Lesson #12 Let’s talk about Royalties………………

I’m going to change course a little with this post and talk about some general concepts that affect the way a musician makes money. If you are going to SUCCEED AT ROCK you need to gain an understanding of the different ways that you make money as a musician.

Of course even the dumbest of musicians knows that one of the ways that you make money is having someone pay you to play, that is to say some guy says “take your guitar and stand over in that corner and play some tunes, here’s $50! Don’t you feel lucky? By the way the paying customers will be throwing tiger shit and watermelon rinds at you. Just ignore them….” Being a musician you think gee ain’t I lucky someone paid me to play this damn guitar. Then you stand in the corner and play a polka version of Smells like Teen Spirit. What you may not know is when you play that rippin’ Om PA PA version of a Nirvana tune Courtney Love is also getting paid. “What!!!?? “you scream ” That murderous tramp!!!??? I didn’t agree to that!” Well you actually did. When you chose to play a Nirvana song rather than one of your own masterpieces you caused a PUBLISHING ROYALTY to be generated. Since Courtney, that no talent tramp owns Kurt Cobain’s publishing some of the money goes to her.

See now I have cleverly brought up the topic of publishing. Publishing is the most misunderstood part of being a musician and in many ways it is the most important when it comes to making money via royalties. So, in an effort to start your education on this fascinating topic I will talk about PUBLISHING in this blog.

To understand publishing we have to travel through the WAY BACk machine to the dawn of the modern era when apes ruled the earth. Oh wait a minute that’s the planet of the apes movie. Sorry. No we must travel back to around 1890 or so when the player piano was invented. In case you have never seen one of these wonders it’s a piano that plays music all by itself without involving any musicians. Perverted idea huh? The reason I want to talk about the history of publishing, and yes I know history makes you want to drink a quart of vodka and pass out, is that if we look at the history then you will understand publishing in a way that makes sense. If I just tell you how the modern system works you will probably be confused. So stay with me a bit and in a few paragraphs I hope to cover all the background you need.

In the good ole’ days people played music at home. This was often the only entertainment they had. Ma played the fiddle, Sis played the piano and PA played the washboard and sang. Even in those days there were hit songs. People bought sheet music, that is to say, written out music and learned the songs that way. Learning how to read the basics of music was taught in almost every school. The companies that sold this music were called publishers. They published music just like big companies publish books. They would hire songwriters and then publish written copies of the songs. Shortly after this system started up a few savvy songwriters realized that they should get paid a royalty on each piece of sheet music sold. Sometimes this would go as high as 50% of the price. (sheet music often sold for 5 cents)

Then along came player pianos. These marvels would play music all by themselves using rolls of paper with holes punched in them. These needed songs as well. The US Government had passed various laws protecting the rights of various kinds of creative people including songwriters and authors. So the new player piano roll companies worked out royalty deals with songwriters as well. So now there were COMPANIES and SONGWRITERS. The companies were called Publishing Companies or Satan’s Minions. (that’s just my name for them) This system remained the same through the Ragtime Period and the money from sheet music made some musicians wealthy. By wealthy I mean they weren’t begging for food.

Then along came the movies. At first this new form of entertainment was silent. The theaters that showed the movies would hire a pianist or organist to play along with the movie. They would buy sheet music so the guy who wrote the song was still gettin’ his little piece of the action.

Now I’ll skip back to the 1890’s. Tom Edison invented the earliest form of recorder. It recorded sound on a wax cylinder. Once they figured out how to mass produce the cylinders the age of recorded music was born. The companies that made the cylinders hired great musicians to play while they recorded. Of course these musicians had to play someone’s music so they opened up sheet music and started playing. This pissed off the sheet music companies which had contracts giving them the exclusive right to use the songs of their songwriters. They sued the cylinder producing companies. When the lawsuits and arguments were finished the cylinder companies agreed to pay a royalty to the sheet music publishers for the USE OF THE SONG. (This is an extremely important phrase to remember) They decided to call these royalties mechanical royalties since they were being paid on something that was reporduced mechanically.

Soon the wax cylinder was replaced by the vinyl disc and record companies sprang out of Satan’s head and began to make stars out of performers. In the early period the writer was rarely the performer. So now let’s go back to movies.

As the end of the Silent Era came movies started to contain sound, not just of speech but of music. They audiences were used to hearing music during chase scenes or when the damsel was tied to the tracks (my favorite part) so it was natural that the film makers would add in music to the films. It was only a matter of time before they put popular songs into the movies and sure enough, you guessed it, they got sued by the song publishers. When the lawsuits and counter suits were settled they worked out a deal. They couldn’t just pay for each copy of the film they made even though the film makers tried hard to make that deal. They had to pay a fee that covered the fact that tons of people would be entertained by the music in the film. The lawyers had to make up a fancy term for these arrangement because that’s what lawyers do. They called these deals synchronization deals. Sync deals for short. They said that the film maker was synchronizing the music to images. The fees for these deals were fairly large compared to other royalty payments made to songwriters.

These Sync deals opened the doors for Hollywood to go wild putting music in films and boy did they ever. They started writing MUSICALS were the actors sang songs and danced around. It was a dark day for art no matter what your gay buddies may say.

Around the same time (the 1920’s) radio was invented and soon they too were playing music over the air. Yup you guessed it. They got sued too. So they agreed to pay royalties to the songwriters as well. These were called performance royalties. They have continued to call them that even though no one is actually performing other than the guy on the CD they are playing. I guess it all comes from the beginnings of radio when they would have a live orchestra to play the music.

So to recap this overview of PUBLISHING ROYALTIES there are three basic types of publishing royalties, Mechanicals – that’s the money that comes from CD’s or downloads nowadays, Sync – that’s the money that comes from any kind of video/film images, like films, TV, Music Videos and Performance – which is the money that comes from radio play, play in elevators and music being played live in any kind of business. Like the guy playing his guitar in the corner while people thow tiger shit at him. All of these royalties are paid for the USE OF THE SONG and they are paid to the publishing company and the songwriter.

In the next blog I’ll continue talking about publishing and explain exactly how they are paid, who those guys at ASCAP are and how to keep from getting ripped off….. or at least to try to not get ripped off………………………….

4 thoughts on “Lesson #12 Let’s talk about Royalties………………

  1. do you know any way for me to get signed? i am a 15 year old rapper trying to be a somebody but all i get is being famous in the internet. can you help me out?

  2. Hey Brad. Just a question. In my band usually the lead guitar may come up with a cool chord progression/riff while I (frontman/vocals) puts a melody/lyrics on top of that. In this case who is officially the song writer? Who owns the song?

    • Jonathan,
      Thanks for the question. That’s an easy one. You are involved in a classic writing partnership. You share the ownership and copyrights to the songs 50/50 with the guitarist.

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