How To

A Guide to Releasing Cover Versions

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Music Gateway Team


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This guest blog is provided by Ally Gray, Managing Director of digital music distribution service, EmuBands.

At EmuBands, many of our artists want to release cover versions – so we’ve put together a guide on some of the issues that you need to consider when doing this, as part of a wider guide that also includes guidance on mechanical royalties and publishing. You can view the full guide here, but the aim of this particular blog is to summarise the main points to consider when releasing cover versions.

There are two main aspects to consider when releasing a cover version – permissions, and payments.

Firstly, you may require permission from the copyright holder even to record the cover version. The copyright holder will either be the original songwriter(s), or their publisher(s). We’re going to make an assumption here that the song you wish to cover has already been released commercially. If it hasn’t, permission may be denied under a mechanism called a ‘First License Refusal’. This gives the original songwriter (or their publisher) the right to choose who makes the first commercially available recording of the song.

In general, if your proposed version of the recording is considered a ‘faithful reproduction’, then you may not be required to seek permission from the copyright holder. In order to be considered a ‘faithful reproduction’, there are certain things that cannot be done – Duncan McCrone from MCPS explains:

“For instance, adapting a work – e.g. by changing lyrics or melody – is off-limits unless the copyright owner agrees beforehand. Similarly, making off-the-wall arrangements, adding samples, raps etc could infringe the composer’s moral rights so must be agreed beforehand. If not, the MCPS license may be invalidated. Straightforward covers should be okay, but if in doubt – ask!”

It’s always best to err on the side of caution, so if you think you may need to seek permission, PRS For Music/MCPS can help you locate the publisher you should approach.

The second aspect of releasing cover versions, is to make sure that the publishing royalties are paid to the correct rights holder – that is, the publisher, or the original songwriter. The good news here is that for the vast majority of the World, this is done automatically for you (when releasing digital versions via reputable services, like iTunes, Amazon, Spotify etc).

The main digital music services will have deals in place with the local collection societies (for example, PRS For Music/MCPS in the UK), and they will direct the publisher’s part of the royalty to the collection society, for them in turn to report and pay it to the publisher. In general, this happens automatically across the World for streams, but for downloads, there are a few countries where this process does not happen. Unfortunately, one of these is the USA – traditionally the largest recorded music market in the World.

In the USA, you have two options – you can deal with the publisher directly, or, perhaps easier, you can use a service called Songfile. This is operated by an organisation called HFA – think of them as like an American equivalent of the MCPS.

You have to pay for the ‘mechanicals’ up-front, and then, when your downloads in America are approaching the number of licenses you purchased in advance, you should speak to HFA to consider your options to ‘top-up’.

Obviously the risk here is that you over-estimate your sales and purchase too many, leaving you out of pocket. If you are concerned about this, you may wish to deal with the publisher directly – but this may be a slower and more arduous process than licensing through HFA.

The other main countries where you need to address payments to publishers are Canada (for some, but not all, download services), Mexico, India and Pakistan. In our full guide to publishing, mechanical royalties and releasing cover versions, you can find out the details for which collection society to contact in each of these territories.

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