It is pretty common that an artist at some point wants to cover someone else’s song, here’s some tips on how it can be done a fully legal way, without any surprises.
First of all is important to establish if you are releasing a cover or a remix.
A remix is a track that has taken portions of the actual audio recording from the original track and used them in a new creative song re arrangement. (Dan Adler, 2013)
A cover is a song that uses no actual audio from the original, but is derivative of the original arrangement (the composition of the melody and harmony, plus any lyrics). The audio can be from both the master track or separate track stems. (Dan Adler, 2013)
For remixes you have to consider both songwriters rights and the rights held by the owner of the recording, covers deal only with songwriters rights. This means that if you want to release your cover/remix of a song, to do it legally, you have to pre pay royalties to whom is entitled.
With remixes, things can get complicated, you MUST have the approval of the owner of the master, meaning the record label who released the song or the publisher who own the rights, and this is unlikely most of the times.
Although for covers the process it’s much simpler, you can use a simple online service as Limelight, where you can easily clear the song you need buying a mechanical license which is exactly what you need.
Something that almost everyone ignores is that this license is necessary even if you’re not selling your cover track, because mechanical rights must be paid for every stream and download, even if you are not making any profit.
Another important and ignored issue is that if you are featuring the track with a video you would need one more license which is the Synchronization Licence.
The legal consequences of not proceeding in the right way can be none, small, or huge, depending how the song owners are alert on those matter and how famous your cover will get, because, in that case, it won’t pass by unnoticed.
You can can have a deeper insight of the topic reading the following articles: