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Babs, Aretha, Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett Ride Timeless Tunes to the Top

tony bennett lady gaga
Patrick Beaudry via Getty Images

From Barbra Streisand’s “Partners” and Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga’s “Cheek to Cheek” — both of which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 — to collections from Annie Lennox, Barry Manilow, Aretha Franklin, Bryan Adams, She & Him, Billy Childs and Bette Midler, the fourth quarter has brought a gold mine of cover albums featuring timeless copyrights presented in fresh ways.

That is a very good news for music publishers, for whom copyrights are the gift that keeps on giving. This holiday season’s bounty is the most abundant anyone can remember in recent years — the combination of well-known artists performing beloved songs provides perfect stocking-stuffer material.

While many of the compilations focus on tunes from the Great American Songbook — the canon of standards written from the 1920s to the 1950s — others, such as Franklin’s salute to divas, Adams’ “Tracks of My Years,” and Childs’ homage to Laura Nyro, highlight proven hits from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, and even up to Adele’s 2010 chartbuster, “Rolling in the Deep.”

“It doesn’t have to be 50 years old to feel like something classic,” says Danny Strick, U.S. co-president of Sony/ATV. “When you hear Aretha singing ‘Rolling in the Deep,” it doesn’t sound like a cover, it sounds like an Aretha classic.”

Any time an older song is re-recorded, it has the potential to find a new audience and that is a proposition that always interests publishers.

“New versions are always compounding the value of the copyright,” says Evan Lamberg, Universal Music Publishing Group’s president, North America. “I couldn’t tell you because (someone new) cut it the song is going to make another $10 million this year, but it just keeps it out in the atmosphere and keeps it fresh …. These albums build bridges that keep these songs timeless. That’s the goal of any publisher.”

Most of these artists attarct older demographics, but acts like Lady Gaga or She & Him’s Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward can expose the song not only to new ears, but also to a new generation. “Lady Gaga is introducing these songs to a whole new audience,” says Kathy Spanberger, peermusic’s president and COO. “Some younger people may have never heard these songs.”

For many of these projects, the artists already have specific songs in mind and it’s a sweet surprise when the publishers realize their songs have been used — the act only needs the copyright holder’s permission if altering the song, such as changing lyrics or mashing it up with another tune.

But in some cases, the publisher can lobby a project. “The Cole Porter Trust was very eager to have Cole Porter’s songs on the Tony Bennett/Lady Gaga album,” says Sean Patrick Flahaven, Warner/Chappell Music’s senior VP of theater and catalog development. “So we worked very hard on that. It was very gratifying to the estate, not only financially, but to bring that music out again.” There are two Porter songs on “Cheek to Cheek.”

Publishers push the catalog year round: they routinely send out compilations to mark a writer’s birthday or death anniversary to remind A&R execs, music supervisors, video game manufacturers, ad agencies and other potential licensors of the copyrights available.

Other times, a television series designs its own reworking of a classic: Jamey Johnson, Shooter Jennings and Marilyn Manson guitarist Twiggy Ramirez totally upended peermusic’s copyright “You Are My Sunshine” for a “Sons of Anarchy” episode last year. The haunting remake provoked enough interest that it was released as single. Another one of peermusic’s recent successes was viral and radio hit “Cups.” Originally featured in “Pitch Perfect,” the song was based on A.P. Carter’s “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone.”

Warner Chappell takes a proactive stance by asking its singer-songwriters when they are recording their albums if they would also record a catalog song for potential synch usage so the publisher has the song cleared and at the ready.

It’s not uncommon, says Flahaven, to tell artists about an upcoming project and ask if they’d be willing to cut a Rodgers & Hart tune. “Then if it’s placed, it makes up for the time and expense of recording it,” says the Warner/Chappell exec. “We like to accumulate those in our pitching system in general.”

While these cover projects undoubtedly help fill publishing companies’ coffers, diminished sales — no album released in 2014 has reached platinum — and issues with streaming payments do not make them the treasure trove they once were. “It’s the reality of the environment we are in,” Spanberger says.

“Streaming money to publishers and writers is anemic (from) Pandora and Spotify. It’s just hundredths of a cent compared to a performance on the radio or a mechanical. But there is an upside to having these songs exposed on the Internet.”

There’s a reason these classics remain relevant for any audience, says Jay Landers, executive producer of Streisand’s “Partners”: “The greatest songs from the golden era all the way up to the standards of today have a common thread, which is that they are truly crafted. They are songs with a beginning and middle and end and take the listener on a journey.”

Landers questions whether many of today’s rhythmic-dominated pop songs will turn into tomorrow’s evergreens, but he is very sure of one thing: “I have no doubt that ‘Over the Rainbow’ will be sung forever.”