How to Perform and License Cover Songs

Don't feel cheesy—you will not be deemed an American Idol or Gleek if you secretly want to record a cover song in tribute to one of your favorite songwriters or artists.
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Nataly Dawn of indie duo Pomplamoose, who have launched a successful career

performing quirky covers of pop songs.

DON’T FEEL cheesy—you will not be deemed an American Idol or Gleek if you secretly want to record a cover song in tribute to one of your favorite songwriters or artists. Recording cover songs can be a great complement to your work as an artist. Let’s look at two approaches to covers:

The Sound-Alike Choose an artist who you aspire to be like, with lyrics that you can bring to life in your own way. Being a sound-alike artist gives your fans a way to describe your sound, e.g. “he sounds just like Marvin Gaye,” and it will help potential fans discover you: When they come across your single as it’s tagging as #MarvinGaye on Twitter, you’ll get the chance to convince them to get onboard with your music. (My go-to cover song was Annie Lennox’s “Cold.”)

Changing it Up Go wild and choose a hugely popular song—and flip the entire arrangement or genre. This approach really works for viral video. Oakland-based Pomplamoose made a huge impression in their acoustic/electric arrangements of songs by huge pop stars like Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. Their exposure led them to placement in a car commercial that featured recording antics from their videos!

Licensing the Song Though you can perform cover songs at shows without any issues around legalities and licensing, when it comes to recording and distribution, you have to get clearance from the song’s publisher. This doesn’t involve finding some giant directory and doing a million letters and lawyer fees—just a web form and a credit card can get most songs licensed. If you are doing a mash-up, you need to license both songs. Get familiar with the following sites:

• Harry Fox Agency (
Since 1927, HFA has been the go to clearinghouse for licensing musical copyrights. They have an easy-to-use song search database, from which you select the song and add in the information on your recording. HFA also manages YouTube Licensing of musical works for independent publishers, so be sure to check this out if you are solely doing a cover for YouTube (or want to use existing songs for a film on YouTube).

• Limelight (
There are probably other websites that broker this transaction, but I recently used this website at a client’s request, and found it simple and easy. I licensed an album’s worth of covers, at about $140 a pop, with immediate receipt and electronic license.

Next? Start promoting! Need a boost to get started? Here’s a great success story. My friends in Los Angeles, Karmina, were featured on Right the Stars’ cover of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know.” They did a change-up, paying homage to both Gotye and The Police’s “King of Pain.” The band’s tweet about the tribute video got retweeted by Miley Cyrus, and Gotye himself . . . followed by multiple mentions in Billboard. Now the fans of a tween star and a hipster pop star, along with industry insiders, got exposure to two up-and-coming bands, all through a cover song.

Kaitlin McGaw is a freelance writer and musician, who can be found rocking for kids with her hip-hop group Alphabet Rockers, or behind the piano composing as a singer-songwriter. For more information, visit