How to Legally Record and Release a Cover Song (And Generate Income)

recording and production

Fancy putting your own spin on a timeless classic? You’re in good company. Cover songs are the secret weapon of the music world, offering artists the chance to reinterpret hits, connect with a ready-made audience, and flaunt their creative chops. They can even serve as a stepping stone to stardom. But as with anything that sounds too good to be true, there’s a catch—or rather, several.

From navigating a maze of legalities to choosing the right platform for your musical gem, releasing a cover song is more complicated than hitting “record” on your phone and uploading it to the cloud. But don’t fret, we’ve got you covered—pun fully intended. This is your one-stop guide to recording and releasing cover songs, offering you a complete roadmap from the legality of copyright to the thrill of TikTok virality. 

Why Release a Cover Song?

Releasing a cover song offers a unique set of advantages for musicians right off the bat. The songs are already well-known, so they carry a level of familiarity that can engage listeners from the first note. It’s like getting a head start on making an impact; you don’t have to work as hard to capture your audience’s attention.

But don’t think of it as merely riding on the coattails of the original artist. Cover songs are an opportunity to showcase your own musical sensibilities. Whether you put an acoustic spin on a classic rock tune or reimagine a pop hit with a jazz influence, the possibilities are endless. It’s your chance to make the song your own and perhaps even introduce it to a new audience that wouldn’t have considered listening to it before.

What’s more, cover songs are a potent tool for marketing and promotion. Planning on releasing new original material soon? Consider dropping a cover song to build anticipation and engage your fanbase. Platforms like YouTube and TikTok also favour well-executed cover songs, making them an excellent medium for widening your reach and gaining new followers.

Must-Know Legalities

Before you jump into the recording booth with your heart set on that iconic tune, it’s crucial to get your legal ducks in a row. Ignorance isn’t bliss when it comes to copyright law; it can actually result in some severe legal headaches. Here’s what you need to know:

In the world of music, copyright law guards two key elements of any song: the composition and the original recording. The composition includes the music score and lyrics, usually the brainchild of the songwriter. The original recording, often referred to as the ‘master recording,’ is the unique audio rendition of that composition, capturing not just the song itself but also the specific performance by the artists and musicians involved.

Understanding these two distinct elements is crucial because you’ll need different permissions for each if you plan to record a cover song. If you’re covering a song but recording your own version, then your focus will be on obtaining rights to the composition. This is usually done through a compulsory license, which allows you to record and distribute your cover song.

However, if you intend to use a snippet of the original recording—say, as a sample in your own track—that’s an entirely different ballgame. For this, you’ll need permission directly from the owner of the master recording, which could be the recording artist, the record label, or another rights holder. Sampling typically involves a separate agreement and often more complex negotiations, sometimes requiring a chunk of change for usage rights.

By understanding these two key aspects of music copyright, you’ll avoid legal missteps and ensure that your cover song venture starts on a solid, respectful foundation.

Singer recording cover song

A Step-by-Step Guide to Compulsory Licenses

If you’re planning to release a cover song, obtaining a licence is non-negotiable. The most commonly used for covers is a compulsory licence. A compulsory licence gives you the mechanical rights to record and distribute someone else’s copyrighted work, as long as you pay a set fee and adhere to certain guidelines. Different types of licences might be needed depending on your specific use case, but a compulsory licence is often the starting point for most artists venturing into the realm of cover songs.

For those who prefer a more streamlined approach, digital distribution services like TuneCore, Ditto, or CD baby offer an invaluable shortcut. These platforms can obtain the compulsory licence for you, handling administrative tasks like sending the Notice of Intention and ensuring that mechanical royalties are paid to the original songwriter. This allows you to focus on the creative process while they handle the paperwork.

