Releasing cover songs, remixes and tracks which use samples offer a great way to help your music reach new ears and get your name out to new fans. However, it’s important to make sure you’re doing everything legally and above board when it comes to creating your own version of someone else’s intellectual property.
First of all, you need to understand what exactly constitutes a cover, remix or sample, as well as the licenses each requires before you release your music.
Re-recorded versions of a song (in which you have replaced the original vocals and instrumentation with your own) are classed as covers. According to copyright law, cover songs cannot alter the underlying arrangement or melody.
If you’re releasing a cover song in the UK, you don’t need to purchase any licenses. For North American releases, however, a Mechanical License is required.
Tracks that use elements of an original recording, but alter the melody, arrangement or the song are classed as remixes.
Wherever in the world you plan to release a remix, a Master Use License is required.
Samples are small elements of the original track that have been altered, tweaked or looped to create a completely new song. For example, Kanye West’s ‘Gold Digger’ samples Ray Charles’ ‘I Got a Woman’; and Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ samples Chic’s ‘Good Times’.
If you’re planning to release a song that uses samples, you’ll need to get hold of both Master Use and Mechanical Licenses for worldwide distribution.
How to purchase music licenses
There are a number of reputable companies from which you can buy the necessary Mechanical and Master Use Licenses, including Harry Fox and Easy Song Licensing. Each licensing provider will offer different options and licenses, so you may need to search around and make a few enquiries to find the one you need.
Generally, Master Use Licenses can be hard to acquire for certain original recordings, so it’s worth taking this into consideration before creating a track that requires one, especially if you plan to sell music on iTunes, Spotify, and other major stores.
Copyright law – how to cover yourself
Various forms of copyright exist that an artist needs to be familiar with:
Copyright © – this covers the lyrics and melody of a song
Phonographic ℗ – this covers the audio recording
If you are releasing a cover, a remix, or are using samples in your tracks, there are certain precautions you must take to protect yourself from legal action.
- Identify the copyright holder. This can vary depending on the track, but typically it will be the original songwriter, the publisher or the label. The owner can be found on dedicated databases, such as BMI, US Copyright Office, Harry Fox, ASCAP, SongFile or SESAC. It is common practice for the copyright to be held by the publisher, and the phonographic copyright to be held by the label. If this is the case then ensure to contact the publisher, not the label.
- Be aware that there may be multiple songs that share a name, and that you’re looking at the right song!
- Once you’ve got the right song and copyright holder, send a letter of intent. Luckily, most companies that provide licenses include a service to do this on your behalf. To play it safe, you should check this service is actually offered. It’s also advisable to acquire your licenses at least a month prior to the release of your own track.
Putting out remixes, covers and sampling popular music can be a great strategy for new audiences to hear your music, as the familiarity can make it more accessible to them. However, you mustn’t ignore the proper procedures for this type of release. The advice in this guide should provide you with the knowledge you need to enter this area of music without any issues.
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