P.S. 22 Chorus and the Trouble With Cover Songs

I have a friend who can’t stand the sound of children singing, for some reason. I’ve always felt bad for her, because it means she can’t enjoy the innocent pleasures of the P.S. 22 Chorus of Staten Island, NY, which has risen to widespread popularity with covers of popular tunes. The most recent installment? MGMT’s Kids.

I don’t know if MGMT’s Kids is their best effort (something about it sounds off-key to me compared to the original), but the body of work they’ve created over the last several years is truly impressive.

Past covers include Jay-Z’s Empire State of Mind, Black Sabbath’s Iron Man and Lady Gaga’s Poker Face, which was a request from Perez Hilton, one of the chorus’s first high-profile supporters. They’ve even performed with some of the artists they’ve covered, including Tori Amos, Passion Pit and Queen Latifah.

In your typical movie-of-the-week version of this story, the biggest adversary P.S. 22 teacher Gregg Breinberg (who runs the choir and posts the videos to YouTube) would be facing would be the school board president or PTA member who Just Doesn’t Understand. However, the P.S. 22 Chorus’s biggest obstacle is the tricky gray area that covers of published works occupy on YouTube.

During a panel on YouTube and the music industry at this year’s Vidcon, a YouTube representative said that YouTube partners are not allowed to monetize any cover songs, and takedowns of cover songs by copyright holders who feel infringed upon still take place on a regular basis.

This difficult legal position lead to the P.S. 22 Chorus’s YouTube account getting suspended last year. While later restored, the mistake nearly cost P.S. 22 their older videos and the seven million hits they’d accumulated at that time (their YouTube channel is now currently at 23.2 million), and they do not appear to be active participants in the YouTube Partner program.

In no way am I arguing that P.S. 22 not being able to monetize their work isn’t fair, because if you write a song and someone else sings it for a profit, you do deserve royalties. But being strict with who’s allowed to sing what isn’t what the future of entertainment is starting to look like. This is.

It’s a remix culture now, the P.S. 22 kids are just a small (yet charming) part of it and creating a clean system by which copyright holders could be compensated for cover versions (whether through a blanket deal with labels or through the permission of artists) is the best way to work with, and not against, the phenomenon.

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