Cover song licensing made easy

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Most musicians begin their journey by covering songs from artists they love (Wonderwall anyone?), a practice that often continues well into their careers. Putting your own spin on a classic tune not only helps you develop your sound but keeps you in touch with a long lineage of exceptional songwriting. In a live setting, a well-executed cover can showcase your admiration for other great musicians. Moreover, releasing a refreshed version of an old track can help you reach a new audience.

Do you need permission to cover a song? No. But if you plan on releasing a cover song, you’ll need to make sure it's properly licensed. While dealing with licensing might seem tedious, it’s a necessary step to avoid copyright infringement. Imagine pouring your heart and soul into creating what you consider to be your masterpiece, only to have other musicians continually release copies of your track without any benefit to you. This underscores the importance of song licensing for covers: it’s a protection designed to ensure that the original creator of a track is properly recognised and compensated whenever anyone else wants to release their version of the song.

Securing a license yourself can be complex, time-consuming, and sometimes costly. So it’s generally handled by the record label you’re releasing on, and thankfully nowadays, through your distributor. So, if you’re self-releasing, don’t be deterred. Releasing a cover can be incredibly rewarding. From Luke Combs’ Fast Car (Tracy Chapman) to Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen) and Aretha Franklin’s Respect (Otis Redding), many covers can go on to be more famous than the original itself!

So, if you’re working on a cover that’s starting to take shape or already sounds studio-polished and you’re eager to share it with the world, read on to learn more about the licensing process and what you need to know to navigate it successfully.

Cover Song Licensing, the basics

What is a cover song?

Simply put, a cover is ‘a new performance or recording of a song by a musician other than the original performer or composer of the song.

How to check if the song is a cover?

Essentially, if you are creating a new version of a song that already exists, it is a cover. However, if the copyright for the original song has expired, you will be able to record a new cover without having to worry about licensing. The easiest way to check this is by verifying whether the song is now in the public domain via resources like PDINFO.

Why do you need a license for cover songs?

When a new song is written, it automatically gets copyrighted, granting the creator the exclusive rights to ‘make copies’ of the work. Therefore, to legally release a cover song, you must obtain a license from the copyright holder.

When you don’t need to license a cover song?

As mentioned, if the copyright for the song has expired, you are free to release a cover of it.

Also, performing a cover song live that isn’t going to be recorded and published is normally fair game too. Technically, these performances are covered by a venue’s PRS license, which leaves them responsible for paying the original rightsholder of the song a performance royalty.

What about playing cover songs on social media platforms?

While you may want to share your covers on social media for visibility, you technically have to seek permission to do this too.

Platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook are legally obliged to remove a video of you performing a cover for copyright infringement, unless you have obtained the relevant permissions. Some platforms have blanket licensing agreements with certain music rights organisations, which may allow for the use of certain songs.

Understand different types of music licenses

In the music industry, there are 3 key licenses that exist to ensure artists' work is protected and royalties are paid to rights holders. They are:

1. Mechanical Licenses - relate to when a musical piece is duplicated, such as physical copies or digital downloads. A mechanical license for a cover song is therefore necessary as it is effectively a new ‘copy’ of a piece of work.

2. Synchronisation Licenses - relate to the use of their musical works in ‘synchronisation’ with visual media, such as movies, television shows, and commercials. Hence, these are required when you upload a video accompanying the song, such as for YouTube.

3. Performance Licenses - as it says on the tin, these licenses relate to the public performance of a musical composition. Performance licenses are needed when a song is performed live in a public setting.

Cover songs typically fall under the mechanical license category. However, if you plan to create a music video for your cover song or perform it live, you may also need to secure sync and performance licenses, respectively.

💡 For more on this, check out our guide on music royalties, which covers how artists get paid owing to these copyrights.

What happens if you release a cover song without a license?

The consequences of releasing a cover song without a license can vary depending on the context. As mentioned at the start of the article, covering songs is a common practice. However, issues can arise when you distribute a recorded version of someone else’s track without obtaining the necessary licenses. In theory, this could lead to a licensing dispute or even a lawsuit. But in reality, it’s highly unlikely that such measures would be worth anyone’s time or resources.

What typically happens first is that the unlicensed cover is detected or reported to the platform where it’s been uploaded (like YouTube or Spotify), and it’s removed fairly quickly. However, this should not be taken as a greenlight to release an unlicensed cover.

Licensing disputes can get complex. A notable example is the case between Chuck Berry and The Beach Boys. If you’re familiar with Chuck Berry’s 1958 hit Sweet Little Sixteen and The Beach Boys’ Surfin’ USA released in 1963, you’ll know they are essentially the same song, apart from the lyrics. Surfin’ USA is, in effect, a cover of Sweet Little Sixteen, and as a result, The Beach Boys’ lawyer had to sign over the publishing rights to Chuck Berry. So don’t go trying anything like that, it won’t fly.

How much does it cost to license a cover song?

Each territory has its own laws about statutory royalty rates for cover songs. In the US, the mechanical rate for physical (CDs/vinyl) and digital downloads is a mere 12 cents per copy. For streaming-only releases, it’s not actually necessary to obtain a mechanical license. However, if you’re uploading to multiple platforms that include digital downloads and you want to earn revenue, you don’t have to worry too much about this part.

Independent distributors, such as DistroKid, will handle this for you and deduct the payments from what you are owed.

How To Release a Cover Song on Spotify or other streaming platforms?

As mentioned above, you do not actually need to license a track to cover it if you’re releasing it on Spotify only. Via your distributor, simply select the relevant (audio-only) option, and they will process any royalties owed on their end.

💡 Find out more about promoting your music on Spotify

What about playing cover songs on YouTube?

