Music Licensing 101: How do I license a cover song?

Music Licensing 101: How do I license a cover song?

PRO, licensing, synchronization, royalties - learning the language of music publishing can be daunting. But it’s important to take advantage of all of the revenue streams available to you as a musician and songwriter!

In Part 1 of this series, we covered what a performing rights organization (PRO) is, what they do, and how they can collect royalties for your music. In Part 2, we talked about eight different royalties you can collect from your songs.

[Music Licensing 101: 8 royalties you can collect from your songs]

For the third post in this series, we’re taking a look at cover songs. Recording and performing cover songs are a great way to build your fanbase, but it’s important to do this legally to protect yourself from litigation. Plus, as a musician, you know it’s important that the rights holders and creators be recognized for their work!

Releasing cover songs for free

When licensing covers that you’ll just offer for free online (streaming or download), you will still need to obtain a license so that the original songwriter(s) get paid.

When applying for a license, you’ll have to estimate how many downloads you’ll give away and streaming sites you’ll distribute the track to. Because streaming services like Spotify already pay licensing fees, you don’t have to cover them on your license. You would count services like Bandzoogle, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, and other similar sites.

[[VIDEO] How to Sell Bandcamp Music on Your Bandzoogle Website]

Including a cover song on your album

If you’re planning to release your own version of a song on your next album, you’ll need a mechanical license. These licenses pay 9.1 cents to the songwriter per download (or physical purchase of the album.)

One thing to keep in mind is that if you’d like to release two different versions of the same song (for example, a punk rock version and an EDM version of "My Girl"), you would need two separate licenses.

Playing a cover on YouTube

Since YouTube is a video platform, you would technically need a synchronization license to legally post a cover there. But because it’s so difficult for independent artists to get a response from large publishers, and would be even harder to negotiate a synch rate, YouTube just displays ads on cover videos and pays the revenue to writers. So, if you’re just going to release a cover song on YouTube but won’t be selling it, you don't need to obtain mechanical license. YouTube will simply pay royalties to the publishers from the monies collected through ads displayed on your video.

[How to make money from your music on YouTube]

Where do I get licenses for cover songs?


Loudr files the proper paperwork with publishers in order to lawfully license the song for you. They take into account the distribution methods of the song, and provide you with a mechanical license that allows you to record the song. They charge a $15 service fee, plus the publisher royalties (9.1 cents per download).


Harry Fox Agency’s Songfile is another very popular service that provides mechanical licensing including the tools to license copyrighted works. Songfile charges $16 per song, plus publisher the royalties.

[How to Record and Release Cover Songs: An Interview with HFA]

We hope this helps you legally release covers of your favorite songs to share with your fans!

Making money as a musician is tough. That's why you keep 100% of your hard-earned revenues when you sell music, merch & tickets through your Bandzoogle website. Sign up free now!


