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Cash for Covers: 3 Easy Ways to Make Money from Cover Songs on Digital Stores

It’s no secret Justin Bieber’s ascension to pop superstardom started with a cover song (a version of Ne-Yo’s “So Sick”).  Could he have achieved an “underdog to celebrity” rise without one?  Maybe, but Bieber performed a new spin on a decades-old formula readily available to any recording artist looking to acquire new fans and make additional money from their recordings.

Cover songs (a.k.a. “remakes”) provide an easy path to building audiences.  Releasing one is similar to getting introduced to a new person by way of mutual friend (the song) rather than through a chance encounter (an original tune found on a Bandcamp / MySpace page).  A positive introduction is more likely when there is immediate common ground.

Cover songs also provide a unique way of tapping into alternate revenue streams for only modest expense (i.e. money spent securing the required mechanical license and paying royalties via Limelight, time spent learning the song, etc.).  So why is this an effective way of promoting your music?  Let’s explore… 

Recording Cover Songs to Meet Demand for Incomplete Catalogue

Digital music services offer instant access for consumers to a 24-hour music warehouse that never runs out of stock.  The downside?  Two words: incomplete catalogue.  Not every track you have (or want) in your vinyl or CD collection is available to buy in digital format for any number of reasons (including licensing issues, artist reluctance, not enough ham sandwiches, etc.). 

Just as one person gathers what another spills – “incomplete catalogue” represents a simply supply and demand market opportunity for savvy artists and labels.  If an artist’s music isn’t available via an online store, other recording artists can take advantage by recording and releasing their own cover versions to meet market demand.

For example, if you search for Kid Rock’s music on iTunes (one of several mainstream artist catalogues that aren’t available), you’ll notice an early 1990 release, a live recording of “Bawitdaba” from Woodstock ’99, and surprise, surprise, several tribute records.  Why? iTunes search focuses on track popularity related to song title, artist name, album name and a variety of keywords.  Since the majority of Kid Rock’s catalogue is unavailable, the closest matches are tribute recordings and cover versions of his repertoire. In fact, two separate cover recordings of Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long” charted on the Billboard Top 100 in 2008 (The Hit Masters, The Rock Heroes) based primarily off digital sales alone.  The same principle applies for AC/DC, Garth Brooks, and a several other marquee artists whose catalogues have not seen digital release. 

Recording Cover Songs to Compete with Album Only Tracks

From a consumer viewpoint, a digital release’s major advantage over its physical counterpart is the ability to purchase individual tracks without spending money on unwanted tracks.  While the majority of online releases allow for a la carte downloading, many online retailers give record labels the option to carve out certain releases as “album-only” — the motivation being to increase full-album sales at the expense of individual song downloads (though sometimes done for rights clearance purposes).  Needless to say, “album-only” tracks deny consumers the opportunity to download individual tracks without purchasing the entire record. 

Once again, obstacles presented by some labels represent a chance for entrepreneurial-minded artists and labels in releasing cover versions.  Since digital versions of television and movie soundtracks (such as Twilight and The Hangover) are routinely offered out as “Album Only”, recording cover versions of those songs in particular can present another opportunity in capitalizing on simple supply and demand.  If titled via an easy search terms comparable to the soundtrack, the cover versions will appear in search results alongside the original soundtrack. 

Selling Cover Songs (and Originals) By Association

Physical retailers are limited – staff on hand, hours in a day, and especially by the product real estate available to them.  While Best Buy, Wal-Mart, and other brick-and-mortar shops can only shelve music via singular genre / artist name fashion, digital music stores offer sophisticated search mechanisms, including track title, album name, release year, and even lyric focus. 

While many artists may already be familiar with the term “search engine optimization” for purposes of their websites, less have extended that thinking to online music stores.  In the digital age, cover songs provide simple, effective music search engine optimization (especially for covering artists who don’t currently appear on iTunes, Amazon, Rhapsody, etc.).  The sophisticated search mechanisms afforded by online stores over their brick-and-mortar counterparts grant artists an easy tool to sell more music.

In instances where an artist’s repertoire (such as Journey, Beyonce, Katy Perry) is available via digital music stores, cover songs can benefit by way of song title searches.  While common song titles are unlikely to provide any benefit in enhancing search results, cover versions of songs with distinct titles can eclipse the original recordings in search results.  For example searching for “99 Problems” (Jay-Z) on iTunes actually results in a unique cover rendition by the artist Hugo ahead of the original.  Users who listen to and enjoy Hugo’s cover version are also likely to check out Hugo’s additional repertoire (including originals). 

Next Step: Clear the Rights and Sell

Before recording and releasing cover songs, you’ll need to secure a mechanical license (also known as a DPD license for digital downloads distributed via iTunes, eMusic, Amazon, etc.), which provides permission to legally record and distribute the song.  Several entities exist to help artists and labels clear mechanical licenses and ensure songwriters get paid, including Limelight — a simple, one-stop shop to clear any cover song and secure mechanical licenses for digital downloads, interactive streaming, ringtones, and physical albums.  Artists, bands and other musical groups can clear any cover song and ensure 100% of royalties are paid to the appropriate publishers and songwriters via Limelight. 

Alex Holz is Senior Director of Artist and Community Relations for RightsFlow and can be contacted directly at

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    Cash for Covers: 3 Easy Ways to Make Money from Cover Songs on Digital Stores - MTT - Music Think Tank

Reader Comments (7)

Keen marketing insight.

February 19 | Registered CommenterRuss Hearn

Those were reasons I did not think about before for cover songs. Great points!

I'd like to add that making a YouTube video of the cover song also drives sales of original music. Pomplamoose see large spikes in their album sales whenever they do a popular cover song and make a video for it.

You have to be careful with this - becoming known for a cover song can spell the end of your career. Look at Alien Ant Farm.

February 22 | Unregistered CommenterCory Blight

@Cory probably because that was their best song... #grins :-D

February 23 | Unregistered Commenterroy

One area which has not been spelled out clearly is doing covers on YouTube. A mechanical license does not actually give you permission to perform someone else's song in a video. But there is no compulsory license you can pay for in advance to be able to do it. Technically you need to obtain permission from the publisher and songwriter (and pay whatever they might ask since there is no set rate), but I am pretty certain that most artists don't do that. And YouTube is set up to deal with it in a fashion. You can go ahead and perform someone else's song, upload it, and then see if it is allowed to remain or if you will be asked to take it down. It's a grey area. Here's what I have written about it, based on what I was able to find via Google.

Music, Copyright, and YouTube

February 23 | Registered CommenterSuzanne Lainson

@Suzanne - Thanks for the comments - I left out YouTube from this one as the making money portion for cover songs (while extremely valuable as you've outlined) is mostly indirect compared with online stores. Your write-up is an excellent read and definitely worthwhile for artists interested in the YT portion.

February 23 | Unregistered CommenterAlex Holz

Good day I am so thrilled I found your webpage, I really found you by accident, while I was browsing on Yahoo for something else, Nonetheless I am here now and would just like to say thanks a lot for a fantastic post and a all round entertaining blog (I also love the theme/design), I don’t have time to browse it all at the moment but I have bookmarked it and also added in your RSS feeds, so when I have time I will be back to read much more, Please do keep up the superb work.

April 27 | Unregistered Commentercosty

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