If you've walked into a Halloween store recently, you've probably been treated to a soundtrack of what seem to be classic haunting favorites, like "Thriller" and "Ghostbusters" and "Weird Science." But if you listen closely, you will realize the original songs have been spirited away, their places taken by substandard doppelgangers -- lousy covers performed by unknown studio musicians.
But why not just play the originals? After all, Michael Jackson's "Thriller" is probably playing on scores of radio stations nationwide this very minute, as I compose this blog post. So why not play it in the stores, too?
You'll know the answer if you've read my post from two years ago on the strange phenomenon of crappy karaoke covers. Rather than using modern technology to strip out the vocals from originals, karaoke track producers recreate the whole songs from scratch. Halloween stores are doing the same thing for the same reason. To use the original recording for any commercial purpose, you must get the permission of the copyright holder and negotiate a price; but to use the melody and lyrics, you don't need permission and you pay only a low price fixed by statute.
The result, of course, is economic waste. Were it not for this legal structure, both Halloween shoppers and karaoke singers could use the originals, and economic resources wouldn't get spent on the creation of lousy knock-offs. The goal of the law, of course, is to assure that the artists get compensated for their effort. But the reality is that the artists get only nominal compensation (from the music/lyrics payment), while music listeners get treated to second-rate performances.