Recording a cover of a well-known song is typically an inspiring and hugely entertaining experience for musicians that can do wonders for their success and career when done right. In this short guide, we’ll list some key factors that make a good cover song and lead you through the process of recording and distributing one yourself.
What is a cover song
A cover song, or a cover version, remake, or just a cover, can be defined as a performance or a recording of a previously recorded song by a musician other than the original composer or recording artist. This new version may more or less differ from the original version, mostly through the musical adaptation (such as instrumentation, melodic paraphrasing, or changes in tempo), but always shares a similarity in terms of the structure. It’s important to note that if bigger changes to the song are made, in terms of the arrangement, genre, lyrics or lyrical order, it’s no longer a cover but a song edit that requires a license to distribute.
One may say that nothing beats the original version of a song, but throughout history, there have been many cases of cover songs that not only have been more commercially successful and popular than the original recording but also have drawn a lot of attention to the covering artist. Many musicians therefore choose the strategy of recording a cover song to have their own tracks noticed, which may eventually turn out extremely beneficial to their career. Additionally, making a song cover may help you improve your knowledge of and skills in various musical instruments and give you some production inspiration to develop or improve your personal production style.
Some of the examples of very successful and famous cover songs are for instance Whitney Huston’s version of ‘I Will Always Love You’ by Dolly Parton; ‘Valerie’ by Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse (originally by the band the Zoutons), Aretha Franklin’s version of Otis Redding’s original ‘Respect’ or Johnny Cash’s cover of ‘Hurt’ by Nine Inch Nails.
Important note: there’s a small number of artists who always block unlicensed covers and are therefore blacklisted, meaning covers of their songs are not accepted by iMusician - the two main are Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash.
A cover of ‘The Best’ by Noah Reid, originally a song by Bonnie Tyler
How to cover a song as an independent musician
1. Do your research and choose your song well
Naturally, the song you choose and its popularity may play an important role - if it’s known, the likelihood that people will listen to your version of it is much higher than if it’s rather an unknown song by an unknown artist. Choosing an undiscovered song may definitely be enjoyable and benefit your creativity and artistic expression, but will most likely not help your marketing and career.
However, choosing a song that’s been covered many times before may also not be the best choice. Fans may be less interested in such a cover as it may be considered repetitive, lacking originality and even a calculated step. Discovering the perfect song for you to cover is therefore crucial. It’s definitely worth spending enough time going through the archives of your favorite artists and songs or exploring YouTube and music streaming platforms to find a popular song that will resonate with you and your artistic brand and personality.
It’s been calculated that around 60,000 new songs are uploaded only on Spotify every day. The probability that a popular song has already been covered is thus quite high. Devote therefore some additional time to exploring and studying previous cover versions of songs of your choice. This way, not only will you avoid making a duplicate but you may also discover an opportunity for yourself to do something better or more extraordinary than others.
Important note: Covering a new popular song is not typically allowed as there’s a waiting period to release an unlicensed cover - e. g. artists can’t cover the latest top 40 Doja Cat songs as this tactic tends to ride the wave of success from the original. There is no set time frame but usually, a popular song is allowed to be covered once it’s been out for a few months or drops from the top 100 charts.
2. Experiment with different genres and bring your own personality
The song that you choose may not necessarily be of the same musical style that you tend to create. Although it’s not allowed to change the genre or the arrangement of the track, don’t be afraid to deviate from the original sound of the song and experiment with various instruments and musical compositions. It’s extremely important to bring your own personality and characteristic musical traits to the cover to make it unique and more interesting to your audience.
By doing so, you’ll be able to show your personal way of interpreting the song and express the kind of musician you are. One should also know that covering someone else’s song should be far from doing karaoke or, even more importantly, duplicating the song (creating a carbon copy of a song is actually not legally allowed). Although recording and singing a song the exact or almost the exact way the original musician/composer did is admirable, it’s not something that your audience will be interested in. If there’s already an existing version of a song that’s widely popular, listeners will likely not want to listen to another version of it that sounds just the same.
3. Be sure it's still a cover song
It’s been mentioned before but it's essential so we’ll say it again! Although, as suggested above, experimenting and doing things your way is welcomed and supported, it’s important to bear in mind that any cover song should still keep the same lyrics, melody, and song structure as the original version.
Making too many amendments to the original song may cause that, from a legal point of view, your version cannot be considered a cover anymore. The legislation, in terms of licensing, that concerns cover songs (which we will discuss more later) doesn’t extend to edits, samples, remixes, and mashups. Such versions of a song include cutting, editing, and changing the melody, lyrics, and basic arrangement of the song or, in the case of a mashup, mixing two or more existing tracks into one.
