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Many bands cover songs by other bands, unofficially at concerts, or usually on live recordings (for example, Kurt doing Man Who Sold the World by David Bowie, at an MTV unplugged concert.

I always thought it was a form of "bigging up" the other band. The other band being covered is probably complimented by the "free promo" they get by having their song re-done by another set of hands. But, perhaps there is more to it. Perhaps there is money changing hands for the privilege to cover a song.

Is it so? Or do most people just perform the cover without permission from the original artist/estate?

Looking for a practical what actually happens answer, not "legal advice" or what a "should happen" answer.

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+1 for requesting experience-based / real-world answers. –  Matthew Read May 12 '11 at 15:30
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up vote 6 down vote accepted

Is it only performance of the covers you are interested in, or also recording the covers?

If the former, in practice I suspect most small, independent bands DON'T contact the original artist and ask permission to perform a cover of their song - unless the artist is a friend! As a case in point, my little band haven't contacted Joni Mitchell (whose songs we perform regularly). [In legal terms, as far as I understand, this is all fine because the venues in which we perform should be paying a fee to a performing rights organisation such as PRS etc.] We have, however, contacted our singer-songwriter friend to ask permission to use her songs. No money changed hands for that, and we do a bit of mutual advertising.

Recording a cover is a different matter, however, and I believe it doesn't matter whether it is a recording of a live performance or a studio recording. Legally you are required to get a license from the band whose songs you are covering. I can't vouch whether all bands follow the law, but as an example of 'what actually happens' I can tell you what my band did when we released a CD including covers of other artists' songs:

  • We contacted the bands (which included successful folk artists such as Show of Hands and Tracy Grammer) whose songs we were covering, explained we would like to put our versions of their songs on a CD that we'd be selling, and asked their permission/conditions.
  • Some of them sent us a standard 'Mechanical License Request Form' with a fixed royalty rate per 1000 copies of CDs produced. We paid this rate upfront.
  • Some of them gave us permission to use their song for no payment, but told us how they would like to be credited.
  • One artist's estate refused permission. We therefore did not record their song.
  • For singer-songwriters who are our friends, we drafted a suggested Mechanical License Request Form for their agreement - to respect the fact that they too deserve to earn money from their music! We are therefore still both colleagues and friends.

So this specific example reflects both your scenarios, the no-money 'bigging up' and the 'money-changing-hands'. I have to say, though, as a small independent band we are providing only limited promotion to any successful band whose songs we cover, so it makes sense for us to pay for the privilege of using their material!

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when your band grow bigger and famous, I believe you will start touring. What happen when you cover other songs that are not in your album during your tour? –  Phelios May 13 '11 at 2:49
    
@Phelios, the same would apply as above - during the live performances on tour there is no problem (venues pay the PRS, the performers don't have to do anything), however if we want to record any of these performances, or release another CD with these new covers, we'll need to contact the relevant artists. As an aside, the company who manufactured our CD asked us to provide evidence that the artists we were covering had given permission for us to record their songs - so it's just as well we'd taken the legal approach! (PS. Roll on the 'bigger and famous' days! :-D) –  Mich Sampson May 13 '11 at 2:54
    
I'm in Malaysia, normally they do concert in Stadium here.. so, the Stadium do pay PRS? –  Phelios May 13 '11 at 3:02
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@Phelios, I don't know, but the PRS website says that there are performing rights organisations all over the world (prsformusic.com/creators/wanttojoin/how_it_works/international/…) and they work together. So from this I would assume that Malaysia has something similar and that therefore the Stadium pays a performing rights organisation. As far as I know, regardless of whether the venue has an arrangement with such an organisation, the performer still doesn't pay. My search found MACP (macp.com.my) which might be the Malaysian equivalent... –  Mich Sampson May 13 '11 at 3:30
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We have two songs we play differently live to studio, one because it has two bars the owner refused to licence to us for recording, and the other one which has a range of riffs we play at the end that are instantly recognisable and despite getting permission for a couple it was too difficult to get all of them.

Live, it is a non-issue. Performance royalties are paid to the performers from PRS subs from the venue. On a recording, the mechanical royalties will be the issue. Get agreement from the owner here (in writing) and you'll be fine.

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It draws attention from people that like the other band if they hear about the cover or are there, it gives the feeling that the band has a similar taste to the band they like. It's also easier for them to perform as it is already well-known music and might fit together with their other music.

For example

Taylor Swift sings a piece of Apologize near the end of Back To December on her tour, this is because that song perfectly describes the feelings about the response she got from her friend.

Of course she doesn't need it to be more famous, but people automatically go and upload the Apologize and people that search for that song can come out of it and thus get interested in it. On the other hand, she does free advertisement for Timbaland and One Republic, so people that barely know them but wonder where that nice piece came from might get to check them out do.

Second time, she used "so I won't hesitate no more" part from I'm Yours as it fits with her song Fearless.

Most of the times it's a fair trade... :)

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