While there has never truly been a standardized or traditional approach to becoming a songwriter and making a living as one, songwriting as a profession has perhaps never been more nuanced. As such, it is important for anyone interested in pursuing the craft to have a sense of all the opportunities and challenges that a songwriter may encounter when exploring the vast and complex landscape of the modern music industry.
The purpose of this guide is to make clear what songwriters do, where they tend to live, and how they make a living. The guide will provide a brief background of the craft songwriting, detail markets in which songwriters tend to be more successful, and reiterate some of the different copyright formalities and revenue streams that the songwriter will navigate in the course of his or her career.
Who this guide is for
Those who are interested in songwriting and want to learn how to pursue the craft professionally
Songwriters who want a fresh perspective on what the business looks like today
Publishers and other industry stakeholders who use and license songs
In copyright and licensing terms, the songwriter is distinguished from the artist. The songwriter is the person who creates the melodic, harmonic and lyrical elements of a song, while the recording artist is simply the person who records it. The songwriter obtains a composition copyright upon the creation of their work, and the artist obtains a sound recording copyright upon the the creation of their recording. Although writers and artists are often the same people (for example, Sara Bareilles mostly writes her own songs and records them), the two are separate terms in the music industry because of the existence of two different types of copyrights.
The craft and business of songwriting has evolved dramatically in recent years. Today, pop songs are often created in the studio over beats and basslines in collaboration with one or multiple producers. There can be five or fifteen writers included in the songwriting credits, all of whom are affiliated with different performing rights organizations and so will all receive their performance royalties in different ways from different people. In the marketplace, the song will primarily be consumed via streaming through various digital service providers like Spotify, Apple Music, or YouTube, and so the songwriter will likely receive mechanical royalty payments which pale in comparison to what a songwriter would have received when physical record sales were in their hay-day. There are also myriad opportunities for a songwriter to have one of their songs placed in a film or TV show, and a whole licensing sub-industry has developed around that process, called synchronization. The life of a songwriter is not what it used to be: it’s tougher to be one full-time, and yet there are many more ways to get one’s music out into the world.
Stephen Foster and the beginnings of the US songwriting business
Though songs and their writers have been around for millennia, our brief history begins with a man named Stephen Foster, who between 1845 and 1855 penned hundreds of classic American folk songs including “Oh Susanna” and “Camptown Races.” As Foster was composing these works, publishing companies in the US were beginning to realize there was significant revenue that could be generated by selling the sheet music to popular songs. Stephen Foster often sold his works to publishers at measly prices, and the works would end up worth much more than the original price paid. A Britannica biography says of Foster that “he was never a sharp entrepreneur for his talents, and in 1857, in financial difficulties, he sold all rights to his future songs to his publishers for about $1,900. The profits from his songs went largely to performers and publishers.” Foster sold “Oh Susanna” for $100, and it netted the publisher around $10,000 (in the late 1800s, this was worth roughly $170,000 in today’s dollars). Things have changed a lot for songwriters since Foster’s time, but his story exemplifies the hardships that songwriters have endured since the early beginnings of the craft. It also illustrates the need for the songwriter to be entrepreneurial and informed on the inner workings of the business, even though their primary task is to create works of art.
Copyright Act of 1909 and ASCAP formation
The Copyright Act of 1909 was a landmark piece of legislation that, in addition to extending the term of copyright, gave protection to musical performances and the reproductions of compositions in mechanisms like piano rolls and phonographs. This benefitted composers, as their potential income streams were codified into law. Piano rolls led to the creation of mechanical royalties, which would later become the royalties paid for the sale of records. There developed a need, however, for an entity to track and collect royalties for live performances of copyrighted works.
In 1914, big band composers like John Philip Sousa and Irving Berlin joined forces to create the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP). ASCAP is an organization dedicated to paying songwriters for the public performances of their works. This was the first performing rights organization (PRO) in the United States (they already existed in Europe). For a number of years, ASCAP held a monopoly on performance royalty collection. Any composer that wanted to obtain performance royalties for their compositions had no choice but to register with ASCAP. However, ASCAP was exclusive in their application process and was known to discriminate based on race. Their reign lasted until Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) formed in 1941.
Tin Pan Alley
Named for the clanging sound of pianos, the blocks on West 28th St. between Broadway and 6th Avenue in New York City became the hub of American songwriting and music publishing in the early 20th century. Developing in tandem with the industrial revolution, it was here that songwriting truly became a business. Publishers and song pluggers would try to court vaudeville and theater performers to sing the songs in their catalogues, and sheet music was mass-produced. This is where some of America’s most famous songs like “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and “God Bless America” were penned. And it was here that the careers of George Gershwin, Scott Joplin, Cole Porter and many others blossomed.
