I worked in the music industry for 15 years without knowing, what is music publishing? Then for 5 years I worked with a music publisher! I quickly found out how vital it is for songwriters and managers to understand, not only the basics, but deep dive into the details.
I’m now a music publisher myself. My publishing company is called ‘Million Media’. I publish songs on behalf of several composers, predominantly for TV advertising and film.
Music Publishing is the name given to a range of services offered to song writers. It includes licensing, negotiating fees, finding new opportunities for synchronisation and managing royalty payments.
We’ll go through each of these in turn.
What is the role of a music publisher?
The music publishing profession is older than the recording industry. The French collection society, SACEM, is 169 years old (in 2020).
Music publishing revenue supports a songwriter financially long after the money from record sales dries up.
To understand music publishing it helps to know a little bit about copyright. Let’s try to break this down into simple steps.
What is copyright?
If you write an original song (or contribute to part of it) then you own it, or a proportion of it, depending on your song share.
For an example, let’s say there are four of you in a band.
Now, consider U2.
U2 famously split their songs 4 ways. It doesn’t matter who writes the lyrics or created the melody. They split each song equally between Adam Clayton, Dave Evans, Paul David Hewson and Larry Mullen.
Queen, on the other hand, attributed the song’s share according to whoever wrote it. Let’s take a look at a selection of their songs and the song shares:
- ‘Bohemian Rhapsody‘ is credited as Writer share 100% to Frederick Mercury
- ‘Another One Bites The Dust‘ is credited as writer share 100% to John Richard Deacon
- ‘Flash‘ is credited as writer share 100% to Brian Harold May
How a band splits their songs is entirely up to them. A band can split it equally, like U2. Or, they don’t have to share it all, like Queen.
Or our fictional band could break it down, so for instance,
- The lyric writer gets 40%,
- The composer of the music gets 40%,
- The guitarist who contributes the solo gets 10%,
- The Producer gets 5% (see my article on Music Producers)
- The amazing tambourine player gets 5%.
How you divide a song is entirely up to you and your band mates, producers & contributors.
The exception to this is if you use a sample in your song. In this situation you need to approach the song’s publisher and negotiate
- whether you can use the sample and
- how much of the song share the publisher wants.
It’s fair to say that how a band splits publishing can be a source of friction. Not in the band’s early days, of course. When a band is starting out and everyone is wide eyed innocent and determined to take on the world. Discussing song share’s is the last thing on anyone’s mind.
The Police – Every Breath You Take
Here is a cautionary tale about not agreeing song share splits when you contribute an idea to a song:
In 1982 Sting wrote the lyrics and basic chords to ‘Every Breathe You Take’. In 2019 the song received an award in the USA for the Most Played Song On Radio, ever! It’s estimated to make Sting over $2,000 a day in royalties.
However, the original song that Sting presented to the band had a Hammond organ playing the chords in a Prog rock style. It was fellow band member and guitarist Andy Summers who came up with the iconic guitar riff. Would the song have been such a global smash hit if it hadn’t had the guitar riff?
Who knows! But one thing is for sure, Andy Summers isn’t credited on the song as a writer. As a result Andy didn’t receive any of the estimated $20m in writer royalties enjoyed by Sting.
Strong songwriters can dictate their terms
As a songwriter your publishing revenue is extremely valuable. A hit record can generate millions of pounds in revenue. We will see how later. Naturally, each band member will want as high a share as possible.
Sometimes, a band may be lucky enough to have someone who writes such great songs the other band members will accept it’s better to simply be in the band and play than argue about the song share.
Examples are Simply Red and Jamiroquai. Mick Hucknall and Jay Kay respectively were such strong performers and writers the rest of the band simply accepted them as the songwriters.
That’s fine so long as the hits keep coming but when the hits dry up the remaining band members realise the main songwriter is receiving healthy royalties while their money starts to dwindle. And are those band members as willing to contribute their best and most original ideas if they know they won’t receive any writing credits?
What does a music publisher do?
Publishers are busy people because they perform a lot of roles. However, to keep things simple let’s focus on three key areas:
- Promote your songs
Let’s break these down.
What does a publishing administrator do?
A publishing administrator manages the process of correctly registering your songs with global collection societies and subsequently managing any earnt royalties.
To answer this in more detail, let’s ask the simple question,
How do I publish a song?
Let’s go back to basics.
You recall earlier, under copyright law the moment you create something original then you own the copyright.
There are three key points here. “original”, “create” and “own”.
