Once you’ve crafted a piece of music, there’s a lot to know.
Once you’ve finished writing a song, its professional life is only just beginning. What rights do you have as the creator of the song? What organizations and agents can help you navigate the intricacies of public performances or broadcasts of it? Maybe not so surprisingly, a lot of the language around the business of songwriting can be pretty confusing. This glossary should help break down, in simple terms, what some of the lingo means.
An advance is when a publisher fronts you money in anticipation of a song earning royalties before it actually does. In exchange, you enter into a deal with them regarding the rights to your songs. This can mean different things based on different deals. In a publishing administration agreement, you own the copyrights to your music, and the publisher administers those copyrights. In a co-publishing agreement, you and the publisher co-own the copyrights, and they administer them. And in a buy-out agreement, the publisher owns the copyright in full, and is the only entity allowed to administer them.
Of course, you have to pay the advance back when the royalties start rolling in, but you don’t necessarily have to pay all of it back before you start earning money. That would be called “100% recoupment,” which can force a period of no income (not ideal!). Every agreement is different, and it’s best to work one out that generates steady income for both sides.
When you own a copyright—and if you’ve written a song, you do—you’re entitled to collect royalties when other entities use the song or other piece of intellectual property under that copyright. Collecting societies (also known as collection societies) track the royalties connected to copyrights, collect them, and pay them out to the owners. Different collecting societies collect different types of royalties: Some collect mechanical rights royalties, some collect performing rights royalties, and some—especially those outside the U.S.—collect both. You have to register your work with these societies in order to collect royalties.
Co-writing is when two or more songwriters get together to write a song, but these get-togethers, which are known by different names around the world—"sessions" in L.A. but "writes" in Nashville, for example—can also include producers and other creative partners. While co-writes have many benefits, both creatively and from a business perspective, co-writing makes the copyright of a song more complex, as there are more parties involved, and split sheets (see below) help to clarify each party’s contribution to the finished work.
According to the U.S. Copyright Office, “Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture.” Copyright laws differ from country to country, with most granting copyrights to the author of the work—unless they sell the rights—until usually at least 50 years after they’ve died (in the U.S.) or 70 years after (in the EU). Song copyrights are also granted 70 yrs after death in the United States. Copyrights can be bought and sold, and can be held by one individual or shared between multiple people. The holder decides who can use a song and for what purpose, and they’re entitled to the royalties generated from its use.
To put a song “on hold” means that the song’s publisher promises an exclusive first right of refusal to a specific artist or group with regards to performance and recording. It’s an informal agreement, where the person granting the hold agrees not to issue a recording license for the song until the artist for whom it was placed on hold decides to record it or pass on it.
Performance Rights Organization
When your songs are broadcast or streamed or you play them live for the adoring public, you need to get paid, and registering your music with a PRO will help with that. A performance rights organization—which is a type of collecting society—ensures that you receive royalties for those performances by licensing them on your behalf. And “performance” is a very broad term in this case. It can include airplay on radio or television, but also something like background music at a café. There are four PROs in the U.S.: the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP); Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI); the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC); and Global Music Rights (GMR). You'll need to research which one suits your needs best.
Performing Rights Society
Outside the U.S., performing rights societies handle many of the same things PROs do. There is usually one performing rights society per country, but sometimes more. CISAC is an excellent resource for finding those.
The rights to a piece of music determine who is entitled to earn royalties from it. They fall within two main categories.
Performance rights (known as performing rights outside the U.S.) are what net a songwriter the royalties they’re entitled to when someone performs or uses their work in a public place, or on radio or television. In the U.S., performance rights organizations grant licenses to music users like hotels and restaurants, who pay for the right to perform (play) that music, and the PRO sends that money back to the composer and publisher (copyright holder). Outside the U.S., performing rights societies handle this process.
A mechanical right is the right to reproduce your music on a vinyl record, for example. Songwriters are entitled to their mechanical rights, and get them via their publisher (in the U.S.) or a society (outside the U.S.). Starting in January 2021, songwriters will be able to take advantage of The Mechanical Licensing Collective (MLC), a nonprofit organization that “will issue and administer blanket mechanical licenses to eligible streaming and download services (digital service providers or DSPs) in the United States.” The MLC will then collect royalties and distribute them to songwriters, composers, lyricists, and publishers.
When someone streams a song, both performing and mechanical rights are activated, because a stream has been classified as a combination of the two.
A publisher is the person who gets your songs into as many ears as possible, both through recording and then use, such as public performance like radio or TV broadcast, which generates royalties. They pitch to all types of music users including labels, other artists, and music supervisors, and once someone’s interested, they license the song rights to that user and collect a fee, which they then share with the songwriter. Publishers also make sure that work registrations (see below) are sent to performing rights societies and that songwriter rights are managed properly by those societies. They collect as much money as they can from all over the world for the artist, and in return, they get a percentage of both performance and mechanical royalties. If you’re with a publisher, your mechanical income will come through the publisher, and performing income will come both directly to you and via the publisher. If you’re not with a publisher, you’ll need to join a mechanical rights society in order to collect your mechanical income.
Registering your work as soon as splits are agreed upon, with various collecting societies is maybe the most important step to take in order to get paid what you’re owed. If the societies aren’t aware that your work is being used, they’re unable to figure out how much royalties you’re entitled to. If you’re working with a publisher, they’ll often handle this step for you. If not, you will have to register your own music.
Royalties are the main source of income for songwriters and publishers. Performance royalties (referred to as performing royalties outside the U.S.) are generated through any public performances, broadcasts, or streams of a song, and are collected and paid out by societies when businesses pay the societies to use them. Mechanical royalties are generated from physical sales, downloads, and streams. They’re distributed to the entity that holds the rights to the music.
As described above, co-writes make it slightly more complex to determine who is owed what when it comes to collecting royalties on a song. A song split is exactly what it sounds like—a divvying up of the contributions to the creation of a song. Song splits are clarified by
split sheets, which identify who did what during songwriting, and what percentage of royalties they are entitled to.
If someone wants to use your music for the soundtrack of a TV show, movie, or commercial, they have to obtain a synchronization (“sync”) license.
Check out more of our Glossary of Music Terms series including Distribution, Marketing, Streaming, and Recording.