For many artists, releasing a cover song might be the right path to take their careers to the next level. By using the notoriety of an existing track and reinterpreting it in their own way, musicians can expand their audience and promote their unique style while paying tribute to artists and bands they love.

It’s no coincidence that over the decades, many musicians reinterpreted someone else’s music and either became famous because of that or gained further recognition. From All Along the Watchtower to Hurt, from Louie Louie to Tainted Love, music history is full of covers that helped audiences discover new artists, as well as forgotten hidden gems.

Although you might be performing some covers during your gigs, you’re probably reluctant to release your reinterpretation online due to the intricacies of copyright in the modern music industry, and while it’s all easy if you have a record label backing you up and taking care of the paperwork, things might seem more complicated if you’re an indie artist.

Luckily, releasing a cover song online is not as convoluted as you might think, so today I’ll explain what it takes to publish your interpretation of someone else’s track on Spotify, the music platform where you’ll get higher chances to widen your audience and skyrocket your career, using a cover song.

What’s a cover song?

It might sound redundant to spend time delving into the meaning of “cover song”; however, as your career progresses, this might well become a crucial topic you’ll need to understand deeply.

In a nutshell, a cover song is a composition reinterpreted by an artist who’s not the original composer. The artist who creates the cover can use the same chords, melody, lyrics, or a small part of the original recordings, to create a new piece of work which is derivative to some extent.

Here’s a cover song:

Let’s take a look at a few concepts which share similarities with covers: medleys and samples.

A medley is an assortment of different compositions that bring to life a new work. Usually, it incorporates elements of a song, like a melody or the rhythmic section, with excerpts from another piece, creating a cohesive musical experience.

The world of sampling should deserve a dedicated article. A technique that’s been in use since the 1970s, sampling is the process of reusing a portion of pre-existing material to create a new piece of music. If you’re into hip-hop or lo-fi music, you’re listening to samples all the time.

You might not be able to recognize a sample for a couple of reasons: first, often, they’re chopped and manipulated to the extent they’re not easily recognizable. Secondly, producers who use samples might get them from obscure releases to ensure they won’t get sued by copyright owners or banned by streaming platforms.

Here’s a great example of how samples are used in electronic music:

Generally, uploading medleys and samples on Spotify will require you to clear the copyright with the appropriate owners. That said, when it comes to samples, the majority of producers ensure the material they use is so unrecognizable it won’t be flagged by the streaming platforms.

Here’s my general rule of thumb: if anyone feels you’re making money out of their creativity and they can get some compensation from you, they’ll inevitably knock at your door.

Another heated topic when distributing non-original audio content is sound-alike covers. These are cover songs that are so similar to the original track that you might have a hard time telling them apart. If you’re familiar with brain-washing programmes like The Voice, The X Factor, and America’s Got Talent, you definitely know what I’m talking about.

As far as I’m aware, no distribution platform willingly accepts sound-alike covers, so if you have a sound-alike cover you want to share with the world, you’ll have to upload it on YouTube, where its Content ID system will scan your content, notify the rightful copyright owner, and then send them some (or all) of your ad revenues.

Digital and physical distribution

Let’s assume you just recorded a cover song and want to publish it, making it available worldwide. How do you do that? Thanks to The Musical Works Modernization Act, it’s much easier to release a cover song than it used to be just a decade ago. Still, there are a few steps you must absolutely take if you don’t want legal troubles; firstly, identify how you’ll distribute the song.

In the case of streaming-only platforms such as Spotify, in most countries, you don’t need any license to publish your cover song: your digital distributor, be it Distrokid, Ditto, or RouteNote, or else will take care of the royalties the original composer is entitled to and will deduct them from your royalties.

But there’s a catch: if you want to have your cover song available in the US, Canada, Mexico, Japan, India, and Pakistan, you’ll need to obtain a mechanical license from the copyright owner. Let’s take a look at this type of license.

Mechanical license

To make your songs available worldwide on platforms where music can also be downloaded, you’ll need a mechanical license: a legal agreement that allows you to release and distribute a copyrighted song.

Before taking this step, it’s paramount to have a clear understanding of the copyright ownership of the cover song you intend to release, namely: the songwriter, the label, and the publishing year. You can find most of the information on platforms such as SACEM or Songfile.

Let me reiterate that rules change depending on whether you publish your track on streaming platforms or other services where music can be downloaded. Since you’re reading this, I’ll assume you’re more interested in streaming-only platforms such as Spotify, which makes things much easier from a bureaucratic point of view.

That’s because most music distributors either offer blanket-fee licenses for you and handle royalties automatically, so long as you provide them with the correct information.

For instance, Distrokid asks for a $12 yearly fee to handle the license and manage mechanical royalties. Tunecore, CD Baby, and others rely on third-party companies like TuneLicensing, Songfile, or Harry Fox Agency to clear the license.

This is a necessary step should you wish to release your music on iTunes or Amazon Music, where music can also be downloaded. If you want your cover song to be available on Spotify only, you won’t need to do all this.

How to Upload Cover Songs Online

Every distribution platform handles covers differently, so you’ll have to do your research and find out how your distributor takes care of royalties and licenses when it comes to cover songs. For this example, I’ll use Distrokid, which is the music distributor I’m most familiar with.

When uploading a track, go to the Cover Song section, where you’ll find the “Another artist wrote it” option. Click on it, and add all the necessary information. Try to be as accurate as possible, as mistakes in copyright ownership might lead to your music being removed from the platform.

In terms of titles, Distrokid recommends using the original title without adding the title of the original composer. Once it’s uploaded, the distributor might take up to 14 working days to clear the copyright and release the song online.

Based on the Mechanical License Royalty Rates, Distrokid will automatically deduct the royalties from your revenues and give them to the songwriter or owner of the publishing rights.

Collecting royalties

After you release your cover song on Spotify and start seeing the number of plays climb up, you might be curious as to how royalties are split. How much are you actually get from every stream? And how much are the original composers receiving?

Obviously, you’re not the right holder of the song you reinterpreted, which means you’re not entitled to any publishing royalties from that song. That side of the royalties goes entirely to the owner of the publishing rights.

On the other hand, you do own the master rights to the song, so whenever your cover gets streamed, purchased, or broadcasted, you’ll earn royalties.

Digital distributors will handle your royalties and those belonging to the owner of the publishing rights. Percentages vary depending on various factors, from the distributor type to national regulations where the artist is based. For instance, an artist in the US distributing a cover song through Distrokid will give the publishing rights owner roughly $0.9 for every purchase on a digital platform.

Final Thoughts

To summarize, releasing a cover song is mostly about exposure. You might not get the revenues you expected from your music distributor, but maximizing your audience by releasing a cover song might skyrocket your career, helping you build momentum and achieve success.

It’s important to do it right. Make sure you know who owns and handles the royalties of the piece you used and how your music distribution platform handles mechanical rights, whether through an internal system or third-party companies.

As I said earlier, it’s all good until you achieve some form of success; after that, being able to prove you did everything correctly becomes crucial and might end up saving you hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars.

Finally, if you’re looking for a hassle-free solution to handle your cover songs and royalties online, I’d recommend using Distrokid. With their flat fee renewable yearly, internal handling of payments and copyright paperwork, it’s undoubtedly the simplest solution to release your cover on Spotify.

I hope this guide helped clarify this common yet confusing topic. If you have any questions, just let me know in the comments below.

Good luck, and stay creative!