How to Make a Song Cover — A Guide for Musicians

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We’ve all heard about artists getting noticed after releasing a cover song.  So here’s how to make a song cover — while covering all the details on royalties and clearances.

There’s a common belief that the commercial exploitation of a cover song requires authorizations, and that it’s a difficult process for an independent artist. It’s not, and I’ll explain to you how to proceed.

First, please start by running a simple search on iTunes or YouTube with the keywords ‘cover’ or ‘cover version’. There are millions of results. So looks like there is a market here, right?

Do I need the right owners’ authorization to commercially release a cover song online?

The simple answer is no.  However, in certain territories, you will need to ‘clear’ the song, in other words pre-pay the songwriter/publisher mechanical royalties.  This is the case in the United States, where the treatment of mechanical royalties is in sharp contrast to international practice.

The easiest way to proceed is to use services supplied by Songclearance or Songfile.  It will cost you a few $ for admin fees, then you’ll have to pay the mechanical royalties based on the number of downloads, streams… etc.

It’s worth to mention here, a digital distribution service who is giving the option to their clients of taking care of obtaining the mechanical licenses, in case they want to release cover songs (the admin fees and mechanical royalties are then deducted from the artists’ sales balance).

Once you obtain the license (a legal document in pdf format), you’re safe and can move on to the next step.

Outside of the United States, you do not need to clear the mechanical license for digital releases, since mechanical royalties are collected and paid directly to songwriters and publishers by digital retailers via collecting societies (through their dedicated branch to be precise) like SACEM/SDRM in France, PRS/MCPS in the UK…etc.

For physical releases, as a producer you will need to pay the mechanical rights anyway after filling a form during the manufacturing process, but this is another topic.

Note that obtaining a mechanical license does not give you a synchronisation license, even though it is a tolerated practice on YouTube to upload videos of cover songs (and some right owners are even encouraging this practice by allowing people to monetize these videos; the reality is that there is a mechanism in place so that they share the revenue from this ‘allowed’ monetization with the artists covering the songs). After all this is nothing but free publicity for the original songs.

But wait: there is a concept to consider outside of the U.S, the moral rights.

In case your cover song version is very badly executed, or is making the original song ridiculous in any way for example, you could potentially get in trouble with the original songwriter or its publisher, so the importance of doing things right and only release high-quality cover versions.

Also all of the above only applies if you do not modify the original song in a significant way; in case you plan to release an adaptation, with new lyrics for example, you need to reach out to the original song’s publisher for requesting the right of creating a ‘derivative work’.

Okay, I’ve cleared the mechanical license, what shall I do now?

There are basically 2 strategies for entering this highly competitive market:

1. You have your own repertoire and only want to use cover songs to be noticed.

2. You want to specialize yourself in cover song versions for making money online.

An ‘option 3’ would be a combination of both.

1. Covering a song for launching your career

This is a very valid strategy if you have an album or several songs ready, if you already perform live, if you have an existing fan-base… etc.  In such scenario a successful cover song will boost your career and basically speed things up for getting known by the masses.

It does not need to be a super-popular song from the Top 10, you can basically cover any song you like and feel comfortable with (that being said, covering an obscure song from an unknown artist, just because you like it, will be totally useless here).

2. Becoming a ‘serial cover songs performer’

This is where the fun starts. It is an extremely tough business, just run a search on Soundcloud, YouTube or iTunes and listen to your future competitors (Peter Hollens, Madilyn Bailey, Sam Tsui, J Rice…to name a few).  Most of these artists have professional-quality recordings and videos. This is what you’ll need too (unless you are exceptionally talented and/or offering something very original that will become viral, in that case a shitty video shot in your bathroom will be ok…).

What songs shall I cover?

You can take a look here.  Even though it is probably too late to cover ‘Wrecking Ball,’ and meet the same success as this artist for example, betting on ‘A-List’ artists is certainly a good and low-risk strategy.  There is a lot of free and accessible information on the internet about these ‘top artists’, for example you can use this resource and see the ‘Top ten best-selling artists’ for digital sales.