The first is “Original”.
You can’t own something that has already been made by someone else.
Paul McCartney has already written ‘Yesterday’. It belongs to him. You can’t copy the melody and lyrics and call it something else in the hope no-one will notice!
Your work must be your own. And, even if you swear it’s original, beware. If it sounds too much like someone else’s work then they could still sue you for copyright infringement.
The second is ‘Create’.
Humming a song in your head is not considered to create. To create means the song or lyrics must be written down or recorded.
The third is “Own”.
Yes, the work may belong to you. But the value of anything is usually what someone else is prepared to pay for it.
If you have hundreds of handwritten songs kept in notebooks under your bed, then sure, you own them but the value to anyone else is very little, apart from to your mum.
In order to make your songs have some value the first thing you need to do is register your ownership using a recognised authority.
Can I publish my own music?
Yes, you can publish your own music by registering as a Publisher with a PRO, such as the PRS. You can also form a publishing company to handle your band’s music publishing rights. Your publishing company can assign its rights to a larger publisher.
Do I need a publisher for my music?
No, but there are advantages.
If you publish your own music then anyone who wants to use your music, for example, a brand, needs your permission. Meaning, since you’re the owner, you can ask for a fee for people to use it. Of course, it’s up to them if they want to pay you for it, but this right is yours.
This is OK in theory. However, it comes with a major problem.
Let’s say, for instance, a radio station wanted to play your song. However, if every artist published their own songs individually the radio station would have to contact every owner of every piece of music they wanted to play. Obviously they would be reluctant to do it because of the time it would take them.
What could help broadcasters?
How about a single agency who represents the copyright of millions of songs? Instead of approaching every owner of every song the radio station could negotiate a deal with just one agency.
The solution, therefore, is that songwriters and publishers formed a single collections agency.
What is a Collective Management Organisation?
A Collective Management Organisation (“CMO”) is an organisation that works on behalf of songwriters and publishers to negotiate blanket licenses with people or companies who want to use their music. They can also be known as Performing Rights Organisations “PRO”).
Examples of CMO’s are:
- UK: PRS
- USA, BMI, SACEM & ASCAP
- France: SESAC.
- Germany: GEMA
- Ireland: IMRO
- Spain: SGAE
- Australia: APRA
- Denmark: KODA
- Sweden: STIM
A CMO represents millions of songs. To give them more negotiating power they insist songwriters and publishers register songs with them exclusively. In other words, if a UK broadcaster wants to play Paul McCartney, Elton John, Sting or virtually any other artist you can think of, they must approach the PRS who exclusively represent those artists.
The advantage for the radio station is they only have to negotiate with one, albeit very powerful, organisation. Due to the fact the CMO has a monopoly over all the music the radio station wants to play it means they’re in a strong position. Which is why the negotiations between CMO’s and music licencees often go to a tribunal. In return for their license the broadcaster must agree to report EVERY track they play. This in turn means the collection society can divide up the fees they collect to the artists who were played by the radio station.
Now, let’s go back to the original question – what is Administration?
To register a song with the PRS is fairly straightforward. After signing up for a Songwriter account – and paying £100 – you can login to the PRS website and go to their “Add New Song” section. You add your song details and hit ‘Enter’. The entire process takes a couple of minutes.
Subsequently if your song is played by radio, on TV, in a film or in a shop, so long as your artist name, composer name and song title match up, you’ll receive a quarterly royalty statement.
Although it’s fairly straightforward, many artists either don’t know the process or would rather someone else did it. This act of managing registrations and royalties is called “Administration”.
Administration is taking care of the registration details. Crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s. Making sure the spelling is correct, the registration has actually happened and making sure royalties are received and processed. It takes knowledge of the publishing system and people to do the initial, manual entry.
However, over the past decade the manual process has become easier. While ‘traditional’ publishers relied on many people doing the manual entry, new entrants such as Kobalt realised that computers could make the job far more efficient. They reduced their Administration fees to below 10% of the royalties collected and due to their lower charge attracted thousands of artists. Kobalt is now worth over $1bn.
In summary, Administration is the act of registering an original work with global collecting societies and processing the subsequent royalty statements.
What is Sync and Why is it Important?
A music synchronisation is when a song is combined with a video. This could be a film, TV show, video game, YouTube video or a trailer. A sync deal is negotiated between a songwriter, or their publisher and the person or company who wants to use the music in their video.
Let’s say a film maker, a TV director or a YouTuber wants to play your music in their video. This is called a synchronisation – sync for short – and is an extremely powerful right that belongs to artists and publishers.
