example of this is a PSA project centred around gun violence and an 11-year-old girl by the name of Layla Salazar who was killed in the Uvalde shootings. The music concept was centred around a new arrangement of ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ by Guns N’ Roses. This song was ‘owned’ by Layla because she and her father would sing it every morning on their way to school. Partnering with the Detroit Youth Choir and Imagination, the song was completely rearranged as a wholly unique choral version (together with original rap lyrics), not only telling the story of gun violence, but telling Layla’s personal story in an effort to create deeper meaning and focus on this tragedy. That is the power of a well-executed cover song.

Dan Pritikin 
Creative director/partner at SOUTH Music

A known track has power. There is an emotional connection that exists long before the audience ever hears a reimagined execution. So, the best covers manage to play these pre-existing emotions like an instrument themselves. They can re-acquaint a listener with something long since lost deep in their memory, and/or challenge them to re-contextualise a piece as it plays a crucial role in telling a visual story - one that an original composition sometimes can’t. 

Having a hand in choosing a track to cover allows us another avenue to stretch our creativity, and helps us guide the client to avoid certain clichés, like using a track that’s a little overexposed, or pursuing an execution that’s getting tired (see: pretty much every movie and video game trailer from the last 15 years). 

Examples of this done properly can be seen in our recent work for ‘Call of Duty’, where we contemporised the classic military ‘Sound Off’ chant, and our Italian language cover of ‘Iko Iko’ for Peroni. But maybe the best example of how a cover can add a totally new dimension to a campaign was our Target ‘Back to School’ work. With that one, we counted on the audience to be able to recognise classic pieces as they were performed without vocals - only using children’s instruments. Perhaps ironically, it’s the music from that campaign that stands out as the most memorable part, which simply wouldn’t have been the case if they were not covers, and covers done well at that.

James Alvich 
Co-founder/president at MAS-Music and Strategy

There are so many variables that come into play to determine why a brand wants to use a cover song. One of those variables is whether they want to cover a well-known, recognisable track, or cover something that's lesser known, but a great song.

When MAS-Music and Strategy was asked to create a cover for Aerie's 2023 spring campaign, we first had to figure out the campaign's goal and creative needs. As you can see, the spot has a psychedelic aspect, so when music supervisor Caitlin Russell went out to find the perfect track to cover, she had to consider all the creative asks. After finding Günter Kallman Choir’s ‘Daydream’, which is a lesser-known song, we had to create a track that complemented the visuals but had unique and ownable qualities to it. As you can hear, we went with a more modern sound to the original song; this unique element helps distinguish the brand and its message and demonstrates its creativity and innovation. 

Our work with Lincoln is another great example of using a well-known song to create something ownable but iconic. The creative was self-explanatory, but they wanted something very different while using the iconic nature of the track. Putting the original version of the song on this would have lessened the impact, in my opinion, so creating a cover that complements the creative and stands out really makes this the perfect spot. 

One of the most common pitfalls to avoid when choosing a cover song is using clichés or overly-covered songs. While it might initially be appealing due to familiarity, they can often feel tired or lack impact, diluting the brand's message. It's also important to ensure the cover song does not overshadow the brand or its message. The song should support and amplify the brand identity, not detract from it. Also, legal issues around song rights should also be thoroughly navigated to avoid potential issues!

Danielle Toporoff  
Music supervisor at Good Ear Music Supervision

The best covers transform a familiar song into something totally fresh for the listener. Recognising a song triggers that warm and fuzzy nostalgia inside us, but hearing it in an unexpected way creates a spark - a new memory. It’s the contrast to the original that makes it unforgettable. Brands often want to use a cover for budgeting reasons, but there's a bigger opportunity here to push the creative, change the tone to complement the narrative, and make it ownable (while, yes, staying in-budget). 

Before creating an original cover, see what's out there first. We always start with a deep dive into the internet and our own archive, looking for the wildest and most delightful reimaginings (Stavely Makepeace's cover of ‘No Regrets’, which turns Edith Piaf's defiant, emotional anthem into a cheerful country yodel, is a personal favourite). There’s tons of inspiration to be found in existing covers, but sometimes the perfect cover doesn’t exist… yet. That’s our chance to curate a wide-ranging dream team of talented artists to demo. They need to be a good fit for the song and the brand, but the magic can really happen on the fringes. We got some jaw-dropping Fleetwood Mac covers for Xfinity Mobile, and ended up with a beautiful and effortless take by Moses Sumney. When an artist connects with a song in their own unique style, it breeds an authenticity that’s undeniable.

A great cover can elevate a deep cut too! For Expedia, we loved the ‘80s Japanese punk hit ‘Linda Linda’ by The Blue Hearts. The version we found by Drinking Boys and Girls Choir (a current female-led Korean band) gave it a modern touch and really embodied the youthful spirit of the spot.

Only thing we beg of you: avoid sound-alikes! Aside from the legal implications, it's obvious and unremarkable. You deserve better! 

Josh Canevari
Composer at Butter Music and Sound

Generally speaking, it's important to not just re-write and sing what has already been done. Composers study the application of the cover first, and then the original song, to deduce which moments in the original song fit the new context best. I composed a cover of LeAnn Rimes' ‘Can’t Fight the Moonlight’ for the Paramount+ series ‘Wolf Pack’, which premiered in March. I was abundantly familiar with the ‘90s original, but I studied it again to gauge moments I could play up to suit a far more tense use case. 

