While we originally intended to write about how to become a professional songwriter, we ultimately figured that such an article would cover a lot of tips we’d already tackled before (and are sure you know by now), like practicing your craft; learning basic music theory; or building valuable connections.
So, instead, we decided to dive into the actual process of selling a song as a professional songwriter. What does it take to sell a song? Who might be your potential buyer? How can you pitch your song? All this you’ll find in this article!
What does it mean to sell a song?
The concept of ‘selling a song’ might be a bit misleading as it doesn’t usually include selling the song itself. Instead, the term implies that it is your songwriting efforts that you’ll be generating revenue from. This will be either by securing a licensing deal, a publishing deal or by working for hire. In either case, you (in most cases) remain the copyright owner of your song, which we’ll get into later.
However, instead of immediately diving into various deal types, let’s start at the very beginning of your ‘song-selling’ process. What comes next after you’ve written a song?
1. Record a demo
The best way to showcase your song is to record a demo, aka a professional recording of the song. The ultimate goal of a demo is to show your song’s potential, outlining its beat, melody, and vocals, and sharing your production and instrumental ideas.
While this doesn’t mean your track needs to be recorded in a state in which you’d like to see it published and performed (with all its whistles, background vocals, etc.), everything in the demo has to be played well and meticulously. Make sure that the vocals aren’t pitchy, the rhythm is accurate and, most importantly, that the sound is of a good quality.
The good news is that to achieve this, you don’t need to record your demo in a professional recording studio. Instead, you can build yourself such a studio at home. If this is the plan, make sure to check out our articles about how to set up a home recording studio and music production for beginners on a budget! Both can give you some valuable tips on what equipment to purchase and how and where to install them to build the studio you’re dreaming of.
2. Understand music copyright
Now, music copyright is a complicated topic and although we touch upon its very foundation, we do want to emphasize the importance of consulting with a lawyer or copyright expert every time you’re unsure about something. This can eventually help you avoid any misunderstandings and losing out on the money you deserve.
Legally, in most countries, a song automatically falls under the protection of the local copyright laws the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form, as a sound recording or in the form of sheet music. This means that there are no formal requirements to be met and registration in an official register is not needed.
In the majority of countries, registration may not even be possible. A significant exception to the rule is the USA, where registering your song with the US Copyright Office will provide you with additional legal protection, useful especially in case of copyright infringement.
Recording copyright vs. songwriting copyright
Yes, that’s right! In every recorded song, there exist two main types of copyright: a sound recording copyright and a songwriting copyright.
A sound recording copyright, also known as sound master copyright, protects the recording of the performance of the song. For example, the song ‘Make You Feel My Love’ was written and recorded by Bob Dylan in 1997. That specific recording of the song is copyrighted. The song was then covered by multiple artists, including Billy Joel, Adele, and Boy George.
Each of these recorded versions of the song falls under copyright protection as they are considered individual intellectual properties, using different instruments and being performed by different artists in different studios. This means that every version of the song has its master recording copyright, which, in the USA, is registered with the US Copyright Office. The owner of the sound recording copyright is the ‘maker’ of the recording, which can be the performer, producer, or label.
A songwriting copyright, also known as a composition copyright, concerns the protection of musical composition, which encompasses the melody, lyrics, notes, chords, and rhythms. Traditionally, the initial owner of the composition rights is the songwriter. Then, once the song is to be published, the composition copyright is usually split between the songwriter and the publisher, who is provided with publishing rights. However, as we already know, the amount of rights and responsibilities of the publisher ultimately depends on the given contract.
3. Register your song with a PRO
PRO is short for performance rights organization, a type of institution whose main purpose is to collect and distribute performance royalties on behalf of its members. Worldwide, there are hundreds of national and international PROs, out of which a total of 218 are members of CISAC, a governing body for PROs headquartered in France.
In the USA, the three main PROs are ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers), SESAC (Society of European Stage Authors and Composers), and BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc). Generally speaking, every PRO may showcase different functions and services. It’s therefore important that you thoroughly research your local organizations to decide which to join when the time comes. Simultaneously, you can only be affiliated with one PRO.
When is the right time to join a PRO?
