Cash for Covers: How to Legally License Your Music
“Get a real job!”
Outcries from the less-than-encouraging parts of society tend to discourage musicians from taking their work seriously. Despite the musician stereotype, readers should know that music, artwork, and all creations are in fact work deserving of time, attention, and yes money. As our favorite Batman nemesis echoed, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free,” and video game cover artists are no exception. Let’s talk how you can legally sell your work and why you should be doing it already.
To begin, let’s provide a super-concise lesson in copyright law. American copyright law allows anyone to sell a cover of another artists’ work, if they give 9.1 cents to the original artist provided the cover is a transformative work. For simplicity’s sake, transformative work means the cover artist did not directly sample the original, translate it, or drastically alter its original character. Easy, right?
For those of you translating anime songs into English or using unlicensed samples of any kind, sadly you’re out of luck here. Additionally, this law applies only to songs that are legally recognized in the U.S. so they must appear on a release within the United States. I cannot emphasize this point enough, because many soundtracks from Japanese game companies have not been released here in the U.S. Additionally, some distributors don’t check the legality of a cover before releasing it, and many artists have had songs taken down from stores as a result. Do your homework, check a reliable database like vgmdb.com, and only release music you can license!
Selling Your Covers
Now that you know we can sell covers, let’s talk how you can sell them. We will need to contact a Licensing Facilitator and a Distributor to ensure that we have paid that 9.1 cents for every sale (Licensing Facilitator) so that we can deliver your cover to your favorite digital retailers/streaming sites (Distributor). Fortunately, the two distributors I am most familiar with combine the process so you only need to utilize their respective services to get your music out there.
Both Soundrop and DistroKid, two popular distributor choices in the game cover/remix scene, call upon Loudr, a company that will reach out to copyright owners such as Nintendo, Sony, or individual composers, and ensure the proper legal proceedings are met in order to license your music. For legal buffs, this means acquiring a requested number of mechanical/stream licenses for each digital or physical sale of your cover. This guarantees the original copyright holder, likely the composer, gets their fair share as well.
After signing up for either service based on your personal and financial preferences (more on that later), submit your cover and provide its source information. This information generally includes the original album/soundtrack, composer, recording artist, and anything that could help a distributor find the necessary copyright owner faster. Both services will, at some point in the workflow, reach out to Loudr to get the licenses, but before that, you can decide the pricing and which stores/streaming services to distribute to! If you look at Spotify, for example, you’ll see dozens of video game cover artists already filling up playlists with new albums and great music!
Distributing your music legally may have upfront costs and legal complexities, but it ensures that the original copyright holders receive their fair share, and it can also be a great source of income for musicians of all skill levels and backgrounds. I’ve found most fans, myself included, enjoy having a vast discography to choose from, on the go or at home, and this gives everyone one more way to enjoy their favorite tracks.
Ro Panuganti is a home-studio guitarist and musician, covering video game and other music on Youtube in a variety of rock and metal genres out of his bedroom.