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How to Release a Cover Song Legally & Earn Royalties

How to Release a Cover Song Legally & Earn Royalties
March 21, 2024
Here's a truth bomb: cover songs often outperform original music. Especially if you're a new and upcoming artist. People are more likely to stumble across your cover when searching for current trends and classic songs - and see your name alongside those of the greats.

You might think that making money from covering someone else’s song would be a legal minefield and too tricky to even consider, but it's actually a lot simpler than you might think.

How to Release a Cover & Earn Money


What is a cover song - legally speaking?

A cover is different to medley, remixes, and derivative versions of songs, and covering a song is also different to the process of sampling. A song is considered to be a cover if you have not made any significant changes to the melody or character of the original song, and you have used the same lyrics.

Anything that makes significant changes to the original song would be considered a derivative version, rather than a cover.

Learn more about releasing remixes and clearing samples.

Music and lyrics aside, this also applies to the title of the cover song. Which means any covers you release or upload to a major streaming platform, must have the exact same song title as the original song to get accepted.


How to release a cover song on Spotify

So you’ve got your cover recorded and now you want to release it on Spotify and other major music platforms.

Many streaming platforms have blanket licenses in place for cover song, so you won't need to provide a license to distribute your cover to streaming services.

However, you will need to obtain a mechanical license to distribute your cover to download stores.

In short:

Streaming platforms only: No license required
Download platforms: Mechanical license required

Some countries will require an individual mechanical license for downloads of cover songs. Here's where - alongside the sites you'll find them on.

USA: songfile.com

Canada: cmrra.ca/ or sodrac.ca

Mexico: emmacsacm.com.mx

Japan: jasrac.or.jp

India & Pakistan: Contact the rights holder directly

Simply put: When you upload a cover to YouTube, you'll get a message saying that you do not have rights to the recording. Your cover won't be taken down, but any revenue generated by ads will be payed to the copyright holder.

If you want to avoid the hassle of getting a mechanical license you can simply distribute only to streaming platforms and avoid the countries listed above!

Just sign up to Ditto Music and use our Release Builder to choose specific platforms and territories around the world. More info on that below.


How to release a cover song with Ditto Music

So you’ve perfected your recording, it’s all mixed and mastered, and now you’re ready for the world to hear it.

Distributing music with Ditto Music couldn’t be easier. Our Release Builder is super simple to use, so let’s take you through it.

1. First you'll need to sign up or log into Ditto Music. Then you’ll need to click ‘Create New’ in the box that says ‘Standard Release’ and enter the name of your cover song.

How to Release a Cover Song Legally & Earn Royalties

2. You'll be directed to Stage One of the Ditto Release Builder, where you can upload your artwork, add other key info and fill in the all important copyright details.

In the Copyright Holder field you will need to input the name of the songwriter or label that owns the original recording as well as the Copyright Year - which is the year it was first recorded.

You can use online databases to research copyright ownership. We would recommend starting a search on Songfile, but you may need to check other databases too.

How to Release a Cover Song Legally & Earn Royalties

3. Moving on to Stage Two, you can upload your audio file in MP3 or WAV format. If you want to distribute your cover to download platforms, this is where you need to upload your mechanical license documentation.

How to Release a Cover Song Legally & Earn Royalties

4. Your next job is to choose your release date, and add any extra services such as chart registration and pre-release campaigns. You can also choose the geographical availability here - which basically means where in the world people can listen.

Geographical availability is important if you're releasing cover songs to download stores, as mechanical license terms may vary in different territories.

How to Release a Cover Song Legally & Earn Royalties

5. On the final stage of the Release Builder you can choose which music platforms you'd like to distribute to and how much you want to charge per download, if necessary.

If you don’t have a mechanical license and only want to distribute your cover to streaming platforms you can select the Streaming only stores option.

How to Release a Cover Song Legally & Earn Royalties

And that’s it! Just complete the checkout process and wait for your release date to see your cover song appear on major music platforms.


What is a mechanical license?

A mechanical licenses relate to the payment of mechanical royalties and are an agreement between a music creator and the copyright holder which grants permission for an audio-only release. This includes digital and physical audio recordings.

Mechanical licenses can be purchased from companies like Harry Fox Agency, Songfile or Easy Song Licensing.

Songfile in particular has an easy step-by-step process for buying licenses.

But there is a catch:

Mechanical licenses will usually allow a minimum of 200 downloads. It's the responsibility of the artist to obtain a new license before this limit is exceeded.


How to get a mechanical license for cover songs

If you’ve decided that you want to release your cover song to download stores like iTunes and Amazon Music, you'll need to get the necessary a mechanical license.

Luckily, there are some handy online services that will streamline the process.

The Harry Fox Agency will take you straight to Songfile for a mechanical license, so let’s do a quick walk through of the process:

1. The first thing you want to do is sign up for The Harry Fox Agency. You’ll want to make a Music Creators account, which will redirect you to Songfile where you can register.