Collective Management Organisations typically do not have the right to negotiate sync deals. This means a film or TV producer can’t get a blanket license to sync video in the same way a broadcaster can acquire a blanket license to play songs. Publishers and artists keep sync rights for themselves because, unlike radio play, the number of enquiries is lower and can be managed by a single company.
Let’s take an example.
Can I use music in my wedding video?
You want to make a wedding video. The bride and groom look fabulous. They ask you if you could add their favourite song to the video. You grit your teeth, because you know this isn’t easy.
First, you need to find out who owns the song.
In the UK you can call the Music Publishers Association (MPA), who will tell you. Then you need to approach the publisher who will tell you whether or not you can have a license. And if you can, then how much.
Now you have to go back to the happy couple to tell them the cost of the license will be several thousand pounds. Which is why Royalty Free music is used on so many YouTube videos! This is a powerful reminder – copyright law means a songwriter or publisher has the exclusive right to say Yes or No to whether their music can be added to ANY video.
Now, let’s pretend you’re Martin Scorcese. (Unless of course, you are Martin Scorcese and happen to be reading this). And you want a specific piece of music in your next gangster film. What do you do? Well, since you’re Martin Scorcese all you have to do is tell your Music Supervisor the music you want and they do everything for you.
Which brings up onto our next question:
What does a Music Supervisor do?
If you’re an artist and want your music featured in films or TV Shows then you need to find a Music Supervisor.
If you make videos and want to use someone else’s music in your film or TV show then you need to find a Music Supervisor.
A Music Supervisor is an expert in using music within a video. They have an in-depth knowledge of music and different genres combined with expertise in licensing music from rights holders on behalf of video makers.
Using music in a video can be complex. Get it wrong and worst case, you could be sued. As a result most film, TV and advertising companies employ an expert, called a Music Supervisor, to do it for them. Music Supervisors work with brands or directors and are the gateway between them and the music industry.
A Music Supervisor’s role is varied but they’re generally great at two things:
- They have a very wide and in-depth knowledge of music in a lot of genres.
- They understand the complexities of music licensing and how to acquire the rights to music.
Returning back to Martin Scorcese and his desire to use a specific piece of music in a film.
Occasionally a Director will call an artist directly and ask if they can use a track. That’s rare though. More typically, the Music Supervisor will make the approach to an artist or publisher. The majority of artists will let their publisher handle the negotiations with the music supervisor. The Publisher will naturally want a high fee and the Music Supervisor will want to pay less. However, most Publishers and Music Supervisors will know the approximate value.
Publishers actively court Music Supervisors. They make sure Music Supervisors are kept informed of new music by their roster of artists. Which requires a delicate balance of diplomacy, persuasion and sales. It’s true the occasional sync will happen because a brand or film producer will chance across a piece of music they like. However, the vast majority of syncs are due to the fact a publisher has spent many hours at a music conference, propping up a bar late at night with Music Supervisors!
A quick recap on sync:
- A sync license is required when someone wants to use your music on a video.
- You can negotiate this yourself. However, a contract is required, which is usually best handled by a lawyer or publisher.
- Music Supervisors are the gateway between the music industry and film, TV and advertisers.
- Sync fees can be a valuable source of revenue for an artist when you consider music can be licensed simultaneously in multiple countries.
How Music Publishers Promote Your Songs
Publishers get paid when a song is performed that is written by one of their songwriters. But it doesn’t have to be performed by the songwriter. Andrew Lloyd Webber doesn’t actually sing himself. Well, he might sing in the shower. Other people sing his songs but as the songwriter he gets paid every time they perform one of them.
Publishers try to get their writer’s songs performed by as many people as possible. Or, they will try to get them performed by a hugely popular artist. Let’s say you’ve written a fantastic pop song. You could perform it yourself. Put it on Spotify. Get a few hundred listeners and make fractions of a penny. Or, your publisher could send it to Little Mix’s manager and persuade the band to sing it and put it on their next album. Cue, millions of listens. And as the songwriter you get the writer’s share from millions of listens.
Sometimes there is a catch.
It’s called “Write a word, claim a third”.
Now, a quick disclaimer. I’m using Little Mix purely as a hypothetical example. I’ve absolutely no reason to believe they do this. But let’s say they like your track and want to record it for their album. In this hypothetical example the writer share is worth an £50,000. So the band’s management insist on changing the lyrics slightly. Instead of “Baby, I love the things you do” they change it to “Baby, I love those things you do”. Now, the band can claim a share or the writer credits, say, 33%. As the original songwriter you have a choice. Accept and get two thirds of the writer’s share or refuse and get nothing. Naturally, most songwriters will accept.
