Knowing how to release a cover song and get permission to sample a song is essential for any musician. You may want to make a cover of a popular song at some point. Or perhaps you’d like to use the bassline or rhythm from an existing song to create a new song or track. You must adhere to copyright laws in both cases to avoid legal trouble.
When releasing a cover, there won't be as many hurdles to jump over to remain on the side of the law. In the case of YouTube, you may not need permission from the copyright holder. However, your video will be demonetized. But you must obtain a license if you plan to upload a cover to a digital download store. As for samples, you'll need two separate licenses.
Perhaps you’re looking for something specific and want to skip ahead. In that case, we suggest you use our handy table of contents listed below:
How to Get Permission to Cover or Sample a Song
A. Cover Songs
1. User-Generated Content (UGC) Platforms
B. Song Samples
2. Find the Publishing Rightsholder
3. Find the Master Recording Rightsholder
It's no secret covering a famous artist's songs can benefit your career. The likes of Justin Bieber and Charlie Puth attracted interest from prominent people and companies when they posted covers on YouTube. However, suppose you infringe on the original artist’s copyright. In that case, you may be confronted by some obstacles on the road to stardom. The same goes when sampling a song.
This post covers everything you need to know regarding how to get permission to cover or sample a song. We’ll discuss the ins and outs of releasing a cover legally. And we’ll walk you through clearing a sample.
Cover Songs Vs. Samples
Before asking permission to sample or cover a song, you should know the difference between the two. This is because they differ significantly from authorization to release.
A cover involves rerecording an existing song with your own vocals or instrumentals. Going this route may help you build a fanbase faster than your original material could.
When you release a cover song, you may earn royalties. You won’t receive publishing royalties from ASCAP or the PRO in your country because the original songwriter is entitled to those. However, you'll earn master royalties because you own the master sound recording.
However, sampling entails looping, altering, or tweaking pieces of an original song’s recording to make a new track or song. This method of creating music is prevalent amongst Hip Hop artists and rappers. Although they were unauthorized, Jay-Z, Mac Miller, and Kendrick Lamar have also used samples in their songs.
Sampling a song brings about more complex legalities than when you want to release a cover song. A sample is someone else’s genius, creation, and investment that you use to enhance your song for your ultimate success. Granted, both the songwriter and publisher will benefit from shared royalties. But they would be giving up more than they would for a cover song.
As a result, if you don't get the correct license, you may face a lawsuit. The last thing any musician wants is to tank their career over using copyrighted music. Therefore, you must know how to get permission to cover or sample a song.
How To Release a Cover Song and Use Song Samples: Get Permission
Learning how to get permission to cover or sample a song is easier than you think. But note that the legal procedure to cover a song differs from publishing a sample.
When sampling a song, you'll need to get it cleared with different copyright holders. And it can be a lengthier process. Let’s explore how to get permission to cover or sample a song below.
A. Cover Songs: Learn how to release a cover song
Whether you plan to upload a cover song to YouTube or a music streaming platform, you should understand what permissions you need. The same goes if you want to perform a cover song live.
1. User-Generated Content (UGC) Platforms
How to release a cover song: It’s advised for artists to get a mechanical license to upload cover tunes to UGC platforms like YouTube. You must also secure a synchronization license to cover the video accompanying the copyrighted audio.
That said, YouTube actually allows you to upload a cover song without prior approval from the copyright owner. However, as a condition, they may display ads on your cover video. And they'll shift any revenue you earn on the song to the copyright holder.
While you lose the income generated from your cover song on the platform, you’ll still gain exposure. Whenever someone searches for the artist you covered, your song may appear in the search results. Users can then discover you. And if they enjoy your sound, they may become fans. Therefore, uploading cover tunes to YouTube is ideal when prioritizing exposure over revenue.
Although you don’t need licenses to post a cover on YouTube, it may still not sit right with the copyright holder. They may file a takedown request with YouTube, in which case your video will be deleted. However, this is rare because most artists see cover songs by fans and other musicians as beneficial to their careers.
2. How to release a cover song: Music Streaming Platforms
You won't need a license if you want to upload a cover to a music streaming platform. That's because music streaming platforms already pay specific organizations a blanket license fee. Therefore, artists won't need to pay fees or upload a license to the platform to release a cover.
Different rules apply when releasing your cover in a physical format or to a digital download store like Amazon Music. You’ll need a mechanical license in these instances. But your distributor can help you get a mechanical license from an authorized body.
If you don’t have a music distributor, you should consider Sugo Music Group. They have been helping artists elevate their music careers for over 35 years. And they arrange mechanical licenses for musicians who use their distribution service.
3. How to release a cover song: Live Performances
You may not need a license if you plan to perform a cover song at a wedding, nightclub, or another event. In most cases, the venue will arrange for the appropriate license. But ask the venue's owner beforehand to ensure you can legally perform your cover song.
B. Song Samples
While looking into how to how to release a cover song or sample a song, you’ll discover the complexity involved with using samples. It’s a common misconception that you can legally use a sample shorter than 5 or 15 seconds. Regardless of the duration, you’ll still need to receive authorization from the copyright holders.