Obtaining a License without a Distribution Platform

If you aren’t distributing your music through a distribution company, you may decide to obtain a compulsory license yourself. Here are the basic steps to take:

  1. Identify the Rights Holder: The first step is to identify who owns the rights to the song you want to cover. This is usually the songwriter or the songwriter’s publisher.
  2. Send a Notice of Intention: Before you distribute your cover, you’re required to send a formal “Notice of Intention to Obtain a Compulsory Licence” to the rights holder. This can usually be done through their publishing company or through agencies like PRS for Music in the United Kingdom.
  3. Pay Mechanical Royalties: The compulsory license mandates that you pay mechanical royalties to the original songwriter for every copy made of your cover song. The rate for these is often set by legislation and varies from country to country.
  4. Additional Licences: If you’re planning to use the song in a way that the compulsory license doesn’t cover—like in a music video or a public performance—you’ll need additional licenses like a synchronisation or performance license.
  5. Record and Distribute: Once you’ve secured the necessary permissions and licences, you can go ahead with recording and distributing your cover song.

Country-Specific Guidelines

For country-specific licensing, check out the following agencies:

  • United States: Use the services of the Harry Fox Agency to simplify the process of obtaining compulsory licenses.
  • United Kingdom: You can obtain licences through PRS, which can grant you permissions to cover and distribute songs within the UK.
  • Canada: The Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency (CMRRA) can assist with licensing in Canada.
  • Australia: The Australasian Mechanical Copyright Owners Society (AMCOS) covers licensing for cover songs in Australia.

Mechanical Royalties vs. Performance Royalties

What Are Mechanical Royalties?

Mechanical royalties are fees that go to the songwriter or their publisher. These are paid when your cover version is reproduced and distributed—be it through sales, streaming, or even free copies. The aim is to compensate the original songwriter for the usage of their composition.

What Are Performance Royalties?

Performance royalties are a bit more complex. These are paid out when a song—be it the original or a cover—is performed in a public setting like live shows, radio broadcasts, or streaming services. Performance royalties are typically distributed among the songwriters, their publisher, and sometimes the performing artists, depending on various rights and agreements.

Additional Licences for Sampling and Beyond

If you plan to use a sample from an existing track, know that a compulsory licence won’t cover you. Sampling requires a different type of licence, often referred to as a ‘clearance,’ from the original rights holder. This is a more complicated process and generally needs direct negotiation with the copyright owners. Here’s a quick rundown:

  1. Identify the Rights Holder: Much like with cover songs, you’ll need to find out who owns the copyright for the sample you want to use. This is often both the record label and the original songwriter.
  2. Seek Permission: Contact the rights holder to negotiate terms. Be prepared; this can be a lengthy process and could incur significant fees.
  3. Pay the Agreed Fees: Once you’ve negotiated the terms, you’ll have to pay the agreed-upon fee, which can be a one-time payment or it may be based on sales or streams.
  4. Legal Formalities: Ensure that all permissions and agreements are clearly documented in writing to avoid any future disputes.

By properly navigating the maze of additional licences, you can steer clear of legal troubles and ensure your music reaches its intended audience without hiccups.

Uploading & Distribution

So you’ve secured the necessary licences, and you’re all set to release your sensational cover track. The next major step? Deciding where to distribute your music. Each platform has its quirks and policies concerning cover songs, and understanding them can make a world of difference.

Digital Streaming Services

Platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, Youtube Music and Amazon Music are the giants of music distribution. These services usually require you to go through a digital distribution company like TuneCore or DistroKid, which can also handle the compulsory licence for you.

YouTube

The rules for cover songs on YouTube are a bit trickier. While you can upload a cover song, YouTube’s Content ID system will likely identify it and could direct ad revenues to the original songwriter. You also need to make sure you have the appropriate licences for making a video of the cover.

SoundCloud

SoundCloud is a bit more lenient with cover songs, but don’t skip on getting a proper license. Their policy states that you’re solely responsible for any copyright infringements, so make sure all your bases are covered.

Bandcamp

On Bandcamp, you’re expected to handle all licensing arrangements yourself. You have the freedom to set your price, which makes it a favourite among independent artists, but remember: you’ll still owe mechanical royalties to the original songwriter.

Choosing a Digital Distributor

The easiest way to get your cover songs on Apple Music, Spotify and YouTube Music is to use an established digital distribution company. Here’s a breakdown of the major players, each with their own unique selling points.

TuneCore

TuneCore is renowned for offering 100% of the royalties to the artists while charging an annual fee per single or album. They handle compulsory licensing and distribution to multiple platforms, including Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music. It’s user-friendly and offers additional promotional services at an extra cost.