How much will I get for a sync fee?
If your music is used in a TV advertisement for a large brand then you could get in the region of £50k.
How does a music publisher make money?
Any person or any company who wants to play someone else’s music must acquire a license. Typically to get a license they must pay a fee. The fee could be a fixed amount. Or, it could be a percentage of revenue. For example, if you’re a radio station that plays music you will be required to pay a percentage of your turnover each year as a cost of your license.
An artist could negotiate each of these deals themselves. However, artists usually have a hundred and one other things to do. Like song writing & performing. Therefore, an artist will typically sign with a publisher. A publisher does all the negotiating and collecting revenues on an artist’s behalf.
There are four basic ways a music publisher makes money:
- Public performance
- Online performances
- Plus, money from International societies (who will be making money the same way in their own countries).
What are public performance royalties?
One of my earliest jobs was working for a company who supplied music to shops and restaurants. We supplied the music by sending a cassette or CD to each venue. In order to do this legally we had to get licenses from the PPL and PRS. To comply with our license we had to inform the PRS about the track listing of every cassette and CD plus the number of units we’d made. Finally, we had to show the PRS and a PPL our annual accounts and pay a percentage of our annual turnover each year to play.
Now they knew which shops we supplied and the tracklisting the PRS could then do two things:
- Allocate the revenue we had paid to them to the artists who featured on our cassettes and CD’s.
- Allocate the PRS license fees that had been paid by each shop and restaurant for the right to play music.
Every radio station has to submit a record of every song they broadcast.
In a similar fashion, a TV channel has to submit a record of every piece of music played in every TV show, every film and every advert. A radio station has to submit a record of every song they play. A film producer must submit a Cue Sheet of every piece of music included in a film or TV show, including the song title and composer’s name.
In other words, if you want to play music in public, i.e. a public performance, you must submit a record of it. Public performance revenue is a substantial revenue stream for artists.
Like me, your mind is likely boggling at the thought of the amount of admin it must take to track every public performance of every piece of music played in the UK. However, bare in mind the PRS has been operating for over 100 years so built up the experience, processes and technology required to do this in the most efficient way possible.
Companies such as Soundmouse make the reporting easier for TV channels. They do this by taking a feed from the broadcaster and constantly analysing the audio output. If the output matches any song in their database then they identify it. By doing this automatically they save the broadcaster the time and resource of doing it themselves. It’s free for publishers and songwriters to upload songs to the Soundmouse database.
It takes broadcasters, radio stations, brands, TV producers and film-makers a lot of resources to record and report all the music they play. The reason they do it is testament to the powerful copyright laws that protect musicians. Established global copyright laws are so strong and robust publishers and record labels rarely lose cases where broadcasters don’t acquire the proper license. However, as previously mentioned settlements are usually reached via a tribunal who will decide on a reasonable license fee between the parties.
Performance and Broadcast revenue adds up to millions in revenue. For instance, ITV, the UK’s largest commercial TV channel, pay in the region of £23m per year for the right to play music. The BBC pay in excess of £40m. Sky pay approx £16m.
How do broadcasters and collection societies decide how much to pay artists for their music?
The PRS has a Collections Committee. Their function is to decide a formula for payments. Let’s take SKY for example. One way is, first, take the amount of seconds in a year, approx 32 million. Obviously, music isn’t played every second so let’s figure it out.
SKY will play 10 minutes of adverts every hour. 80% of adverts will play music.
Most programmes will have music, the theme tune, at the start and end – that’s another minute per hour.
A documentary may have music playing in the background for a large proportion of its duration.
Films will often have a lot of music playing throughout.
Sport will often have music shown during the highlights.
When you do the calculations you may find that out of the 32 million seconds in a year, 16 million seconds feature music. SKY pay £16m per year. Nice and easy – the payout is £1 per second. If your music is played in a TV documentary on SKY and the clip lasts for 30 seconds you’ll receive £30.
Well, not quite. In the UK there is a concept called ‘Weighting”.
The PRS consider music played in the peak viewing hours are worth more than music played in the dead of night. So, they have different payment tiers. Music played in the evening will, say, get £1.50 per second, whereas music played in the morning will only get 50p. The average payout is the same but the weighting means music played during peak hours is paid a premium.
