The Complicated World of Licensing Your Cover Songs

creative licensing music production
You've just completed a recording of one of your favorite songs.  This is a song that impacted you in such a deep way, that you had to create your own version of it.
So you researched the process of covering a popular song, and discovered that once a song has been published, anyone can record a cover version of it by simply obtaining a mechanical license.  Legally speaking, a song is considered 'published' when recordings are distributed to the public for sale
Since this particular song has already been released to the public, you were able to obtain a mechanical license through the Harry Fox Agency, to record your own version.
This morning you received a brief stating that they're looking for 'dark' versions of current hit songs.  Since your version is a really twisted, slow, meandering version of a current song, there's an opportunity to secure a sync-license
This should be easy, right?
Maybe... Maybe not... Let's take a deeper look at what could turn into a complicated process.

Two Elements of a Sync License...

First, we must keep in mind that every sync license consists of two elements:
  1. The Right to use the Master Recording (Master License)
  2. The Right to use the Intellectual Property (Synchronization License)
The right to use the master recording - also known as the Master License - refers to your specific recording of the song.  Since you paid for this recording, you own the master.
The right to use the intellectual property - also known as the Synchronization License - refers to the copyright of the intellectual property (the song).  Since the publisher controls the copyright, it's up to them whether or not to agree to the license. 
I discuss these two elements in-depth in this video.
These two forms of ownership are inherent within every Sync-License.  Both parties have to agree to the terms for the license to be granted.  If any party doesn't agree to the terms of the license, then the deal is over.  

The Benefit of Being Fully Independent...

As an independent artist, writing your own music and funding your recordings, you are both the publisher AND master owner.  If you sign your publishing over to a music library, most of the time you are also signing over your administrative rights.  This means that the library becomes a "One Stop Shop."  They will administer both the publishing (Sync Rights) and master recording (Master Rights).  This makes life much easier for those who are looking to license your music.

To Complicate Matters...

However, with cover songs, it gets a little more complicated.  In this case, you own the master - which is 50% of the licensing rights to the specific recording.  The publisher controls the other 50% of the licensing rights, and they must agree to the license
Let's assume the offer is $5000 'all-in' on the license.  It's the music supervisor's job to secure the master rights from you, and secure the sync rights from the publisher.  If this were a popular Taylor Swift song, we can be assured that her publisher isn't going to agree to a $5000 license.  Since they control 50% of the license, that means they'd only be making $2500 - far below the upper 5 figure to multi six-figure market value of a Taylor Swift track. 
So, what happens?  Well, in this case the budget won't allow for the publisher's asking price, so the deal would be off the table. 

Make Sure the Cover can be Easily Cleared...

When it comes to determining what songs to cover, especially if your goal is to license that song for sync placements, you may not want to spend your time and money recording current hit songs as their market value will be high. 
If you've been paying attention to the cover songs that have been appearing on various shows, commercials, and film trailers over the last few years, you may have noticed that many of them are mid-80's to early-90's tracks, that have left the airwaves long ago. 
A perfect example of this is Lorde's cover of the Tears for Fears song "Everybody Wants To Rule the World" which has been used on multiple trailers including The Hunger Games and Assassin's Creed, as well as multiple TV shows such as Tidelands, Emerald City, and So You Think You Can Dane.
The 'market value' of these older songs has dropped, which makes it much more likely that their publishers will be more flexible regarding sync fees.

Consider the Revenue... 

Before investing in recording a cover song, I would recommend calling the publisher, ask to speak to someone in their licensing department, and then ask how easily clearable a cover version of the song you're interested in recording would be.  Remember, publishers are in the business of exploiting the copyrights they control.  You're presenting an opportunity for them to create a new revenue stream from this song.  Don't be afraid to make the call.
Lastly, remember that you will only own the master recording for your version of this song.  The master owner represents 50% of the sync-license fee.  If all goes well, and you are able to secure licenses with your version of the song, and the publisher agrees to the license terms as well, your only form of income will be 50% of the upfront licensing fees.  To be clear, you will NOT be earning any backend songwriter and publishing royalties.
What experiences have you had licensing cover songs?  Share with us in the Comments Section Below:


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