legally releasing cover songs

How To Legally Release Cover Songs (9 Integral Tips)

There are a number of reasons why one may want to legally record and release a cover song. First, covering a well-known song, especially a current hit is a great way to capitalize on an already attentive audience and introduce yourself to a larger fan base.


Not only that, but many music supervisors actually seek out cover songs for use in TV or film. This is something we’ve talked about in the past and you can delve a little deeper into the benefits of a cover song in our previous post on the subject here


Although there are plenty of benefits to recording and releasing a cover song, many artists never do. This is usually due to the concern regarding the legalities of releasing a cover of another person’s composition.


However, doing so legally is not as daunting as one might think. If done properly and ethically, the rewards of such a release can really benefit an artist’s career.


Below are some of our top tips to keep in mind if you’d like to record and release a cover song.


1. You Don’t Need Permission to Cover a Song

Gavel.jpeg

A common misconception in the music industry is that you need to receive permission from the original composer in order to record a cover version of their song. However, US copyright law makes it much easier than that for artists wishing to cover a piece of music.


This is thanks to something known as “compulsory licensing.” Compulsory licensing basically states that the owners of a song can’t deny you releasing your own interpretation. There are two things you must do however, if you wish to go this route.


First, you must notify the owner of your intent to cover the song. Once again, this isn’t asking for permission, it simply lets them know what’s going on with their composition.


Second, you must pay a specific royalty rate per song being purchased or downloaded. The current royalty rate, per purchase/download is 9.1 cents for music under 5 minutes. If the song is over 5 minutes the rate is 1.75 cents per minute or fraction thereof.


We’ll dig a little deeper into how to pay this rate and what it covers in our next tip.


2. Obtain a Mechanical License for Online Releases


The royalty rate that you need to pay in order to legally release a cover song is known as a “mechanical license.” This allows you to make and sell “phonorecords” of a song, originally composed by another artist.

iPhone With Headphones.jpeg

Originally, a phonorecord referred to any physical recording of a song such as CDs, tapes or vinyl. However, with the internet that term now extends to digital downloads such as MP3s sold on your website or through another platform like Bandcamp.


There are plenty of services out there that help you to obtain a mechanical license for a cover song and pay the required royalty rate. The primary organization doing this is known as the Harry Fox Agency (HFA).


HFA is a massive organization currently handling over 100,000 catalogs for some of the biggest music publishers in the US. Their large network and simple online system make it easy for artists to obtain a mechanical license and pay fees.

Headphones On Laptop.jpeg

This organization requires you to let them know the number of physical versions being pressed or expected download sales. You then pay the fee for that number upfront. So, if you expect to sell 1000 units, at a 9.1 cents royalty rate you would have to pay $91.


For digital downloads, you’re required to keep track of how many downloads have been made. Once you reach the number of unit sales estimated, whether physical or digital, you will be required to purchase more mechanical licenses and pay additional fees.


Although HFA is the most reputable and straightforward way to license a track, there are cases where they may not be able to obtain a mechanical license.


In these scenarios, services such as EasySongLicensing.com will help you obtain a mechanical license for any song. The catch is that in addition to paying the royalty rate, you’re also required to pay the company a fee.


3. Make Sure It’s Actually a Cover


If you want to legally release the song it’s important to confirm that what you’re recording is actually a cover. That is to say, you can’t stray too much from the structure of the original song.


If you want to easily obtain the proper licensing, you have to more or less stick to the original lyrics, melody and meaning of the song.


The tips in this guide are targeted at artists doing just that. Parodying, sampling or making a medley of songs is a different ballpark and the process of legally releasing these differs.


Therefore, before you even begin clearing your song, be sure that what you’re recording is legally considered a cover.


4. Digital Aggregators Handle Heavy Lifting for Streaming Release

Spotify On Laptop.jpeg

A mechanical license works great for releases where people will be purchasing the music. However, it doesn’t apply to streaming services. In these cases an additional streaming license is required.

Thankfully most major digital aggregators such as CD Baby and DistroKid make this really easy. 


They offer services that for a fee will distribute your song to all major streaming platforms, notify the composer/publisher of its release, pay the necessary licensing fee and take care of all the other legal red tape involved with releasing a cover song on a streaming platform.

Spotify On Cell Phone.jpeg

Another really big player in cover song licensing and digital distribution is Soundrop. They’re a digital aggregator and music licensor with a primary focus on cover songs.


Not only will they license and distribute songs for a low one-time fee, they are also a fantastic resource on everything that should be considered when releasing a cover online.


5. Obtain an ISRC


When distributing an original or a cover song, systems need to be able to differentiate your version from others. On top of that, you don’t want your song getting confused with others of the same name.


