Recording or playing cover songs live is a good way to get your band recognized if you are new to the music scene. Cover songs are essentially songs sung by someone other than the original performer. You are taking somebody else's track and re-doing it, usually in an individualized way, so the song suits your band. Finding out the rules about performing and recording songs is important if you wish to use cover songs in your live show or on an album.
Performing Rights Organizations (PROs) generally charge fees to any live music venue to collect the royalties for any cover versions performed on the premises. Look around the club you are playing in for a "PRO" sticker. These stickers indicate that the venue is playing money to performing rights societies such as BMI, SOCAN or PRS. Generally speaking, you do not have to do anything when performing a cover song live, because the authors of the work are receiving their money from the venue. Remember, if you record the live performance, you will need to obtain additional permission to distribute the songs on CD.
Mechanical and Digital Licensing: Mechanical Rights Agencies
If you are intending on recording and distributing any songs which were originally written or performed by other musicians, you will need to obtain a digital or mechanical license to distribute the materials. "Mechanical" licensing is required if you are distributing physical copies of the songs, through mediums such as CDs, tapes or records. "Digital" licensing is required if you are distributing songs over the Internet by streaming or downloads. Many different "Mechanical Rights Agencies" exist across the world for obtaining the rights for these purposes. For example, the Harry Fox Agency handles these matters in the US. Visit the The Harry Fox Agency website and enter the details of the songs you wish to distribute and how they are going to be distributed. You will be asked for an up-front fee for the royalties that are to be paid, and be required to buy a license to distribute the materials.
Mechanical and Digital Licensing: Direct Route
Alternatively, you can avoid using third party help and submit your request directly to the copyright holder for the song or songs you wish to release a cover version of. Use the Music Publisher's Association's website to find out who owns the copyright for the tracks you wish to release a cover of. Find the name and address of the license holder, and then send them a "Notice of Intention to Obtain Compulsory License for Making and Distributing Sound Recordings." This is essentially a letter stating that you wish to distribute a cover version of the track (or tracks) in question. Ensure your letter contains all the information required by the US Copyright Office's specifications.
Mechanical and Digital Licensing: Library of Congress
If you are unable for any reason to find the name of the copyright holder for the track you wish to cover, you can file a request to the Library of Congress in the same way. Use a sample letter and fill in the blanks as required. The Library of Congress will locate the license holder and inform you of any fees that should be paid. Send the completed letter to: Library of Congress, Copyright Office, Licensing Division, LM-458, 101 Independence Ave., S.E., Washington, D.C. 20557-6400.
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