The song is a pop song, but the series is about werewolves, which leans into horror. I knew I wanted to keep the song intact, so I leaned into places where the song lends itself to tension already. There happens to be a key change leading to the chorus (that sounds unsettling without the melody), which helped a lot. As well, we switched the singer to Hales Corner, who is a male vocalist, which immediately changed the tone of the entire piece.

If a composer can maintain mystery with listeners - building up to an instantly recognisable chorus no matter how the song changed - it catches people's attention more than a straight cover. Doing the thing that's already been done is the biggest pitfall; we already love the original song, so trying to recreate it might fall flat.

Matt Chambless 
Executive creative director at JINGLEPUNKS

It seems obvious, right? The power of music, that is. The astounding proficiency it has in  imparting us with a feeling of, say, adventurousness, longing, or a sense of nostalgia. So, why not harness that power when trying to convey those same emotions in a commercial spot? And what better way to do that than by utilising a song the audience already knows? 

But, when trying to do a cover, here’s a piece of advice for when you’re approaching the topic of how to use the song: use only the lyrics necessary to tell your story, not the story of the song. 

I was working on a spot for the brand, Gymboree, reimagining Depeche Mode’s ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’. The campaign was called ‘One Big Happy’, and the creative was a series of  group shots featuring kids and their parents playing in the front yard, jumping on the bed, etc. We approached the song from the standpoint of a dad making a DIY recording at home with his kids. And, while the song’s main hook fit the visual narrative of the spot quite well, only the first verse seemed applicable to the story (‘When I’m with you baby/I go out of my head/And I just can’t get enough’). Although there was enough runtime in the spot to add the other verses, none of them actually fit the story. So, none were used. This is all to say, don’t be afraid to use only what you need, and leave the rest!

Warren Bray
Music supervisor at Grayson Music Group

Creating a great cover is no small feat, because, to begin with, you have to be mindful of the level of expectations and possibilities that come with the original song. Not only that, but, if it’s going to be used for a commercial, film or series, you need to get the song cleared by a music supervisor. Then, you’ll need the right artist or producer to create the cover - ideally someone who can shape the song into something new and interesting.

When looking at potential pitfalls or clichés of creating covers, it's ideal to avoid covering something that’s been overused or covered endlessly. If you’re required to do so for some reason, try completely reimagining it from the original! For example, Grayson recently covered the '60s Broadway music hit 'The Impossible Dream (The Quest)' for a Questrade commercial. This song has been covered by so many of music history's greats, so we needed to approach this in a fresh way. In this case, as the song has typically been undertaken with a very grand lens, our first choice was to strip everything back in its verse, so we could really let the story and our singer Rachel Park's voice shine. Our vocal has a more modern aesthetic in the performance, which also gave us an edge and allowed us to pull this track into 2023. We layered modern sounds like 808's and synths with more traditional instruments like piano and real drum kit sounds in our soaring finish, in an effort to ground the piece while simultaneously honouring its roots.

Overall, the more original and unique the cover track, the better! Let’s say someone covers a song by Whitney Houston and does a faithful '80s soul version as close as they can to the original. No matter what they do, it will always be under scrutiny compared to the original. This happens all the time with Beatles cover bands - they just can’t compete with the original songs. Instead, if you do something like a down-tempo, electro hip-hop cover of a Beatles song, it has the potential to be looked at as more creative and interesting!

Adam Ghoubali 
Music creative director at BETC

When you decide to cover a song, you buy into the fact that the original song is famous and easily recognisable. The main point of a cover song is that you don't have to pay the master rights and only the publishing rights, which saves 50% on the music rights, compared to if you were using the original version.

But, the reason for doing a cover shouldn't be just to save money… especially if the cover song ends up being worse than the original. If you are trying to sound exactly like the original, you could actually disservice the original song. In short, creating a cover song is difficult to do well.

When doing a cover song, you should depart from the original song. The direction that you chose will depend on the story of the film. For example, you could cover a hard rock song with a choir of kids, accompanied by an acoustic guitar and some violins. The viewer will definitely be moved by the twist!

Another way this can be done is simply by injecting some modernity into a song - making it more contemporary.

Sometimes, we bring on a famous artist to cover a famous old song. It links two generations between them, as older generations will recognise the song, and younger generations will recognise the artist.

At any rate, the key to a perfect cover is to create some sort of distance between the original and the cover, in order to end up with something very different. The difference could lie in the instrumentalisation, the intention, or the musical style.

Most importantly, you must absolutely avoid having a cover that tries to be a look-alike of the original. When it's done just to pay less money, you can hear it in the final product.

When it comes to inspiration, personally, I always look at what other music producers are doing - not just in advertising, but also in movie trailers and, increasingly. in video game trailers. And of course, recorded music as well! One of my favourite covers of all time is ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ by David Bowie, covered by Nirvana.

But, for me, I have always found the most inspiration in watching skate and surf videos. In fact, that's actually how I actually got into music!

view more - Trends and Insight
Sign up to our newsletters and stay up to date with the best work and breaking ad news from around the world.
LBB Editorial, Wed, 24 May 2023 16:07:26 GMT