The DL on licenses, distribution, and cover song royalties
In today’s digital music world, it’s easier than ever to record and distribute your original music onto major platforms like Spotify and Apple Music. But what if the track you want to distribute isn’t 100% your original work? With cover song distribution, there are a few extra steps you need to take in order to get it licensed for distribution to make sure everybody, including the original composer, is paid what they’re owed. I met with Aaron Green, Co-Founder of Easy Song licensing, to really get into the nitty gritty of what cover song licensing is, where licenses come from, and why you need them. Let’s break it down.
What is a cover song license?
When we’re talking about cover song licenses, usually we’re referring to a compulsory mechanical license. And when we say compulsory, we mean compulsory, as in the United States Government decrees by law that publishers have to allow you to license and distribute covers of their songs (so official!).
A compulsory mechanical license is a purchasable license that allows you to record another person’s composition and sell it. When you purchase that mechanical license per U.S. law, that means that the music platforms will pay out a share of cover song royalties to the publishers of the original composition based on a pre-established payment rate. That way, you release your track and make your money legally–no stealing from the original songwriters required! 😜
But just what is eligible for a compulsory mechanical license?
We explore this in our Help Center, but Easy Song’s Aaron Green broke cover licensing eligibility down for me with these questions:
- Is it a cover of an audio-only product in the United States?
- Are you keeping the same lyrics and maintaining the character of the original melody?
- Is it only your original audio, no samples from the original song?
If your answer to all three of those three questions is “Yes,” then your cover is most likely eligible for compulsory mechanical licensing.
So what isn’t a cover song license?
Tl;dr: If any of the answers above were “No,” then your release might not be eligible for a mechanical license. That could be for any number of reasons.
If the original you’re covering was never officially released in the United States in an audio-only medium, then unfortunately it’ll be a lot harder to license because it isn’t subject to United States compulsory licensing laws. Note that I didn’t say impossible; you might be able to get a custom license for a track like this, but you would need to reach out to the publisher or songwriter administration directly for permission (or hire Easy Song’s Custom Licensing department who specializes in this).
If your cover changes lyrics or the character of the original melody, then it definitely isn’t eligible for compulsory mechanical licensing. The easy explanation for this is because you’re technically creating a new song with someone else’s work–what, in the biz, we call a “Derivative Work.”
“You may think it’s silly because it’s an old song or you’re a pebble in the ocean. I get that. But the songwriter could be thinking: someone took our composition, took our art, and didn’t ask us. So respect the game, respect the artist. We just have to ask, and sometimes these rights holders just want you to do the right thing permission-wise in the first place. Good results can happen by planning ahead,” says Aaron.
If your song includes samples or remixes of the original audio, that’s also a no-go for compulsory mechanical licensing. Mechanical Licenses are for compositions, the melody and lyrics you’re performing. They are not for audio and do not give you permission to use someone else’s audio–you’d need another license for that entirely!
What does a mechanical license clear me for?
A mechanical license clears your cover song for audio-only distribution. As we’ve mentioned before, however, it does not clear your cover song for use in videos! This is an important bit to note: mechanical licenses are not sync licenses. And if you’re anything like me, you’re struggling to make sense of it all. So I asked Aaron to explain it to me like I’m five.
The quick ‘n dirty answer is that mechanical licenses don’t clear cover songs for use in videos because user-uploaded video wasn’t a thing when compulsory licensing was invented. There is no compulsory law with video sync licensing; only the rights holder can give out a video sync permission. Aaron also stressed how many moving parts there are with video distribution.
“At the end of the day, think about all the elements involved in a video: the visual, how the song’s being played, how it’s being used, how you can monetize it,” Aaron elaborated. Checks out. I mean, what if someone did a cover of your original song, which was fine and cool, but then they paired it with a video that had visual content that you, the original writer, didn’t agree with or found offensive? Because of this, syncing a cover up with video needs a whole other license.
So how is a cover song license procured?
If you’ve used Soundrop to distribute a cover, you’re no stranger to the ultra-simple process; you upload your audio, artwork, and metadata, send in a licensing request through the publishing tab, and pay $0.99, then a few weeks later your track is properly licensed and available for fans everywhere. But just what goes on behind the curtain in between submitting for distribution and when that licensing-approval circle goes green?
First, a licensing specialist is going to take a look at that licensing request you filled out in the Publishing Section of your release. And according to Aaron, the very first thing they’re doing is asking those three questions above to determine whether or not your cover is subject to compulsory licensing. If it isn’t (or if they can’t quite figure it out based on the info at hand), we’ll send it back to you letting you know or asking for further clarification. But if it is eligible for a compulsory mechanical license, then we’re off to the races.
Next, the licensor working on your track needs to get in touch with the original publisher who owns the composition out of a catalog of thousands of publishers. When they locate the right person based off the info you filled out, they send over a Notice of Intent, or NOI. Basically, this is letting the publisher know “Hey! This artist covered this song and paid for a mechanical through us; we’ll be sending over your royalties per compulsory licensing law.” Then, once your cover has gone live and started generating revenue, royalties are paid out on your behalf through your licensor based on the statutory rate.
Now normally, your license would only be good for a certain number of “copies” of your cover song (or downloads/streams). Then, if you were licensing on your own, you’d have to re-up your license every time you hit that number. The nice thing about Soundrop’s licensing is that we keep track of this and renew your license for you, for no extra cost, so you never have to hassle with it again.
How do I help my licensor get things right on the first try?
If you want your license to go through quickly (/ go through at all), Aaron says there is one thing you can do to really save your licensor some time: “If you can, send us the actual audio link to where you found the song, like Spotify links or any major US DSP links. We just need to know the origin story. Where did you find it?”
It can be a slog to get through a catalog of thousands of publishers, so the more specific information you give our publishing specialists, the more easily they can determine if your track is eligible for compulsory licensing and get in touch with the publisher on your behalf. But please make sure, if you do include a link in your publishing request, that it is not a link to YouTube. YouTube is a great platform to find music on, but a lot of the uploads on YouTube are unofficial and they aren’t an audio-only medium, so they can’t be used to determine compulsory mechanical eligibility.
Stuck on where to find a link to your audio-only, official, United States release? We’ve compiled some resources in our Help Center to explore when you get stuck.
Use the cover song licensing system to your advantage
Ultimately, while cover song licensing may seem like a lot of hoops to jump through just to get your music out, Aaron Green believes it’s actually a huge boon to artists. “For example, everyone knows Prince is notorious for not allowing licensing. But you can release your own audio-only product covering his music and there’s nothing they can do about it because of compulsory mechanical licensing. You can cover his music, you just can’t change it.” When you properly license your cover song, you’re setting your track up for long-term success, so it’s worth any work you do at the onset.
Aaron also stressed that his team at Easy Song is always there to help you navigate tricky licensing like sync or songs that aren’t subject to compulsory mechanicals. They have email support and even a phone line; “You’ll talk to real industry experts and we’re happy to do it: we’ll go over your project and talk music rights. There’s no such thing as a dumb question when it comes to licensing.”
But if you’re distributing through Soundrop, your mechanical license is included in the one-time, $0.99-per-track distribution fee and incorporated into the distribution process. Then, once your music is live, we monitor its sales and re-up your license as needed so you don’t have to.
We’ve got your back. Distribute your cover songs with Soundrop today.