‘Punk Goes…’ has one volume Fearless Records is still hoping to pull off
On one level, punk is an extreme reaction to the music taking place around it. And that’s why Fearless Records’ long-running Punk Goes… series is the essence of punk, even though its various and sundry volumes are full of pop songs and unplugged renditions of fierce, fiery and furious punk tunes.
Now 19 years old, the Punk Goes… series is about to release the 19th volume in the series, Punk Goes Acoustic, Vol. 3. The new collection features predominantly chill, predominantly acoustic, always lively and entirely fresh takes of favorites and nuggets by a festival full of groups including Mayday Parade, Taking Back Sunday, Underoath, Set It Off, Grayscale, Circa Survive and others.
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Being old enough to vote, Punk Goes… has outlived its sometimes controversial novelty status by proving time and time again that music can take root wherever you plant it, whether the genre is reconstructing iconic songs from today’s FM dial, classic rock, Southern hip-hop, vintage metal or Warped Tour.
Because Fearless Records founder Bob Becker kicked off the series in 2000, the comp’s iterations have included Punk Goes Pop (seven volumes), Punk Goes Classic Rock, Punk Goes 80s, Punk Goes 90s (two volumes), Punk Goes X, Punk Goes Crunk, Punk Goes Acoustic (two volumes), Punk Goes Metal and Punk Goes Christmas. Punk Goes… historical favorites have included reimagined versions of tracks by Beyoncé, Michelle Branch, Miley Cyrus, Sia and Pharrell Williams.
The series is demonstrably, if not improbably, popular. Volumes have crashed the Billboard Top 200 and assorted other charts, powered by exclusive tracks from platinum acts such as A Day To Remember, AFI, All-American Rejects, Asking Alexandria, Andy Black & Juliet Simms, Rise Against, All Time Low, Sleeping With Sirens and Yellowcard. It’s a top seller, with sales over 2.5 million and streams approaching nearly a quarter-billion. Spotify plays demonstrate the adaptations’ true effect. Songs from the series routinely land in groups’ top five most-played songs.
Becker and Fearless Records co-presidents Jenny Reader and Andy Serrao talked to AP about the series origins, its old-school inspiration, how they match groups and songs, what makes a good cover and the inviting power of music people already know.
What inspired the series?
BOB BECKER: I would love to take all the credit, but there was a small distributor, a guy by the name of Bill [Karras] who used to work at Mystic Records [a California label best known in punk circles for classic 1980s comps] as distribution manager. I was helping book shows and promote and putting up flyers and selling records out of my trunk. He said, “What you need to do: You’re friends with a lot of bigger bands. Try to get the bigger bands on a comp with your developing bands.” We discover artists off comps all the time.
He said, “A themed comp is even better, because you have more of a platform under it.” I started thinking, “What theme can I do?” I came up with the idea of metal—I was a big metal fan, as well. So we did Punk Goes Metal. It was fun. And the bands had fun with it. That sparked the whole thing.
Then I decided I needed to change it up, not keep doing the same thing. I forget how the idea of the pop one came up, but it made sense. At first I thought, “Fans don’t want to hear pop songs.” But somehow we got bands to do it.
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Whether it’s pop or classic rock, a lot of people will say, “I don’t listen to that stuff.” But if you press them, they’ll say, “Well, I listen to the good songs.”
BECKER: Pop songs are a formula, but it’s a formula that works. And when you strip it down, it’s still a great melody and a great hook. A good song is a good song. Some of the artists like doing them, and some won’t touch them with a 10-foot pole.
I’m guessing the seventh Pop Goes… was easier to recruit for than the first.
BECKER: It’s still harder to get the bigger A-level artists. The smaller developing artists have followed these comps, and they’re fans, and they’re willing to jump on. We start at the top, and that’s our wish list. And the first five bands on the wish list, we’ll get one if we’re super-lucky. We have the theory that if you start with the bigger bands, the rest will follow.
For your tastes, what makes for a good cover song?
ANDY SERRAO: There are obvious answers to this…but a good cover song has to make you simply not hate it. The original holds the weight, so if you can make a rendition that is unique and gives a wonderful interpretation of the original, that’s [a] win. For me, it’s about the moment: Every song you want to listen to on repeat isn’t just well written—it has a moment that makes you feel something. Sometimes it’s a transition or a haunting vocal melody, but that’s what makes me stick.
How do you match an artist and a song? Do they pick? Do you assign songs?
