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How Your Song Works For You

Picture of Seth Lorinczi
4 minute read

As a music creator, you probably focus most of your attention on songwriting and performing, and rightfully so. But understanding how royalties are generated, collected, and deposited in your bank account is just as important. The more you know about the business life cycle of a song, the better position you’ll be in to make informed decisions about your work once it’s released.

Copyright Law Protects Songwriters and Performers

With some exceptions for new technologies, the fundamental copyright laws that protected iconic songwriters like George Gershwin, Carole King, and Smokey Robinson are still in place today.

Copyright law states that royalties are paid to everyone involved in the creation of a song. That said, songwriters and performing artists each hold separate kinds of copyright in a work. 

In the first instance, the law protects the musical composition, or intellectual property — both the written lyrics and the specific sequence of notes and chords — of what will become a recorded song. Songwriters own the performance rights to such compositions, and multiple co-writers can hold percentages of the song’s music and/or lyrics.

Then there’s the specific recording of that song (of which there can be an unlimited number). Rights to the specific recording are often owned by record labels, but performing artists — generally the individual(s) the song is released under — sometimes own their own recordings. In other instances, they share ownership rights with the label.

Royalties are collected on compositions and recordings in different ways and by different entities. While the collection of royalties is handled by record labels and distributors and is fairly straightforward, composition royalties — which are handled by publishers or independent rights holders — can get a bit more complicated.

It’s important to note that you automatically own the copyright of any song you create as soon it’s in a tangible form; it’s not required that you register your song with copyright offices. While registering a copyright does offer legal support, songwriters maintain their copyright ownership until they sign it away. 

Domestic and International Performance Royalty Collection

Every song has two halves: the composition and recording. One of the most important things a songwriter should understand is that each half earns different royalties in different ways, and each of these royalties are collected and paid out by different entities.

Performance Royalties (Publishing)

Songwriters affiliate with pay sources and collection societies — sometimes referred to as Performing Rights Organizations (PROs) or Collective Management Organizations (CMOs) — in their respective territories. These entities are responsible for collecting and distributing composition performance royalties for a registered song whenever it’s played in public, whether it’s a live performance, streaming service, commercial, or TV show.

If you’re relying solely on your local collection society for royalty collection, know that these pay sources generally have reciprocal agreements with international societies and organizations to collect performance royalties earned in other countries. These agreements are useful but can involve additional fees and be limited by each country’s laws and regulations. 

The other option relies on direct relationships between publishers and each individual pay source. These relationships offer more direct support for royalty collection and are maintained by a publishing team. Because of these differences, many songwriters opt to work with a publishing administrator like Songtrust for their global royalty collection. 

Digital Performance Royalties (Recording)

Recording copyrights and royalty collections are typically handled by record labels like Sony and Warner, or distributors like Distrokid and CD Baby. However, digital performance royalties earned from plays on non-interactive streaming services, as well as digital and satellite radio, are handled by third parties such as SoundExchange or various neighbouring rights collection agencies around the globe. 

Recording Revenue

While songwriters receive writing and publishing royalties, performing artists are compensated with royalties earned from sales of the recorded version of the song. The purchase of a vinyl album, a download from a digital store, and a stream on Spotify all entitle the recording artist to recording royalties. A distributor will collect royalties directly from the stores and streaming services on behalf of record labels who then distribute royalties to the artist. If the artist doesn’t have a record label, it’s their responsibility to collect recording royalties from the distributor directly. 

Domestic and International Mechanical Royalty Collection

Mechanical royalties are paid whenever a physical copy of the song is sold — such as a CD or record — or a digital copy is downloaded/streamed anywhere in the world.

In the United States, entities such as the Harry Fox Agency (HFA) administer mechanical licenses on behalf of songs and collect mechanical royalties from record labels and Digital Service Providers (DSPs) such as Spotify and Apple Music. Generally speaking, songwriters must be affiliated with a publisher or publishing administrator like Songtrust to receive such payments. 

Outside of the U.S, retailers or distributors are responsible for paying out royalties that come from physical album sales. DSPs pay each international pay source or collection entity, who then pays the mechanical royalties to writers and publishers.

Other Forms of Song-Based Revenue

These are just a handful of the many ways songs can be used to generate revenue. Be sure to check our Knowledge Center for more resources and tips, or keep reading for a couple more common outlets. 

Sync Licenses and Recording Use Licenses

Songwriters and publishers also receive royalties for the use of their song in connection with any visual medium. In the last decade or so, this has become an increasingly important revenue stream for music creators.

Whenever a piece of music is used in the score of a movie, TV show, commercial, or YouTube video, a synchronization (or “sync”) license allows songwriters to collect royalties on the work. 

A sync license is also required to use copyright-protected music in a phone message. Sync licenses are granted by the songwriter, publisher, or music library; if the licensee wants to use a specific recorded version of the composition, permission is granted by the appropriate record label.

Neighbouring Rights Royalties (Recording)

We mentioned this earlier, but let’s explain it in a little more detail. The terms “neighbouring rights” or “related rights” sound like the makings of an international dispute, but they actually describe the relationship between a performing artist and the record label that owns the recordings of the artist’s song(s). These rights are “neighbours” to the performance rights discussed above. 

Neighbouring rights royalties are earned when a performing artist’s recordings are publicly performed or broadcast. An artist earns neighbouring rights when the song is played over terrestrial radio, streaming services like Pandora, cable TV music channels, in a dance club or in a live performance. To collect these royalties, it’s necessary for the record label or the independent artist to register the recording with a neighbouring rights organization.

The United States is an outlier in that it does not recognize the concept of neighbouring rights. However, services such as SoundExchange do license and collect on “digital performance royalties” on behalf of recording owners and performing artists from platforms like Pandora, Sirius XM, TV music channels, and other streaming services.

Want Help In Making Your Song Work for You?

While understanding how different types of royalties work isn’t rocket science, it can quickly get confusing. That’s why we created Songtrust in the first place — a service by and for independent music creators to help manage the business side of making music. 

Songtrust helps you easily capture publishing revenues across music distribution methods all over the world. Our team has decades of experience in traditional publishing that we draw on to help you handle complex licensing issues among other exceptional situations. Want to learn more? Reach out.

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Just finished a song? Use this guide to ensure you're set up to collect all the royalties your song may earn globally.

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