Whether you label yourself a producer, composer, beat-maker, singer-songwriter, or performing artist, you’re a creator to the core. And if you’re creating music — whether it’s composing alone at the piano, writing lyrics, or collaborating on a beat — you are a songwriter.
So many artists seem to forget this, or never consider it to begin with. Why is this important? In Songtrust’s line of work — music publishing — it’s arguably the most crucial step to becoming successful. If you don’t see yourself as a songwriter, you won’t earn publishing royalties from the use of your music.
So, nice to meet you, songwriter; what’s your next step?
Get Your Cut
Now that we’ve established your role as a songwriter, the next step is figuring out what part you physically play in a song. Are you writing all the lyrics, supplying underlying beats, or recording instrumentals? Whatever work you’re putting into a song needs to be identified and immediately discussed with any collaborators so you can figure out the splits for proper royalty collection of your placement.
“Can’t I do that later? Shouldn’t I focus on finishing and distributing the song first?”
Sure, but let’s set the stage for an all-too-common scenario: you and your co-writers finish a song, release it through your distributor, and it goes viral, building a fanbase faster than you can follow the fans back on Instagram. Let’s say that you helped on the composition side via a beat placement, but only one of the co-writers actually recorded and sang on the song, so they assumed the ownership of the master recording, which is handled by whichever distributor they chose.
By now, that co-writer could be making bank from all the master recording royalties they’re earning, but, as we all know, publishing takes a while to actually come through. Then, you learn that instead of registering the publishing side evenly amongst the writers, they simply awarded themselves 100% of the ownership. This means they’ll collect all the publishing royalties once they start coming in.
Now, let’s say there’s a falling out between the two of you and you no longer talk. Because a split sheet was never filled out for your placement, no agreement was made on who receives what. And since your co-writer is in the one enjoying all the song’s immediate success, there’s a hot chance that you won’t see any of those royalties without some legal action.
This is why discussing splits in advance is so important. Not every situation becomes contested, but there are many situations exactly like this out there. Have an honest discussion with every co-writer and person that works on your song; make sure you decide who gets what percentage, who might be paid a one-time fee for their work, and get it in writing. Don’t wait and be reactive; be proactive.
“To me, making sure you get paid for your music is just as important as creating the music. Get your split sheets done after every song you make or have your terms and ownership clearly outlined in your license agreements if you sell beats online. Don't leave any room for uncertainty with this kind of stuff because you don't want to get the short end of the stick (or no stick at all) when it comes time to getting paid.”
-Kato On The Track
No Need to Stay Traditional
Maybe you read the above scenario and said “that’ll never be me! I get paid upfront for all my work!” And you’re right; there’s no reason you have to go the traditional route when working on songs. How you get compensated for your work is totally up to you, and every creator knows what’s best for their career.
That may be in the form of a work-for-hire deal: an agreement to supply work for what’s typically a one-time negotiated fee. Be mindful that this also means you generally give away any rights to copyright ownership. If you don’t care about the potential future earnings, make sure you negotiate for an acceptable amount — what your work is really worth.
Another option could be creating beats and selling or licensing them out to beat sites like Tracklib or Beatstars. Some creators spend all their time working solely on creating melodies, foundational tracks, or short tunes that’ll get placed in another songwriter’s work. This can be a lucrative business with its own pros and cons, so make sure you read the fine print, terms of service, and don’t sell yourself short - shop around, and recognize that this is as much an opportunity for them as it is for you.
Success: Publishing and Beyond
Much of what we’ve already mentioned is tied directly to publishing. If you heed our words of caution, you can learn a lot about being a successful creator.
Since everyone loves a good list, here are the four main things you need to do to collect all of your royalties worldwide:
- Choose a distributor. You can’t expect much if you don’t get your music in front of people and a distributor will make sure that’s taken care of.
- Affiliate with a collection society. Home territory heavyweights like ASCAP or BMI in the U.S. will make sure the songs you’re registering are tracked for royalty collection.
- Get a publishing administrator. You need someone in your corner to help globally register your songs and collect all the royalties your songs are earning. Remember, using a publishing administrator like Songtrust does not replace your collection society.
- Sign up with SoundExchange (in the U.S.). If your songs are getting non-interactive digital radio plays (e.g., spins on Pandora and SiriusXM), signing up with SoundExchange ensures that the digital performance royalties you are owed on the master recording side are properly collected. If you’re outside of the U.S., you’ll want to sign up with a neighbouring rights society to collect the similar master-side royalties owed to you.
Lastly, if you’re at all confused, bewildered, or hesitant about your career as a songwriter, know that you’re not alone. Reach out to local creators in your area to get advice and learn about their experiences. And always remember to:
- Be smart. Do your homework, treat your career as a business, and never sell yourself short.
- Be honest. Don’t let the awkwardness that comes with discussing money get in the way of determining splits and having an honest conversation with co-writers about what your time is worth.
- Be creative. Don’t put yourself in a box by saying you have to go the traditional route. Figure out what ways of collaborating with others works best for you and move forward.
- Royalties Checklist: A must-see list for all the royalty types you should be collecting for your work.
- Estimate Your Streaming Royalties: Have songs on Spotify and over 10K streams? Find out how much you’re due and how we can help you collect your royalties around the world.
- Modern Guide to Music Publishing: Set yourself apart from the rest by learning everything you can about music publishing with this extensive guide.
- Music Publishing Crash Course: Want to learn more about music publishing but in bite-sized pieces? Sign up for our five-day crash course to get the fundamentals sent straight to your inbox.
Take control of your publishing. Maximize Songtrust for your songs and business.
We created this guide to answer a simple question: How do songwriters support themselves?
The answer is not as simple as we’d like, but our goal is to make it as clear, transparent and understandable as we possibly can.
Songtrust is more than just a rights management platform and publishing administrator - we’re a team of experts in the music community who strive to educate, support, and provide thought leadership to creators, representatives, and businesses across the music industry.
Our hope is that you’ll finish this guide with an better understanding of the business behind songwriting and have actionable resources to help you be successful.