How to Cover a Song Legally

 
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As an independent artist you may be cringing or rolling your eyes at this title, but hear us out. There was a time in my life where I hated learning covers and just wanted to showcase my own stuff. Trust me, there are still benefits to creating covers of popular songs. 

Cover songs are still a tried-and-true method for introducing listeners to your style and retaining them with good production quality and that shared connection for the song. But even more beneficial are the royalties that come with it. Yes, you can make money from covering the hits! By following the right methods, from composing to licensing, you can stream and sell your cover songs legally.

Except “Let It Go”. Please, no more Frozen covers.

Why Bother With Cover Songs?

Cover songs are not only profitable for the artists, but can be meaningful to fans as well. If you’ve seen the recent Singapore-centric rom-com “Crazy Rich Asians”, you’ll remember that pivotal point near the end when they played a beautiful rendition of Coldplay’s “Yellow.” The subtle surprise and beauty of it, however, was that the lyrics were in Mandarin, sung by The Voice veteran Katherine Ho. 

Since the film’s release, that Mandarin cover of “Yellow” has skyrocketed. It was a perfect choice for the film and showcased just how powerful a cover song could be if struck with the right chords. It wasn’t just a great cover, it was a meaningful one, and that led to a loyal fan following for the film and soundtrack as a whole. 

The Oldest Trick in the Books

It’s commonly believed that to be a true artist you have to create your own genuine sound and material. While this holds true for some cases, it’s not a surefire way to get noticed in the music scene. The other side of the argument, often held by the critics, is that there is no original sound anymore and everything is pulled from the sources of something else. The same argument can be made for storytelling: all stories follow similar patterns, just wear different costumes.

However, instead of struggling to create an “original sound,” an alternative method is to take advantage of one of the greatest marketing techniques of all time - nostalgia. 
 

Nostalgia: The Secret Sauce

Nostalgia by definition is “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.” For many, this is their childhood where those formative years were influenced by the pop culture of the time. Be it Disney movies, family sitcoms, or retro TV dramas, these pieces of pop culture left lasting impressions and often in the form of musical jingles. Disney’s repertoire of music is probably the most recognizable around the world, which is why it makes such good material for cover songs. But artists can pull from nearly any era of music or pop culture and put their own spin on the material. 

How To Cover a Popular Song

When it comes to composing your cover song, the only direction you really need is to follow is your style/genre. Are you a fan of rock? Turn your favorite song into a rock ballad. Do you have a country heart? Add more twang and soul to a new rendition of an earworm.

Did You Know?

In fact, even songs that have become synonymous with certain voices have turned out to be covers! For example, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” was originally performed by Dolly Parton, and Alien Ant Farm’s “Smooth Criminal” was a bold, rock cover of the King of Pop himself Michael Jackson. It just goes to show that there is no “right way” to make a cover song, as long as it’s true to your sound.

Why Should You Cover a Hit Song?

You may be asking yourself, why should you choose a cover song? Covering a popular hit not only has the song fresh in the minds of fans, but also ensures that you stay relevant. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a recent Billboard hit, as proven by some successful artists, but can also be a classic with your unique twist.

For more real-world examples, look to popular YouTube sensations like Nick Pitera, Jonathan Young, Sam Tsui, or Lindsey Stirling.  All of these artists are wildly different from each other in style and substance, and yet all of them have been elevated by covering songs from films, video games, and more. 

As a result of their viral covers, they’ve launched their careers and gained a loyal following with which to pitch original music to. Think of it this way: when meeting a stranger, there is no greater introduction then bonding over shared experiences, or in this case a shared song. And keep in mind that it’s not just the follows they acquire as well, it’s the royalties that can come with it from fans streaming or purchasing the cover song. 

The Ease of Licensing

So, you’ve just finished composing your cover song. You’ve worked too hard to release it for free! So, what’s the next step? That’s where the licensing comes into play.

Licensing cover songs is a surefire way to earn royalties for your hard work. While there are some rules that need to be followed, there are services in place that make it easy for musicians to acquire the necessary licensing for covers and their new material. Two reliable sources include Loudr and Songfile, who can help you acquire a license and streamline the earnings from streaming platforms.

The Nitty-Gritty Logistics of Licensing

When it comes to the actual details of putting your song together, there are some rules you need to follow for proper distribution. To make sure your end is covered, the first thing you need to understand is what a mechanical license is. 

Mechanical License Rules

When you sample a song or remix it using the original audio (even just samples), that original artist is entitled to a share of the pie. However, a cover song is an exception and falls under a Mechanical License. This license allows artists the freedom to reinterpret or re-record songs that are not in public domain, so long as the song is entirely a re-creation and doesn’t pull material from the original song via CDs, a stream, digital download, etc. 

According to Soundrop Distribution, the best way to know if you’re in the clear is to follow these rules: 

  • "A cover song is faithful to the melodic and lyrical components of the original composition."

  • "A cover song CAN (and often should) take stylistic liberties, making changes to the genre, tempo, key, instrumentation, etc."

  • "If you are recording the very first version of a song you did not write, it's NOT a cover song (and you will need the permission of the songwriter/publisher)."

How to Get a Mechanical License

Luckily, the artist is never alone when it comes to applying for a mechanical license. Once your song is ready, use a service like Loudr to start the process of obtaining a mechanical license. 

Loudr takes care of all the finer details, and issues a notice-of-intent (NOI) to the original publishers, which informs them that you'll be covering their song. Once that’s taken care of, you’ll be free to distribute the song across platforms like Apple Music, Spotify, Google Play, and more. 

Don’t forget to apply for BMI to collect your well-earned royalties!


And there you have it! Have we changed your mind about cover songs yet? Are you ready to try your hand at some childhood favorites or recent hits? Is “Let It Go” stuck in your head again?

While we’re sorry about that last one, we aren’t sorry about helping artists like you with making and distributing music. When writing your own original music, you ALWAYS need to document who does what. We created a super awesome splits sheet just for that. Never get confused on splits and royalties ever again!