Do Cover Bands Have To Pay Royalties?

Cover bands performing hits from famous artists are a staple of the live music scene. But do these tribute acts have to pay royalties to use that copyrighted material, or are cover songs free to perform?

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: cover bands generally don’t have to pay royalties if they’re only performing live shows. However, there are important details and exceptions you need to know.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explain everything you need to know about cover band royalties. You’ll learn about copyright law, get details on venues and licensing, and find out when cover artists do owe royalties.

Cover Songs and Copyrights

When it comes to cover songs, there are certain copyrights that musicians and bands need to be aware of. A cover song is a new performance or recording of a song that was previously released by another artist.

While covering a song can be a great way to pay tribute to a favorite artist or add a unique twist to a popular tune, it’s important to understand the legalities and obligations associated with it.

What copyrights apply to cover songs?

When creating a cover song, there are two main copyrights that come into play – the musical composition copyright and the sound recording copyright. The musical composition copyright protects the actual song itself – the lyrics, melody, and chord progressions.

On the other hand, the sound recording copyright protects the specific recording of that song by a particular artist or band.

It’s important to note that obtaining permission from the copyright holders is crucial before recording or performing a cover song. In most cases, this permission is obtained through a licensing agreement.

Mechanical vs. public performance licenses

There are two types of licenses that cover bands need to consider – mechanical licenses and public performance licenses. A mechanical license is required when a band wants to record and distribute a cover song on a physical or digital format.

This license grants the band the right to reproduce and distribute the copyrighted song.

On the other hand, a public performance license is required when a band wants to perform a cover song in a public setting, such as a concert venue or a bar. This license ensures that the original copyright holders are compensated for the public performance of their song.

It’s worth mentioning that in some cases, the venue or the event organizer may already have a blanket license that covers performances of copyrighted material. However, it’s always a good idea for cover bands to double-check and obtain the necessary licenses to avoid any legal issues.

Exceptions for live performances

While cover bands are generally required to obtain licenses for their performances, there are some exceptions for live performances. For example, if a cover band is performing at a private event, such as a wedding or a birthday party, and they are not charging an admission fee, they may not need to obtain a license.

Additionally, some countries have specific laws that provide exemptions for certain types of performances. For instance, in the United States, there is the concept of “fair use” which allows for limited use of copyrighted material without obtaining permission in certain circumstances, such as for educational purposes or for criticism and commentary.

However, it’s important for cover bands to do their due diligence and research the specific copyright laws and regulations in their country to ensure they are in compliance.

Venues and Licensing for Cover Bands

Venues pay licensing fees

When it comes to cover bands, venues play a crucial role in ensuring that the necessary licensing fees are paid. This is because cover bands often perform copyrighted songs that are owned by the original artists or their publishers.

In order to legally perform these songs, venues must obtain the appropriate licenses from the relevant performing rights organizations (PROs), such as ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC.

These PROs collect royalties on behalf of songwriters and music publishers and distribute the fees to them. The licensing fees are typically based on factors such as the size of the venue, the number of performances, and the seating capacity.

By paying these fees, venues ensure that cover bands can perform copyrighted songs without infringing on the rights of the original artists.

House bands and contracted performers

Some venues have house bands or contracted performers who regularly perform cover songs. In these cases, the responsibility for obtaining the necessary licenses may fall on the venue itself rather than the individual performers.

The venue may negotiate licensing agreements directly with the PROs or work with a licensing agency to ensure compliance.

Having house bands or contracted performers can be advantageous for venues as it provides consistent entertainment and reduces the administrative burden of obtaining licenses for each individual performance.

It also allows the venue to create a specific atmosphere or genre of music that resonates with its target audience.

Busking and informal public performances

Busking, or street performing, is a common form of informal public performance where cover bands may play without a formal arrangement with a venue. In these situations, the legal requirements for obtaining licenses may vary depending on the location and local regulations.

Some cities or municipalities may require buskers to obtain permits or licenses to perform in public spaces.

It’s important for cover bands to familiarize themselves with the local laws and regulations governing busking to ensure that they are in compliance. This may involve obtaining permits, paying fees, or adhering to certain guidelines specified by the local authorities.

