A Guide To Licensing Music For Release
As the music industry becomes more of a level playing field with rise of independent distributors, musicians no longer need to get signed or start a record label to get their music onto the world’s biggest online stores and streaming platforms.
However, if you’re planning to release your music through a distributor, it’s important to understand the legalities when it comes to licensing your tracks.
Only certain types of tracks released in certain territories will require the purchase of a music license, so let’s look at when you’ll need to acquire one and how to go about it.
If you’re producing your own 100% original music, copyright is automatically created as soon as the song is. In most parts of the world, you won’t need to do anything further to officially copyright your music. However, in the USA, it’s a good idea to register with the US Copyright Office to make sure you’re completely covered.
As you automatically own the copyright for any original tracks you create, no licensing is required when you come to release them.
A cover is defined as a re-recording of someone else’s song using your own instrumentation and vocals. You can’t change the underlying melody or arrangement of the original version of the song for it to be viewed as a cover version under copyright law.
The law around licensing covers varies in different regions. If you’re releasing a cover song in North America, you’ll need to get hold of a Mechanical License.
However, if you exclude North American territories (USA, Canada, Mexico) from your release plan, you won’t need to acquire any licenses at all.
When you use any element of another artist’s original recording and alter the melody, arrangement, style and genre of the original track, it’s classed as a remix.
If you’re releasing a remix of a song you’ll need to acquire a Master Use License, no matter where in the world you’re planning to make it available.
Many producers and musicians use samples put a nostalgic twist on a new track by taking a small part of someone else’s original sound recording and looping, tweaking or altering it in some way to make a brand-new song.
If you’ve used samples in any music you’re going to release, you’ll need to have both a Mechanical and Master User License.
Here’s a quick overview of the above:
- Original song = No license required
- Cover songs = Mechanical License for North America
- Remixes = Master Use Licence worldwide
- Samples = Mechanical & Master Use License worldwide
Harry Fox and Songfile are two of the most popular sources for purchasing music licenses. You may also be able to buy the necessary licenses directly through your distributor, so it’s worth checking to see if this service is available.
It’s important to know that the license may be void if you buy it after your music has already been released. Although if you do find yourself in a situation with covers or remixes out there but no license, it is better to buy it anyway than not have it at all, as it could protect you if any copyright holders were to make a claim against you down the line.
A few points to remember…
- Search on the various copyright databases such as BMI, ASCAP, US Copyright Office or Harry Fox to find the owner of the original copyright. This could be the songwriter, publisher or label.
- Be sure to get a license for the correct song. For example, you’ll find there are lots of tracks out there titled ‘Stay’, ‘Let It Go’, ‘Home’ etc.
- Send a letter of intent. Don’t worry if you’re unsure about this, as many providers will do this for you when you purchase a license – but you should check just in case. Also, keep in mind that it’s best to buy the licenses at least 30 days before your release date.
Sometimes getting hold of the music license you need is straightforward – sometimes not. Mechanical Licenses are usually easier to acquire than Master Use Licenses, but it all depends on who holds the original copyright and how wiling they are to let you put your own spin on their track.
However, if you do things by the book, releasing covers, remixes or using samples in your tracks offers a great way to reach new fans and start earning more royalties from your music.