Who needs original music when you can be a cover music star online?

Canadian band Walk Off The Earth comprise (from far left) Mike ''Beard guy'' Taylor, Ryan Marshall, Sarah Blackwood, Gianni ''Luminati'' Nicassio and Joel Cassady.
Canadian band Walk Off The Earth comprise (from far left) Mike ''Beard guy'' Taylor, Ryan Marshall, Sarah Blackwood, Gianni ''Luminati'' Nicassio and Joel Cassady. PHOTOS: SONY MUSIC, THE LITTLE GIANT
Home-grown singer song writer The Little Giant (above), who just released a debut EP of original tunes, started out posting YouTube covers of artists such
as Britney Spears.
Home-grown singer song writer The Little Giant (above), who just released a debut EP of original tunes, started out posting YouTube covers of artists such as Britney Spears. PHOTOS: SONY MUSIC, THE LITTLE GIANT

Many independent musicians are finding fame by putting their own touch to hit songs by other artists

Music fan Vannessa Barker did not care much for torch singer Celine Dion's once-ubiquitous hit My Heart Will Go On - until she heard American group Postmodern Jukebox's doo-wop version of the song that was far removed from the sappy original.

The 32-year-old drama teacher says: ''I much prefer Postmodern Jukebox's version to the Celine Dion original. The arrangement was done incredibly well and I really like the singer's voice.''

Ms Barker was one of 1,500 fans who were at Postmodern Jukebox's maiden show in Singapore at the Kallang Theatre on Sunday. She is part of a growing community of music lovers who are digging artists who refresh popular tunes with distinctive covers.

Who needs original tunes when many independent musicians are carving out a music career from the songs that others have written and performed, and building an international fan base, thanks mainly to YouTube and other forms of social media?

Postmodern Jukebox are far from being the only acts who specialise in doing covers of pop tunes and are popular on the international touring circuit.

In recent months, American husband-and-wife pair Us The Duo and a cappella group Pentatonix have also held shows in Singapore.

Next Tuesday, Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Kina Grannis, another music act who found fame through covers, will perform here.

Today, the 30-year-old is popular for original tunes including Valentine and In Your Arms, but her YouTube channel, which has more than one million subscribers and 176 million views, is also full of covers by pop acts such as Adele, Lorde and Jason Mraz.

While her covers of Adele's Rolling In The Deep and collaboration with another YouTube act, Boyce Avenue, on Tracy Chapman's Fast Car have drawn more than four million views, her most popular videos are her originals - Valentine has close to 18.8 million views and In YourArms 11.7 million.

For her, doing covers is ''a very fulfilling and gratifying process'' because it challenges her to learn a newsong andmakeit her own.

Her covers are also an important way for potential fans to discover her original music.

She adds: ''When you're an independent musician and you don't really have a big label pumping money into marketing or radio, it's kind of up to you to get yourself heard.

''No one is going to accidentally Google one of my original songs that they've never heard of, but they might stumble upon me through a cover, get into the sound and from there decide to explore myoriginal work.''

Doing unusual and idiosyncratic cover versions of popular songs can make an act go viral and, more importantly, lead to a successful music career.

One of the best examples of this is Canadian band Walk Off The Earth, whose quirky five-musiciansplaying- one-guitar cover of Gotye's Somebody That I Used To Know in 2012 has since racked up167 million views.

Like Grannis, they, too, are songwriters and have released albums of original tunes, the most recent being Sing It All Away, which was released in June.

While the band have been around for a decade, singer and musician Sarah Blackwood describes the Somebody That I Used To Know video as a ''pivotal moment'' for the group.

''It opened up a lot of doors and made us work harder than we ever did. It opened our eyes to a lot of things and, over the last three years, we've learnt a whole lot and grown immensely as artists, people and musicians,'' says the 34-year old.

Choosing their covers is not a simple matter of picking songs that are currently popular - a lot of thought and creativity go into the videos and their interpretations of the songs.

