Turning Melodies Into Royalties

The real revenue in the music business lies in the ownership rights to the hits. Here's how to publish and not perish.

the author or last surviving author, plus 50 years). These earnings are called royalties, and sources for royalty income are vast and are continuously growing with the advent of new technology.

Years ago, songwriters looked to earn most of their money through performances and recordings of their songs, lyric sheet sales and radio broadcasts. Today’s songwriters can add television, film, elevators, online Web sites, phone lines, restaurants, videos, clubs, stores, office reception areas and other forms of usage to their list of royalty sources. “It really is an extended notion of private property
ownership,” says attorney Lita Rosario, who through her Washington, D.C.based company, WYZ Girl Entertainment, administers songwriters’ catalogs for a number of the major, mid-size and small music publishers.

According to Rosario, royalty sources can be broken down into four general categories: performance (which includes radio, venue and music video broadcasts, as well as concert and live television performances); mechanical (which is the standard $6.95 per song, per copy sold that a record company and/or artist pays to a songwriter for sampling or recording his tune); synchronization (which covers the linkage of a song to a visual image, such as motion picture scores, background music in a television show or commercial); and print (lyric sheet, hymnal and music book sales). As a professional songwriter, you have two primary goals: to get your songs published through as many royalty sources as possible (so that you earn the maximum amount of money possible); and second, to retain ownership of as large a percentage of your song’s copyright as possible (to ensure that you will be the one receiving those earnings).

Reaching out to all of your royalty sources and getting a commitment from them to use your songs is time consuming. Music publishing companies are set up to help you exploit your song catalog and get your songs used by as many royalty sources as possible through arrangements known as co-publishing deals. While a publishing deal is supposed to help maximize your earnings, it also requires that you actually give up a percentage of ownership of your song’s copyrights.

In addition to exploiting your song catalog, co-publishing deals are also set up to help you collect certain foreign and domestic royalties, and administer your catalog. That includes registering yourself, your copyrights and your songs with the Harry Fox Agency–the only U.S. licensing agent that collects mechanical royalties–and with a performance rights society such as ASCAP, BMI or SESA that collects your performance royalties.

Co-publishing deals, however, are not the only means to get your songs published, collect royalties or administer your catalog. Deciding whether to sign a co-publishing deal will be one of the most important decisions you make as a songwriter.

“There are different kinds of publishing situations,” explains Bob Celestin, a New York-based entertainment lawyer who often negotiates music publishing deals. “In a co-publishing deal, a publisher will ask you to give up a percentage of ownership–usually around 50%–on the copyright on your song

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