Posted by 1WattsMovement on Dec 16 2015 11:19 AM
Thanks For This Info
Brioni Faith
Posted by Brioni Faith on Dec 17 2015 11:14 PM
Thanks for this - does this apply for the US and rest of the world if you go through Loudr? I believe in Australia and other countries the laws are slightly different.
Big Hitter the Llama
Posted by Big Hitter the Llama on Dec 22 2015 8:26 AM
You actually can get paid for youtube video covers but must sign up through . I believe they are the only site with the proper rights to allow this without trying to get a license yourself. $ is split with publishers.
Infinite Journey - The Music of Journey
Posted by Infinite Journey - The Music of Journey on Jan 17 2016 8:56 AM
Thanks for the great info! I'd love more detail on the "Playing a cover on YouTube," on how to get ads on our videos? I'm wondering if this is the reason why all of our covers (we're a tribute band) keep getting pulled from YouTube? YouTube has pulled all of our posted videos (our promo video and three live-shot vids) and deleted our YouTube channel last year. Tried posting it six months after "anonymously" and got pulled again. YouTube has even reached out to some of our fans who have posted our videos (they shot on their phones) too. There a thousands of tribute bands out there who have videos on YouTube, so I just don't get it?
Posted by Desi on Jan 17 2016 9:06 AM
@Infinite Journey - The Music of Journey - if you don't have the proper licensing, it's certainly possible this is the reason the videos are being removed. In order to legally post videos to YouTube, you will need a synch license, which can be acquired from the PRO like BMI, ASCAP, or SESAC. It's possible that other tribute groups have these synch licenses in place, which would keep them from being taken down.
Steven Green's Swingreen
Posted by Steven Green's Swingreen on Jan 20 2016 1:38 PM
"So, if you’re just going to release a cover song on YouTube but won’t be selling it, you don't need to obtain mechanical license. YouTube will simply pay royalties to the publishers from the monies collected through ads displayed on your video. YouTube but won’t be selling it, you don't need to obtain mechanical license. YouTube will simply pay royalties to the publishers from the monies collected through ads displayed on your video." I tried looking on you tube for simple confirmation and instruction guide as to how and what to do to get going on that but never found the info. Wish Bz had put more details in the article.
Posted by Cameron on Jan 20 2016 1:58 PM
Hey there @Steven Green's Swingreen! To clarify this a little further: YouTube cover videos are a really gray area to some extent. The article does cover this correctly as when ads are displayed, the fees are paid, and life goes on as normal. That being said, the person covering a song (technically) needs to get what's called a sync license from the publisher for the video. It's rare that people actually do this, because most publishers don't deal with indie level artists. All in all, if you're just releasing a cover song on YouTube and you're not selling it, you don't need to get the mechanical license because YouTube pays royalties directly to the publishers. Copyright stuff and licenses are a dense subject, but when it comes to covers, you really only need to get a license for is selling the song anywhere (iTunes, CD's, Bandzoogle, etc). I hope this helps!
Posted by G.T.Mac and MOSSA-BAND on Jan 23 2016 3:13 PM
I am still hoping to get played on Youtube with my tracks from Bandzoogle to actually sell my songs on there which is to no avail? I am in the process of negotiating (Supplying Performer Data) with both PPL (Phonographic Performance Limited) and PRS (Performing Right Society) I received through Paypal payment from my account to Bandzoogle. I would be very grateful if you enlighten me about selling my songs on Youtube plus other sites? Thank you, G.T.Mac and MOSSA-BAND:
Smells Like Seattle
Posted by Smells Like Seattle on Feb 16 2016 2:38 PM
What about if it is a video collage? Our problem is that we are a tribute group for Seattle music time period, and we cover about 5 bands in our promo vid. They are not full songs, and we are not selling the video. The clips are about 1 min each. Its just for promotion to get gigs. Why would it get pulled if the copyright notification states roughly that, "YouTube will simply pay royalties to the publishers from the monies collected through ads displayed on your video."
Posted by Julia on Feb 16 2016 3:26 PM
Hey @ Smells Like Seattle, just sent you an email to reply to your comment. If you have any more questions about this, feel free to contact us through your 'Help' tab. Cheers!
Posted by Andrew on May 5 2016 5:59 PM
@ Smells Like Seattle TECHNICLLY and legally speaking you absolutely 100% can not put any kind of video together for a cover without proper licensing in place. You can't even put the song on YouTube with text underneath it without a proper license. 99% of the time a large artist isn't going to care as you can see based on the number of cover videos out there. However, in your case where you're a tribute band and earn income based on this particular artist I would be careful.
Brioni Faith
Posted by Brioni Faith on Jul 29 2016 8:22 PM
Hi again... if releasing a cover, what agency/publisher would be best to obtain a license for release and sitribution with the option of sync licensing in the US? I'm in Australia. Thanks for any help!
Rosalyn Jordan-MIlls
Posted by Rosalyn Jordan-MIlls on Sep 6 2016 9:20 PM
I'm a small company that has put together a concert using four songs that I will be using in movie video. I've been having the hardest time getting a response from Sony, Warner BMG and it's been very frustrating. What can I do to get a synch license to cover songs?