A cover song can do a lot for an artist. It engages the artist’s current fans while inviting in the fans of the songwriter they’re covering. It’s also just really fun to re-imagine someone else’s song as your own. So let’s talk about how to legally cover a song.
Some Quick Facts About Covering a Song
In the next section, we’ll get into the details of how to prepare to release a cover song. But first, let’s do some rapid fire facts that you need to know about covering a song.
1. You don’t need permission directly from the artist
You don’t need approval from the songwriter or publisher or record label in order to cover their song.
2. You need a mechanical license
Instead of getting verbal or written approval directly from the songwriter, you can simply get a mechanical license. This process ensures the songwriter and publisher get paid and credited. It also covers you legally (more on that below).
3. If you want to make a music video, you need a sync license
Let’s say you record and release a cover song, and now you want to make a music video for it. You need a sync license to do that. And unlike a mechanical license, you do need prior permission to obtain a sync license (more on that below).
How to Legally Cover a Song (It’s Easy)
Step 1: Get the mechanical license
Before you release your cover song, you’ll need a mechanical license. Fortunately, it’s a very easy process.
Here are some ways to do that:
- Use a music distributor that obtains mechanical licenses for you
- Use Easy Song to get a mechanical license (under $15, usually in 1-2 business days)
- Use Songfile and get a mechanical license ($16)
Step 2: Get the sync license (if you’re making a music video)
If you want to make a music video for your cover song, you’ll need to obtain a synchronization (sync) license).
Here are some ways to do that:
- Use We Are The Hits (“the official cover song video network”) to get the sync license.
- Rely on YouTube’s Content ID – you can mark your video as a cover song, which alerts the songwriter and publisher that their song is being covered so they can either 1) remove your video or 2) monetize it for themselves
Step 3: Choose a music distributor
The way I like to legally release a cover song is to use a music distributor that obtains a mechanical license for me.
For example, I distributed my cover of “Someday” by The Strokes through Soundrop. I distributed it like normal, I just checked a box that said it was a cover song and Soundrop did the rest.
And many other distributors do this, like DistroKid for $12 a year or Tunecore for a one-time fee of $70.
Step 4: Register your cover song to earn royalties
You don’t own the rights to the cover song so you won’t earn the songwriter’s share of the royalties. But you do own the recording of that song, which you can earn royalties for.
Here’s where you should register your cover song in order to get paid the royalties you’re owed:
- Your music distributor will collect and send you streaming and download royalties
- SoundExchange collects non-interactive streaming royalties (from places like Pandora, iHeart Radio, SiriusXM)
- A publishing admin company, which can collect mechanical royalties generated from streams or downloads of your music
- Your Performance Rights Organization, which will collect any royalties owed to you if your cover song is used on TV or in a movie
And that’s how you legally cover a song. (Note: this post is not legal advice, it’s simply a guide to point in the right direction so you don’t get sued).
Covering a Song vs. Sampling a Song
Just to clear up any confusion, a cover song is when you release your own recorded version of someone else’s song. A sample is when you use someone else’s recording of someone else’s song. If you want to know how to legally sample someone’s song, check out this post.