Many other societies follow similar rules. In the US for example, ASCAP has 4 dayparts, while SESAC has 5.
Similar rules are in place for the radio.
When you consider the range of broadcasters paying fees to play music and the different rates and weightings, you have to admit the Collection Societies are extraordinary administrators. Consider this – in 2019 the PRS tracked over 18.8 TRILLION music usages! In total they collected over £810m. They charge for their services of course, which is deducted as a percentage of what they collect. However, since the PRS is governed by a combination of Publishers and songwriters the amount they deduct is approved each year by the members.
The 2019 collections were broken down like this:
- International royalty income £278.7m
- Public performance £222.2m
- Online platforms £179.1m
- Broadcast £130.8m
How much money does a songwriter make per song?
This shows how much a songwriter can make per song based on earning £100. In brackets we show the amount per payout.
To earn a £100, your music would need to have:
- One play on a BBC 1 primetime show (£100 per play)
- Six plays on Sky 1 (£16.66)
- Two plays on ITV (£50)
- Three plays on Channel 4 (£33.33)
- Five plays on BBC Radio 1 (£20)
- 150 plays on an independent local radio station (66p)
- 200 plays on an MTV Music Channel (5p)
For live performance, your music will need to be performed at:
- Twelve small-scale venues that are registered in our Gigs and Clubs scheme, such as a local pub (£8.33)
- Two or three larger venues, such as Barrowlands in Glasgow or The Deaf Institute in Manchester (£33 – £50)
How do you copyright a song?
You own the copyright of a song as soon as you record it. However, the best way to start earning royalties from it is to register it with a collection society. This means if your song is played by someone else then you will be more likely to earn a royalty.
If you’re a songwriter the process is straightforward. It requires some form filling but don’t let this put you off.
You need to be a member of your local collection society. In the UK this is the PRS. This is simple to do although will cost you £100. Therefore, it’s probably only worth joining if you know your music is getting played or sold somewhere.
After you join you will be assigned with a CAE / IPI number. In music publishing these two numbers mean the same thing and are interchangeable. CAE was originally devised by the Swiss collection society, SUISA, and stands for “Compositeur, Auteur and Editeur” (Composer, Author and Publisher). IPI stands for “Interested Party Information”. In music publishing the “Interested Parties” are simply the songwriters and publishers who have rights in a song.
Once you have joined this is the process to register a song in the PRS database.
What you need before you start:
- Know the song’s duration
- Have the CAE / IPI Number of all the song writers involved in the song.
- If any samples were used then you need to know the song title and all writers. Plus, you need to know the share that was agreed with the sample’s copyright owners.
If you have this information to hand then to register a song takes less than 2 minutes.
When your song has been registered it will be assigned two codes:
- A tunecode: This is a unique country identifier used by the PRS
- An ISWC code: This is a unique global identifier used by CISAC to help different PRO’s identify the same song.
I can hear you ask, “Why don’t all PRO’s use the ISWC? Surely that would make identifying tracks around the world far easier?” I’m afraid this is one of those apparently simple questions, like “What was the best thing before sliced bread?”, or “How does a snow plough driver get to work?”, that we simply don’t know the answer to 🙂
How do you get international royalties?
In a perfect world, global collection societies would share information, such as song titles, composer names and song codes, so if your song is played in another country the local PRO will be able to trace the song back to you and you’ll get paid.
In practice, it doesn’t happen.
Ideally your song needs to be registered in the local PRO’s database. Now there are two ways to do this:
- You can join each country’s local society. In France you’d join SACEM. Germany, GEMA. Sweden, STIM. And so on. Major problem number one is the time it would take you. Problem number two is you have to opt-out of your PRS agreement, which is global, for each country. Thirdly, is some societies require you to have an address in their country.
- You find a local representative to do it for you. These reps are called sub-publishers
What is a sub-publisher?
A sub-publisher is typically a publisher in another country who will act as your local representative in that country. You assign them the right to manage your songs in their respective country.
Let’s show an example.
I’m based in the UK. I joined the PRS. The good news is one of my songs is licensed for an advert to be played on German TV. To receive royalties from Germany I need to find a sub-publisher in Germany who is a member of GEMA. I find a suitable company and sign a sub-publisher agreement with them that gives them the right to enter my song into the GEMA database and represent me in Germany. They would enter me as the songwriter and themselves as the publisher. Any publishing royalties payable in Germany will get paid to them. Since they entered me as the songwriter my composer share will get paid by GEMA to PRS, who will subsequently pay me.The sub-publisher receives the publishing percentage and, depending on the agreement, will pay a percentage to back to me.
