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Why Big Artists Are Banking on Year-End Covers Albums

Aretha, Streisand, Manilow and more are banking on old favorites this holiday season.

On deck for the fourth quarter: a virtual avalanche of all-covers albums. From the divas (see chart, below) to the showmen (Barry Manilow’s My Dream Duets, out Sept. 16), rock radio vets (Bryan AdamsTracks of My Years, out Sept. 30) to hipsters du jour (She & Him’s Classics, out Nov. 10), it seems established artists have found a new safe haven for full-length releases, a role that holiday ­collections have served in the past.

And it’s no wonder: Covers offer a low-risk alternative for an artist not only to take a creative break while maintaining their public presence, but also to have the potential for big returns. The two best examples from the last decade: Rod Stewart, who revitalized his career with his five-volume Great American Songbook series, which debuted in 2002, and Ray Charles, whose multiplatinum, Grammy-sweeping Genius Loves Company duets album landed in 2004, just before his death.



The economics of such compilations, particularly those released by major labels, defy the typical album creation process. For instance, cover albums can be put together relatively quickly and inexpensively because no songwriting is required. Moreover, they save the artist recording costs and deal points.

However, the artist ends up forfeiting a lucrative revenue stream: publishing. In the case of Stewart’s Songbook series, in the United States alone, the albums produced nearly $9.1 million in publishing royalties at the full statutory rate, which would have been Stewart’s if he’d written all the songs ($6.3 million if the label had invoked the controlled composition clause).

But big sales for original material from mature acts are never guaranteed, and the fourth quarter is when cover albums’ target demographic — adults age 35 and older — is most likely to buy music for the holidays. So far, the category is off to a strong start, as Barbra Streisand’s Partners debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 dated Oct. 4 with 196,000 sold in its first week (according to Nielsen SoundScan), the biggest week for a female artist’s album in 2014.

“This year’s schedule is overkill,” says Trans World’s Mark Hudson. But even he concedes, “We were amazed by the Streisand sales.”

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This article first appeared in the Oct. 11 issue of Billboard.