Covering indie songs?
April 8, 2005 12:52 PM   Subscribe

What hoops do I have to jump through to put two covers of songs by independent artists on my album?

I'm putting the finishing touches on my first album, which I will self-release. I'm probably going to have 500 copies produced to start, hopefully with more to follow. Two of the tracks are covers: I Was Meant for the Stage by The Decemberists and The Book of Love by The Magnetic Fields. What do I have to do to get permission? My googling led me to, where neither song is listed. Searching ASCAP provided the address and phone number of the publisher for Stephen Merritt of The Magnetic Fields, and BMI provides a listing for Colin Meloy and I Was Meant for the Stage, but no publisher info.

So do I try to contact Merritt's publisher directly? What do I say? And what of the Decemberists song? I am on the band's street team, and have corresponded directly with a member of their management in this capacity. Should I contact her and ask about what would be proper? Should I try to ask Colin in person when I see him in concert next month? Or should I not bother at all for this kind of release? On Colin Meloy's recent solo tour, he sold 1000 copies of an EP consisting entirely of Morrissey covers, for which I'm pretty sure he stated that he did not get proper permission. Obviously I want to avoid spending more money on this than I have to, but I of course want to take the legal, and ethical, route.
posted by ludwig_van to Media & Arts (10 answers total)
The ethical route is as you've described - contact the publishers and get permission to use their material. Call the publisher and say exactly what you're doing - a small run release of an album on which you've covered one of their tracks. ou may well be lucky and they'll give you permission to use it for no (or a nominal) fee, so long as you approach them again if the run extends.

I'd guess that talking to the Decemberists management and asking them who the publishers are will get you the next stage on that one - you might find they're their own publishers and you can get your permission there. I'd guess that if you've got connections with this band, they're more likely to find out you've covered one of their tracks than otherwise, and they might take offence if you didn't make some attempt to get permission.
posted by benzo8 at 1:03 PM on April 8, 2005

IANAL but as far as I was always told, you don't actually have to get "permission"--you need a mechanical license and it's a compulsory thing. They can't say no unless you are "substantially altering" the song. You just have to find the right person to pay a mechanical license fee to. I would just call or email your contact with the Decemberists and the person you found connected to the Magnetic Fields. They will happily take your money. I'm fairly certain that the minimum payment (which would apply in your case) is $85 per song, which they may waive since both bands are Pretty Nice.

There's a fill-in-the-blanks licensing document here that you can use.
posted by bcwinters at 1:16 PM on April 8, 2005

bcwinters is right, and I was using the term "permission" in the sense of "doing the right thing", rather than "can I do this". The right thing is to contact the publisher and arrange to pay the vig (or hope they let you off it).
posted by benzo8 at 1:25 PM on April 8, 2005

i guess other people know more about this than me, but if they're on tiny little labels (i don't know the groups), phoning whoever runs the label is probably a good bet. i just did this to get hold of an album for a local act and the guy stopped off at my local metro station and sold me a copy... these people are in it for the love and i'd guess they'd be happy to hear from anyone and, perhaps (if possible), give you a waiver for no fee etc. as i said, i don't know anything really about "the industry", but that's the vibe i got.
posted by andrew cooke at 1:26 PM on April 8, 2005

8.5 cents per copy sold is the statutory rate. Contact the publisher first, you are better off dealing directly with the publisher.

They may send you to Harry Fox Agency, which is the big clearinghouse for publishing matters. For runs less than 2500, you can do it all online via
posted by omnidrew at 2:07 PM on April 8, 2005

These days, manufacturing plants are required to make sure that you have the proper mechanical licenses, and therefore, they will also be able to tell you how to do it. Harry Fox is now set up to where you can get an instant license on their web site and pay for it by credit card. Very slick and very handy. Ask your pressing plant for details.
posted by spilon at 2:23 PM on April 8, 2005

Try and avoid HFA, they are a bit cumbersome. Provided your versions are under 5 minutes, you will only pay $0.085/unit sold, unless you negotiate a "reduced rate" (often 75% of statutory) or a "gratis license" (free).

The best route is to call the publisher of the songs, explain what you plan on doing, and they will hold your hand through the rather painless process.

I was a Manager in Sony/BMG's copyright department and have come across pretty much every music licensing scenario imaginable, this is VERY straightforward. Give a holler if you get stuck, email is in my profile.

Welcome to copyright!
posted by remlapm at 3:14 PM on April 8, 2005

You don't need a mechanical license for pressings of under 500 units, but a limited quantity license is needed for presses of 500 to 2500. That makes you clear for your first pressing as described-- you can get the licenses later if in the future you go past the 500-unit limit.
posted by obloquy at 1:22 AM on April 9, 2005

And if you need a lawyer, you could use mine.
posted by joeclark at 12:44 PM on April 9, 2005

WARNING! Mechanical licensing (cover songs on physical CD's you have for sale) and Digital Licensing (making cover songs available for download) are two Very Different Things.

Your mechanical license DOES NOT allow you to digitally distribute online files. You must arrange a separate agreement with the song publisher (not Harry Fox, et. al.) for digital sales.

More info is available at the awesome website.
posted by Aquaman at 3:11 PM on April 9, 2005 [1 favorite]

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