Cover Song Licensing & Distribution: Everything You Need to Know
Why release a cover song?
Recording your own unique interpretation of a video game soundtrack, a popular song from the past, or a current hit can be a smart way to reach a bigger audience.
Cover songs allow you to:
- Maintain streaming momentum with a steady schedule of cover-song singles
- Benefit from the power of a proven song while showcasing your unique style
- Build a bridge between your cover song videos on YouTube and your music on other digital music platforms
- Earn money from your cover song’s sound recording
- Get discovered by new listeners
And considering the popularity of cover songs on YouTube videos and within Spotify playlists, it’s clear that digital music platforms love to get behind creative cover songs too, provided those tracks have accurate metadata, allowing DSPs to accurately manage the flow of royalties to rights holders. Without a license, or with sloppy metadata, your cover song could be removed from the most popular music services in the world.
Don’t risk it! With Soundrop, you’ll know that your cover song has been properly licensed FOR LIFE, and all royalties are being paid correctly.
With Soundrop, you’re covered.
Bad pun, but anyway… Licensing cover songs and managing the ongoing accounting hassle of paying mechanical royalties to publishers is not why you signed up to be a musician. Let Soundrop help you with that stuff so you can keep your focus on creating.
Soundrop is the easiest way to license and distribute cover songs.
For a one-time fee of $9.99 per cover song, we will:
Secure your cover song license, forever
Manage the payment of mechanical royalties to the appropriate publishers, forever
Distribute your music to the most popular download and streaming platforms, including Spotify, Apple Music, and many more
Facilitate rights splits and pay multiple collaborators
How Soundrop cover-song licensing works
We keep it simple for you, so you can spend your time creating.
Here’s the basic outline of our cover song licensing process:
- You sign up your music with Soundrop:
- Enter in whatever information you know about the song’s songwriters or original performer
- Our licensing partner Loudr, whose system is connected to ours via API, will search, verify, or correct the rest of the songwriter, publisher, and copyright information
- Loudr will issue a NOI (a notice-of-intent) to the appropriate publishers to notify them you’ll be covering their song
- Your legally-licensed cover song will be distributed to the biggest music platforms in the world, including Apple Music, Spotify, and many more
- Soundrop will automatically subtract all mechanical royalties from your revenue and pay them to the publishers of your cover songs – for life
The verification process mentioned in Step #3 above is essential to make sure accurate metadata is delivered with your audio, and that proper rights holders are being compensated (which is the key to keeping a cover song available on digital music platforms).
For instance, if you were to cover the song “Because the Night” and list Patti Smith as the artist, we would catch that, verify the song you’re covering, and correctly credit Bruce Springsteen as the composer.
What qualifies as a cover song?
There are lots of different ways to create new music from existing material, and not all of them will qualify as cover songs.
A cover song is a new recording of an existing composition still protected under copyright. In order for your version to be considered a cover song, a previous recording of that existing composition must have already been made commercially available.
If you’re covering video game music, the song you’re recording must have been released in the form of an audio soundtrack in order to be considered a cover song. It’s not enough that the music has been made available as an element of the game experience.
Three important rules to remember about cover songs:
- A cover song is faithful to the melodic and lyrical components of the original composition.
- A cover song CAN (and often should) take stylistic liberties, making changes to the genre, tempo, key, instrumentation, etc.
- If you are recording the very first version of a song you did not write, it’s NOT a cover song (and you will need the permission of the songwriter/publisher).
How can I tell if a song has already been commercially released?
As mentioned above, the song you’re “covering” must’ve already had an official release in order for YOUR version to be considered an actual cover song.
A few places to check to see if a song has been released:
- Amazon — Search for the release as a domestic product.
- Google — Google is always your friend.
- VGMDB — The video game music database even has catalog numbers.
Can medleys be legally licensed?
In short, yes.
Technically speaking, some would argue that a medley is a “derivative work” and NOT a cover song. But with the help of our licensing partner Loudr, we can legally license medleys for you.
IMPORTANT: Medley licensing requires us to pay a separate mechanical license to each of the included songs’ publishers, so releasing a medley that includes elements from more than three or four songs can be cost prohibitive. You don’t want to have to pay so many rights holders that you’re actually losing money on every download.
What kinds of songs are NOT considered covers?
Public Domain songs are not cover songs
A Public Domain work is a song that has passed out of its copyright protection period. These are often compositions written prior to 1923. Think Beethoven, hymns, old folk songs, etc. You do NOT need the permission of the songwriter or publisher to record a new version of a Public Domain composition.
Three important rules about Public Domain works:
- Your version of a Public Domain composition is NOT considered a cover song.
- You should list the publisher as “Public Domain.”
- You should still credit the original songwriter, composer, or author (if unknown, list the writer as “Traditional.”)
Important: The “1922 or earlier” rule only applies to compositions, NOT sound recordings. In the United States, due to some complex rights arrangements, there are NO sound recordings in the Public Domain.
That being said, some compositions written after 1923 could be in the Public Domain, depending on how long the songwriter lived, meaning you would not be required to pay a publishing royalty or secure a license to release your own version.
For details about how long copyright protection applies to musical works, according to the date of creation and the lifespan of the composer, visit Copyright.gov.
