In December, I recorded a demo of cover songs for distribution to venues, and also as a stocking stuffer for family. Since I technically needed a mechanical license for each of the songs I was recording, I decided to go through the whole process of obtaining the licenses. I figured it would be good practice for the future, and might even be interesting.
A mechanical license is basically permission from a publisher to record and distribute a song they own the rights to. The process can be a bit intimidating, and I don’t think I was alone in feeling a slight sense of dread at the term whenever it came up. Now that I’ve gone through the process, it’s definitely not as it terrifying as it seemed at first. Here are some lessons I learned:
- Figure Out if You Need a Mechanical License. You need a mechanical license if you are planning on recording a song whose rights are owned by a publisher. For example, if you are recording “Let it Be” by the Beatles, you are going to need to obtain a mechanical licensing agreement from Sony. If you are recording your own song, or a song that is considered public domain, you wouldn’t need to obtain a mechanical license for it. For example, I was recording “Danny Boy” as one of my tracks, and since the song’s publishing rights now lie in the public domain, I didn’t need to get a mechanical license for it.
- Begin the Process of Obtaining the Licenses Before You Record. This is an important one. Some licenses are easier to get than others, and for certain songs it may be nearly impossible to obtain the license. I recorded six songs in my day at the studio, and I ended up not being able to use one of the tracks because I couldn’t get in touch with the publisher to get the license. If you plan ahead and get your licenses before you head to the studio, you won’t end up recording any music that you later find out you can’t use.
Internet Research is Your Friend. Luckily, finding out who owns the rights to certain songs, and applying for a license for them is a lot easier with the internet. In Canada, two companies represent most of the major music reproduction rights of publishers: the Society for Reproduction Rights of Authors, Composers, and Publishers in Canada (SODRAC), and the Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency (CMRRA). They both have databases on their websites where you can look up specific songs, and who owns the rights to them. You can check here for SODRAC’s database, and here for CMRRA’s. If either SODRAC or CMRRA represent the publisher of the song you are covering, you will be able to apply for the rights directly through them. Even if they don’t, they will list the publisher for the song, so you can use that information to contact the publisher directly.
In the States, the Harry Fox Agency is the largest provider of mechanical licensing agreements, and you can check out their database here. If they represent the song you want to record, you will also be able to apply online through them for the license. Another service you can consider using if you live in the States is Limelight. Limelight will take care of the whole process of obtaining your mechanical licenses for you from start to finish, so all you have to do is submit the songs you want to use to them, the formats you want to distribute them in, and pay them the associated fee for obtaining them. You can check out their website here.
[Music Licensing 101: How do I license a cover song?]
- Savour the Feeling of Signing Your Agreements. Once your licenses come in the mail, savour the moment of opening them up, unfolding them, and signing each one. Some songs have multiple agreements with publishers, so you may get to practice this a few times in a row.
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