As we’ve already mentioned before, the main role of every PRO is to collect and distribute performance royalties to its clients every time their song is performed publicly, live, or recorded. This suggests that you should register with the prospective PRO the moment you know your song will go on streaming platforms, radio, TV, and programmed music services, or will be performed in public places, including clubs, hotels, stores, or restaurants.
However, there’s much more to a PRO membership than ‘just’ receiving royalties. PROs usually offer additional benefits which might be useful in your current situation and that you can enjoy regardless of whether your music has gone out yet or not. Such benefits include travel discounts, discounts on music gear, free website services from third parties, and more.
On top of that, PROs are the go-to places to connect and establish relationships with people who are likely to show interest in your music and help you break through in the music industry.
Are you ready to join your local PRO? Check out their website for more information on the types of membership opportunities, application fees, and contract conditions. Keep in mind that to become a member of a PRO, you have to enter into a contract with the institution, so make sure you know exactly what you’re getting into.
If there’s anything you’re unsure about, don’t hesitate to get in touch with the PRO’s local office and even arrange a meeting with them if you feel it’s necessary.
4. Explore various revenue streams for your song
As we explained at the beginning of our article, there are three essential ways you can earn money from your songwriting – by getting a licensing deal, securing a publishing deal, or working for hire.
In the beginning, your goal will likely be to sell the song you’ve written in any way possible. However, learning about different ways to monetize it may help you identify your future ambitions. Plus, knowing what you want to achieve with your songwriting may also help you figure out the right audience to pitch your song to.
A licensing deal
A licensing agreement, also known as a synchronization (sync) license, grants permission to others to use your song in various contexts, such as movies, TV shows, commercials, video games, YouTube videos, etc. In exchange for the license, the licensee pays a so-called sync fee (also called sync royalties), meaning you’ll be paid a particular sum upfront.
Additionally, depending on the agreement, you may also generate so-called performance royalties every time the song is performed publicly (on the radio, in a restaurant, in a theater, on streaming platforms, etc.) Such royalties are then distributed over time depending on how frequently the song has been played.
A publishing deal
While a licensing agreement is quite straightforward, with publishing deals it gets a bit more complicated. Unlike a licensing deal, which concerns a track that’s already been written, a publishing agreement commonly deals with songs that are yet to be penned under the given contract.
Obtaining a publishing agreement is quite difficult to begin with. For that, you usually need to be established in your career as a songwriter or a releasing artist and have enough experience to show in your portfolio.
On top of that, you have to bear in mind that most publishing companies nowadays belong to the major labels, like Universal Music Group, Sony Music Group, and Warner Music Group, which often represent some of the most commercially successful artists. You can imagine that the competition between musicians and songwriters striving to get a deal is quite fierce.
Generally, a publishing deal transfers a certain part of your copyright to the publisher, allowing them to gain control over the use of the composition – they can pitch the song to artists, license it, seek out sync opportunities, etc. The nature of the work that the publisher will do on behalf of the songwriter depends on the type of the agreement. In total, there are three types of publishing deals – full-publishing; co-publishing; and administration deals.
Briefly, a full-publishing deal grants the publisher 100% of the songwriter’s rights (traditionally for a lifetime) over the material the songwriter will create during the duration of the contract. In exchange, the publisher will perform full-circle services on behalf of the songwriter, promoting their published material, pitching the artist across the industry, managing their catalog, etc.
As the name already suggests, a co-publishing deal involves both the publisher and songwriter collaborating on the release of the composition. This ultimately allows the songwriter to generate more revenue, getting their half of the song’s share as well as half of the publisher’s share (equating to 75% of royalties).
Last but not least, under an administration publishing agreement, a publisher has only one role, and that is to collect and audit the royalties on behalf of a songwriter. In this case, the songwriter keeps full control of the copyright, paying the publisher about 10-25% of the publisher’s share in the form of a so-called ‘administrations fee’. This is why administration deals are commonplace for well-established and commercially successful songwriters.
Works for hire
One could argue that work-for-hire closely resembles the act of selling your song. However, rather than selling an existing song, it involves creating a track tailored for a particular purpose. Work-for-hire is ultimately a contract under which a songwriter composes a musical work – an entire song, melody, or lyrics – specifically for another entity’s use.