A well-executed and professionally recorded cover version of Rihanna, Katy Perry or Lady Gaga will most likely bring you some nice exposure, with quite significant digital sales and certainly hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, if not more…

Also, do not neglect the importance of Soundcloud to spread the word and get listeners feedback, as well as generate new sales (by adding a buy-link to your track).  (If you are not familiar with Soundcloud and how it can help with your career, you can check Budi Voogt’s interview here, it contains a lot of interesting insights on that topic.)

It is key to closely monitor the digital charts like this one to identify the most successful songs, but also try to feel what the next trend will be in the coming weeks (for an European-based artist, looking at the US charts can give some insights of the next big songs in Europe).

Be prepared to work in rush mode, since major artists release new material every 6 weeks approximately.

How to release my cover songs online?

Exactly in the same way as you’d release your own songs, via a digital distributor like CDBaby, Venzo Digital, TuneCore, JTV Digital… etc.  Do not forget to upload your music video on YouTube and your audio on Soundcloud for maximising the reach, impact and sales/streams.

Good luck!


Tpp image: Jeanette MacDonald on the cover of Popular Songs, February, 1937.  (Rocky and Nelson, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

23 Responses

  1. havesomedignity

    Yes, I suppose this could be called a “strategy”. But in my opinion it other terms for it are “bait and switch”, “unethical”, “gimmicky” and “bottom feeding”.

      • GGG

        Hendrix isn’t dead, he’s just in the hole in prison for covering Dylan so much.

  2. steven corn

    This is an amazingly oversimplification of the clearance process for releasing digital songs in the U.S. At BFM, we process mechanical clearances for 10,000’s of compositions. I can tell that the amount of such songs that are easily cleared is a minority. Most songs have multiple co-publishers requiring permission from each to release your recording (digital or otherwise). (In some rare situations, one co-publisher can grant permission for 100% of the song. But that’s not very often.) It is also a very common occurrence that one of the co-publishers may not be represented by HFA or another licensing body. That presents one with a lot of additional work.

    You might think that in such cases, you can file a compulsory mechanical license for such portions that you cannot clear. First, you need to identify all the co-publishers and their shares. Believe me, that’s not an easy tasks in this day and age of copyright reversions and publishers being bought and sold.

    But should you manage to figure it all out, you can file that compulsory. That requires sending the publisher a specific notice (aka Notice of Intent) and THAT requires that you have the proper address for the publisher. OK, so you don’t have the right address? No problem. You can always file your NOI with the U.S. Library of Congress for a fee ($40 per notice, I think). Don’t forget that filing a compulsory license requires monthly accounting for their portion. That’s no so bad for one song. But 10, 20, 30 covers?? That requires some royalty software most likely unless you are an Excel master.

    The point is that you might be lucky and get 100% clearance for the publishing rights from Songfile. It’s like flipping a coin. You might get 20 “heads” in a row meaning that your first 20 songs might all be easily clearable. The opposite could also be true. So be prepared to either go thru the complex clearance process on your own, hire someone to do it for you, or pick another song.

    • JTVDigital

      This is why I mentioned the service named Songclearance, they issue NOI (Notice of Intent).

      I never had any rejections, never.

      Check what are doing, ask them if they have issues for clearing the mechanicals, I don’t think so (but maybe!)

      There is no interest for a publisher or co-publisher to deny permission since a cover song will generate royalties for them.

      This is also why there is a tolerance on YouTube towards people releasing videos of cover songs, it generates effortless income for the original publishers and songwriters, as well as free publicity for their Works.
      Some even allow artists to monetize and share revenues with them, this is happening more and more frequently.

      As you point out, if for any reason the artist who wants to perform a cover song does not get the permission, just pick another song, that’s not the end of the world.

      And yes this is a simplified view of things, that was the idea.

  3. JC

    forget the cover song route – license new original songs directly from music industry publishers and songwriters through RocketSongs (shameless plug) – we curate and clear all the songs in advance making it easy for anyone to record and release original songs.



