Cover songs and royalties (or, How much do I owe Paul Simon?)

In my increasingly limited spare time, I am a singer and guitarist. While most of my caterwauling usually takes place for free at drunken parties, it isn’t unprecedented for me to play a paid gig, along the lines of $50 or (more frequently) a case of beer.

I’m not much of a songwriter, so I mostly sing covers. However, I have never purchased the rights to perform these songs in public for money. At what point would I be legally obligated to do that?

How far up does it go? Phish, for instance, frequently breaks out into spontaneous covers. If they play, for instance, “Psycho Killer” on the spur of the moment, do they have to make sure David Byrne gets paid?

This is not a moral/ethical question, as I don’t really feel any twinge of guilt, nor am I seeking legal advice, since I’m sure no one is going to come get me. I’m just curious.

Dr. J

It’s been years since I played in bars, but the deal used to be that it was the responsibility of the venue to be signed up with one of the royalty trackers (BMI, ASCAP, etc.) if they had any music performed (by a band, or a stereo or whatever).

Perhaps somebody more current will drop by (my copy of This Business of Music is at least 12 years old - great reference, though).

Usually the concert venue plays a fee to ASCAP or BMI that covers the use of cover songs. If you’re playing in a bar or some public place, you’re fine.

Thus, if Phish plays “Psycho Killer,” the concert venue’s licensing fee takes care of it.

If you’re playing in a private home, you may be required to play a blanket fee by ASCAP (which would cover any songs you play). The question is whether they consider it a “public performance.” If you’re at a small party with a few friends that’s not advertised anywhere, it may be considered a private performance and no fee is required. You’d have to ask ASCAP about what criteria they use.

As far as the artist goes, the only time you should have to pay royalties is if you are selling media (record, tape, CD, video, etc.) with the cover song on it, live or otherwise. However, I believe performance royalties are paid by the venue.

When playing private parties, as long as the artists (or anyone representing them) aren’t present, I don’t think you need to worry.

My band has been playing a cover of The Pixies’ “Here Come’s Your Man” in concert for a couple years, and plan on recording it for our next CD. In this case, we’ll need to register recording rights with ASCAP before we can sell the CD.

However, in April, my band will be playing a big Earth Day celebration in Atlanta, which is being sponsored by Turner Broadcasting and Time/Warner-AOL…with a guaranteed 1,000,000+ internet audience and possible national TV coverage on CNN, TNT, and/or TBS. I’m waiting for a response from the organizer of the festival and ASCAP about what we need to do to clear the song for the performance…

But if I understand correctly, the venue, or the organizers of the event should have to take care of it. I’m just covering my bases here. I’ll let you know what the response is…

the above responses are correct.

Lots of info at:

And somewhat related stuff:
Here in Japan, it’s JASRAC.

If the club has CD players, karaoke, jukebox, etc. you pay for that (although the rates are different than for cover bands.)

Artists don’t pay other artists. They pay the performance rights agency, who in turn pays the other artists.

If you want to record a cover, you can get a mechanical license from Harry Fox Agency. It’s $.075 per song per pressing (IIRC). The interesting thing to me is that once a song is recorded and released, no one can be denied permission to cover it.

(Before I knew, this I wondered for years how Winger ever got permission to cover Purple Haze.)

Initial fees go to the songwriter.

Right now a post from SATAN would be useful.

[shamelessly plugging hijack]

Speaking of Pixies covers…we have a archived webcast of a show from November on Digital Club Networks where we performed the tune. Go into Bands, “J”, and select JerkWaterJive. The show is listed under Media Library.

Thank you…