The covers have to be ''shareable'', Blackwood adds. ''If you're making a video, make it such that if you were to watch it, you would say to your friend, 'You have to see this video, check this out.'''

Doing covers was just a strategy, a way to get discovered, she adds. ''When you want to get people to listen to you, it's easier to do songs that they know and recognise and that they search for.''

The videos of their original songs do pretty well too. Red Hands, from their fifth album R.E.V.O., is their fifth most popular video on YouTube and has chalked up 12.4 million views, comparable with the 12.9 million views for their cover of LMFAO's Party Rock Anthem.

For home-grownsinger-songwriter The Little Giant, whose real name is Hilary Yeo, the differences between covers and originals are not so simply defined.

The 24-year-old released her debut EP of self-written tunes, Let's Just Be Honest, two weeks ago and, indeed, she is building up her namethrough her
folksy originals.

Yet she says: ''I don't really see myself as a cover artist or original artist. I just want to put out stuff that I enjoy doing.''

Playing other artists' songs is essential in helping her develop as a songwriter, says the singer who honed her chops through the National Arts Council's Noise Singapore music mentorship programme and started out three years ago as a musician posting YouTube covers of artists such as Britney Spears and Mum ford & Sons.

She adds: ''It's always good to learn new songs, it's good practice to take somebody else's song and make it in your own style. That's where you learn.''

Doing other artists' music has long been a tradition in jazz, where musicians refer to covers as ''standards''.

Home-grown jazz maestro and Cultural Medallion recipient Jeremy Monteiro is an accomplished composer and songwriter in his own right, but doing jazz standards makes up a large part of his performance.

The 55-year-old notes that even in the 1940s and 1950s, many jazz artists were covering Broadway showtunes from the likes of George Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart and Cole Porter.

He adds: ''Jazz artists don't play the song exactly like the original. It's always new arrangements and there is always the improvisational aspect of jazz when it comes to doing the standards.''

Veteran singer-songwriter Kevin Mathews, whose work spans two decades and who released his latest album, Present Sense, last week, believes that pop songwriters should do covers only at the beginning of their journey as artists.

He says: ''When you cover that particular song, you begin to break it down to understand how it works, the chord progressions, the lyrics and maybe the arrangements too.

''That knowledge will come in handy when you're writing your own songs - not to copy, but to use those ideas as a springboard for yourownideas.

''But it is important not to get stuck with just doing covers if you want to improve yourself as a songwriter.''

Cover artists are not just confined to YouTube - some are also doing brisk business the old-school way.

Universal Music Singapore released the eighth volume of I Love Acoustic last month, a series of mellow, unplugged covers of popular hits performed by Filipino singer Sabrina.

According to the label, her albums are on their way to hitting the platinum mark here, which in the Singapore market is equivalent to the sale of 10,000 copies of the album.

The label's director of strategic development for Singapore and Malaysia, Mr Lim Teck Kheng, says there is a demand for cover acts such as Sabrina because music fans are always on the lookout for ''refreshing'' sounds.

He adds that there is no issue of the cover acts cannibalising the popularity of the original versions as they complement each other.

 

He says: ''Sabrina's version of Meghan Trainor's All About That Bass is completely different from the original. I won't be surprised that there are some people who might not even know Trainor but discover her through Sabrina's acoustic version when they listen to the album. So it works out for both artists.''

Agreeing with that view is a spokesman for Spotify, a music streaming service from which American pop star Taylor Swift has bannedmuchof her music.

The managing director of Spotify Asia, Ms Sunita Kaur, points out that covers, many done in different stylesfrom the originals, canactually help singers such as Swift find new fans.

She says: ''Covers bring a fresh perspective to an original song and sometimes even cross over to different genres. This increases the potential audience for an original song.''

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 16, 2015, with the headline 'Cover wonders'. Print Edition | Subscribe