Cover Song Distribution

Cover songs are a popular way for artists to pay homage to their musical influences, reinterpret classic hits, or bring attention to lesser-known tracks. However, distributing cover songs is not as straightforward as creating and sharing original music. The process involves navigating a maze of licensing and legal requirements. This article delves into the complexities of cover song distribution and provides a comprehensive guide to help musicians and producers understand the key steps involved.

What is a Cover Song?

A cover song is a new performance or recording of a previously released song by someone other than the original artist. Unlike remixes, which involve altering the original recording, cover songs retain the original composition but may differ in style, arrangement, and interpretation.

The Importance of Licensing

When an artist decides to record and distribute a cover song, they must obtain the proper licenses to legally use the original composition. The main license required for cover songs is the mechanical license, which grants permission to reproduce and distribute the copyrighted musical composition.

Mechanical Licenses

A mechanical license is essential for the legal distribution of cover songs in physical formats (such as CDs and vinyl records), digital downloads, and streaming services. This license ensures that the original songwriters and publishers are compensated for the use of their work. In the United States, mechanical licenses are typically obtained through organizations like the Harry Fox Agency (HFA) or via services like Songfile and Easy Song Licensing.

Performance Licenses

In addition to mechanical licenses, artists performing cover songs publicly or on streaming platforms may also need performance licenses. These licenses are handled by Performance Rights Organizations (PROs) such as ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC in the United States. PROs ensure that songwriters and publishers are paid royalties when their songs are performed in public or broadcasted.

Synchronization Licenses

If an artist wants to use a cover song in a video (such as a YouTube video, commercial, or film), they will need a synchronization (sync) license. Sync licenses grant the right to synchronize the music with visual media. These licenses are negotiated directly with the song’s publisher or copyright holder.

Steps to Legally Distribute Cover Songs

  1. Choose the Right Song: Ensure the song you wish to cover is under copyright protection. Public domain songs (typically those published before 1923) do not require a license.

  2. Obtain a Mechanical License: Use services like Songfile or Easy Song Licensing to acquire the necessary mechanical license. These platforms simplify the process and handle the paperwork for a fee.

  3. Secure a Performance License: If you plan to perform the cover song publicly or distribute it on streaming platforms, make sure you have the appropriate performance licenses through a PRO.

  4. Get a Synchronization License (if needed): For video projects, negotiate a sync license with the song’s publisher. This step can be more complex and may require legal assistance.

  5. Distribute Your Cover Song: Once all licenses are secured, you can distribute your cover song through various platforms, including CD Baby, TuneCore, DistroKid, and others. These distributors often have mechanisms in place to ensure compliance with licensing requirements.

Challenges and Considerations


Securing licenses can be expensive, particularly for popular songs. The fees vary based on factors such as the song's popularity, intended use, and distribution scale.


The licensing process can be time-consuming, especially for synchronization licenses, which require negotiation with rights holders.

Legal Compliance

Failure to obtain the necessary licenses can result in legal action, fines, and the removal of your cover song from distribution platforms.


Cover songs offer artists a unique opportunity to connect with audiences and pay tribute to their musical influences. However, navigating the legal landscape of cover song distribution requires careful attention to licensing requirements. By understanding and obtaining the necessary licenses, artists can ensure they are legally compliant and that the original creators are fairly compensated for their work. This diligence not only protects artists legally but also upholds the integrity and respect within the music industry.

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