Tribute Bands Sell Classics Online—Is it Legal?

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I'm covering the growing business of tribute bandsthis week, as musicians who cover classic rock 'n' roll songs discover how to fill the void on iTunes for acts who don't allow digital downloads of their music.

Is it legal? Yes.

Attorney Dan Johnson specializes in copyright law and explains its various forms this way:

If you make and sell an audio only "sound alike" recording of a song that's been commercially exploited, the songwriter has to give you permission to do so, as long as you pay a pre-set royalty. "It's a compulsory license under the copyright act," Johnson says. So even though Bob Seger won't put his songs on iTunes, he can't deny that privilege to Sam Morrison—who does a Seger tribute band. And every time Morrison sells a song online, Seger, the song writer, gets paid a set royalty.

"If you really want song 'A', you don't need the original. I have a pretty good cover of it. Pay me the $35,000 and we've got a deal." -Titan Music, Michael Vail Blum

However, if you want to put a song in a movie or TV show, that's a different license, called a synchronization license. That license has to be negotiated with the publishing company which represents the song writer and also the record company, if you're using the original band's recording. It can be quite expensive, and it is not compulsory—you can be denied permission. For example, karaoke machines have to get synchronization licenses, and Dan Johnson says that some artists, like Madonna, won't let their songs be used in karaoke bars at any price.

Finally, if you want to perform a song in a club, you need to pay a performance license, usually to ASCAP or BMI. It is up the venue, e.g., the club, to pay that license, not the tribute band.

Michael Vail Blum of Titan Music is trying to expand the tribute band business beyond CDs and downloads to putting covered songs in movies and TV shows. He says that by cutting out the record company, tribute band songs allow a film company to negotiate only with the song publisher and someone like Blum, who'll provide the sound-alike for a lot less. He says this cost-effective proposition is starting to attract producers. He just provided a cover for a Lynyrd Skynyrd song for Fox's "The Good Guys". The idea is also starting to attract music publishers who are losing out when use of an original recording becomes too expensive.

Blum explains it this way.

Say you want to use song "A" in your film.

You might have to pay the song publisher $25,000 and the record company another $25,000.

Maybe you've only budgeted $35,000 total for song rights, so you threaten to walk away. Blum is working with song publishers to make tribute band covers of their catalogs so that the publisher could say to you, "Look, if you really want song 'A', you don't need the original. I have a pretty good cover of it. Pay me the $35,000 and we've got a deal."

Pretty interesting idea, isn't it?

When I asked Blum during our interview, "Has anyone else tried to do this?"

He said, "They will now."

Finally, what's it like being in a tribute band?

Is it seen as a step down for a musician?

Sam Morrison explains in our video interview how he ended up being "a Bob Seger franchise".

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