Often during a musical artist’s career, they will ask themselves “What has been my biggest hit so far? What have I done that has made the biggest impact and had the most reach?”

I recently realized that I haven’t asked myself this question in quite a while, so I did some investigation on the various channels I distribute my music through and discovered a surprising result. Turns out it was my cover of The Man Who Sold The World by David Bowie. I was fortunate enough to collaborate on this cover song with Romie Romak who contributed backing vocals in the style of Klaus Nomi and Taylor Shechet who provided atmospheric flourishes.

It’s one of my most popular tracks on my bandcamp site, but my stats for it on my Soundcloud page are the most astounding. Coming in at an impressive 356k plays, 4.6k likes, 366 reposts, and 32 comments, it totally outshines any of my other uploads. To put things in perspective, it received 830 plays in 2013, increased to 7,469 plays in 2014, shot up to 45,540 plays in 2015, and skyrocketed up to a whopping 140,587 plays in 2016! Ever since, it has consistently remained close to 80,000 plays per year.

The next most popular track on my roster is my cover of Worlock by Skinny Puppy, which has significantly lower numbers at 10.3k plays, 199 likes, 18 reposts, and 15 comments. It never exceeded 3,000 plays per year but nevertheless remains my 2nd most popular upload.

I’m pretty sure I understand why the Bowie and Puppy covers got so much attention. With the Bowie cover you’ve got a song that was a hit when it originally came out on their album of the same name released in 1970. It soon became a staple of classic rock up until it was then famously covered by Nirvana for their MTV Unplugged in New York concert album released in 1994. Worlock has always been one of the most popular songs by Skinny Puppy, if not the one many feel most utterly passionate about. It’s pretty easy to understand why these covers would become so popular.

This clearly demonstrates that cover songs belong to a unique category of music that allows anyone who performs or records them to receive notable attention and praise. We’ve seen this happen before with other songs, particularly if it differs drastically from the original due to the production, instrumentation, presentation, or performers involved, thereby creating something both old and new, nostalgic and timeless.

I find that doing covers can be particularly useful when it comes to understanding how a good song is both written and performed, much like a writer might dedicate themselves to typing out a great work by a famous author in order to know how it feels to do so themselves. Music is a language that takes on many dimensions the more you learn about it, so doing covers is a great way to gain insights into new ways of thinking about music. Ain’t no shame in the cover game.

Johan Ess - Shout Out - Album Cover

My 2013 album Shout Out features all the covers I had recorded over the last decade including my versions of The Man Who Sold The World and Worlock.

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