BECKER: We give a suggested tracklist to the artists, but [don’t] demand it, just to get the tracklist more cohesive to the era. That’s about all the A&R that was done on these comps. We give the bands a budget, and we let them do the song they want.
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Do you ever listen to a track and think, “Thanks, but that’s…not great”?
BECKER: Some artists think they need to sound exactly like the cover, and I hate that. We’re doing another genre. I want them different. We want the new version to contrast. I want to hear a pop song that’s got crazy guitars and is edgy, but you want the band’s signature on it. So we started telling bands, “Make it your own.”
JENNY READER: A PSA for all bands: If you are going to cover a song, no matter how much you love it, please don’t copy the original note for note. I’ll take you to karaoke instead, where you can drink $2 beers and save the recording budget. The truly great cover songs are an interpretation by the artist in their own style, dissecting the track and putting it back together as if they created it in the first place. If you’re going to go there, put your own spin on it. There’s the potential for magic if you do it right.
Do you ever reject songs?
BECKER: That’s a fine line. We’re known as a very artist-friendly label. So those songs will end up deeper in the tracklist.
Sometimes a band pick a perfect song, and we get it, and we’re like, “Oh…OK.” It always comes down to performance, execution—it’s all of the above, but just because you have the right ingredients doesn’t mean it’s going to hit the mark. We can’t dictate what fans are going to like. Fans are fans. They gravitate to something because it strikes a nerve.
Are there artists who won’t let you cover their music? Do you have to clear the songs?
BECKER: No. You just write a check. It’s a standard max songwriter royalty we have to pay, the standard mechanical writer’s royalty we have to pay, no negotiation. We could cover Elvis if we wanted to.
Where we’ve run into problems lately is the video thing, artists or managers not wanting us to have the videos. They’re able to get YouTube to take the videos down. That’s a tough thing, because the bands want to do a video, and they’re stoked. Falling in Reverse did [Coolio rap anthem] “Gangsta’s Paradise.” That was badass, and Coolio did the video.
Scene police who hate fun things complain about the Punk Goes Pop albums breaking the rules and not being punk enough.
BECKER: Being older, I hated reading “These bands aren’t punk!” or “Fearless are so naive. They don’t know the difference between punk and a newer pop band—Breathe Carolina are not punk!” Well yeah, I get that. But the feel and what we were doing, especially with the pop records, was going against the grain a little bit.
If publishing rights are the lion’s share of revenue from recorded music, how do you make money on a series that doesn’t generate any publishing money?
BECKER: We have to pay out a lot for the publishing. But we do give the artists the royalty, and we make money on the master side. It’s worth doing. It’s not as profitable. But we don’t own a lot of publishing, anyways. [The covers albums] are profitable.
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In the YouTube era, cover songs are more of a popular practice, if not always respected. But historically, cover songs were a cornerstone of the music business. There are a lot more capable guitarists than songwriters. Artists want to be known for their own material, but cover songs are a big, inviting door into your world.
BECKER: Artists have reinvented themselves with cover songs. Their career gets a little stale, and they come out with a cover and boom—they’re started again. Some artists say, “Never!” and there’s a lot of value in that. I don’t know if they’re trying to hang on to their integrity. But integrity doesn’t help when you’re staying at home on your couch.
And from the artists’ standpoint, they don’t have to write a song. So it’s easy for them to go in and do a cover song. They’re not giving anything up. And that’s why their labels don’t mind [giving a track to another label] either.
As fans of the music, why do you like the Punk Goes... comps?
SERRAO: They have always been an area for artists to either show off another side of themselves or give a nod to a song they love and make it their very own. As a fan, I will always listen to an acoustic or reimagined version of a song. Cover songs really bring out the creativity, and it’s so exciting to try to imagine these artists choosing what song to cover for these comps. I believe that is half the fun.
As fans, what made this the right time to bring back Punk Goes Acoustic?
READER: It’s been 12 years since Punk Goes Acoustic, Vol. 2 and two years since the last Punk Goes Pop. A covers compilation in 2019 is a tricky proposition: When it began, the concept of punk bands doing pop covers—and taking them out of the realm fans would usually hear them [in]—was a novelty. With the advent of streaming and a need to constantly feed the algorithm, heavy bands doing covers is standard—sometimes pivotal to their success.
