Tutorial Thursday: Obtaining Rights To Release a Cover Song Online

This week I’m sort of piggyback on Vasko’s excellent Going Straight series, which discusses the ins and outs of trying to do your electronic music in an honest and ethical way. (Full disclosure: Bachelor Machines uses 100% paid for gear at the moment, but like most [ed: all?] electronic artists, I didn’t start out that way either.) This week on Tutorial Thursday I’m going to talk about how to go legit on a different front: I’m going to talk about getting permission to release a cover version of someone else’s song.

Before we get in too deep, let’s talk about the four different kinds of permissions or “rights” that come into play when using another artist’s work. This will get really complicated for a moment and then it will get beautifully simple, so please be patient, I will wake you up when I get to the good part.

Also: the legalities discussed in this article refer to musical activities inside the United States. I don’t know how this works in other countries, hopefully Fwonkers from other countries will contribute to the comments thread.

  1. The first one you usually hear about is the right to use another person’s recording in your recording, i.e. sampling. This is called Master Use rights. Acquiring Master Use rights for a song allows you to use that song’s sounds in your song. If you don’t acquire those rights for the song, you don’t legally have permission and you’re technically liable for damages if you sample the record. That’s irrespective of how much money you make using the sample, by the way. The Master Use rights are held by the person that owns that master recording; typically, this will be the record label.

    Getting Master Use rights for a recording can be a convoluted and expensive process.
    But we’re not here to talk about sampling. =)

  2. The second one you usually hear about is Performing Rights. These are the rights that radio stations pay for, to artists and publishers when they play the song in public. Technically, bars and other venues pay for these rights as well. These are typically paid to the artist and publisher via their Performance Rights Organization (ASCAP and BMI in the USA). The radio station will have an ongoing reporting relationship with the PROs and the artist gets paid as a percentage of whatever the station is paying to the PRO.
  3. Third up, we’ve got Synchronization Rights, which are paid for by TV stations and motion picture studios for syncing the music to picture and then broadcasting it, either via television or via physical media. (In the US, due to a tragic legal decision back in the 40s, public performances of theatrical works garner no royalties for any musician, oddly enough.) These can be very, very lucrative for artists if they can get their tunes onto a TV show. Like Performing Rights, Sync Rights are typically administered via a PRO (so, if you think your music is going to be on TV, you should join a PRO right away.)
  4. Lastly – and this is the one that we’re talking about today – we’ve got Mechanical Rights. Gaining these rights grants you the permission to press a recording of a song to a new thing – the thing could be a digital download, or it could be a CD, or it could be sheet music, or whatever. If I wanted to sell a CD with your recording of your song on it, I would need to get both Master Use rights (for permission to use your recording) and Mechanical rights (for permission to make a CD using a song that you wrote). Mechanical rights are paid to the songwriter and the publisher of the song.

Ok, that was the long, boring part! Here’s where it gets interesting again.

In order to record a cover and do whatever you want with it, you have to acquire the song’s Mechanical Rights to do so. If you’re like me, you’ve probably thought “well, I would like to do that but jeez, I’d have to call some label’s lawyer and I’d have to pay some huge amount of money and, dang. That sounds like a lot of work. How about I DON’T? That sounds like the best plan.” And I think a lot of digital artists think the same way.

But now I’ve got a problem. I’m almost done with a new track and I think it’s pretty awesome, I’m excited about it. But, the song is a cover. Sooooo, I was thinking about Vasko’s articles again and I wondered just how difficult and how expensive a process this would be, if I wanted to make this song available to stream on Soundcloud and/or let people buy it on Bandcamp…

It takes about ten minutes and it costs a penny* per listen.

Watch the video to see how it works:

As mentioned in the video, the Harry Fox Agency is the organization that handles mechanical licenses for most music sold within the United States. They’ve created an online “shopping cart”-style interface called Songfile which makes it just stupidly easy and painless to authorize yourself to provide a limited number (< 10,000) of streams and/or digital downloads (< 2,500) of other artists' songs online at extremely reasonable prices. If you find yourself needing more than 2,500 downloads or 10,000 streams for a cover version of a song that you did, please let me know, so I can start asking you for advice.

Bachelor Machines

*Harry Fox Agency takes a $15 per transaction fee to set up the deal, which is still practically free when you consider that you used to have to hire a lawyer to get this stuff accomplished.