You’re interested in making a remix of a track you don’t own, and the original artist or record label is likely way too big to listen to a humble request to remix their track from a little indie producer like you. What do you do? How can you publish a remix, what exactly CAN you remix, how can you do it fully legally, how can you sell it, and what are the risks associated with going the bootleg route?
First of all, there are two options: a remix and a cover. A cover can sometimes be presented as a remix. The difference is important.
Cover or 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 recording.
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.
Covers are MUCH easier to deal with when it comes to legality, as you are working only with the material that the songwriter owns, not the material that both the songwriter AND owner of the recording have a claim to. Songwriters and recording owners get paid for and license their works through separate channels. It gets extremely complicated dealing with both. This article explains the process of clearing samples and it is not a task I would recommend many indie artists undertake.
I am not going to go into legally publishing a remix as I honestly think in most cases, it is going to be way too complicated or even unlikely you’d ever get cleared unless you have a direct connection with the label that owns the original or a label at your back who will deal with the legal end.
I think in the EDM genre, you can call your cover a remix and fans won’t care or know the difference. You don’t see a lot of tracks labeled as covers out there.
How to pay royalties on a cover
This part is actually pretty simple due to the relatively new service called Limelight.
Go there, fill out a relatively simple form about the song you are remixing, and your cover. You then pre-purchase your royalty payments for however many copies of the track you plan to distribute in formats like CD, digital download, ringtones, and streams. This is called a mechanical license.
Yes, you are legally required to pay for downloads and streams, even if they are free.
If you want your track on sale on iTunes and similar digital stores, use a service like CDbaby or Tunecore to publish your track on major e-retailers. They will have steps that request information about the original rights holders and mark this as a cover. Be careful; the payout you receive per stream on services like Spotify that CDbaby and Tunecore can deliver your music to may not cover the royalty payment you are technically required to pay.
Living dangerously, semi-dangerously, or squeaky-clean
Dangerous: Now, you can go ahead and make either a cover or a remix, put it on your website for download, upload to Soundcloud, put it on Youtube, and you might even be able to squeak past a service like CDbaby’s checks and get your track on iTunes without paying any royalties to the original rights owners. It’s possible you’ll fly under the radar and nobody will ever raise an eyebrow.
However, selling something containing content you don’t own without paying proper royalties is copyright infringement and can land you in some serious legal trouble. When money changes hands on things like this, the consequences become much more dire and it attracts more attention. Doing this with a remix containing audio from the original is doubling potential negative consequences. I imagine that monetizing a Youtube upload of the track could also get you in hotter than usual water because you’ve directly profited on your track. I strongly suggest staying away from attempting to profit on covers or remixes you have not paid correct royalties for.
Legit: Let’s say you made a cover and you want to sell it for money. Well, you should then pay royalties as described above via Limelight. You’re in the clear!
Somewhere in-between: Now, you want to post the track on Soundcloud and Bandcamp, allowing streams and/or downloads for free. You’re supposed to be paying a royalty even for every stream and copy that is distributed. I believe a ton of people are ignoring this requirement with no negative consequences. However, be careful that your track does not become TOO popular. A track getting lots of press, being shared virally, and being talked about is more likely to have news of the track make it back to the rights owners who will then be able to easily see that astronomic play count and decide to investigate whether they’ve been duly paid. It is your choice and your risk.
It is likely if the original rights holders do discover your free streams and downloads, they either won’t care, don’t have the time or resources to research the issue, or may actually like that your track is bringing more exposure to their original. However, you could also receive a letter (possibly from a lawyer) to cease distribution. It would be best to comply with a letter like that. You’re probably not going to get sued unless it looks like your music production operation actually makes enough money for it to be worth them to sue for.
Big artists and labels in the EDM scene are generally more open to bootleg remixes floating around the web than others. They are generally younger folks who are more technologically savvy and should be more aware of the value of free publicity via fan-made remixes. Remixing or covering an EDM track may be slightly safer than a top-40 track. If you’re good, it may even net you positive label interest.
Remixing more obscure content will also help keep eyes off of you. A Lady Gaga remix getting hundreds of thousands of views is much more likely to catch the evil record label’s eye than a remix of a track from the soundtrack of an obscure Japanese 16-bit video game (see: ocremix.org)
Video is another potential complication
Posting your remix or cover to Youtube is a bit of a different issue than publishing via an audio-only medium. Songs used in a video medium need to be licensed by what is called a Synchronization Licence which is a whole ‘nother can of worms that you can read about here.
However, similar to posting your remixes without paying mechanical license royalties to Soundcloud and getting “caught,” this isn’t a terribly high-risk situation. You’re probably not going to get sued. You may get a cease and desist letter, or the rights holder might get Youtube to remove your video which could place your account in bad standing or just give you a warning. Youtube may place an ad on your video and make money for the rights holder and not for you. All of this is unlikely unless your remix or cover becomes huge.
It is up to you
I am not a lawyer, nor did I consult any while doing research for this article. It is your responsibility to educate yourself and make decisions about your music projects and the methods of publishing them at your own risk. I strongly suggest paying correct royalties when money is involved. That’s just good ethics as well. Streaming and free downloads are another matter and it is up to you to decide how you feel about the ethics and risks involved with going the bootleg route.