With YouTube, you will need to obtain both a mechanical and sync license to cover a track, otherwise, they are likely to demonetise, mute, or block the content.

For covers, this can generally be done quite easily via the Harry Fox Agency in the US, MCPS in the UK, or the relevant mechanical royalties society in your country. There is usually a straightforward form to fill out, which gets reviewed before being approved.

Do music videos for cover songs require a license?

Yes, for music videos of cover songs, you’ll need both a mechanical and sync license. If you record a cover, you’re welcome to make your own video for it.

How to legally play a cover song in a live performance?

As mentioned, it is almost always the venue you’re performing in that is required to pay a performance royalty when you cover a song.

The only exception would be when you want to record and distribute recordings of the live performance, unless the ‘music is played as part of a worship service, or as part of an in-person teaching activity at a non-profit educational institution’.

What is an International Standard Recording Code or ISRC?

Once you’ve obtained the relevant licenses for your tracks, you’ll need to register your own version of it.

This is done via PPL in the UK and various copyright collection societies all over the world.

When you register as a creator, you’ll get a unique code for all the recordings you are going to register, allowing you to sequentially add new music and create new ISRCs when you have new tracks. This code looks like this: AA6Q72000047. For more about these, check out their website.

How to collect royalties on cover songs?

Collecting royalties on your cover songs works in the same way as with any other of your tracks. Once you’ve obtained the relevant license, your royalties will be paid through various streams - from your distributor via streaming and download platforms, as well as any collection societies you’re a member of.

You will not collect publishing royalties on covers however, as you weren’t the original creator of the song.

Cover song licensing companies

It’s advisable that you do not negotiate licensing deals yourself with rightsholders - if you aren’t experienced, you could end up with a bad deal.

Thankfully, most distribution companies now offer cover song licensing as an additional service, which makes it really straightforward. All of the below state they will obtain licenses and pay original songwriters on an ongoing basis for the price listed:

  • DistroKid - an industry-leading independent distributor for creators. Whether you’re a band, solo musician or DJ/producer, a subscription costs just $22.99 per year, allowing you to upload unlimited albums and songs to all streamers and you keep all the royalties. Other services include mastering and music video uploading. It costs just $12 per cover song annually for them to handle the licensing and payments.

  • Tunecore - another great digital music distribution, publishing and licensing service company. Their plans range from free (very limited) through rising artist ($19.99 - recommended starting point allowing you to distribute to streamers and digital stores), breakout artist ($34.99) and professional ($49.99) tiers. Each unlocks more and more perks like ‘Spotify Verified Artist Checkmark’, ‘Daily Trends Report’ and ‘Access to Exclusive Partnerships’ - for the full breakdown of these check out their website. Their cover song service costs an extra $70 for a standard license (covered forever), $17 for limited (up to 500 downloads).

  • SoundDrop - a newer distribution service that is straightforward to use and for artists on a tight budget. They offer all the same services distribution-wise and operate by charging a mere 99¢ per track (plus an extra 99¢ for cover licensing), as well as taking a 15% cut of your royalties.

  • Easy Song Licensing - Unlike the above, Easy Song does not offer distribution services, but are arguably the best music licensing only site in the business. Whatever you need permission to use, they can sort it - copyrighted music in film, print, web, tv, advertising, stage, podcasts, YouTube and more. For them to clear a cover, it costs $16.99 per song plus royalties (and offer a breakdown of how these are calculated here).

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What are the differences between cover song licensing in the UK and the US?

Cover song licensing varies between countries due to differences in copyright laws and official societies. How to get a mechanical license and cover songs legally requires going through the correct organisation in your country.

Here are the key differences between the UK and the US.

UK (all generally a subsidiary of PRS)

  • Mechanical and Sync Licenses: In the UK, these are only obtained through MCPS.

  • Cover Licensing Through PRS for Music: PRS for Music is the main body that handles licensing for cover songs in the UK.

  • Performance Licenses: This is handled by TheMusicLicence via PPL PRS LTD.

US (all generally related to The Harry Fox Agency)

  • Mechanical Licenses and sync: In the US, mechanical licenses for audio are typically obtained through the Harry Fox Agency.

The Harry Fox Agency is the main body that handles mechanical licensing for cover songs in the US and plays 3 key roles for independent artists: royalty collection, licensing and advocacy.

Before you register with the Harry Fox Agency, you’ll need to register with a performing rights organisation such as ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC, but then it's pretty straightforward.

  • Compulsory Licensing: The US has a provision known as ‘compulsory licensing’, which allows anyone to cover and distribute a song once it has been publicly released, provided they pay the statutory royalties.

  • Performance Licenses: These licenses, usually managed by the venue or the performer’s PRO.

3 Best Practices for Cover Song Licensing

  1. First and foremost, maintain detailed records of all your licensing agreements and royalty payments. Your choice of distributor should provide this and the proof of payments safeguard you against potential legal issues.

  2. Financial planning is another aspect. Obtaining a cover song license shouldn’t be a significant expense, but do factor these costs into your budget. In relation to the above, when it comes to licensing services, do opt for reputable companies. Services like DistroKid or Easy Song Licensing can simplify the process and ensure that all legal requirements are met.

  3. Understanding copyright laws is also vital. These laws can be complex and vary by country, so make sure to look into the relevant laws in your own, as well as the country of the original artist.

So there you have it - the world of cover song licensing made simple. Hopefully, you can now feel like you know what the next steps are towards releasing a cover without too much of a headache. Remember, when you cover a song, you are borrowing someone else’s creative work, even if you are putting your own interpretation on it. Properly licensing your cover and paying the necessary royalties is a way of showing respect to the original creator, as I’m sure you would like too.

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