How to Release a Cover Song Legally & Earn Royalties
How to Release a Cover Song Legally & Earn Royalties
How to Release a Cover Song Legally & Earn Royalties

2. Once you have created your account you will be able to search for the the mechanical license you came here for.

Just verify your Songfile account (they’ll send you an email link) and click ‘Get A License’ on the homepage.

How to Release a Cover Song Legally & Earn Royalties

3. The next step is to add the release to Songfile. The information you uploaded to the Ditto release builder needs to be added here too, and it is important to make sure that they match up!

How to Release a Cover Song Legally & Earn Royalties

Harry Fox can only license to the United States. If you want to distribute to download platforms in other countries you may need to contact similar websites in different countries to obtain the right license.

The type of license you need is a download license. You don’t need to worry about physical or ringtone licenses and Ditto Music will sort out the streaming license for you.

Next you need to tell how many copies you think you need to license for. As mentioned earlier, the minimum is 200, and it will be up to you to obtain a new license if you sell more than the licensed amount. The higher the number, the higher the license fee.

Before we move on there's a technicality to consider.

How to Release a Cover Song Legally & Earn Royalties

You’ll then need to add some more information to the song cart including the song duration, the artist name and label, and the ISRC Code. You will have been assigned an ISRC code when you uploaded to Ditto and it will be available by viewing the release in your Ditto dashboard.

How to Release a Cover Song Legally & Earn Royalties

4. At this point you’ll be able to see the licenses in your cart. You can check that all the details are correct at this stage. If you’re releasing a bunch of covers you can add more licenses here.

Songfile will then take you through the terms and conditions of the agreement which you will need to accept.

How to Release a Cover Song Legally & Earn Royalties
How to Release a Cover Song Legally & Earn Royalties

5. Then you just need to review your licensee information (your personal details) and your selections before paying for your license!

Once you have paid you can download the license. The next important thing you will need to do is go back to your Ditto dashboard and upload the mechanical license so that your cover can be processed and sent to download stores. You need to make sure you upload it to the Ditto dashboard so that it is included in your account.

Don’t forget! If you are distributing to download stores, you need to make sure you select only the territories you have a license for. The Harry Fox Agency will only get you a license to distribute in the US.


How to release a cover song on YouTube

So that’s how to release a cover onto streaming and download platforms. But what if you want to release it onto YouTube - perhaps as part of a live performance video?

How to Release a Cover Song Legally & Earn Royalties

The first thing to understand is that the mechanical license only covers the audio recording of your cover. It does not cover any visual aspect.

The majority of artists sharing cover videos on YouTube are not getting the correct licensing agreements and permissions, and in all honesty, you don’t need to either.

You do run the risk of your video being flagged and your content being taken down but thanks to a helpful system that YouTube have devised, you are more likely to be able to get away with it!

This time and money saving system is known as Content ID. It's a monetisation system that YouTube have developed to allow copyright holders to monetise and track the use of their material. This means that if your cover starts to make money, that revenue will be sent to the copyright holder.

Simply put: When you upload a cover to YouTube, you'll get a message saying that you do not have rights to the recording. Your cover won't be taken down, but any revenue generated by ads will be payed to the copyright holder.

If you do want to release a completely by-the-book and squeaky clean cover video what you will need to get is a sync license.

This needs to be obtained from the publisher and will give you the right to pair their song with moving visuals. A sync license needs to be obtained even if you are releasing the cover with a slideshow video or even a single image. It still counts as a video if there are any visuals.

Music publishers hold all the cards when it comes to signing Sync licenses. Your request may be ignored or they could charge big fees to grant the license. For artists that are regularly releasing cover videos, this isn’t going to be an option.

Which brings us back to Content ID.

YouTube’s Content ID system analyses all the elements of a recording to determine if the video contains any copyrighted material. If the system flags something, it will automatically submit a claim on behalf of the copyright holder.

This isn’t a fool-proof way of releasing a cover video. A publisher can decide that they don’t want anybody using their song, and there are a number of options available to them if this is what they decide.

Block videos - Your video can’t be viewed or searched for.

Restrict access - People in certain territories or countries will be unable to access your video.

Mute videos - Your video will be able to play, but with no sound!

Block or restrict certain platforms - Your video will only be available on certain devices or apps.

Having a claim submitted against your cover video doesn’t mean that you’re in trouble. It just means that you don’t own the material that you are covering. Publishers can decide what happens next, and often they will place ads on the video so that they can earn revenue from your cover.

You might be asking, what is the point in releasing a cover to YouTube if only the publisher is going to make money from it?

Well, other than everyone’s favourite exposure argument, releasing a cover to YouTube is a great way to engage with existing audiences, as well as finding new ones.

If you want to make money from this release you can accompany it with an audio-only release which will allow you to generate revenue from streaming and downloads.

You can use the video as an eye-catching way to drive listeners to your streaming profiles, or even to your website where you can sell them physical copies, merch and maybe even your original music!

How to Release a Cover Song Legally & Earn Royalties

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