The beat of a song (the drum, digital, or other percussive "beat" that serves as a core element in the song) can sometimes be as important – or even more important, especially in EDM and hip-hop music – than lyrics or melody in making a song a hit. But when a beat is created by someone other than a songwriter, such as a producer, what rights do they have to publishing royalties or writing credits? The short answer is – it's complicated.
An in-studio producer is ultimately responsible for the final sound of a recording, but that producer may or may not be responsible for the song's beat. An artist can buy a beat from a beat-maker or license it, then finish the production themselves or with another producer. So, if you're an artist looking to use a beat or a producer who's created one, how do you figure out the splits?
The process of figuring out splits isn't automatic and often, it isn't cheap, either. While a producer with a major label likely has an experienced attorney available to negotiate a deal, an indie producer is rarely that lucky – and could eat up any upfront money just trying to hire one.
Early in a beat-maker's career, negotiating a deal may seem less important than simply getting heard and discovered by producers and songwriters who can use the beats. Many new beat producers will try to get onto a mixtape, and from there will offer their beat for free or a minimal amount of money. Unfortunately, many beat producers are finding that, with a glut of people trying to break into the beat-making space and SoundCloud making it easier than ever, some singers and rappers, especially established ones, are unwilling to pay for beats or offer songwriting credit, instead shopping around for beat-makers who can create beats that sound like the work of more established beat-makers.
There can also be challenges for producers and songwriters in trying to use the work of beat-makers. Savvy beat producers will negotiate to retain their publishing rights and sign a non-exclusive deal, which might become a challenge for a producer or songwriter who wants to revisit using the beat at a later point when it may have become expensive or, worse, is no longer available at all.
When it comes to beats, sometimes a beat-maker will sell a beat outright – a simple solution, but one that means letting go of any future involvement with the song the beat is used to complete. The buyer will then have exclusive rights to use the beat. In other cases, however, a beat producer will offer a non-exclusive license to use a beat and hold on to the right to use it later or license it to other people. While selling beats can be a revenue stream for beat producers, and often a lucrative one, whether or not a beat producer gets a portion of a song's publishing royalties or co-writing credit is not clearly defined.
Legally, the composition copyright for a song is determined by the lyrics and the melody. While the beat can be a major part of the success of a song, it doesn't have a clear-cut role when song rights are debated in a court of law.
Even if a beat producer sells his beat outright, that doesn't mean it's not possible to make money after the fact. Thanks to registering the beat and any songs it is used in with PROs both in the U.S. and abroad (or using an entity like Songtrust to do this and then track royalties), a beat producer can still get public performance royalties. While it's impossible to predict which song created with a producer's beat might be a hit, making this simple effort can ensure that, when it happens, a beat producer reaps at least some of the profits from the deal.
Don’t forget as well, that if you’re a producer that writes your own original music, you’re also considered a songwriter and you 100 percent have rights to the publishing for that composition. Determine your splits early, understand the basics of publishing, and save yourself on any heartaches you might encounter later on when the royalties start coming in.
Have questions or unsure how you should be looking at publishing as a producer? Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll help figure it out.
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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.
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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.