As a music producer and project packager, when I hear a great new song, I want to record it. It’s as simple as that. I’m wired that way, and I’m sure you, as a songwriter, are as well. I want as many people as possible to experience the same glimpse of heaven that I have heard. This is equally true of a “worship” song, or a song written from a personal perspective that shares something memorable and true about our God or our Christian experience.
Having said that, the question of the “publishing” is always a consideration for a producer or record company, and should be for you as well. This article will hopefully explain in an introductory manner, why that is so, and how you can navigate the tricky waters of music publishing. The publishing of your song is a critical component to its success and longevity.
There are two things that I invariably tell a songwriter… 1) “A great song is always born out of experience”, and 2) “A great song will usually outlive any single recording of it”. It’s the second part of this statement that we are going to discuss here. Your song is your “baby”, and if you are going to place your “baby” in someone else’s care, that entity must be qualified. Both your song publisher/administrator (the song owner) and performance society will be your song’s “caretakers”.
In the past several years the music world has become much more involved with relationship to the management of song copyrights, or “intellectual properties” as they are called in some circles. We no longer live in a world limited to CDs, radio airplay, TV/movie sync licenses and sheet/print music. Rather, the world of music now also involves single song downloads, “bundling”, internet usages, web advertising, podcasts, electronic media, games, etc. The list goes on and will go on as technology evolves and our listening behavior adapts.
As Christian songwriters and wordsmiths, we have CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International) to consider as well. CCLI is unique because the “world” has nothing like it. Where else in our society do large numbers of people assemble and sing songs (besides ballgames and a few karaoke bars)? The Christian church is a singing culture, and CCLI member churches pay an annual license fee and report the songs “sung” back to CCLI, who compile those annual fees and reported songs from over 100,000 churches. They then disperse revenues from those licenses twice per year on a pro-rata song basis, to the publishers who in turn, pay you, the songwriter. All this to say, the music publishing world and the monitoring of song uses has gotten very complicated. Your song publisher/administrator is the first caretaker of your composition.
I‘m often asked to explain how a song “mechanical” breaks down. Where does the publishing money go and how is it divided up? Long ago when I was in a band, I remember a record executive telling us to give him the song publishing because it was only “pennies”. But pennies add up, and become big numbers if the recording/s of your song, and publishing arenas for it are widespread and successful. Basically, the full “statutory” rate currently (USA) for a single song mechanical copyright is around 9 cents per unit (CD) sold. That means that if you have written 6 songs for a project, and the CD sells 25,000 units at retail or via direct mail efforts, at full statutory rate the revenues to the publisher would be $13,500. Bear in mind that this does not include all of the various medias and formats listed above, nor third party uses – just the CD sales. The $13,500 is split 50/50 between the publisher, who collects the revenues, and the songwriter/s (who is/are paid by the song publisher).
But what about financial compensation for all of the other uses for your composition? Space here simply does not allow for an extensive explanation of each usage type, but there are numerous websites for your education on these matters. Check out www.harryfox.com for song publishing information.
The second “caretaker” representing your song’s uses is the performance society. There are three performance societies in the United States; ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. Every record label and its associated publishing companies will be aligned with either BMI, ASCAP or SESAC. It is the job of the performance society to monitor and collect on the “public” use of your song. These groups collect song revenues derived from broadcast, cable and satellite radio, television uses, concerts, nightclubs, restaurants, retail stores and any public place that uses your song composition as part of its entertainment or atmosphere. The public usage of your song must be licensed by its user. Each of these performance societies have websites that can give you extended information as well.
It’s been a trend within the past several years for the songwriter to try and retain his/her own publishing, and this decision can often be a “deal breaker” for the song’s recording by a record label for inclusion on a project. But as you can see, if a publisher is aggressive and really doing a great job, they’ve earned those “pennies”, and will assume all up-front filing fees and form submissions associated with copywriting a song with the US Copyright Office, Canadian Intellectual Copyright Office, or whatever territory you live in. You will always be the songwriter, and will always collect on that part of the mechanical royalty and performance rights revenues.
As a safeguard, when you sign your song to a publisher, you may ask for a “reversion clause”. That is to say, if a record label and its related publishing company does not use your song in x-amount of formats within an allotted time (maybe 2 or 3 years), the song ownership reverts back to you. This is somewhat controversial among publishing circles, but I’ve tried to offer this to songwriters over the years to help alleviate any anxiety on their part.
If you are a worship leader at your church, and your song has been born from that experience, you may also try to arrange for a portion of the song revenue proceeds from both the publisher’s share and your songwriter’s share, to be paid to your church. This too, is controversial to some, but will bless the church that has encouraged you and allowed you to cultivate your gift. It also sends a gracious signal to the church that we are all in this together.
Let’s say you are not signing as an artist/songwriter with a record label. If you are recording an independent project, you may still desire to self-publish your music. You’ll need to register your composition and “self-publishing” company with your country’s governing copyright office, align the song with a performance society, and in the case of a “worship song”, register it with CCLI. It would be wise, however, to not personally assume the administration role (admin) and business responsibilities of your song. For roughly 15% (or slightly higher), you can strike an administration arrangement with a reputable company that will grant permissions for the usage of your song, monitor the collection process and pay you, the songwriter and copyright controller (publisher), any amounts due. The administration company will handle the “business” of your song.
Another option may be to co-own, or “co-publish” your song with a reputable publisher. This allows you ownership of a portion of the song. Remember, the song copyright is actually owned and controlled by the publisher, not the song author, so a co-pub deal allows for you to retain some portion of the legal ownership of the composition. Anyone desiring to record your song and pay royalties on the sales of it will have to seek permission from both you and the other publisher. Your ownership percentage may be 50%, 10%, or whatever. It is simply a matter of what is decided upon during the negotiation process. A split publishing deal may allow you to participate in some of the publishing proceeds of the song, but have no legal ownership of the composition. Administration of the song copyright is normally held by the majority owner (the record company and publisher). That in itself is worth at least 15% off the top. So if you are to co-publish with a legitimate publisher, keep in mind that the first 15% will probably go to the administration of the copyright, right off the top. Then, the remaining 85% (or so) may be negotiable with the publisher.
In closing, my advice to you is that if you have a great song and believe a legitimate record label, producer and artist want to record it, allow the label’s publishing arm to represent you. They DO publishing. Let them DO the work of a publisher. It is their business to successfully work your song, see it placed in multiple formats and on multiple projects, monitor its usage and grant permissions for your work, legally represent you, and collect and disperse funds. When they succeed, you succeed. Remember, for you to collect on your song, it needs to be legitimately published and affiliated with a performance society. It the case of worship songwriters, your song should also be registered with CCLI, and have a CCLI number assigned to the song. That way, your earnings can be correctly tabulated.
Someone that believes in your song and is qualified to exploit it’s copyright (exploit here is meant as a good thing) in all formats and medias, and is savvy with all of the changing and evolving copyright laws, will always be the best advocate for your composition. Your publisher should be your champion and “administrate” your song copyright. They will grant usage permissions and licenses, negotiate statutory rates on their/your behalf, and collect revenues and disperse them as per copyright law. This in itself offers huge benefits to you because of the hassle of trying to do all of that on your own. After all, wouldn’t you rather be writing and performing songs?