Other resources to determine if a song is in the Public Domain:
Derivative Works are not cover songs
A “derivative work” is a new composition created from elements of an existing song or songs still protected under copyright. Derivate works are NOT cover songs and will require you to get the permission of the existing song’s publisher in order to distribute your recording.
Examples of derivative works include:
- Parodies (like Weird Al’s music)
- A version that makes significant changes to the melody or lyrics, or replaces portions of the lyric with new original lyrics
Again, you CANNOT distribute a derivative work without the permission of the copyright holder of the pre-existing work. Unlike with cover songs, the copyright holder CAN deny you permission to create a derivative work for any reason.
If a derivative work has been properly licensed with permission from the original publisher or copyright holder, you can distribute that song through Soundrop as an original work as long as the proper songwriting ownership of the new song is listed. Those ownership shares should reflect the license you have negotiated. We can even make sure the original copyright holder automatically receives a share of the revenue!
Requesting permission to create a derivative work
You know you’ll need to ask the publisher for permission to create a new work based on a existing song, but who do you contact?
Here are a few places to search for publisher information:
- Liner notes – Publisher names should be listed on CD and vinyl jackets
- Online credits – Publisher info is also sometimes displayed on websites and music services alongside musician, engineering, and production credits
- P.R.O. databases – Performing Rights Organizations like ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, SOCAN, and PRS can be a great place to start your research.
If you need legal assistance contacting publishers or negotiating terms, see if your town has a VLA offering free legal assistance for musicians.
Recordings with samples are not cover songs
A sample is a snippet of audio taken from an existing recording that’s protected under copyright and used in a new recording, often in a recording of a totally new composition.
Samples, no matter how long or short they are (yes, even if they’re shorter than 6 seconds), CANNOT be legally used without the permission of the rights holders.
To legally clear a sample used in a new recording, you need the permission of:
- the owner of the sound recording (the label)
- the owner of the composition (the publisher)
These rights holders can say yes or no for any reason whatsoever. If they agree, they can set the terms for payment, rights splits, and more.
For more information about legally licensing a sample, go HERE.
Also, check out services like TrackLib who offer pre-cleared samples from thousands of original recordings.
Releasing cover songs… the legal way
In order to distribute a cover song you need to secure a cover song license. You also must arrange for the accurate payment of all mechanical royalties generated by the sale or streaming of your version to the song’s publisher.
Soundrop makes this easy. We’ll secure the license for you, and make sure all royalties are paid to the publisher correctly – forever.
What is a compulsory license?
The mechanical license you need in order to distribute a cover song is called a “compulsory license” because as long as you’re meeting the requirements above, the publisher cannot prevent you from releasing that recording.
However, if you don’t secure the cover song license or pay the appropriate royalties, the publisher can revoke your right to distribute their composition.
Who owns your cover song?
There are two primary rights to consider with a cover song:
- The sound recording rights – which are owned by the person or label that created the cover song track
- The publishing rights – which are owned by the songwriter and/or publisher of the underlying composition
If you created the recording, most likely YOU are the owner of the sound recording.
What royalties are generated when a cover song is downloaded or streamed?
- The label royalty – This a fee owed to the owner of the sound recording for the purchase or streaming usage of the track.
- The publishing royalty – These royalties (largely mechanical royalties generated from the virtual “duplication” of the song when it’s downloaded or streamed) are owed to the publisher of the song.
With Soundrop, we’ll make sure you collect the first kind of royalty, and that the publishers are correctly paid everything they’re owed – which is essential if you want to keep your cover songs available online.
The royalty breakdown
There are a lot of different rights and royalties at play when music is performed, sold, or streamed. These include:
Mechanical royalties are owed to the publisher(s) when their composition is mechanically reproduced in the form of physical pressings (CD, vinyl, cassette, etc.), or virtually reproduced as a digital download or interactive stream (an on-demand play via services like Spotify and Apple Music). This is the primary royalty that Soundrop will pay on your behalf to publishers for all your cover songs.
Performance royalties are owed to the publisher(s) and songwriter(s) when their music is performed in public, broadcast on terrestrial radio, or played con satellite radio and digital radio services such as Pandora. These royalties are collected by performing rights organizations and/or publishing rights administrators.
Neighbouring rights royalties are owed to the creators of a sound recording (label, artist, session players) when the track is played via a non-interactive streaming service such as Pandora Radio, or on many radio stations outside the US.
The Do’s and Don’ts of cover songs
- Make sure to license your cover songs BEFORE you distribute the track (this is the part Soundrop takes care of for you – otherwise the publisher can make you remove the song from popular download and streaming services)
- Do some research into the songwriter and original performer of the song (this will help us to secure the right license more quickly)
- Use proper title formatting – typically the ACTUAL title of the song, not something like “Joy to the World (cover song) by Opening Band.” That stuff might fly on YouTube or Soundcloud, but it’s not going to work on Apple Music or Spotify.
- Put your own stamp on the song. There’s no point in releasing a carbon copy!
- Use samples without permission.
- Change the lyrics without permission.
- Alter the melody (too much).
- Change the title of the song.
- Give the song away for free on your website (without paying mechanical royalties).
If this all seems like a lot to remember, let Soundrop simplify everything for you. We offer easy cover song licensing for a one-time fee of just $9.99 per song.