How to Release a Cover Song Legally: A Step-by-Step Guide for 2024

Learn how to publish a song cover without getting into legal trouble. Avoid copyright infringement and get your royalties by following this guide.

How to Release a Cover Song Legally: A Step-by-Step Guide for 2024

Releasing cover songs is a great way for artists to build their fanbase, display their talents, and pay homage to the musicians who inspire them. This guide will walk you through the process of legally putting out a cover song in 2024, ensuring you avoid any copyright issues and give yourself the best chance of success.

Before diving into the specifics, it's important to understand some key concepts about cover songs and copyright law:

What Is a Cover Song?

A cover song is a new performance or recording of a previously released song by someone other than the original artist. Legally speaking, a cover song should keep the original lyrics, melody, and overall feel of the original composition.

When Does a Cover Become an Adaptation?

If you make significant changes to the character of the song, it may be considered an adaptation or derivative work. This requires additional permissions and potentially a different licensing process.

Examples of changes that might require additional permissions:

  • Translating lyrics to another language
  • Changing the genre dramatically (e.g., turning a ballad into a dance track)
  • Adding new sections or substantially altering the song structure

Do You Need Permission to Cover a Song?

Contrary to popular belief, you don't need explicit permission from the original artist to cover their song. But you do need to obtain proper licensing before releasing your cover. This is where many artists get confused and potentially run into legal trouble.

Why Licensing Matters

Licensing ensures that the original songwriters and publishers receive fair compensation for the use of their intellectual property. It also protects you, the cover artist, from potential copyright infringement claims.

Getting a Mechanical License

The first and most crucial step in legally releasing a cover song is obtaining a mechanical license. This license grants the rights to reproduce and distribute copyrighted musical compositions on CDs, digital downloads, ringtones, interactive streams, and other digital configurations supporting the transmission of music.

How to Get a Mechanical License

There are several ways to obtain a mechanical license:

  1. Using a music distributor. Many digital music distributors like Soundrop, DistroKid, and TuneCore handle licensing for you as part of their distribution services. This is often the easiest and most cost-effective method for independent artists.
  2. Through licensing services. Companies like Easy Song Licensing or Songfile offer mechanical licenses for about $15-$16 per song. These services simplify the process by handling all the paperwork and negotiations with publishers.
  3. Direct from publishers. For more established artists or those releasing physical copies, you may need to obtain licenses directly from the publishers. Note that this process can be more complex and time-consuming.

Mechanical License Fees

As of 2024, the statutory mechanical royalty rates for covers are:

  • For songs five minutes or less: 12.40 cents per copy
  • For songs over five minutes: 2.39 cents per minute (or fraction thereof)

This increase from 12 cents in 2023 to 12.40 cents in 2024 is due to a cost of living adjustment tied to the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers. The change aims to ensure fair compensation for songwriters and publishers in light of economic changes.

Releasing Cover Songs on Streaming Platforms

If you're planning to release your cover song primarily on streaming platforms, the process can be simpler than releasing physical copies or digital downloads.

Digital Aggregators and Streaming Licenses

Most digital aggregators (like DistroKid, CD Baby, or TuneCore) have agreements in place with streaming platforms regarding the necessary licensing for cover songs. When you use these services, they distribute your cover song to major streaming platforms, notify the original composer or publisher of the release, and handle the payment of necessary licensing fees.

When you select the distributor for your cover song, consider the following factors:

  • Pricing structure (per song, annual fee, or percentage of royalties)
  • Additional services offered (e.g., playlist pitching, marketing tools)
  • Speed of distribution
  • Reputation and track record

Note that even though these services simplify the process, it's still your responsibility to ensure all information about the original song is accurate when you submit your cover.

Streaming Royalties

Streaming royalties are more complex and vary based on the platform, number of streams, and your agreement with your distributor. Generally, these are split between:

  • Recording royalties (which go to you as the performer)
  • Composition royalties (which go to the original songwriters and publishers)

Physical Sales vs. Digital Downloads vs. Streaming

For physical sales and digital downloads, you'll pay the mechanical royalty rate for each unit sold. Streaming royalties, on the other hand, are calculated differently. Instead of a per-unit rate, streaming royalties are typically paid out based on a proportional share of the platform's total revenue, which is then divided among all the tracks streamed on that service during the reporting period. In other words, your streaming royalties will depend on factors like the number of streams your cover receives and the overall popularity of the platform.

Releasing Video Content for Cover Songs

If you plan to create a music video for your cover song, you'll need to consider additional licensing requirements. A synchronization license is required when you want to pair music with visual media. This includes music videos, even if they're just for YouTube.

Video Licensing Options

  1. Through YouTube's Content ID system. When you upload a cover song video to YouTube, you can mark it as a cover. YouTube's Content ID system will then allow the original rights holders to choose whether to monetize your video, block it, or leave it as is. Most often, they choose to monetize.
  2. Using We Are The Hits. This service specializes in obtaining sync licenses for cover song videos. They can simplify the process of getting the necessary permissions.
  3. Direct licensing. For more established artists or those wanting full control, you can attempt to obtain a sync license directly from the publisher. However, this can be a complex and potentially expensive process.

Best Practices for Cover Song Videos

  • Always credit the original artist and songwriters in your video description.
  • Don't use the original recording in your video; ensure you're using your own cover version (Duh!).
  • Be prepared for the possibility that your video may be monetized by the original rights holders.

Registering Your Cover Song

Even though you didn't write the original song, you can still earn royalties from your cover version because you own the master recording. Follow the steps below to properly register your cover song.

1. Identify which Performance Rights Organizations (PROs) represent the original songwriter of the song you're covering. The major PROs in the US are:

  • ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers)
  • BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.)
  • SESAC (Society of European Stage Authors and Composers)

2. Register with the appropriate PROs. This will allow you to collect performance royalties when your version is played on radio, TV, or in public venues.

3. Provide necessary information. This includes:

  • The title of the original song
  • The name of the original songwriter
  • The nameof the original publisher
  • Your information as the performer/owner of the master recording

4. Consider SoundExchange registration. In addition to registering with a PRO, also consider registering with SoundExchange. This organization collects and distributes digital performance royalties when your cover is played on non-interactive digital radio services like Pandora or SiriusXM.

5. Maintain accurate records. Keep detailed records of your registration with PROs and SoundExchange to make sure you receive all the royalties you're entitled to as the performer of the cover song.

Planning ahead, keeping meticulous records, promoting respectfully, and staying on top of industry developments will all contribute to a stress-free cover song release process. Don't forget to factor in licensing expenses when budgeting for your cover song release, and continue monitoring your royalties to make sure you're being paid accurately.

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