A cover artist is an artist providing a personalized interpretation of works created before.
Jimi Hendrix made a bold move by playing the American National Anthem his way, and paved the way since for many artists to freely perform it their way.
Israel Kamakawiwo’ole did a mash-up of Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong’s “What a wonderful world” with The Wizard of Oz’s “Over The Rainbow”.
My father Marek Tomaszewski, a professional pianist with a career spanning nearly five decades played all the classics, Mozart, Bach, Beethoven and either transcribed them for two pianos (for a duet he had with my godfather) or personalized them by also “mashing up” some classics with a recognizable anachronistic motif of anything from a Star Wars theme or The Addams Family injected perfectly and where you least expect it. He even dug out over the past decade, and then some, works by the “masters” that no one ever played or even heard of (and gave them credit).
It’s all artistry intrinsic to the performer, his or her understanding, mood, inspiration, muse and desire to share something with others. Hoarded works of art are of no use to anyone as art is a means of expression that, if unseen, unheard or unread and secretly kept (or circumstantially hidden), is a wasted effort. And don’t get me started with the whole selling out concept of a garage band no one heard of suddenly being sellouts because some producer heard them in a lowly coffee shop and gave them a deal. Even tortured souls wanted their work to be exposed. As a matter of fact, I just watched a TV show about inmates in a “supermax” security prison where one agreed to discuss his gang origins on the condition of being able to showcase his artwork.
What’s not art is guys like Walter Keane taking credit for his wife Margaret’s work (Big Eyes).
There are also many instances of musical plagiarism: Led Zeppelin (“Whole Lotta Love”, settled with a retroactive credit), Rod Stewart (“Do ya think I’m sexy?”), and more recently Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams (“Blurred Lines”) are a few examples.
Scruples question: If you found today, in some random secret drawer, an original manuscript by John Steinbeck, never-seen sheet music by Leonard Bernstein, or a never heard demo tape of Jeff Buckley and were able to profit from it somehow, but not tell the source (and say you are respectively Dan Brown, Danny Elfman and Hozier, people who could actually profit from the material), you could take credit and no now would know. But that wouldn’t make you an artist. Or would it because of your past work? I’m pretty sure if the aforementioned living artists/authors had such a chance, they would credit the source and not try to keep it secret.
Eventually, the truth comes out. Changing a few words/lyrics, or a few notes is not enough to claim a stake in something that isn’t your original creation. Bruce Lee gave a lot of credit to the various styles that he infused into Jeet Kune Do. It didn’t distract from the importance of his work as a martial artist. By giving the source material credit, and seeking a high level of performance, understanding and appreciation, there is no need to for “puffing” or appropriating. The humble approach may take longer, but may last equally longer.