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Confessions of a Songwriter

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How Music Publishing Works

Greetings from south of the 'longest unprotected border in the world'!! Yeah, right! Whoever first coined that little bit of trivia never tried to cross from Windsor to Detroit at 2:00 a.m. in a fallin' apart 1974 converted school/tour bus with three other sleepy-eyed, grungy, musician hippie-types. Can you say interrogation? How about full-body search? Anyway...

I apologize for my lengthy absence, folks, but life's funny sometimes. I was actually lying in the back of a pickup truck in the parking lot of a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, waiting on the arrival of an old friend of mine (what was his name - Clever somebody...) for a week-long Thelma-and-Louise-type foray across the border into Mexico when all of a sudden it hit me! This is ludicrous! I have obligations! I have responsibilities! I have a huge salsa stain on my shirt! And I remembered I needed to write this. Anyway, like I said, life's funny sometimes...

O.K., so I made all that up. Maybe I dreamt it. Anyway, it doesn't matter. The point is that I'm back, and I'd like to talk about music publishing.

Terms We Need To Know

"Cut" - meaning 1. (verb) - To record a song. As in, "Dude, Bryan Adams just cut my song! Let's buy a boat!"
- meaning 2. (noun) - The song itself, once it's recorded. As in, "Dude, I just got a Bryan Adams cut! Let's buy a boat!"

"Pitch" - (verb) - To play a song for an artist, (singer/band) or someone connected with the artist, (producer, A & R person at the artist's record label, manager, tour bus driver, e.t.c.), in hopes of securing a recording of the song by the artist. (You can also pitch songs for movies, T.V... anywhere songs are needed and used.

When I wrote my first song, I had no idea that there, scribbled on that piece of paper, with those few words and chords, I had created a piece of property. 'Intellectual property' to be precise. I later learned that when a songwriter gets a song cut (i.e., someone uses your 'property'), in order to understand how that property (and therefore, the money it generates) gets divided, it can be viewed like a pie (apple, cherry, pumpkin, it doesn't long as it's a circle). The pie is divided in half if you are the sole writer on a song (meaning you wrote it alone). One half is the writing share, one half is the publishing share. Now, if you wrote the song with one other person (you co-wrote the song), then the pie is divided in four. One quarter is your writing share, one quarter is your co-writer's writing share, one quarter is your publishing share, and one quarter is your co-writer's publishing share. Legally, it doesn't matter how many writers a song has - it is always divided into a 50% publishing share and a 50% writing share.

Guess what? Unless you have at some point in your life signed a publishing agreement with someone, and have given them the publishing on your songs, you are now your own music publisher! You control 100% of the copyright on your songs. Your company should have a name, too. Maybe 'Mad Cow Music,' or Precious Pete's Publishing. Anyway, the point is, just by virtue of the fact that you wrote the song makes you the publisher, plain and simple, and you always own that publishing until the day that you sign it away. That ownership is one of your most powerful assets as a songwriter.

Now, all of these 'shares' are just empty numbers if you're writing songs and the only person hearing them is that lady upstairs who keeps banging on your ceiling with her broom when you play 'em too loud. Where these shares become important is when you get a song cut. For example, let's say you and your best friend Darryl wrote a song called "Bessie's First Kiss," and you think it's a smash for your friend's country band, Men Without Cowboy Hats (they can dance if they want to...never mind.) You get Men Without Cowboy Hats a copy of the song, and soon, lo and behold, they sign a record deal, record "Bessie's First Kiss," and release it as their first single. They blow the doors off the country music industry as we know it, and your song rises to and stays at the coveted #1 spot on the Billboard country singles chart for an amazing 25 weeks. Wow. Not bad. Now here's where the math comes in.

Good book that helps give a better understanding of the business side of the music industry.

Since it all happened so fast, you and your best friend Darryl (he was your co-writer, remember?) never signed a publishing agreement with anybody on "Bessie's First Kiss" and therefore, you both own your own publishing on that song. This means that in time, when all the money rolls in, you each make, oh... lets say about $1,250,000. Cool! Now, if you had signed a standard publishing agreement on "Bessie's First Kiss", then you each would have made half that - only $625,000.00. Your respective publishers would have also made $625,000.00. "Whoa!" you say! Hold everything! Why then, would anyone sign a publishing contract if it meant losing half your money? Well, I'll tell you, smart guy.

