Music Publishing and Licensing Blog

Licensing recordings of famous hits and popular standards

Licensing recordings of famous songs and popular hits is very common and frequently done in today’s music and related arts, media and advertising industry.  There are several approaches to this side of the publishing and licensing business which we’ll survey in this article.

Introduction to cover songs

First, to get a reference point on licensing “famous” songs, let’s get a definition for Cover songs. In popular music, a cover version, or simply cover, is a new performance or recording of a contemporary or previously recorded commercially released song or popular song. Originally, Billboard and other magazines which track the popularity of the musical artists and hit tunes, measured the sales success of the published tune, not just recordings of it. Later they tracked the airplay that songs achieved for which some cover versions are the more successful recordings of the particular songs.

For further details with related discussion and references, follow this link to an in-depth Wikipedia article about cover songs.

The rest of this article focuses on the practical issues from both the music recording publisher (licensor, seller) and music buyer (licensee) sides of the table.

The cover recording publisher’s role

Music publishers, including record labels, artists and producers, often create new versions of original compositions (covers) which they like and feel will fit their genres and catalog specialty. After making the basic creative decisions (instruments, arrangement, vocalists, etc.), they obtain a mechanical royalty license which gives them the permission to lawfully make and distribute their recordings.  Depending on the delivery format, (digital download or physical product), the correct license is purchased, usually from the Harry Fox agency or directly from the publisher, which enable them to sell copies or license their master recordings to interested music supervisors and licensing buyers.

Since publishers of cover song sound recordings don’t own the composition rights, but only the sound recording masters, their license pricing may be similar (or adjusted) compared to standard licensing price of songs for which the publishers own and control both the composition and the masters. So typically, buyers can expect to get a quote for about the same or slightly reduced (negotiable) price when purchasing only the master license, which then lets them purchase the composition portion of the license from the original publisher.

Cover recording owners can refer buyers to the composition publishers

In  most cases the music [composition] publishers may refer their licensing clients to one or more record labels who may have various cover versions (usually by different recording artists) available for licensing. Therefore, sometimes the master recording can be licensed first, after which the composition license can be purchased for the same intended usage, while other times, the composition license may be purchased first, followed by the purchase of a suitable master recording license. Either way, it doesn’t matter as long as both licenses are obtained for the intended usage, which again are: the composition (song & lyrics) and the master recording which can be offered by any legal owner of the recording for the same song.

Disclosing the licensing terms of cover master recordings

Publishers and catalogs that specialize in commercial licensing of  cover or “karaoke” recordings will typically disclose this fact to their clients. For example, in the LicenseQuote License Type descriptions, they may post a notice like this:
Note: This sound recording is available for commercial licensing from {name of publisher], however, composition and/or other rights as applicable must be negotiated directly with the publisher of the original composition.

License types which don’t apply to cover masters

The License Types they won’t offer from their Licensing Profile will be: Composition and Sound Recording, Mechanical Royalty License, Remixes, Covers and Derivitaves, because these rights can only be licensed by the original publishers of the song’s compositions.

However, all the other license types can be offered as long as the pricing allows for a proportionate (about half) value to be collected from the original publishers of the copyrighted compositions. This is a common and good practice which makes the complete licensing transaction lawful while also supporting the work done by the original songwriters, composers, arrangers and their publishers.

Buyer/Seller checklist

Buyers: should specify to publishers or libraries which version of the recording they want, for example, with vocals, instrumental only or instrumental with backing vocals. Usually these will be quoted at the same price and delivered in the same master file format.

Sellers: should make clear to buyers which recordings are cover songs, apply a unique licensing profile with only the most applicable license types, quote prices which are correctly priced (adjusted to allow for the composition), and offer to assist buyers with contacting the right publisher(s) for negotiation and payment of the composition portion of the license(s).

Opportunites for composition publishers to work with cover master recording publishers

In some cases composition rights publishers can partner with one or more master recording rights publishers to ease and expedite the purchasing process for buyers. The key is that in each case there will be only one source for an original composition of a song, but potentially one or more sources for suitable (acceptable) master recordings of said same composition.

Creating a win-win for the Covers licensing service market

This lets music licensing buyers shop around to compare various recording qualities (to their liking) within their general budget range, while giving artists and recording studios opportunities to meet their client’s needs by offering unique recordings which are in demand for their particular projects. This approach creates a “win-win” for all parties involved, including the music composition publishers, master recording publishers and the licensing buyers who are finding markets for these kinds of songs.

LicenseQuote encourages and supports this market trend on behalf of these kinds of music master recording publishers and their licensing clients. We are well prepared and happy to assist with any technical or marketing support considerations.

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