If you are even remotely familiar with popular music these days, you’ve probably heard of Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliot. Her face and body are the ones moving around inside that hydraulic space-walker suit int the video for her hit single, “The Rain.” Earlier this year, Elliott released her long-awaited debut album, Supa Dupa Fly (Elektra Records)-on which she wrote every tune–and it immediately shot to the top of the charts. She has appeared in videos, sung and guest-rapped on hit records for artist such as MC Lyte, Jodeci, New Edition and others. Despite her recent in-your-face success, the multitalented artist will be the first to say her biggest success is as a songwriter.
Over the past four years, Elliott has penned chart-topping tunes for such platinum and gold-selling artists as Aaliyah (“4 Page Letter,” “One In A Million”), 702 (“Steelo”), SWV (“Can We”), Ginuwine (“It’s A G Thing,” “I’m Sorry”), Jodeci (“Sweaty,” “Want Some More”) and LeVert (“Keys to My House”). It was, in fact, Elliott’s success as a songwriter that prompted friends and colleagues to push her to record her album. “I wanted to stay behind the scenes,” says Elliott. “I didn’t really want to [record an album].” The truth is, she admits, there is more than enough money to be made in song writing and if you’re good, there’s always consistent work.
Early on, Elliott discovered a fact that most key players in the music business know, but seldom speak of: song writing and music publishing are the secret cash-cows of the industry. In 1995 (the most recent year available), music publishing generated $6.2 billion in sales, and many of those hits songs continue to produce substanstial earnings. While most people only think of a song’s earning potential in relation to its current radio popularity and record sales, successful songwriters and publishing companies know that the income a song generates can stretch well past the life of its author. If handled properly, music publishing can mean not only life-long income for songwriters, but income for their children, too. Motown founder Berry Gordy recently sold 50% of his publishing arm, Jobette Music Co., for $132 million to EMI Music Publishing (see “Soul for Sale,” Newspoints, October 1997).
Being a successful songwriter, however, takes a lot more than creativity. It also takes a willingness to learn the details of a very complex business. If you are a songwriter looking to break into the music publishing game, and want to maximize and protect your earnings, there is a lot you need to know.
HOW DOES MUSIC PUBLISHING WORK?
As a songwriter, when you pen and obtain a copyright for your original tune, it becomes your personal property. Any record company whose artist performs and records your song, and any person and/or organization that broadcasts, samples or prints copies of your lyrics and music must pay you to do so. In addition, you will continue to receive payment for almost any new and repeated use of your song during the copyright term (which spans the life of