You probably wouldn't need to sign a publishing contract as long as you had direct access to whoever would be recording the song (like you had with your friend in Men Without Cowboy Hats) and could get your song to them, get it recorded by them, and get it included on the album without being intercepted by either the record company's publishing company, the band/artist's own publishing company, the band's manager's publishing company, or a host of other music business types trying to get a piece of your pie and put their kids through college. You and Darryl were extremely lucky because you had a direct in with Men Without Cowboy Hats, but as a songwriter in the real world, most of us need someone, i.e.: a good music publisher to actively pursue and secure those big commercial recordings. To me, a great publisher who is working vigorously for you every day, out there pounding the pavement trying to get you (and them!) cuts, is definitely worth 50%.

Songwriting, Music Publishing, and other Anomalies

The job of a music publisher is to secure commercial recordings (songs recorded on albums, and used in movies and TV) of the songs in his or her catalogue. These songs are acquired by either 'single song deals', or through 'staff writing deals'. A single song deal is when the publisher and the writer sign an agreement stating that the publisher has the right to pitch one specific song. In a staff writing deal the publisher hires a writer for a set period of time to write songs, and all the songs written during that time frame are then owned by the publisher. The publisher will often go into the studio and do either full-band demos, or simpler guitar/vocals or piano/vocals of the songs in the catalogue that he feels that he can get cut. He then goes and plays the songs for people who are looking for songs. In the case of recording acts recording albums, these could be the artist themselves, the artist's producer, manager, A & R person at the record label, or just about anybody connected with the artist. No money changes hands at this level. (The expression "selling" a song is actually a misnomer.) If the song gets cut, and money is generated by record sales and radio play, then that money is collected (the collection process can take nine months to a year after the song is released), and the publisher and the songwriter's performing rights organization pay the songwriter his/her share. (We'll talk about performing rights organizations next time...)

As a staff writer for a publishing company, you usually get a regular pay check (just like a real job, mom!). This money is called a 'draw.' As with everything in the music business, your draw is recoupable, which means that when and if your publisher gets you a cut and money starts to come in from that cut, you (the writer) don't see any of it until your draw is paid back to the publisher (i.e., until you're recouped). This also applies to demo costs. Yep, everything's recoupable... but now for the good news! If they fire you, you don't have to pay it back! Yahoo! Sorry - I take the small victories when I can get 'em.

In the days before rock'n'roll, plenty of staff songwriters could be found on Tin Pan Alley, writing songs for many popular music acts, as most performers of that era were strictly singers and musicians, not songwriters. As rock 'n roll slowly became the mainstream musical format, the Tin Pan Alley writers were gradually phased out of mainstream music, as most of the new artists and bands wrote and recorded their own songs (see The Beatles.) Nowadays, most successful rock writers are members of the bands they play in, although there are notable exceptions (like Diane Warren). Another successful breed of rock writer has been the producer/writer (Mutt Lange, Glen Ballad, and David Foster, to name a few). For the most part though, if you are not a singer/artist/band but you are a songwriter and you wish to pursue a career as a songwriter, there is a place in the world where other non-singer non-artists are doing just that. Nashville. Whether you write country music or not, I believe every songwriter who takes his craft seriously would benefit by, or at least enjoy, visiting Nashville. This town lives and breathes songs. They're everywhere, and as a writer you can't help but be affected by it in some way. I dare say it's the only place on the planet like it, at least that I've ever been to...

But hey - this column ain't an ad for Music City USA, these are just my thoughts on learning to be a better writer. Well, my fingers are tired and I'm way strung out on all this coffee I've been drinking, so I'm gonna go. Maybe in the next column we could get back to that bit about findin' guitar strings in Manitouwadge. Keep 'er between the ditches, and keep writin'!

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Copyright Protection

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Austin Smith is trekking down the songwriter's path in Nashville, Tennessee. Austin will be contributing regular articles to Cleverjoe's until he finally gets that elusive recording contract, at which point we hope he won't forget the little people.

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