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.

publishing company and retain exclusive rights to every song they wrote thereafter. Over the years, Flyte Tyme Tune’s catalog–which now contains nearly 400 tunes–has grown to include all of the songs that they penned for superstar Janet Jackson’s three multi-platinum albums, as well as Boyz II Men’s debut single, “4 Seasons of Loneliness,” from their Evolution CD, “Can You Stand the Rain” by New Edition, “Encore” by Cheryl Lynn, “Too Late, Too Soon” by Jon Secada, and “Saturday Love” by Cherrelle and Alexander O’Neal. At press time, Jam and Lewis had been signed to produce the soundtrack to the upcoming movie How Stella Got Her Groove Back, which is based on Terry McMillan’s book.
Jam says that he and Lewis decided to do a co-publishing deal because, even though they have little problem getting their new songs placed, they cannot spend time soliciting artists to cover their older tunes, or pitching these songs for music compilations, advertising and other publishing opportunities. To a great extent, a co-publishing deal helps the songwriters earn new income from their old songs.

These days, one of the most lucrative means for established writers to earn income off their catalog is through sampling. Jam and Lewis have had a number of their songs sampled, including Foxy Brown’s recent use of “No One’s Gonna Love You” (originally recorded by the S.O.S. Band) on her hit single “No One.” Songwriter/producer James Mtume, who hit it big in the late 1970s and early ’80s with such hits as “The Closer I Get To You” (Roberta Flack), “You Know How To Love Me” (Phyllis Hyman) and his own singles “Juicy Fruit” and “You, Me and He,” has also had a number of his tunes sampled by other songwriters. “I’ve had more than 200 samples on `Juicy Fruit’ alone,” he says.

Though Mtume has earned substantial income from sampling, he warns that songwriters need to realize they give up a significant amount of their own publishing royalties every time they sample someone else’s composition. “I get 50% of the publishing [royalties] every time someone uses one of my songs,” he says. In addition, he notes that unless writers hold rights to the original song, publishers are going to be reluctant to exploit a tune that has samples because they lose part of their income to another songwriter.

Few songwriters, however, have the leverage to negotiate the kind of copublishing deal that Jam and Lewis secured. Nor do they have a catalog that contains as many hits as Mtume’s. Because of this, many songwriters opt for administrative deals, which pay a publisher 5%-15% of a catalog’s earnings over the life of the contract (usually three to five years). Others choose to self-publish. The key thing to remember about either of these publishing situations is that you bear total responsibility for getting your songs placed.

An administrative deal can help a songwriter in several ways. To begin with, if you have a catalog with music chat already has been published,

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