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We agreed if we were to bring any version of the Punk Goes… series back, the key would be to create a lineup fans would actually care about. And acoustic allows bands to dive into their own back catalogs and reimagine their own songs. A combination of Myspace-era nostalgia and hot newer acts makes for a great summer road trip soundtrack.
So what’s next?
BECKER: I try not to make my business too personal, or I would be putting out Adolescents records. You listen to your audience if you’re smart. The most requested album, by far, is a Disney comp. I wanted to do a Disney comp forever. Everybody loves Disney, and we have some artists that are big Disney fans. We’ve tried to reach out to more, but it’s been really hard. So if any of the bigger artists that we haven’t reached out to read this, reach out to Fearless Records.
Punk Goes Acoustic, Vol. 3 drops July 26 via Fearless Records. More information is available here.
Punk Goes… Picks
Your Fearless (Records) leaders select essential highlights from the label’s best-selling, long-running series.
Bob Becker, Fearless Records founder:
Jughead’s Revenge — “Talk Dirty To Me” (Originally by Poison from Punk Goes Metal, 2000)
That one, I was super-stoked. With Poison, you had a higher vocal. Then Jughead had the deeper vocal. So that was a huge contrast out of the gate.
Swindle — “Youth Gone Wild” (Originally by Skid Row from Punk Goes Metal, 2000)
They were a baby band that was just known locally. And I think it got them a lot of recognition. What I liked about it: They were super-young kids, like 16 at the time. And I was like, “Wow, I can’t believe they know this song, because it’s almost older than they are.” And they nailed it—they’re 16-year-old kids doing a song called “Youth Gone Wild.” Do I want to hear 30-year-olds sing it? Young artists, when they’re first starting, it’s real because of the emotions they have at that age.
Yellowcard, “Everywhere” (Originally by Michelle Branch from Punk Goes Pop, Vol. 1, 2002)
That was so good. I’m not going to say that was my favorite track, but is high on the list. That was the a-ha! moment when I realized pop songs are great regardless when the song is written well. It comes through. That song is still popular today.
Open Hand — “Time To Talk” (From Punk Goes Acoustic, Vol. 1, 2003)
I wasn’t really familiar with that band. They never became a big artist. I’m sure people thought, “Why would Bob put this virtually unknown band as the first song?” But I heard it, and I thought, “This is one of the most talented bands on this comp, and nobody knows who they are.”
August Burns Red, “...Baby One More Time” (Originally by Britney Spears from Punk Goes Pop, Vol. 2, 2009)
When it really gets interesting is when you have a huge contrast of artist and genre. They can be hit and miss. That particular track was awesome. The contrast I really like is when the band sound nothing like the original song. That’s the main enjoyment I get.
State Champs, “Stitches” (Originally by Shawn Mendes from Punk Goes Pop, Vol. 7, 2017)
I’m gonna give myself away a little bit: Some of these pop songs I’ve never heard before the band did them. And then I hear them on the radio, and I think “Oh, I recognize that song!” And then I’ll enjoy the original.
JENNY READER, Fearless Records co-president:
Thrice — “Send Me An Angel” (Originally by Real Life from Punk Goes Pop, Vol. 1, 2002)
Going way back, Thrice’s “Send Me An Angel” sounds like it was recorded in a cardboard box, but is ace—a testament to a band that sound amazing, no matter what, and always have.
Jack’s Mannequin, “Bruised” (From Punk Goes Acoustic, Vol. 2, 2007)
That really shone a light on Andrew McMahon’s brilliance.
Mayday Parade, featuring Vic Fuentes of Pierce The Veil, “Somebody That I Used To Know” (Originally by Gotye, featuring Kimbra from Pop Goes Punk, Vol. 5, 2012)
Mayday Parade and Vic Fuentes completely made “Somebody That I Used To Know” a Mayday song. I am pretty sure Gotye actually did a cover of their version.
Go Radio — “Rolling In The Deep” (Originally by Adele) and Tonight Alive — “Little Lion Man” (Originally by Mumford & Sons) both from Punk Goes Pop, Vol. 4, 2011
Jason Lancaster's vocal performance of “Rolling In The Deep” always kills me, as does Jenna [McDougall] on Tonight Alive’s “Little Lion Man.”
Punk Goes Christmas, featuring All Time Low, New Found Glory, Yellowcard and others, 2013
Punk Goes Christmas is actually my favorite of the comps because of the abundance of great original Christmas songs. But I’m also quietly a sucker for the holidays. Slap a sleigh bell on it, and I’m in.