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How to Avoid Some of the Painful Parts of Music Publishing (Guest Op-Ed)

Billboard logo Billboard 6/13/2019 Joe Conyers III

According to MIDiA Research, the number of artists releasing music directly to the world grew by 35% in 2018, faster than any other segment of the music business. And increased access to creative tools, coupled with new and innovative distribution and monetization models, is resulting in more original songs being composed, released and heard globally than ever before.

Yet there’s never been a more confusing time to be a music creator. I often hear from songwriters, musicians, producers, labels and even managers who say, “I just can’t wrap my head around music publishing and I’ve pretty much given up trying.” These are smart, experienced people! But the common refrain is it’s really tough for music creators to understand how their songs can create meaningful income and fuel viable careers in the streaming era.

For many songwriters today, royalties from their song copyrights can be their most consistent and dependable source of income. But often, significant amounts of money earned by music creators are left on the table or, worse, distributed to someone else, simply because they didn’t understand their rights and properly manage their works.

There are two things I want to make clear up front: music publishing isn’t distribution and it doesn’t refer to the “publishing” of recordings of compositions or royalties those recordings earn. While in other industries a publisher often has some relationship to distribution -- such as with books, magazines and games -- this doesn’t apply to the music publishing industry. Additionally, when I refer to royalties, I’m referring to those earned and collected on the composition of a song -- microsync (e.g., YouTube, Tiktok and Instagram), lyric, performance royalties, mechanical royalties and others. Any royalties collected for the sound recording would be collected and paid out by a label or distributor.

While explaining the entirety of how music publishing works is far beyond this or any article, below I’ve highlighted three vital tips to help better access what you’re due and avoid (some of) the painful parts of publishing.

Tip No. 1: Unless you’re writing solo, you need to determine your splits

When you’re collaborating on songs, it’s important to decide on your split sheet as you write the song or as soon as all writers agree the song is finished. Since a split sheet is a written agreement of how to apportion credit when more than one creator works on a song -- including band members, producers, arrangers or someone who works on the song in another capacity -- the percentages in the split sheet determine how much each songwriter will be paid for their contribution. All writers must agree on them.

While it might seem awkward to address these topics during the creative process, doing so can prevent future confusion. And while having a formal copyright registration isn’t completely necessary, it can be helpful if you’re ever involved in a lawsuit regarding the use of your intellectual property.

Tip No. 2: Register your songs with collection societies

Collection societies play a huge role in music publishing and are vital to the tracking and registration of your songs which enable you to collect royalties. “Collection society” is a general term for all these organizations, but they’re also referred to more specifically as performance rights organizations (PROs) in the United States -- ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and GMR -- and collective management organizations (CMOs) internationally.

Each organization has slight variations in how they pay out royalties. They always pay out the writer’s share of royalties directly to the songwriter, however, they differ on how they pay out the publisher’s share. Some require an actual publishing company to be registered in order to collect the publisher’s share, while others will pay this out even without a publishing entity.

When a creator finishes a song and distributes their music to the world, their song can start to earn royalties. However, if a songwriter doesn’t register their songs with their affiliated collection society, doesn’t have a publishing entity or perhaps incorrectly registers their songs, royalty payouts are interrupted. If a songwriter doesn’t proactively correct the problem, the royalties will be left unmatched.

All collection societies are different -- some only collect performance royalties while others will collect both performance and mechanicals. Be aware of the subtle differences among collection societies and know which societies are available to you in your specific territory.

Tip No. 3: Time is not on your side

While songs can start generating royalties immediately upon distribution, they won’t sit there waiting for you forever. Depending on the society and royalty type, you’ll have anywhere from 6 months to 3 years to get your global copyright registrations in order.

For newly-created works, if you’ve followed my advice and have registered your songs with your local collection society, you’re still looking at 9-12 months until you’ll start seeing any royalty checks. And often, you’ll wait an additional 12-18 months for royalties coming in from other regions. The traditional system has its issues, but luckily there are modern alternatives in the market that now give creators options capable of shortening timeframes and covering all royalty types. Seek those out.

So... all this seems simple, right? Ultimately it is, but a lot of confusion arises when we get into the details of how songwriting royalties are collected and paid out to their rightful owners, and here I’ve only scratched the surface. But as long as you keep the ideas above in mind, you’re already ahead of a majority of the industry and taking a major step to making the most of your career.

Joe Conyers III is chief strategy officer and co-founder at Songtrust and a three-time Billboard Digital Power Player. For a deeper understanding of music publishing, Songtrust recently created the Modern Guide to Music Publishing, available here.

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