The most unexpected hit of the year, hands down, is Weezer‘s cover of Toto’s “Africa.” It’s the tweet-turned-song heard ’round the country, setting a weekly record for spins as a Number One hit at Alternative radio and reaching Number 54 on the Hot 100.
Though it seems like a jokey fluke, covers like this one are an increasingly important way for rock bands to gain exposure at a time when the genre has lost most of its traction in the mainstream. Billboard has noted at least 15 other rock covers that have dented the charts in the last two years alone, from Avenged Sevenfold’s version of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” to Hell Yeah’s rendition of Phil Collins’ “I Don’t Care Anymore.”
“Labels are trying to find any way possible to get their acts a little bit of a leg up,” says Tyler Connolly, lead singer of Theory of a Deadman, whose cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” has been enjoying radio play. “Covers have been a great way to do that.”
That’s not to say that this is a new phenomenon. Keith Dakin, who oversees a pair of rock stations and an Adult Contemporary station in Connecticut as Regional Operations Manager for Connoisseur Media, points out that “quirky ‘alt’ takes on songs from different formats have been big forever.”
“When the format exploded in 1994, covers were an easy way for these bands to have some of their biggest hits,” he adds. “Cake do ‘I Will Survive’; Smashing Pumpkins have a huge hit with ‘Landslide’; Lemonheads have their only real hit with ‘Mrs Robinson’; Jeff Buckley has his biggest hit with Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’; Urge Overkill cover ‘Girl You’ll Be A Woman Soon’ for Pulp Fiction and have their only real hit; Pearl Jam do ‘Last Kiss in 1999’ — and have their biggest hit!”
“Then,” Dakin continues, “you get into the emo/nu metal era of 1999 to 2003 and covers become the easiest way to get hits: Limp Bizkit cover ‘Faith’; Ataris cover ‘Boys of Summer’; Alien Ant Farm cover ‘Smooth Criminal’; Marilyn Manson covers ‘Sweet Dreams.'” (Similarly, in 2004, 311’s version of the Cure’s “Love Song” topped Alternative Airplay.)
Connolly believes a cover is more valuable than ever now that streaming has made so much music easily available. “It’s a lot more difficult for a label or A&R guy starting with a band like, ‘Okay, we need to try and get this new song of yours on the radio, and people need to figure out where to find it,'” he says. “It’s easy to find a cover because you know the name of a song. And there are covers playlists. I can see that becoming a great motivator for labels.”
It’s also possible that at a time when radio is playing fewer new songs than ever, this is a way for a rock band to trojan-horse their single onto the airwaves. (If you’re a rock band that wants an audience, radio is useful, because the genre doesn’t stream all that well; rock’s percentage of total on-demand streams is less than half of hip-hop and R&B’s, according Nielsen’s mid-year report.) A column from radio veteran Karen Glauber, who writes amusingly and cuttingly about the rock airwaves, recently wondered, “How is this Alternative or Modern? It’s ‘Classic Alternative’ … with a 10% smattering of ‘new’ music.” And much of that 10 percent, by her count, is taken up by “the six different Imagine Dragons songs [programmers] feel compelled to play at least once every 45 minutes.” A cover helps satisfy the “classic” part of the equation while still qualifying, technically, as new.
Covers can also help a rock band make a splash outside of the rock format. “At Hot AC recently, covers have done really well,” says Jim Ryan, who programs for SiriusXM. (Hot AC is a format with more muscle than rock radio, plus a potential conduit to the Top 40.) “The Bad Wolves’ [cover of the Cranberries’ ‘Zombie’] was like a secret gem,” he continues. “A lot of stations didn’t want to touch it, I think because of the guitars. Yet our audience was telling us this thing is a smash, we love it, and it was selling like crazy.”
But Weezer decided to cover “Africa” without consideration for the current commercial rock landscape, according to Dustin Addis, who manages the band. The Toto selection was proposed by a 14-year-old, Mary Klym, via Twitter. Addis characterizes the band’s response as, “That seems like a fun internet thing.” First though, for a lark, the band covered Toto’s “Rosanna.” Then they came out with “Africa” — a faithful rendering, though with fewer harmonies and more crunch.
Despite the modernity of the Twitter request, the response to Weezer’s track mirrored the rapturous receptions that Dakin remembers other covers receiving in the Nineties. “The streaming numbers [on the “Africa” cover] even in the first 24 hours — we were like, ‘oh, that’s pretty crazy,'” Addis says. “Then alternative radio starts calling.”
The band changed its calculations accordingly. “It wasn’t really something we were planning on working,” Addis acknowledges. “But when radio’s saying, let’s give it a shot, you let ’em go and see what happens.”
Prior to this, Weezer had never scored a Number One on Billboard‘s Rock Airplay Chart, which started in 2009. But once Atlantic Records started pushing “Africa” — with help from the management company Crush Music, which also managed to turn Max’s “Lights Down Low” into an unexpected breakout hit — Weezer topped the format in ten weeks. Their “Africa” has also become the first Top Ten hit for the band in Hot Adult Contemporary since 2005’s “Beverly Hills.”
Several other rock covers have also achieved commercial high-water marks for the cover artists within the last year. Gary Clark’s version of the Beatles’ “Come Together” is the only hit of his career in both the rock and alternative formats. Five Finger Death Punch’s rendition of The Offspring’s “Gone Away” is their second-biggest hit of all time — and biggest in six years — on Billboard‘s Hot Rock Songs chart. Their biggest hit of all time on that chart is also a cover of Bad Company’s “Bad Company.”
Five Finger Death Punch’s manager, Allen Kovac, runs Eleven Seven Label Group, which had another major cover hit this year: They released Bad Wolves’ “Zombie.” The single earned the group its first platinum certification this month. (Cranberries singer Dolores O’Riordan was supposed to appear on the song, but she died before she could enter the studio.) The cover “helped Bad Wolves begin a relationship with a mass audience,” says Kovac. “It spreads beyond the specific genre of the artist. It’s a smart thing to do.”
Now, Connolly says, recording a cover has become “trendy,” leading to saturation — “it’s such a tough market right now.” But it seems likely that the covers bonanza will continue, since commercially-minded rock bands have fewer and fewer ways of reaching a wide audience. This week, Imagine Dragons are the only rockers in the top half of the Hot 100. (5 Seconds of Summer’s “Youngblood” might fit that description, though Billboard does not classify the group as rock.) But another band is closing on chart’s upper reaches: Weezer, with “Africa.”