Is it legal to play cover songs in a bar or venue?
Do I have to pay the songwriter when I cover a song?
Can my band make money off of a cover song we record?
I get asked on social media a lot about the economics of cover songs for both the songwriters and the bands playing them.
Playing covers is a great way to make money as a working musician and whether you’re a solo act or a band it can be a super fun way to pay your bills.
In the work of playing out we rarely stop to think about what we’re doing.
And how playing other people’s songs is actually benefitting us and as well as the songwriters.
This is one of the rare occasions where my music business degree comes in handy so lets talk about the ins and outs of the royalty system in regards to cover songs.
Now to preface this I am located in the United States so if you are outside of the country these particulars may vary.
Also copyright laws are always evolving so this is one of those topics that may require a revised post in the future.
So lets talk about the kinds of royalties artists have in regards to their releases...
Currently there are four types of royalties:
Ok. Now, lets talk about live performances
As working musicians this is the arena where most covers are being played.
When you are hired to play at a bar, restaurant, or venue, they are the ones responsible for paying royalties.
And those are performance royalties specifically.
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Musicians are not on the hook for this kind of thing.
If you are out and about you may see a little sticker for ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC in the window of a place, and that means that venue is paying what is called a “Blanket License” to those performing rights organizations.
Those licenses are usually purchased annually and will cover any performance royalties for their artist roster for that year.
This is a way to ensure that small business owners are able to provided quality entertainment while also ensuring artists are paid for their creative work.
I’ve performed at venues that are geared towards original music that have very strict NO COVERS policies, and that is because they have opted not to purchase those blanket licenses.
Just know that as a performer the responsibility for these kinds of thing are on the venue owner and not you.
You don’t need to spot check your song list against ASCAP’s roster, being a working musician is hard enough.
Ok, so lets say you or your band decide to put your own spin on a song and record it. Do you get paid royalties for that release? The answer is yes, but some things have to be done first. You as the person making the cover will end up PAYING a mechanical royalty to the artist or songwriter for your cover. There are a number of services you can do this through. The most popular ones being CD Baby and Distrokid.
Each one has their own way of handling things and that is easily an entire topic for another video.
Once that is handled and the song is released commercially, you then are going to to make performance and possibly sync royalties if you’re able to market them to companies who do that kind of thing.
My buddy Sam Tinnesz just released a cover EP and has gotten those songs placed in TV shows like Roswell, New Mexico and in ads as far away as Italy.
Check him out by the way. He’s about to release a new album and it’s amazing.
Just note that if you plan on releasing music commercially you will need to register as an artist with a performing rights organization and potentially set up your own publishing company to get all of those income streams established.
While it’s not 100% necessary it is one of the things you should consider if you want to take this kind of thing seriously.
So in a nutshell that is how you as a cover artist can make money off of other people’s songs and how the original artists are being recognized in kind for their creative work.
in the end, everybody wins.
Hope that was informative and helpful to all of you out there. If you have any questions or if I left something out don’t hesitate to reach out and let me know!
Adam and Dan play in bands. They're pretty good.