    You left out that someone (i.e. publisher, songwriter) has to be notified via a NOI (Notice of Intent) before you release the cover for sale or you risk being sued or having an injunction filed against you due to the lack of following proper steps. Is it easy for anyone to put up a cover for sale? YES. Should it be?

    We are currently presenting this as one of the issues that needs to be addressed and possibly changed. There are a lot of us in this industry who view this practice as …a lot of shit, to be quite frank.

    The reasoning is that we have to hunt down, one by one all of the folks who released the covers of our artists’ material.

    We will be pushing for there to be a DIRECT process in which individuals or companies (such as POWER MUSIC INC) looking to make covers for sale would have to get a direct YES and pay a negotiated fee prior to releasing anything for sale. If the copyright owners of the composition would say NO, there would be no license granted.

    • JTVDigital


      Ok maybe it wasn’t clear, and I did not want to specifically promote one or the other companies/organizations for clearing mechanicals.

      But sending NOI is what Songclearance is doing.

      And yes you have to obtain the license before the release date:
      “Once you obtain the license (a legal document in pdf format), you’re safe and can move on to the next step”
      Maybe it was not too clear neither, just a one-line mention in the article.

      Again it is a simplified view of things, for “educational purposes”, and there is no (or hopefully not much) personal opinion in the post…is it a good thing or a bad thing to release cover songs? Sometimes it can be very useful, yes.

      Your point about direct approval is interesting (even it it goes against all current regulations and would minimize the role of publishers or collecting societies).
      I get the idea, but honestly what is the interest of a songwriter or publisher to reject a cover song (unless the version is particularly shitty in the way it’s been performed and produced)?
      Cover songs generate songwriter and publisher royalties, and free publicity, so what’s the point exactly?
      Really I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.


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  6. Tris

    Hi, so I’m from OUTSIDE the U.S., and it is said that I don’t need a mechanical license. But do I need a synchronization license?

    By the way I intend to cover songs not for commercial use.

  7. Peter

    Great Article!

    Also for folks who are looking to make it big with their cover song should actively participate in Online music contests which would give them the right kind of platform and exposure.

    There are a couple of websites which do that but my personal favorite would be Tallenge!

    You guys could check this link for more details:

  8. Stephen craig aristei

    Hey Steven Corn, JTVDigital and Major Client Artist Manager (I wish people commenting on here would have the testicular fortitude to put up their name along with their comments….kind of CS….!), Steven and JTVD are right,…Especially Steven….the road to “clearance” is fraught with many pit holes and rabbit holes that lead nowhere and leave you “unprotected” and “unlicensed” ! However it would appear that someone would have to provide “acceptance” of the license request in order for the “first mechanical license” to be valid and legal! The “first recording”, at least in the US, has long been a “protected item” in the courts…..The fact that this artist was allowed to have the “first recording” of someone else’s original copyrighted song, is once again a clear example of “children” in this business (attorney’s, record executives, managers, agents, publishers, etc.) who don’t know what they are doing, nor the law, nor how to protect their clients or rights…..I am not surprised that something like this occurred and I would fully expect things as silly and short sighted as this to continue until the industry evacuates those imbeciles who continue to undermine this industries’s recovery !

  9. Mai Smile

    Thanks for the information but i’d like to clear my doubts about licensing and synchronizing stuff. Am outside India so, can i just make cover song and post it on youtube and even use ads without having license ? Or is there anything i should be worried of ?

  10. Yolanda

    Thank you for a great article! I think it should be re-written for 2018 to include the more recent, up to date information.
    For example, there’s a new trending way to promote your cover song videos for free using website.
    It is an international community of music talents that are passionate about covers and original music.
    Every video posted at Coverium participates in multiple charts at the same time, for example charts of Adele covers, guitar covers, a capella covers etc.
    It makes sense to try posting your YouTube music video covers at Coverium as it’s free and takes just a few minutes. Let me know how it worked for you!