Courtesy of Shamir/Jason MacDonald

April 8, 2021

The Secret to Indie Music’s Success During a Pandemic

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Within the past year, covers by indie musicians have blown up. Fans are hungry for new content, and covers are a creative solution to the content demand. Some of my favorites, which showcase the breadth of the musicians’ talent, are: “I’m On Fire” by Shakey Graves, Thundercat’s dashing reworking of Haim’s “3am,” and Sharon Van Etten’s new EP

A greater function of covers, however, is to help musicians maintain relevance in a short attention span music market. And no musician has been able to accomplish this better than Phoebe Bridgers.

Phoebe Bridgers has attracted immense critical attention, most recently from Time Magazine. Her ability to release a fantastic number of covers of famous songs, I declare, is massively responsible for her critical acclaim. Some highlights within the past six months include “If We Make It Through December” by Merle Haggard,  “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls, and “complicated’ by Avril Lavigne, among others. And why does her cover of “Friday I’m in Love” have 21 million plays on Spotify?

While covers are a way for artists to continue cultivating their individuality and innovation, the music consumer should recognize that they can also cause a degree of manipulation. When indie musicians cover famous songs, they attract fans of the music they are covering, drawing attention on social media. The shininess of the song titles covered can create a nostalgic effect. When a current musician tackles gems of the past, they receive admiration and respect. 

Is Phoebe Bridgers really that good, or is she just a publicity powerhouse? 

Meanwhile, Julien Baker followed her longtime collaborator’s lead, covering Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place” in anticipation of her new album Little Oblivion. This move generated a sustained and flashy wave of publicity around the release of her album. Without the preceding cover, her album would have to stand more ground against critics. 

Covers of bigger names can also shed light on the work of less visible musicians, whose lack of visibility may be due to their underrepresented identities. Shamir recently covered Billie Eilish’s “Ocean Eyes,” which received attention, yet did not go as viral as Baker’s cover. Shamir, a Black, gender-defying indie artist, is open about mental health and has an extremely authentic and bold sound, which he describes as “haunted emo shoegaze.” Similar words have been used to describe Bridgers and Julien Baker, yet Shamir is not as well known as the members of boygenius. 

Other Black queer indie artists like Moses Sumney and serpentwithfeet deserve the same amount of publicity as their white peers. Perhaps they should release even more covers. 

The publicity reason for covers becomes even clearer if we examine cover flubs. Sometimes, established alternative artists miss the mark with their covers, and will make you ask yourself: why does this exist? Lykke Li’s “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor belongs in another Twilight movie. It hurt my ears to hear Lorde (bless her heart) cover Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” — there was something deeply wrong about it. Why were these made in the first place? Just to make these artists even more attractive to big-name magazines and elite circles in the music world. 

The release of covers is a fascinating means of understanding the creative management of your favorite artists—covers contribute to why you love the music you love.  

Emma ‘ED’ Plowe is a senior editor on the 139th editorial board. She can be reached at eplowe@cornellsun.com.