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Updated by Frontrunner Magazine on Jan 02, 2018
Headline for Licensing 101 for Musicians: Samples, Remixes, Covers, and More
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Licensing 101 for Musicians: Samples, Remixes, Covers, and More

When you're just jamming for the fun of it, there's nothing illegal about borrowing a few lines of lyrics or chopping up an instrumental loop. But if you decide to release that music to the public under your own name, you'll need to take certain measures to ensure that everyone who owns the original work is properly credited (and paid). Following these rules from the start might require some research and paperwork, but in the long run, you'll be able to spend more time in the studio if you stay out of the courtroom.

Take a moment to familiarize yourself with the following music licensing requirements before you publish your next cover, remix, or sample-based track.

1

For covers, get a Mechanical License for US sales.

For covers, get a Mechanical License for US sales.

When you cover a song, you're recreating its harmony, melody, and lyrics, which means you'll need to pay royalties to the original songwriter. There are several online services that make it easy to obtain a mechanical license to distribute your cover — in many cases, you can have your song licensed and ready to share within 24 hours. If you use a content aggregation platform to publish your music online, check to see if they offer this service as well.

2

Remixes require a Master Use License for worldwide distribution.

Remixes require a Master Use License for worldwide distribution.

Remixes are more complicated. When you remix a song, you're using all of the elements in a cover as well as the actual recording itself, which is why you'll owe royalties to both the songwriter and the owner of the recording you're using. There is no easy way to clear a song to be remixed — you'll need to go through the artist or label whose song you want to use and obtain permission from them.

3

If you're sampling, you need both.

If you're sampling, you need both.

Before it faced stringent legal limitations, sampling opened a new frontier in music creation for dance, hip-hop, and many other genres of music. Nowadays, sampling is still popular, but the process for properly clearing a sample has become a difficult barrier to entry, especially for independent artists. You'll need permission from the songwriter, song publisher, and a mechanical license before you can get famous by chopping up your favorite track.

4

Videos require yet another license.

Videos require yet another license.

Videos have become an increasingly popular medium for sharing music, especially cover songs. YouTube has a built-in system to identify copyrighted material and reroute ad revenue to the rightful owners, but if you really want to post a video of a cover song the right way, you'll need a sync license, which is what allows you to synchronize video and images with the music.

5

Even free music isn't "free."

Even free music isn't "free."

Licensing rules apply even if you don't stand to make any profit from your music. You might post your songs to a free streaming platform, like SoundCloud, but you won't be off the hook for the royalties you owe when your listeners tune in. It's true that many underground artists ignore the requirements for releasing covers, remixes, and tracks with samples, but that's not a good long-term business practice. If your goal is to succeed in music, stick to the legal pathways and build a following the right way.