When you use a sample to create a song or track, it’s considered a “derivative work”. Therefore, since you use the underlying composition and master recording, you’ll need to obtain two licenses:
- A master license for the use of the master sound recording
- A mechanical license for the use of the underlying composition
You can get permission to use the master recording from the label. But if the artist owns the master recording, you’ll need to contact them. As for the underlying composition, you can get approval to use it from the songwriter or publisher.
It's not guaranteed that you'll be approved to use a sample. It's at an artist’s or label's discretion to allow someone to use a portion of their song or track.
As a result, independent artists find it challenging to get permission to sample a song. This is because some artists or labels may not see the benefits of such an arrangement since you’re not yet established.
If you can’t get permission to sample a song, you can create an “interpolation”. In this case, you’ll rerecord the melody of an existing song instead of sampling it. And you’ll only need permission to use the underlying composition. Artists like Olivia Rodrigo and Doja Cat have succeeded in using remade versions of old songs.
If you’re keen to use a sample in your song or track, you can use precleared samples from a platform like Tracklib. Alternatively, you can clear a sample by following the below steps.
1. How Use Song Samples: Iron Out the Finer Details
Before you ask for approval to sample a song, you’ll need to sort out a few details. There’s certain information the rightsholders will want to know about the sample. Therefore, having them ironed out beforehand will work in your favor. Ensure you know the following:
- Duration of the sample(s) used
- Plans for the song (release, publishing, tours, etc.)
- Parts of the song you’re sampling (vocal hooks, basslines, strings, drum loops, etc.)
- Number of times a sample is used in your song
Once you have all these details sorted, find the rightsholders. Also, remember to start this process well in advance because it can take months. The last thing you want is to be a week away from releasing your song and not have a cleared sample.
2. Find the Publishing Rightsholder
Performance Rights Organizations are the best way to find the publishing rightsholder. These organizations collect royalties on an artist’s behalf for public performances of songs. Therefore, they’re your best bet at finding information about a song’s publisher.
Each country has a governing PRO, with two operating in the US. These are some examples:
- ASCAP and BMI in the US
- SOCAN in Canada
- PRS in the UK
The Harry Fox agency may also prove helpful in tracking down the publishing rightsholder. You can visit these organizations' websites and search their databases to find out who owns a song’s publishing rights.
Bear in mind that you may need to have an account with them to search their databases. Your music publisher will typically sign up on your behalf, allowing you access to member-only data.
If you aren’t a member of any PRO, use Google instead. An online search may lead you to the publisher’s name. However, it can be time-consuming. Therefore, try contacting a PRO and asking for the "song indexing" department.
3. How To Use Song Samples:: Find the Master Recording Rightsholder
Tracking down the master recording rightsholder can be much trickier. This is because they could be either the artist or the label. And in some cases, a third party is the copyright holder.
The ideal way to find the master recording rightsholder is through a publisher. They often keep the master owner on file since they will have interacted with them several times during production.
You can also do a Google search to find the current record company releasing the music. Keep an eye out for online record stores, as they may have the information you need.
Alternatively, check out the directory at your local record shop. Once you know who holds the master recording rights and have their contact details, move on to the next step.
4. Contact the Rightsholders
When you get in touch with the publisher and music recording rightsholder, provide the information we detailed in step 1. In addition, send them a copy of the song with their sample.
Your song will be cleared if they like what they hear. However, some artists, publishers, or labels may be reluctant to clear a sample. They may have a no-sampling policy or be unwilling to deal with independent or unsigned artists.
That's where your negotiation skills will come in handy. The sample may be cleared if you make an upfront payment offer they can't resist.
5. Negotiate a Price
Since you’ll request permission to sample a song from two parties for separate licenses, you’ll have to pay a couple of fees. This includes:
- An upfront advance, or a clearance fee, to the publisher and label
- A percentage of earnings generated from the song
- A royalty based on a sales threshold, known as a “rollover fee”
In some cases, you won’t have to pay all these fees. It depends on the artist, publisher, or label who owns the master recording and underlying composition rights.
By negotiating with these parties, you can land yourself a fair price. However, several factors affect how much you’ll pay to clear the sample. These include the parts of the original song you used and how recognizable the sample is in your song or track.
You could negotiate a lump sum clearance fee if the artist or band is both the master and publishing rights owner. And you may even walk away with a fairer price.
How To Release a Cover Song and Use Song Samples: The Bottom Line
Once you know how to release a cover song or sample a song, you’ll remain out of legal trouble. You can release a cover on platforms like YouTube and Spotify without authorization. However, you will need a mechanical license if you plan to sell your cover through a digital download store.
Sampling a song has several perks for musicians. Yet clearing a sample can be more hassle than it’s worth, especially for independent artists. You may put in hours tracking down the copyright holders only for them to reject your request.
Releasing a cover is undoubtedly the easiest route to take regarding the copyright aspects. However, if you're adamant about using a sample, you can rely on platforms like Tracklib for precleared samples.