This is where it can be very important to obtain an International Standard Recording Code or ISRC. An ISRC is the primary system in the recording industry for identifying a specific recording, not the composition itself.


Outside of cover songs, artists may use this to differentiate between a studio recording and a live recording, for example.


Digital distributors will require an ISRC code to make sure everyone who should be getting paid from a recording is. In addition, it’s important to embed an ISRC into the digital download files being sold.


There are plenty of people claiming to issue ISRCs online. However, you don’t want to mistakenly receive the same ISRC as another song. Therefore, only acquire ISRCs from official ISRC managers. 

Check out the video below for a quick run down on ISRCs.

6. A Music Video Requires a Sync License

Although obtaining a mechanical or streaming license is great for releasing an audio recording, it doesn’t clear every situation. If you want to legally release a music video for your cover song there’s some more red tape you’ll have to go through.


Placing a song to video, even if it’s a cover song requires a sync or synchronization license. Obtaining this can be quite more involved than the mechanical license. You need to go straight to the music publisher or composer for their permission.

Music Video Shoot With Artists.jpeg

You then submit a formal request and get quoted a licensing fee to use the song. Even if they do agree to allow you to release a video, the fees can be quite high.


There are services out there to assist you in this process but this may be the least of your worries, depending on the situation in which a video is being released. More on that in the next two tips.


7. YouTube and Its Content ID Are Your Friends

YouTube On Cellphone.jpeg

If a sync license is required to put a cover of a song to video, you may be wondering how all the artists made famous from covering pop songs on YouTube obtain one.


The short answer is that they don’t. There technically is a risk to posting a cover song on YouTube. However, the artist who releases the cover would have to make a lot of money from that song before a publisher would consider taking legal action.


That doesn’t mean the label or original artist can’t have your video removed from YouTube however. Thankfully, YouTube has a system in place known as Content ID that rewards publishers for having artists cover their songs.


Through Content ID, YouTube has blanket publishing deals with over 95% of song publishers. This allows the owner of the original song to find out when a song of theirs is being covered.


They can also choose whether a cover is removed or monetized and more often than not will choose the latter. When this happens, you’ll get a cut of the revenue made through advertisements as well!


This system has been working great for YouTube, songwriters, and the cover artists. It’s greatly reduced the number of conflicts that could arise from cover videos.


So, when YouTube’s Content ID system asks you if what you are releasing is a cover, say yes! They are there to help, not make things harder.


8. Let a Music Supervisor Worry About TV & Film

Film Reels.jpeg

As mentioned in previous posts, music supervisors love using cover songs for TV and film. This is for a number of reasons, but primarily it’s cheaper for them to pay you what’s known as a “master use fee” to use your version, rather than use the original version often owned by a major record label.


A sync license and fee payable to the publisher is still required to place (or “sync”) the music to any form of video; however, in this scenario it’s the job of the music supervisor to negotiate with all parties involved and pay the necessary fees.


The great news about this is that legally placing your cover song in TV or film will cost you nothing. As long as you own the master recording of your cover version, the placement could actually make you a fair amount of money!


9. Harder Areas to Release a Cover


A lot of the laws surrounding copyright were put in place in a time before the internet or before society had a full understanding of its relevance in the industry. Because of this, there are some grey areas when it comes to using a song on certain online platforms where licensing can be tricky.

Scrolling On Laptop.jpeg


These include platforms that don’t pay out any royalties to the artists such as SoundCloud, Facebook or Instagram. In addition to this, if you intend to stream the song on your personal website or wish to use it in a podcast, further licensing and permissions are required.


We could dedicate an entire blog post of its own to this topic so we won’t delve too far into the details. If you don’t want to jump through all the extra hoops to legally clear a cover song for these scenarios, stay away from releasing them on these platforms. At the very least, educate yourself on the risks that may be involved when doing so.


Conclusion


There are plenty of benefits to releasing a cover song but it’s important to consider all the legal matters before you do. Although it may seem like a lot at first, the process of clearing a cover is really quite simple.


Remember that anyone can cover a song without permission as long as the proper license is obtained. A mechanical license is required for selling songs online or in physical format. When releasing a cover on streaming platforms, let a digital aggregator take care of the legal matters. 


All of this is awesome for music releases, but there are additional things to consider when releasing a song with a video. In this case you would need to obtain a sync license. However, if the video is being released on YouTube, their Content ID system may have you covered.


Finally, if the cover song is being sent to a music supervisor for TV or film, you probably don’t have to worry about the sync license. In this case it’s the music supervisor’s job to take care of the negotiations with you and the publisher.


For more advice on music licensing and approaching music supervisors, check out the rest of the Sync Songwriter Blog or sign up to our mailing list.