Ditto

Ditto offers a unique approach to music distribution. Alongside a yearly subscription fee, they provide a range of tailored services for emerging and established artists. Compulsory licences are part of the package, and they are known for a fast, efficient process. Ditto also allows artists to distribute to platforms typically not covered by other distribution companies.

DistroKid

DistroKid offers a different pricing model—a flat yearly fee for unlimited uploads. They also take care of compulsory licences for cover songs and distribute to a wide array of platforms. Their selling point is their speed; music often appears online quicker than it does with other services.

CD Baby

CD Baby is a veteran in the distribution game. They charge a one-time fee for a single or album and a small commission on sales. They also provide compulsory licences for cover songs and have a more extensive array of services, including CD and vinyl distribution.

Busker monetisation

Monetising Cover Songs

While original compositions provide more opportunities for income generation, don’t underestimate the financial potential of cover songs. With the right strategies in place, your covers can transition from being simple passion projects to robust sources of revenue. Here’s how to navigate the financial landscape of cover songs and turn them into reliable income streams:

Digital and Direct Sales

Platforms like Apple Music and Amazon, as well as direct-to-fan sites like Bandcamp, allow you to sell your cover tracks. Selling directly usually yields a higher profit margin. Remember, you will need to pay mechanical royalties to the original songwriter.

Streaming Services and Streaming Revenue

Whether it’s Spotify, Apple Music, or Deezer, each stream contributes to your earnings, albeit with notoriously low payouts. Maximise your streaming revenue by deploying smart playlist strategies and engaging your audience through social media.

YouTube Monetisation

Uploading your cover to YouTube opens you up to Content ID, which could flag your work as copyrighted. The original rights holder has options: block the video, monetise it themselves, or share the revenue with you. To further boost your income, use Google’s AdSense and consider joining a Multi-Channel Network (MCN) for greater exposure.

Patreon and Crowdfunding

These platforms allow for direct financial support from your fans. If you have a strong, engaged following, this can be a solid income source.

Live Performances

Add variety to your setlist with cover songs, making your gigs more appealing to new fans and potentially attracting a broader audience.

Licensing and Sync Opportunities

A unique or marketable cover might catch the eye of someone in TV, film, or advertising. Sync licences can bring substantial revenue and expand your audience.

Monetisation Pitfalls to Sidestep

Navigating the world of music monetisation is a bit like walking a tightrope—there’s plenty of room for missteps that could cost you. Here’s a breakdown of the common pitfalls to be aware of:

Ignoring Contract Details

One of the quickest ways to run into trouble is skimming over contracts. Take the time to delve into the terms and conditions of each platform or distributor you use. Overlooking key clauses or limitations could severely impact your revenue and even result in legal complications.

Forgetting to Pay Royalties

When it comes to cover songs, mechanical royalties are part and parcel of the business. If you’re going solo without a distribution service that sorts this out for you, staying on top of these payments is crucial. Failing to meet this obligation isn’t just bad form; it’s a legal issue that can bring about hefty fines or lawsuits.

Neglecting Marketing

Putting your cover songs out there is only half the battle; the other half is making sure people actually hear them. Don’t underestimate the power of a well-thought-out marketing strategy. Consistent social media updates, regular engagement through email newsletters, and strategic collaborations with other artists can elevate your visibility. No amount of talent can compensate for a lack of exposure.

Underestimating the Power of Data Analytics

Platforms provide a wealth of data that can inform your approach, from who is listening to where they’re tuning in from. Ignoring this data means missing out on valuable insights that could shape your marketing strategies.

Overlooking Alternate Revenue Avenues

While digital sales and streaming are the most obvious routes, additional avenues like merchandise or exclusive fan experiences should not be ignored. These can provide an extra layer of income and deepen your connection with your audience.

Music mashup - girl playing guitar

Mashups and Remixes

Navigating the world of mashups and remixes involves a different set of rules compared to cover songs. While the creative possibilities are endless, the legal considerations are complex. Let’s break down what you need to know to avoid getting tangled in a web of copyright infringements.