4. Choose high quality audio and video
As stated before, making a cover is not an unusual practice among artists and musicians. A strong competition therefore requires a great effort. That also concerns investing in quality audio and video gear. It’s not a secret that artists with high-quality tracks and high-definition videos attract more listeners and so gain more exposure and engagement. If you feel like you need to level up your equipment, it’s definitely something worth spending money on.
Owning equipment that allows you to produce high-quality tracks will help you make the necessary impression on your listeners. As a result, as it is with any type of a track, your audience will have a great experience listening to your cover and will be more likely to listen to it multiple times while sharing it with others.
5. Remain consistent with making cover songs if that's your goal
While there are examples of musicians that have become particularly successful after recording and releasing a cover song, it’s not something that happens overnight. If you therefore decide to pave your way with making cover songs, it will require consistency and, most likely, a publishing plan.
Bear in mind that just like recording and releasing your own songs, making a cover song requires a lot of work and may be rather time-consuming - especially if you additionally want to make and publish videos, most probably, on YouTube. Be also prepared that it may take a lot of time until your work starts paying off so try not to be discouraged by a slowly growing number of listens, followers, or subscribers.
How to cover a song legally
Making a cover song often comes with a lot of uncertainty and questions regarding selling and distributing the song from a legal point of view. Are cover songs copyrighted? Do you need permission to cover a song? How to get permission for a cover song? To give a simple answer: Yes, cover songs are copyrighted and if you want to record one and distribute it legally, you need permission from the copyright holder. However, different regulations may apply depending on where you’re from, to which market you deliver your cover song, and which means of distribution, physical or digital, you use.
Distribution of cover songs in the US
To distribute a cover song in the US market, you would traditionally always need to, regardless of your nationality, obtain a so-called mechanical license, also known as a compulsory license. The mechanical license would allow you to record your version of the song and sell it within the market with the approval of the song owner. That has changed with the Music Modernization Act (MMA), legislation signed in 2018 that aimed to modernize the system of copyright-related issues, legal licensing of music and audio recordings by digital services, and royalty payouts to the copyright holders. The MMA has also led to the creation of Mechanical License Collective (MLC), a non-profit organization that administers blanket mechanical licensing to eligible streaming platforms and pays the subsequent royalties to prospective songwriters, composers, lyricists, and publishers.
This means that as long as the original authors of the composition and lyrics and the publishers are correctly listed and credited, no mechanical license is needed for a true cover nowadays. However, in any scenario, an unlicensed cover can always be requested for a takedown by the original author/rights holder. Additionally, the MMA concerns digital music distribution and is therefore not applicable to the distribution of cover songs in a physical format (CD, DVD, vinyl cassette, etc.). In such a case, you do need to obtain a mechanical license. Moreover, when it comes to digital downloads, not all download shops are covered by the MMA legislation, as well. Those that are not will, too, require a mechanical license for a cover song to be submitted there.
Acquiring such a license doesn’t, not always at least, imply a fee. However, you have to pay the original song owner mechanical royalties, set at the present US statutory rate, every time the song is distributed in any way. It’s important to know that royalties need to be paid regardless of whether your version of the song is sold to someone or given out for free (e. g. on YouTube).
Distribution of cover songs on the European market
If you’d like to deliver your cover song to the European market while being a European citizen, you can do so freely without needing the permission of the copyright owner. Even without a mechanical license, however, you still need to pay mechanical royalties every time the song is distributed. The payment of royalties is then done through a respective Performing Rights Organization, which we will talk about more later in this guide.
If you’re a US citizen and want to distribute a cover song in a physical format or for digital downloads to a shop not included in the MMA, you do need to acquire a mechanical license to deliver your cover song to the European market.
Cover song licensing
There are three options for you, as a musician, to obtain a mechanical license for a cover song.
The first one is going straight to the copyright owner or their record label or publisher (record labels and publishing companies very often have their own departments dedicated to music licensing). This way you can directly negotiate your contract details, including the method of payment, and pay the song owner accordingly. If you want to distribute the song in a physical format, such as CD, vinyl, or cassette, you will most likely pay upfront, based on the number of copies made. In case you’d like to distribute and sell the song digitally, you will either also be requested to pay upfront, based on a predicted amount of downloads, or you’ll pay after a set period of time for the real number of digital downloads.