It often concerns music produced for TV commercials, movies, series, video games, or websites. Nevertheless, a songwriter may also be hired to write a composition for a releasing artist.
In return for their work, the songwriter is usually only paid a one-time upfront fee, meaning they have no rights to any additional payments, such as royalties, beyond what’s been agreed upon in their contract. On top of that, the songwriter doesn't retain the ownership of the song they’ve written. Instead, it’s the person commissioning the work who is considered its legal author.
Whether the songwriter is publicly credited or not depends on the contract. If not, the individual writing the song can be considered a ghostwriter, aka someone whose work is credited to someone else.
We know what you might be thinking: this is unethical, or, this must be illegal. However, the reality is that under copyright law in the U.S. and in many other countries, such arrangements and practices are allowed and considered legal as long as the terms are communicated to and approved by the hired person in a written contract.
It’s therefore crucial that you always thoroughly read and understand the contract you’re presented with before you sign it! And if you’d like to learn more about the work of ghostwriters, check out our article on ghostwriting!
5. Pitch your song
Your demo is ready, you’ve successfully registered with a PRO and now you’re all set to present your song. Below, you’ll find some of the key figures in the music business who might be interested in your track, along with effective approaches to pitching it.
Collaborating with talented songwriters is a common practice for both signed and independent musicians. However, pitching your songs to fellow artists might be more difficult than you think.
Most established and well-known musicians have implemented strict policies against being directly approached by other artists without a publishing deal or an established relationship. This is mostly to avoid an excessive amount of submissions they would otherwise get and to prevent potential lawsuits from people who might claim that their music has been stolen from them. This therefore suggests that only with a publishing deal you might be able to pitch your song to a bigger artist.
Reaching out to and working with emerging or fellow indie artists might be both easier and more creatively free (chances are you might better get your point across with them). Even then, however, you should never be too pushy. If an artist appears to show no interest in your song, simply move on to another artist.
Trying to convince someone to like your song when they, in fact, don’t may do more harm than good. For one, you’ll waste some of your precious time and secondly, you may come across as rude, annoying, and intrusive, which, if spread, could damage your reputation.
Looking for gifted songwriters is an important part of a publisher’s job. However, just like artists, they don’t always accept unsolicited submissions. This is when networking may come in incredibly handy, with references and recommendations from other music professionals increasing your chances of placing your song.
It’s also important to bear in mind that most publishers will only take an interest in you as long as you have a portfolio or a track record to show. This is because music publishers don’t only take part in publishing someone else’s music, they also make investments to make an individual’s career take off and progress. Thus, they need to know you’re worth investing in, which is hard to estimate with just one single song.
To have a shot with a publisher, you need to focus on networking and building relationships with fellow music professionals – like co-writers, coaches, and mentors – and actively work on your craft, adding better and better songs to your catalog.
Licensing agencies, music libraries, or sync agents and music supervisors
If your goal is to secure a licensing agreement, then licensing agencies, music libraries, or specialized sync agents are the ones to target.
A key thing to keep in mind is that sync licensing requires the permission of all right owners, meaning the holder of the songwriting copyright (songwriter and/or publisher) as well as the owner of the sound recording copyright (artist/performer/label). It is therefore essential that you’re either in control of both copyrights or you have permission to license the song from your fellow copyright holders (e.g. co-writers).
While placing your music through these companies is generally easier than obtaining a publishing deal, it may still turn out valuable to be in contact with someone who can provide you with a letter of reference. Having an extensive track record won’t hurt either.
The great thing about sync placements is that they are usually non-exclusive, meaning you can license the track to as many users at the same time as you’d like. Traditionally, you need to go through a submission and vetting process to eventually end up licensing your song.
Make sure to agree with the terms and conditions of the licensing agreement before you sign the binding contract. Bear in mind that certain agencies and music libraries may want a 50/50 split of your copyright. Agreeing to such conditions may have negative long-term consequences, especially if your goal is to secure a publishing deal one day.
Getting the world to taste the fruits of your songwriting might be a lengthy but fulfilling process. An essential part of it is to try and remain patient and not be discouraged by possible obstacles on the way. Additionally, if becoming a professional songwriter is your ultimate dream, there’s no more important thing to do than continuously build up your track record. Only this way you can showcase your skills, experience and passion for the craft.
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