How to find a sub-publisher?
It’s not easy and this is another reason that songwriters work with publishers.
To build a sub-publishing network takes a long time. Conferences such as MIDEM in France were traditionally where publishers would meet, get drunk, pay exorbitant prices at the Carlton Hotel and sign sub-publishing deals with each other. You can search for local publishers online and contact them directly but obviously, it’s preferable to build a relationship with them first if you’re going to trust them with handling your rights and money.
How much should I pay a sub-publisher?
To register a song in any country is similar to Administration. Therefore, you should be looking at around 10%-15%. The sub publisher registers your song then on-going, pays you the agreed percentage of any publishing money they collect.
However, it would further suit you if your sub-publishers were actively looking for sync opportunities in their local market. After all, they’re building relationships with Music Supervisors in their own countries. Therefore, you want a sub-publisher agreement that rewards them for any new licenses they get you. A typical sync deal would give your sub-publisher 20%-50% of any revenue.
12 Ways To Increase Your Music Royalties?
- Make sure your publisher is active
- Don’t overpay for Administration
- Consider licensing your live shows direct. http://www.pacerightsmanagement.com
- Submit your set lists
- Get songwriting credits where you contribute
- Make sure you receive overseas royalties
- If you license your song to a film or TV production make sure the licensee submits the correct cue sheet
- If you license a song for an advert make sure a brand supplies you with media buying data and submits the right cue sheet
- Check your PRS statements
- Check any deductions your publisher may be making
- Upload songs to Soundmouse
- Use a service such as Tunesat or BMAT.
What is a good publishing deal?
The financial terms of a publishing deal are generally broken down into 4 parts.
- An advance
- Sync fees
- Cover versions
What is an advance in the music publishing industry?
Each artist will be different based on their individual cases. Naturally, if you have a few hits under your belt you’re in a far better position to negotiate an advance than if you’re a writer just starting out.
The Best Administration Rates In A Publishing Deal
A publisher might do this for as little as 5%, if you’re a strong writer with a valuable back catalogue. However, typical deals will see a range from 10% to 25%
How Much To Pay A Publisher For Sync Fees
These used to be 50% but as publishers compete to offer the best deals, have reduced to around 20%. However, as an artist you need to weigh up how many sync deals your publisher is likely to bring in and agree a reasonable fee. Bare in mind a good sync deal could be worth £40k – £60k so is a potentially significant revenue stream, assuming you could get separate sync deals in a number of countries.
How Much To Pay A Publisher For Cover Songs
This is primarily for songwriters who want their songs pitched to other artists. If you write pop songs then a publisher will send these songs to managers and record labels. They will consider these songs for their roster of acts. If they decide to use the song then you and your publisher will split the revenue.
Do you need permission to perform a song?
If you’re singing your own songs, then no. If you’re performing someone else’s songs then a license is required. However, if you’re singing at a venue then the venue should have a Public Performance License.
Let’s say you’re sitting in your bedroom and want to learn the chords to “Lola” by The Kinks. You go onto GuitarTabs.com and start to play the chords. Do you have to get permission from Ray Davies?
But GuitarTabs.com did. They pay a license fee to the publisher so they can reproduce the song’s chords and lyrics.
You’re a covers band and you play at wedding receptions. The receptions usually take place at a hotel. Do I need to get a license to play a cover song?
No. You don’t need permission from a publisher to sing a song live. However, the venue will have to pay a PPL and PRS fee in order for you to play music in the first place. And if any guest records the performance and uploads it to YouTube then they need to get both the permission of the original songwriter and strictly speaking, you, since you are the performer.
Does this actually happen? Rarely. Unless, of course, the video becomes a viral sensation because the groom did a hilarious dance to your cover of ‘Pretty Woman’ by Roy Orbison. At that point expect Roy’s publishers to get involved and claim their rights over any revenue the song generates.
Finally, what if your band starts performing original material, performs less covers and begins touring in venues around the country?
You don’t need permission to play a cover for the same reason as above. However, at this point you should start submitting your playlist to the PRS, which includes the cover version you performed. Every venue in the UK pays a percentage of their revenue to the PRS. If you submit your playlist then you’ll get a percentage of this money. Now, if you’re playing in the Dog & Duck pub, for sure, it won’t be much. But if you’re playing large venues then it will add up. Better to get into the habit of doing it every time you play.