The second option, applicable to musicians distributing a cover track in the US, is to contact third-party companies that specialize in rights management and collecting and distributing mechanical license fees on behalf of musicians and publishers, e.g. Harry Fox Agency, Songfile, or Easy Song. Although this option means additional cost in the form of a fee paid to such a company for providing their services, obtaining a mechanical license may be much easier this way - they will handle the paperwork, calculate the particular royalty rate and then collect the royalties accordingly.
The third option, applicable to US musicians delivering their cover track to the European market, would be contacting a Performing Rights Organization (PRO) or Collective Management Organization (CMO), such as SUISA, GEMA, or PRS. Although PROs/CMOs are mostly associated with public performance licensing and performance royalties, they are also, particularly in European countries, often responsible for managing other music licensing agreements for songwriters, composers, and publishers that are their members. For instance, SUISA-PEL, by the collective society SUISA, is a pan-European online licensing handling mechanical and performance rights in the main European countries. A European multi-territory licensing is also offered by another copyright collective, a British-owned PRS for Music. If you’re an American and are seeking a mechanical license for your song cover, you can either contact them - for a European-wide license - or any other country-based collective and performing rights society. You can read more about collective organizations and different forms of music licenses in our music licensing guide!
How much does it cost to license a cover song
As already stated before, obtaining a mechanical license doesn’t necessarily involve a fee. What always has to be paid are the mechanical royalties. Their rate very much depends on the country in which you distribute the song. For example, if you distribute the cover song in the US and the song is less than 5 minutes long, you will currently have to pay $9,1c every time it goes to someone - whether it’s in the form of a purchase or for free. If it’s more than 5 minutes in length, you will pay based on the number of minutes. For each minute, you’ll be required to pay $1.75c.
Releasing a cover song on YouTube
Playing your cover song on YouTube may be a bit more complicated than selling it as a physical or digitally-downloadable record. That’s because YouTube is a video platform and to use someone else’s song in an audiovisual project or a moving picture, you should obtain a synchronization ‘sync’ license (in addition to the mechanical license) - even if it’s just a slideshow or a single still image accompanied by the music. As it may be rather difficult for an independent artist to acquire the necessary license, the truth to be told, most musicians release their song covers on YouTube without it.
What the platform therefore does is analyze every single video uploaded through a so-called Content ID system to determine whether the video contains copyrighted materials. By doing so, YouTube can tell whether you do or don’t own the copyright to the song and will place a ‘claim’ sign on your cover song video if not. Based on that, the copyright owner can decide on the following action. They can block your video, restrict its viewing in a particular country/territory, mute the video’s sound, or block access to the video on particular platforms or apps. Most commonly, however, the copyright holder allows the use of their content while putting ads on the cover videos and taking some or all revenue generated from the clip.
In such a case, you have to be prepared that you may not make any money from releasing a cover song on YouTube. On the other hand, you may consider it as an additional marketing and promotional activity while generating income from distributing the cover track to streaming platforms or selling it in a physical and/or digital form.
Recording and posting a song cover on TikTok has recently become an important trend to follow, especially as an independent musician. The good thing about TikTok is that, unlike other platforms, it’s not so strict and regulated in terms of legislation around content use, though it’s still subject to copyright laws and regulations.
Therefore, if you’d like to create a TikTok post in which you perform a cover song and which is not for a commercial purpose, you don’t need to acquire permission from the copyright owner to legally use their song. Only musicians with paid sponsorships on TikTok would need to do this to avoid a violation of the platform’s Intellectual Property Policy. Even then the platform is so unregulated that most musicians there perform cover songs for commercial use without a license. However, bear in mind that with any copyright infringement you risk removal of your content and, in the worst-case scenario, your account may be suspended or terminated for multiple copyright violations.
How to distribute a cover song with iMusician
You’ve recorded your cover song and dealt with the mechanical license, royalty rates, and other legal issues, so now it’s finally time to distribute the song! At iMusician we provide clear guidance for musicians to know whether they’ve actually recorded a cover song that we can distribute and give them information on what we need from them to finalize it.
To distribute a cover song, you will need to give the following information:
The name(s) of the original publisher(s) of the song
The name(s) of the original composer(s) of the song (can be different from the performer)
The name(s) of the original lyricist(s) of the song (can be different from the performer)
Finally, you will be required to provide the obtained mechanical license (applicable only for distributing in North America). Bear in mind that even with the compulsory license, the original copyright holder still reserves the right to request the take-down of your cover version.
You will find more information in our FAQ on distributing your cover songs (as well as edits, remixes, and mashups) with us.
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