“Tin Pan Alley is gone. I put an end to it. People can record their own songs now.” -Bob Dylan
Before the 1960s, songwriters typically had their works recorded by artists. The songwriter would not be the person to popularize their works. Music publishers would acquire their composition copyrights and license them to record labels, who would have their artists record the songs. For example, Elvis recorded mostly songs that he didn’t write – “Hound Dog” was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stollman. And Aretha Franklin didn’t pen “Respect” – that was actually Otis Redding.
The idea of a musician writing and performing their own works was unconventional until the early 1960s, when a few bands and singer-songwriters started to change things. For their first couple of albums, the Beatles were essentially a cover band. Over time, however, Lennon, McCartney, and their producer George Martin grew to be remarkably experimental in the studio. They became the first internationally known group of pop-rock musicians to compose and perform primarily their own original material.
At the same time, folk musicians in New York City’s Greenwich Village were combining protest poems with chords. Pioneers like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger inspired Bob Dylan and others like Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Phil Ochs, who effectively created the concept of the singer-songwriter.
These musicians would forever change the business of songwriting. While today, the traditional model of writers writing for artists still survives in the country and pop worlds, it is very common for bands and singer-songwriters to compose and perform their own musical works.
One doesn’t necessarily have to live in Los Angeles, New York, or Nashville in order to be a songwriter. However, the business of licensing songs to be used in recordings, performances and audiovisual works happens primarily in these places. Most of the publishers, performing rights organizations, advocacy groups, record labels and other influential companies in the business are headquartered in these cities, and it is important to have an understanding of what opportunities each city can offer as well as the ways in which they differ from one another.
These cities certainly do not represent an exhaustive list of places in which one needs to reside in order to be successful in their songwriting endeavors. With talent and an entrepreneurial spirit, anyone can be successful anywhere. It is inevitable, however, that a songwriter will probably end up having relationships with industry stakeholders residing in the above cities, so it helps to spend time or live in one of them. Below is a little more on the importance of a professional network to the livelihood of a songwriter.
The importance of networking
Music is a relationship-oriented business. Songwriting is a very personal art, and the business relationships formed around these songs are personal too. Part of what makes a songwriter successful is the professional network they build. Having amazing original songs and top-notch talent is not sufficient to make a living purely as a songwriter. As this old but still relevant American Songwriter article puts it:
“Most publishers depend on referrals from trusted sources or word-of-mouth to bring a new writer to their attention. A music publisher is a business person who keeps regular office hours, and has a busy schedule that involves both business and family. Many don’t have time to hang out after hours, and none of them have time to see walk-ins without appointments or listen to unsolicited tapes for hours on end. And let’s face it, who would want to? Would you? They have to be selective about who or what they give their attention to.”
It’s necessary for any songwriter to develop strong, genuine relationships with music industry stakeholders in order to be heard. This means playing writer’s rounds and going to shows, researching and meeting key industry figures, and scheduling co-writes.
The following is a list of various networking resources available to musicians and industry professionals:
Registering a composition copyright can be a useful tool to help the songwriter better protect his or her rights. For more info on these benefits, refer to our guide on copyright registration . Or, to actually register a work, click here.
Co-writes, collaborations, and joint work splits
In the business of songwriting, co-writing is extremely prevalent. It is common for a pop song to have more than five actual writers, and for the record label to negotiate for the recording artist to be listed in the songwriting credits, even if they have no involvement in the actual writing of the composition. In the Nashville country world, especially, co-writing is the norm. Every publisher on Music Row has “writer’s rooms” where songwriters collaborate regardless of their publisher, record label or PRO affiliation.
As such, the way copyright law treats joint works is important:
In the absence of a formal agreement, ownership is split evenly between each writer. In most professional circumstances, however, formal agreements are made. Negotiations for ownership splits can be an extended process involving a writer’s team (publisher, lawyer etc.), depending on the genre.
There must also be intent on behalf of all writers to create a unitary, whole song for joint work provisions to apply. For instance, if a guitarist thought that the singer’s notes in her songbook were lyrics and used them to create a song, but the singer only intended for those words to be poems, there is no jointly created song.
Each individual contribution to the work must be copyrightable in itself. If someone merely contributes the title of the song, they can’t have ownership in the song because a title by itself is just a general, unoriginal idea.
Each joint writer has the right to nonexclusively license the whole song. This means, for instance, that any writer can sign with any PRO, and that PRO can blanket license the song to whomever they please. “Nonexclusive” means that the license granted by the partial owner of the song can’t be limited to that licensee (example: a songwriter with one-fifth ownership couldn’t on her own grant an exclusive synch license for the song to be used in a major motion picture or commercial).
A note on “toplining”
This is the practice of composing lyrics and a hook over top of a beat and bassline. This now common practice emerged in tandem with the advent of digital technology, and it happens when pop or hip hop artists go to create their albums in the recording studio. It is important to note that toplining is viewed in the eyes of copyright law in the same way as traditional co-writing, even though it happens during the recording process.
