Cover Song Licensing 101 – Everything Musicians Need to Know

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Last updatedLast updated: December 30, 2023
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Creating a successful cover song involves more than just musical talent; it requires a solid understanding of the licensing process to ensure your work is legally sound. Let’s break down the essential steps and considerations for legally releasing a cover song, focusing on mechanical licensing, which is crucial for audio-only distribution.

Understanding Cover Songs

A cover song is a new performance of a previously released song, keeping the original lyrics and melody intact. It’s not a derivative work like a remix or a sample, and it needs to be uploaded with the exact title of the original song for legal distribution. Cover songs are a great way to connect with audiences, especially if you cover a well-loved track.

The Importance of Mechanical Licensing

When you release a cover song on platforms with digital downloads or in physical formats (like CDs, tapes, or vinyl), you need a mechanical license. This license allows you to reproduce and distribute the song legally. For digital platforms like iTunes and Amazon Music, as well as physical formats, obtaining a mechanical license is mandatory.

How to Obtain a Mechanical License

  1. Identify the Copyright Owner: Start by identifying the song’s publisher. This information can usually be found via BMI, ASCAP, SESAC, or the U.S. Copyright Office.
  2. Securing a License: In the U.S., the Harry Fox Agency is a primary resource for obtaining mechanical licenses. They guide you through the process, which involves providing details about the original song and the number of copies you plan to distribute. Remember, the license needs to be secured for each territory where you plan to distribute your cover.
  3. Distributing Your Cover: Once licensed, you can distribute your cover song within the licensed territories. Be aware that the Harry Fox Agency’s jurisdiction is limited to the United States, so you’ll need separate licenses for other regions.

Special Considerations for Streaming Platforms

If you’re releasing a cover song exclusively on streaming platforms like Spotify, you don’t need a separate mechanical license, as these platforms manage the licensing. However, a mechanical license is necessary if you plan to distribute through streaming and physical or downloadable formats.

Cover Songs on Social Media and Video Platforms

Platforms like TikTok and Instagram don’t generally require licenses for user-generated content, including casual cover song interpretations. However, for YouTube, you technically need a sync license for any cover version that includes video. YouTube’s Content ID system compensates by paying the original song’s publisher royalties.

Handling Non-Compulsory Licensing Cases

If the original song wasn’t officially released in the U.S. in an audio-only format, obtaining a license can be more challenging. You may need to contact the publisher or songwriter for permission directly. Also, if your cover significantly alters the lyrics or melody, it falls into the category of a “Derivative Work,” requiring a different licensing process.

The Process of Licensing Through Distributors

Some distributors like Soundrop simplify the licensing process. They handle the Notice of Intent, liaise with publishers, and manage royalty payments on your behalf. This is particularly helpful as they also track and renew your license as needed.

Fine-Tuning Your Licensing Knowledge

  1. Know Your Territory: Licensing rules can vary by region. For instance, what works in the U.S. may not fly in Europe or Asia. Always check the regional requirements wherever you plan to release your cover.
  2. Timing Matters: When you send in your Notice of Intention (NOI) for a compulsory license, do it at least 30 days before releasing your cover. This heads-up is not just polite; and it’s legally required.
  3. Royalties – Paying Your Dues: Once your cover is out there, you must send in monthly royalty statements and payments. This is crucial; it’s how the original artists or their representatives get their fair share for their creative work.

Specifics for Different Platforms

  • Streaming Services: Platforms like Spotify and Apple Music handle mechanical licenses, but this only covers streaming. If you plan to sell or offer downloads, you need your license.
  • Physical Media: If you’re going old school with CDs, vinyl, or even cassettes, you definitely need a mechanical license. This is a must for physical distribution.
  • YouTube and Video Content: You’re technically supposed to have a sync license for YouTube covers because you’re syncing music to video. However, YouTube sort of bypasses this with its revenue-sharing model. But remember, it’s not a free pass. If the rights holder isn’t happy, they can still take action.

Dealing with Derivative Works

If your cover strays from the original in significant ways – like changing the lyrics or melody – you’re entering “derivative work” territory. This is a whole other ballgame and requires specific permissions from the rights holders. It’s more complicated than a straight-up cover, so tread carefully.

Partnering with Distributors

Some distributors make the licensing process smoother. They handle the nitty-gritty of legalities and royalties. It’s like having a backstage pass to the complicated world of music rights.

Keep Your Info Accurate

When you apply for a license, be spot-on with your song info. The title, original artist, and publisher get all this right. Any mistakes can slow down the process or even derail it.

Final Thoughts

Cover songs are more than just a tribute to the originals; they’re a bridge to new fans and a testament to your artistic versatility. But like any artistic endeavor, they come with responsibilities – legal and ethical. By understanding and adhering to the licensing requirements, you’re not just keeping things above board; you’re showing respect to the original creators and contributing to the rich tapestry of the music industry.

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