What is a SOUND-A-LIKE?

I have been partaking in some online forums to hear what people are asking about the Music Licensing industry. One topic rose to the surface for me this week. SOUND-A-LIKES.

To define it for you – I pulled this directly from Wikipedia:

A sound-alike is a recording intended to imitate the sound of a popular record, the style of a popular recording artist, or a current musical trend; the term also refers to the artists who perform on such recordings. In the voice-over world, it may also refer to those who recreate the voice and vocal mannerisms of a given celebrity’s vocal performance. [1]

Sound-alikes are usually made as budget copies or “knockoffs” of popular recordings, since the cost of covering a popular song is usually cheaper than that of licensing the original recording, or to make listeners believe a particular artist is performing a given song, to spare the expense of engaging that artist. Royalties must nonetheless still be paid to the songwriters.

Sound-alike recordings have been used in movie soundtracks and radio and television commercials since their origin, while sound-alike artists have long recorded jingles and other musical material for commercial use. In the 1980s, singerBette Midler sued over a sound-alike version of her recording of “Do You Wanna Dance” being used in a commercial which sounded too close to the original. In the 1990s, guitarist Carlos Santana sued over a commercial music bed that closely imitated his playing and arranging style.

Many of you have shared your intense frustration with the repetition of using the same songs, ripping off songs, or using songs to describe a potential new song. It can seem highly uncreative, unfair and unhelpful from the outside, so I wanted to take a minute to explain why it is so prevalant in the industry.

There are a hundred “reasons” why you hear sound-a-likes so often, but the greatest reason falls into the lap of the EDITOR.

An editor is the first person to CHOOSE music for a project. They take the raw footage, and create what is called a ROUGH CUT – it’s the first pass of the edit for everyone to look at. The editor does this alone – without the client. 99% of the time they do it to music. 90% of the time the EDITOR CHOOSES THE MUSIC.

Now imagine that you are a great editor, and you have (limited) knowledge of music, no knowledge of music licensing and publishing, and you have your preferred tracks in iTunes, so that is what you go back to. You like certain songs because of the rhythm and energy they give the picture. So you choose a song from your list of preferred tracks for the rough cut. It is for internal use only (this is technically a FAIR USE). No harm no foul right?


What happens  next is powerful. Through the revision and approval process the Ad Agency Creatives see the spot 100 times a day for a week, maybe eben two weeks – WITH THAT MUSIC ON IT. The song on the rough cut then becomes imprinted on the person(s) watching it simply by the fact of repetition and they begin to like it, almost as if they cannot hear it any other way. In the business we call this DEMO LOVE. And so the push/pull begins, and a sound-a-like project is in motion.

On another side of the business, I am often given other music as reference to help find or create new music for a project. It is, at it’s most simple, a way to communicate about music, because, let’s face it – MUSIC IS SUBJECTIVE. I always say, “What’s blue to me is green to you.” None of us actually hear the same thing, or feel the same way when we hear something. It is intangible. So we use other tracks to help us describe what it is that we are going for.

At it’s most egregious, you are handed a project and asked to rip off a song as closely as legally possible. This sucks – no way around it, and not only is it morally wrong, but it has created all kinds of terrible legal issues for Music Houses that translate into having to carry million dollar insurance policies to take the blame on behalf of the Agency that ordered the work in case a suit is filed or copyright infringement. It’s a nasty mess…..but it IS part o the business.

Now let me also say that a strong and highly creative composer can usually find a way around tis through great work and a strong relationship with the team you are working with – but not always. If you are a composer working in the ad world, I would suggest that you get yourself the right skills to tiptoe around these types of jobs by being able to identify what it is the creatives like about the track and replicate that into another idea and song.

OR you make relationships with Editors and get to the ROOT of the problem. The best composers have strong relationships with the best Editors in the biz.

Now let’s turn to the POSITIVE side of Sound-A-Llikes or now what we would call COVERS.

I do use alot of covers in Advertising, and not just for budget – but because some cover are REALLY GOOD and do bring a new feel to the song. I have even commissioned covers. The lyrics of a song work, but the instrumentation and performance do not, so we re-record it.

Now this is where it can get tricky for those of you who are thinking about recording some covers for your record or for your catalog to license. You can play the song NOTE FOR NOTE, but you CANNOT re-sing the song in the same way as the original signer did. This law is to protect the original master and insure that it holds it value. So be careful of that fact if you are on an assignment.

I want to show you one of my favorite recent projects where I ended up using a cover. The song is TO KNOW HIM IS TO LOVE HIM that was written by Phil Spector and originally recorded by his only vocal group The Teddy Bears.

You can see where a great cover can really bring a whole new integrity to a song and to the job at hand.

So although it can be frustrating to have to use other music to describe your own, or as a composer to have to do covers of other songs, embrace it as a part of the business and do it with your own style and panache, and you WILL get repeat business.





5 Responses to “What is a SOUND-A-LIKE?”

  1. Gus Caveda May 20, 2011 at 1:16 pm #

    Great Article. Funny enough, I just did my first cover assignment last week, and really enjoyed the process.

    I’m looking to clear a few more songs to do a few more projects soon. Here’s a link to a site I’m using for that: http://www.songclearance.com.

  2. Eric Waters May 20, 2011 at 1:58 pm #

    A friend was asked (increasingly) to make sound-a-likes and re-record various hit songs. He was advised by an entertainment lawyer to form a LLC (Limited Liability Corp.)
    …just in case something went wrong. Sometimes the ad guys said they had permission but “forgot” to actually get it.

    • admin May 21, 2011 at 12:54 pm #

      Hi Eric – the LLC makes sense. In regards to the “ad guys forgetting to license the publishing” – that is impossible. Ad Agencies are companies that represent multi billion dollar companies and take all necessary actions to clear the rights to anything they use. copyright infringement is no joke – federal law. The Ad Agencies (the larger ones that is) have entire departments that handle the clearances of a song. If there is a Music Supervisor on the job (like what I do) then it is my job to not only find the right song – but then to clear it and negotiate the fees on behalf of the agency. If you are working with a smalller agency they may not have all the knowledge they need to do this – BUT know that if you are an artist who covers a track, and you license the master rights to a buyer and they buyer doesn’t license the publishing rights, you are not at fault.

  3. mikerosss May 21, 2011 at 12:37 pm #

    Great information! I’ve been looking for something like this for a while now. Thanks!

  4. Melba Perkins May 25, 2011 at 2:47 am #

    What a great resource!

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