When Cover Artists Owe Royalties

Many musicians and bands enjoy playing cover songs, but what about the legalities and financial obligations that come with it? It turns out that cover artists do, in fact, owe royalties in certain situations. Let’s explore some of these scenarios:

Recording and distributing cover songs

If a cover artist wants to record and distribute a cover song, they typically need to obtain a mechanical license. This license gives them the legal right to reproduce and distribute the copyrighted song.

The royalties owed for these licenses are set by the statutory rates established by the Copyright Royalty Board. These rates can vary depending on factors such as the length of the song and the number of copies produced.

Digital streaming royalties

In the age of digital streaming, cover artists who release their music on platforms like Spotify or Apple Music also owe royalties. Streaming services pay royalties to the original songwriters and copyright holders, who then distribute a portion of those royalties to the cover artists through organizations like ASCAP or BMI.

The amount of royalties received can vary depending on the number of streams and the popularity of the song.

Using cover songs in commercials/movies

When cover songs are used in commercials, movies, or other forms of media, the artists and copyright holders are entitled to synchronization royalties. These royalties compensate the original songwriters and copyright holders for the use of their work.

The cover artist may also receive performance royalties if the commercial or movie is broadcasted on television or played in public venues.

Registration and compulsory licenses

In some cases, cover artists can take advantage of compulsory licenses, which allow them to legally record and distribute cover songs without having to negotiate directly with the copyright holders. However, to benefit from these licenses, they must register their covers with organizations such as the Harry Fox Agency.

This ensures that the original songwriters and copyright holders receive the appropriate royalties.

It’s important for cover artists to understand their legal obligations when it comes to royalties. Failure to comply with these obligations can result in legal consequences and financial penalties. So, while cover bands may bring joy to audiences with their renditions of popular songs, they must also fulfill their financial responsibilities to the original creators.

Strategies for Cover Bands to Avoid Royalties

For cover bands, navigating the complex world of music royalties can be a daunting task. However, there are several strategies that cover bands can employ to avoid or minimize their royalty obligations.

By understanding the legal requirements and taking proactive measures, cover bands can continue to entertain audiences without breaking the bank.

Only perform live shows

One strategy that cover bands can adopt to avoid royalties is to exclusively perform live shows. Unlike recorded music, live performances do not typically require licenses or royalties to be paid. By focusing on live gigs, cover bands can showcase their talent while sidestepping the need to obtain permission or pay royalties for the songs they perform.

Avoid recording or streaming

Another way for cover bands to avoid royalties is by refraining from recording or streaming their performances. When cover bands record or stream their renditions of copyrighted songs, they may be required to obtain licenses and pay royalties to the original songwriters or publishers.

By sticking to live performances only, cover bands can steer clear of these obligations.

Get venue licensing

While live performances may not require royalties, it is important for cover bands to ensure that the venues they perform at have the necessary licenses. Venues typically have to obtain performance licenses from Performance Rights Organizations (PROs) such as ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC.

By choosing venues with proper licensing, cover bands can perform worry-free, knowing that the necessary royalties are being paid.

Register covers with PROs

Alternatively, cover bands can choose to register their covers with PROs. This allows them to obtain licenses and pay royalties directly to the original songwriters or publishers. By taking this proactive step, cover bands can ensure that they are operating within the legal boundaries and supporting the creators of the songs they perform.

PROs such as ASCAP and BMI provide resources and guidance for cover bands looking to navigate the licensing process.

Negotiate deals with publishers

In some cases, cover bands may be able to negotiate direct deals with the publishers or rights holders of the songs they cover. By reaching out to the copyright owners and obtaining permission to perform their songs, cover bands can bypass the need for licenses or royalties.

While this approach may require more effort and negotiation, it can offer cover bands greater flexibility and potentially reduce their financial obligations.

It is important for cover bands to consult with legal professionals or industry experts to ensure they are following the appropriate legal procedures and meeting their royalty obligations. By adopting these strategies and staying informed about copyright laws, cover bands can continue to entertain audiences while also respecting the rights of songwriters and publishers.


While cover bands can usually dodge royalties for live shows, they need to be careful anytime they want to distribute or profit from their covers. Understanding copyright law, venue licensing, and performance rights is key to staying legal.

With the right moves, tribute bands can share their passion while avoiding royalty headaches.

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