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  • Ronan McQuillan (Composer, Music Supervisor)

What you need to know about music licensing and recording a cover song

Recently I was tagged in a conversation on the world’s number one home of misinformation – Facebook! The thread started with a simple question about seeking permission to cover a well known pop song. To my horror some of the answers people posted were not only misleading but borderline bat shit crazy. So I got inspired, and have put together some straightforward factual information that might help if you’re looking to record a cover song yourself or find out more information about how music licensing works, particularly in Ireland.

Why record a cover song?

Recording a cover of a well-known song can be a great way to get you noticed while paying tribute to an artist you admire. You can showcase your own unique talent with a cover song to create something new and exciting. A good cover will attract attention from listeners because it’s something they are familiar with and a new listener might be encouraged to listen to and possibly buy your original material after being impressed by your take of a famous artist’s song. A really bad cover can get you exposure nowadays too.

Shameless Plug! Here’s a cover I recorded and produced of David Bowie's - Space Oddity a few year ago.

How do i go about recording and releasing a cover of a well-known song?

I’m all about you not getting your ass sued into the ground when it comes to music licensing. In fact, that’s actually my job. The thread I saw recently on Facebook would have had people being sued left, right and centre, had they actually followed the advice. The answer to this question is simple. You need a mechanical license to record somebody else’s music.

What is a mechanical license?

A mechanical license grants the rights to reproduce and distribute a song recording. This includes vinyl, CDs, or digital downloads. Failing to obtain a mechanical license for your cover song is copyright infringement and is illegal.

Even if I don’t stand to profit from the recording?

If you are recording a cover version of a well-known song purely to promote yourself or to showcase your talent and you intend to just offer it for free online via streaming or download you will still need to obtain a mechanical license so that the original songwriter gets paid. You must also credit the songwriter/artist on your social media or hard copy of your recording. Credit where credit is due.

But what if it’s for charity?

It doesn’t matter if it’s to raise awareness about the gummy parrots of the Amazon or the three legged goats of India (not actual charities!) the reality is using a song without retaining the rights to do so is illegal. There have on occasion been cases of a lax license fee offered to some charities by artists to re-record particular songs in the past out of good intention but that is not always the case. The artists/publishers have every right to say no to your request.

Show me the money

And if I change the words or translate it to a different language?

if you translate a song or change the lyrics, it's no longer a cover song. It's considered a derivative work, and you will need to get permission from the publisher to distribute this altered version. Any changes to lyrics or arrangements requires a license which must be sought direct from the copyright holder.

Will one license cover two different versions of the same song?

NO. If you want to record a swing version for your Nan and a punk version for your sister’s boyfriend you need a separate license for both.

What about releasing it on YouTube?

This is where the water gets a little murky. YouTube cover song videos legally require a synchronization licensing since it's video paired with audio. But it’s become common practice not to do so. Hardly anyone is securing a sync license to release cover song videos. The sheer volume of videos being uploaded to YouTube every day is incredible - around 60 hours of video each minute. The way around this is Content ID. YouTube will ID your cover song video, monetize it with ads, and pay the publishers of the song a share of the money generated. if you’re just going to release a cover song on YouTube but won’t be selling it, you don't need to obtain mechanical license. YouTube will simply pay royalties to the publishers from the revenue collected through ads displayed on your video. The publisher can have YouTube pull your video down if it’s a bit crap.

I'm all ears

Anything else I should know?

There are exceptions to the rule, like a song that is in the public domain. A song might be in the public domain due to the copyright having expired. In Ireland the copyright in a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work expires 70 years after the death of the author, irrespective of the date on which the work is first lawfully made available to the public. Some songs are in the public domain because the song was never copy written to begin with or the composer or songwriter may have chosen to release the song into the public domain of their own accord. Famous songs in the public domain are “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” written in 1765 and “Silent Night” written in 1818. A full list of songs in the Public Domain can be found here:

How do I get a music license?

Luckily the music world is a little better organized than it sometimes gets credit for. There are more than 400 licensed music services worldwide enabling you to download, stream or access music legally. A license can be sought from your countries Mechanical Copyright Protection Society (MCPS). In Ireland it is MCPSI and is now in the capable hands of IMRO - Irish Music Rights Organization.

To find your nearest countries PRO check here:

Other services that might help are LOUDR and Songfile.

Be prepared to pay between €12-18 for service fee, plus the publisher royalties - about 9.1 cents per download.

This all seems very complicated. Is there an easier way?

Yes. The good people at CD baby now offer to look after all publishing and licensing on cover songs but only if you use them as your distributers. It's only for tracks that CD baby are distributing. They will take the mechanical royalty directly from your cover song download revenue and pay it to the publishers of the song. The process is simple once you fill out the correct information when uploading your cover song to include all the copyright and publishing details carefully so it is included in the metadata of the downloadable track. Streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music pay the mechanical royalties themselves, and you don't need to worry about it. For more information on this click here: CD BABY Cover Songs

This is a blog post drawing from my own experiences and not meant as legal advice. Contact a music lawyer for all legal questions you may have. Feel free to comment if you have anything to add and of course you can contact me direct should you have a musical project or licensing issue that I can help with. You can check out some of my bespoke library of music here.

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