How to Legally License a Cover Song

I had a gut feeling that an album called “It’s a Jersey Thing” could benefit from a song written by none other than Bruce Springsteen. His tune, “Thunder Road,” held a special place in my live acoustic repertoire for decades. I’d get a pleasing reaction both in person and during all those online concerts necessitated by COVID-19. I had made a YouTube video in which I perform the song on vocals and acoustic guitar and then add some layers of piano and glockenspiel (bells).

Why Licensing?

In order to distribute a recording of a song someone else wrote or owns, you need to purchase a license. This ensures the rights holders get their share of the proceeds. Intellectual property law requires this whether you’re burning CDs to give away, emailing MP3s or selling an album containing the cover.

I wanted to include “Thunder Road” on my album that I intended to sell as a download and make available for streaming. Therefore, I needed to get it licensed first.

Licensing for Downloads and Discs

Jason Didner holding a CD of his new album "It's a Jersey Thing."

Originally I had not planned to get physical CDs made, as the current trend favors streaming and downloads. A fan convinced me to change my mind and get CD’s pressed (at least a very modest number of them).

I turned to Easy Song Licensing to provide me with the license to sell downloads of a cover song. The company asked me for the title, original artist and songwriter of the song I wanted to use. They asked how many downloads I predicted I’d sell/give away. I estimated a modest number. Bear in mind: if I reach my goal number, I can always purchase more licenses to cover more instances of downloads. I’d consider this a wonderful problem to have.

As I became convinced to press some CDs, I returned to Easy Song Licensing to license the number of discs.

You pay 9 cents per copy sold (or given away) whether digital download or CD – plus an administrative fee. The industry refers to this as a compulsory license. The more copies you can license, the more mileage you get out of that initial administrative fee. You may benefit from an ambitious approach if you have a plan. How will you sell all those copies? Lots of online gigs? Lots of in-person gigs?

Licensing for Streaming

You can upload your cover song for release on Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon and other streaming services and get the licensing arranged at the same time. Using DistroKid, you can simply identify your song as a cover using the form you fill out to associate information with your upload. Then, DistroKid will settle up with The song’s rights holder based on number of times the song is streamed before paying you your portion of streaming royalties. DistroKid will also divide up download/purchase royalties on those platforms it distributes to. When it comes to streaming royalties, I like to say “They’re pennies, but they’re my pennies!”

Note: Bandcamp operates entirely outside those platforms that work with services like DistroKid. So you’ll need a licensing company like Easy Song if uploading your cover to Bandcamp.

What about YouTube Videos?

Since YouTube attaches ads to videos viewed by the general public (unless they subscribe to YouTube’s premium ad-free service) and makes money off those ads, it shares that revenue with the proper copyright holder of the song you’re covering. So if you clearly identify the songwriter or original artist and title of the song, YouTube will figure out the rights holder. Bear in mind, the rights holder can object to their song being covered and request that YouTube remove your cover. Just try covering the Eagles’ “Hotel California” and you’ll see what I mean.

Do you plan on recording and releasing a cover song? Which one? Tell us how you go about licensing it.