How to Get a License For Mashups

Mashups are essentially compositions that blend two or more pre-existing songs. Although they can be mesmerising works of art, copyright laws see them as derivative works. This means you’ll need permission from the rights holders of all the songs you’re using.

Steps to Take:

  1. Identify the Rights Holders: Know who owns the rights to each song you’re using, usually the songwriter or the publisher.
  2. Seek Permission: Contact the rights holders to obtain the necessary licences. Unlike cover songs, there’s no compulsory licence route for mashups.
  3. Written Agreements: Always get permission in writing to protect yourself against future legal complications.

How to Get a License For A Remix

Remixes involve altering an original song to produce something distinct. Whether you’re adding new beats, changing the tempo, or incorporating other sound effects, a remix is also a derivative work in the eyes of the law.

Steps to Take:

  1. Permission from Original Artist: Acquiring explicit permission from the original artist or rights holder is crucial before proceeding with your remix project.
  2. Negotiating Terms: In some cases, you may have to negotiate terms, including revenue-sharing or royalty payments.
  3. Documentation: Again, keep written records of all agreements to ward off any potential legal issues.

Special Licences: Master Use & Sync

For mashups and remixes, you may also need a Master Use Licence from the record label that owns the original recording, especially if you’re using the actual audio from the original song. Additionally, if your mashup or remix will be used in TV, film, or advertising, you’ll need a Sync Licence as well.

Keep it Clean: Royalty Agreements

Whether you’re working on a mashup or a remix, there may be multiple parties expecting a cut of any potential earnings. Always clarify royalty agreements upfront to avoid disputes later.

By understanding the maze of licences involved in creating mashups and remixes, you’re not only safeguarding your work but also respecting the original artists who inspired you in the first place. So go ahead, mix, mash, and remix—just make sure you’ve got the legalities covered.

Cover Song Case Studies

Sure, all the talk about licences, royalties, and platforms is crucial, but let’s shift gears for a moment. Understanding the law is vital, but seeing how it’s done in the real world can be just as enlightening. Here are some case studies of artists who took cover songs and made them soar, along with key takeaways from their success stories.

Case Study 1: Johnny Cash and ‘Hurt’

Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” isn’t just a cover; it’s an emotional reimagining that breathed new life into an already powerful song. Cash’s rendition received critical acclaim and brought a new audience to his late-career catalogue.

Key Takeaway:

Don’t be afraid to cover songs outside your genre. It can introduce you to new audiences and offer a fresh perspective on an old classic.

Case Study 2: Whitney Houston and ‘I Will Always Love You’

Originally penned and performed by Dolly Parton, Whitney Houston’s take on “I Will Always Love You” became an international mega-hit. It also helped make “The Bodyguard” soundtrack one of the best-selling of all time.

Key Takeaway:

Great vocals can make a song your own. If you can bring something exceptional to the table, like Houston’s vocal prowess, you can make any song a hit.

Case Study 3: Soft Cell and ‘Tainted Love’

Soft Cell’s synth-pop version of “Tainted Love,” initially a 1964 soul song, became a signature of the 1980s. The British duo’s rendition eclipsed the original in popularity, becoming one of the best-selling singles in the UK.

Key Takeaway:

Creative rearrangement can be a game-changer. If you’re going to cover an older song, modernising it can make it more relatable to today’s audiences.

Case Study 4: Jeff Buckley and ‘Hallelujah’

While Leonard Cohen’s original was beautiful in its own right, Jeff Buckley’s rendition of “Hallelujah” struck a chord with a whole new generation. It’s become so iconic that many people don’t even realise it’s a cover.

Key Takeaway:

Sometimes, less is more. Buckley’s sparse arrangement focussed on his vocals and guitar, proving that you don’t always need a full band or elaborate production to make a powerful cover.

Final Notes

The world of cover songs is a dynamic one, with legal landscapes and monetisation opportunities continually evolving. It’s crucial to keep yourself updated with the latest laws and policies to ensure you’re always on the right side of the law—and to make the most out of your musical ventures.

From legal necessities to savvy monetisation tactics, we’ve given you the playbook. Now it’s your turn to take centre stage. Don’t just hum along to your favourite hits—transform them into your unique renditions and seize the opportunity to shine.