A cover song is a new recording of a song that was previously recorded and released by someone else. In order for a song to be considered a cover, the new recording must faithfully embody the melody and all of the lyrics of the original version of the song. You can change the key, use your own arrangement, and record the cover in your choice of genres, but the melody and the full lyrics must be present and intact without any changes.
It is important to understand that there are also many things that you cannot do to a pre-existing song without the explicit written permission of its rights holders (these are usually the publishers of the songwriters). This “don’t do” list includes the following:
- Changing any of the lyrics or melody
- Performing only part of the original song (if you record only the first verse and the chorus, some rights holders may consider that to be an infringement of their rights)
- Using the song in a “mashup” with other songs
- Using the song as part of a “medley” with other songs
- Performing the song in a language other than the language in which it was originally recorded
- “Sampling” the song as part of an otherwise new composition
- Using a sample of a different song within your cover version
If you want to do any of the things on the list above, there are several clearance services available that, for a fee, will try to secure the necessary permissions and negotiate a license from the rights holders for you.
Mechanical royalties are another important consideration when uploading a cover song. Streaming services, such as Apple Music and Spotify, directly pay the streaming royalties that accrue to the rights holders (provided that you properly identify them when you upload the song).
Specific arrangements need to be made to ensure the mechanical royalties for any downloads of your cover song are properly accounted for and paid to the rights holders though. You do not need to get the rights holders permission (provided you've not done anything on the "don't do" list above) but you do need to make sure they are properly and timely paid as required by law. There are several companies and services that can handle this for you. A good place to start is The Harry Fox Agency (HFA) and their service, SongFile. Please note, we’re generally unable to exclude download services from distribution as a means of avoiding the requirement for these licenses but you should speak to your AWAL contact further for more advice if this is something you’re after.
We advise all AWAL members to ensure the correct licenses and permissions are in place for cover song releases prior to beginning the upload process. Releases that have not been properly licensed prior to distribution could result in copyright claims which could expose you to liability and a review of your AWAL account.
If you’re unsure if your version of a cover song would require explicit permission from the rights holder, please reach out through the Contact Us page on your Portal and we will be happy to advise.