Pursuant to the 1976 Copyright Act, songwriters can request to have ownership in their songs reverted back to them after a certain amount of time. Although there are caveats and conditions that must be met, the songwriter can generally terminate and recover ownership of a song 35 years after its creation. This means that writers (like Paul McCartney) who have penned classic songs that remain popular for decades can reap the benefits later on if they had previously signed away the rights to another entity like a music publisher.
Individuals who want to make a living from songwriting will inevitably come into contact with music publishers, whether they end up signing a deal with one or not. A more comprehensive overview of publishing deals can be found in the music publishing guide, but below is a brief overview of the types of deals a songwriter could encounter.
An exclusive songwriting deal is an agreement in which the songwriter signs a contract that obligates them to write a specific number of songs in a specific time period. For example, a writer may agree to write (or co-write) 10-20 songs per year for the publisher. These types of deals are more traditional and less common nowadays.
Individual Song Agreement
In this deal, the writer simply agrees to transfer ownership of the copyrights of songs that already exist to a publisher. The transfer of ownership can be for one song, multiple, or a whole catalogue. For instance, Sony ATV owns copyrights of songs written by Bob Dylan, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Willie Nelson and many more. The company recently sold the entire catalogue of Bruce Springsteen to Universal Music Publishing Group.
Under these deals, the publishing company holds 100% ownership of the songs written by the writer in accordance with the deal. The company is listed as the writer of the work, rather than the actual individual writer. The writer of the song will usually be paid a one-time dollar amount for the work done under the contract. When faced with the opportunity to sign a publishing deal, it is critical to note whether that deal is work-for-hire, because the writer loses all rights to the song.
In administration deals, the songwriter retains full ownership. Despite not having any ownership, publishers still perform all of their regular duties with respect to the song. Instead of taking royalties generated from copyright ownership, the publisher takes a percentage off the top of the song’s earnings as overhead, usually anywhere from 10%-25%. These agreements are becoming more and more common, as the traditional songwriter deals become less viable for the average writer.
The co-publishing agreement means that while the music publisher receives ownership equity in the copyright and administers its exploitation, another publisher (possibly a songwriter’s own company) owns the other piece of the publisher’s share. This type of agreement often happens when established songwriters sign up to work with a given publisher. This deal gives the songwriter more leverage and money, because while the writer still gets the 50% writer’s share, their publishing entity (or whomever’s) also gets a piece of the 50% publishing share.
Mechanical Licenses and Royalties
Mechanical licenses grant the licensee right to record and distribute a writer’s song. Essentially, the licensor is giving someone the opportunity to create their own sound recording copyright using an existing composition copyright. When certain conditions are met, anyone can obtain a compulsory mechanical license to reproduce and distribute a writer’s song. Subsequently, the licensees pay a royalty rate determined by the government to the music publisher (through the Harry Fox Agency or MRI collecting societies), who then splits that payment with the songwriter.
To collect royalties for the public performances of their works, songwriters sign deals with PROs such as ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and GMR. The PROs issue blanket licenses to a wide array of users, including terrestrial radio stations, TV stations, non-interactive streaming services like Pandora and Sirius XM, and performance venues. These licenses allow for the end users to perform the PRO’s entire catalogue in exchange for royalty payments. Royalty schemes vary between PROs, but are mostly based on a weighted percentage system according to the type of performance. For example, a Top 40 radio performance is probably weighted higher than a performance via Pandora in a coffee shop. The PRO then sends half the royalties to the publisher, and half to the songwriter.
Synchronization agreements for audiovisual works
Synchronization licenses are conferred when a composition is to be used in an audiovisual work, like a film, TV show, or commercial. These are one-time fees, and are usually facilitated by a songwriter’s music publisher (unsigned writers have ways of doing these deals too, through music licensing companies). Music supervision companies, on the other hand, are intermediaries between production companies and publishers. Supervisors are typically responsible for providing to the production companies licensed songs for use in audiovisual works. For example, a production company producing a major-budget film in Hollywood will hire a music supervision company to fill certain spots in the film where music is needed. The supervision companies in turn work with the record labels and publishers who own the rights to the works in order to secure licenses.
*Since it publishes millions of audiovisual works on its platform, YouTube is a major player in the licensing of music used in video. Check out our comprehensive YouTube guide to learn more.
There are many groups who advocate for and represent songwriters and music publishers in conflicts relating to copyright, licensing, and general trade issues. Here is a link to another one of our guides which outlines them in a little more detail.
Music history is littered with songwriters who changed the way we think about music. From Lennon and McCartney to Max Martin, songwriters and composers have shaped culture and society with their words and music. To learn more about some of music history’s most influential composers and songwriters and some of the writers creating today’s hits, check out these articles:
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