What is a Cover Song?


Simply put: a cover song is a re-recording of an original song. And the original song has to have been recorded first and in most cases, released on some recognizable format be it vinyl, video or digital. It’s sometimes splitting hairs as there have been many songs that are written and recorded but not released by the record company. Said company may give that song to another artist who may release it first. Technically, there is no formal legal definition of a cover song, and one could even argue the first recording is now a cover song once it is released. I will talk more on that in a bit. Regardless, after a song is released it is now free game for anyone to obtain a mechanical licence and cover it. I gave an example in a previous blog where Bruce Springsteen blocked Bette Midler from releasing one of his songs, that’s because he had only performed it live and he nor anyone else had released it yet. Though as soon as it’s recorded, the artist would lose that veto power.

A cover can include what some refer to as a remake, revamp, adaptation, revival, “cover version” or even a copy. I run across people referring to original songs as a rendition, but that’s incorrect. A rendition is, by definition, a performance or interpretation of a piece of music, not the original recording. There, I said it and quite frankly I feel better for it! It can include the recording of a live performance but would not include the version you hear in your local club. Even if you heard the tune from a ‘cover band’, if it hasn’t been recorded and released, it’s not a true ‘cover’. While I’m still on the fence regarding cover songs on YouTube and other social media platforms, I can’t deny there are legitimate artists releasing some good work and Secondhandsongs.com, based on certain criteria, is adding some of them to their database.

A cover can also include songs that take melodies and/or words from other songs to a substantial degree. That can include just the lyrics, just the music or both and with a new arrangement it can sound like a different song completely. For the most part general interest in cover songs surrounds Pop music, though there is data available on songs from most genre and any era. Still the best example is Aretha Franklins reworking of Otis Redding’s “Respect”. If you listen, the two songs are different in tone, perspective and lyrics, yet not enough of a change to get Franklin song writing credits nor the millions of dollars in royalties from her own recording. So, it qualifies as a cover song as it still retained the core words and most of the music to make it ‘legally’ a cover version. Otherwise it’s just an issue of copyright and payments if it does not really sound like the other song. Again, there is not a standard legal definition of how much or how little is reused but, in most songs, you know it when you hear it.