Adele's "Hello" video, which is nearing 1 billion views on YouTube, has spawned a slew of covers on the Internet including several foreign-language versions that have found their own audiences. Spanish singer Leroy Sanchez's cover of the song has nearly 22 million views. A version by Korean teen Lydia Lee has more than 20 million. And a Spanish/English rendition by American Idol alum Karen Rodriguez boasts 6 million.
In aggregate, those views can reach the hundreds of millions, generating significant income for publishers, songwriters and labels alike. But determining how to divide the money is a complex task.
Take, for example, the Spanish-language versions of "Hello," whose sung greetings include "Hola" and "Alo." No matter the interpretation of the lyrics, all are considered covers of the original composition, written by Adele and Greg Kurstin and published by EMI April Music, Kurstin Music and Universal/Songs of PolyGram International.
Rodriguez, 26, whose bilingual cover initially drew scant attention, found herself stuck in last-minute negotiations with the song's rights-holders when TV-performance offers started coming in.
"The compulsory license [which allows artists to cover songs without the songwriters' express consent] does not apply to song translations and adaptations," says Rodriguez's manager Maxwell Clayman. No blanket license for such versions exists: "Each song is negotiated separately," says producer Rudy Perez, who has written Spanish lyrics for Beyoncé and Christina Aguilera. "Sometimes the writer lets me participate in the publishing side, sometimes it's a work for hire."
What's at stake? If a video gets 10 million YouTube views and all streams are monetized, the label that owns the master — even if it's a cover — could claim as much as $34,000 at an estimated U.S. per-stream rate of $0.0032. For publishers, the payout could be around $8,700, based on a synchronization payout of 15 percent of total ad revenue. Thus, assuming a 50/50 split between the songwriters, their publishers each would get $4,350, with each songwriter receiving $2,175 (if they have a straight publishing deal), $3,262.50 (for a co-publishing deal) or $3,697 (if they own their publishing).
Yet with the rise of covers on YouTube, the process turns into a game of whack-a-mole for rights-holders. If the song's master recording is fingerprinted, it's easy to find; even if not, YouTube's melody-matching algorithm should be able to catch it, according to Audiam founder Jeff Price. But covers in different languages must be found with a descriptive-word search. "If the translation sticks close to the original title, you can find it," says Price. "But if the translation [substantially] changes the title, it's much more difficult."
Still, for an artist like Rodriguez, having her interpretation go viral is a ticket to the broader recognition that has eluded her since she was a season-10 finalist on American Idol in 2011.
"I didn't get the opportunity of getting signed or catching the attention of people who wanted to support my music," says Rodriguez, who has co-written with Romeo Santos but works in a hotel by day. "With these covers I get to put out music."
This article was originally published in the Jan. 23 issue of Billboard.