Costly Songwriter Mistakes

It’s Important To Understand The Business Side of Songwriting

© 2019 Vinny Ribas

You many be amazing at writing lyrics and/or music. You study the craft to ensure you know the all rules and when and how to break them. But have you taken the time to fully understand the business side of your songwriting career? Here are some costly but all-too-common mistakes you might be making.

  • Immediately upon finishing a song, always get your co-writers to sign a strong collaborator agreement (aka split sheet) outlining who owns what percentage of the song, who has the publishing,  who has the right to license the song, what the restrictions are, if any, and more. Without this you set yourself up for a messy dispute down the road.
  • Be aware of the commonly accepted practices in your geographic area (or that of your co-writers) when it comes to songwriting splits. For example, most song credits are split evenly among all the contributing co-writers in Nashville. It is the generally accepted practice. Yet in other major cities, songs are divided up by the perceived value of the contribution to the song. Both of these can result in disputes if there is no clear understanding and agreement on everyone’s part and nothing is put in writing.   
  • If your song is going to be released, register your copyright with the US Copyright office (or the copyright authority in your country). Without it you are still legally protected, but you can’t defend your copyright against infringement. Keep in mind that it takes many months for your copyright to be registered after you submit it, so waiting just prolongs your ability to defend it.
  • Join a PRO (performing rights organization) and keep your catalog up to date. Forgetting to add a song to your PRO account could end up costing your a lot of money in unpaid royalties. Being able to submit your songs to the PRO accurately is another reason to have a collaborator agreement with your co-writers.
  • If you have a publishing company registered with your PRO (recommended if songs are being released), be sure your complete catalog registrations are kept up to date. .Again, failure to do this can cost you heavily in uncollected royalties.
  • Have a good publishing administration person or company administer your catalog. They ensure that you receive all the royalties that are due to you worldwide. They also issue licenses on your behalf that you might not know how to issue.
  • Whether you are releasing your song yourself or someone else is cutting it, be sure the master includes accurate songwriting metadata. This is how streaming services, radio, TV etc, know who to pay.
  • Before having a 3rd party produce a master recording or demo if your song, it’s critical to have them sign a production agreement that states that their work and any contribution they make to your songs will be a work for hire. Without this they can claim that they should own part of your copyright. Legally this must be agreed upon before he/she starts the production. If you wait until after the recording, you’ll need to convince them to assign any and all ownership or claim of ownership of the copyright to you. Many unscrupulous producers know they now have you over a barrel and will refuse to assign their share of the copyright to you, and some will demand a substantial additional payment to do it.
  • It’s critical to give credit where credit is due. Just because someone only adds one phrase or suggests a different melody line doesn’t legally or morally justify automatically cutting them out of these credits. Just discuss it with them and come to a written agreement. If you do cut someone out without discussing it with them, you set yourself up for everything from a legal battle to lost friendships to earning a bad reputation.
  • Determine up front if your band members will get songwriting credits for helping to arrange and produce the song. Be sure everyone agrees to it. For example, let’s say you bring the lyrics and melody to a band rehearsal. At that point you own the copyright. But as the band members all bring their personal talents to it, the song is completely transformed into something great (but the melody and lyrics are the same). Some musicians believe their contributions are important enough to the final product warrant credit as a songwriter. A bitter dispute over credits may ensue if there was no agreement in place before they added their respective parts (or immediately after). Many bands have a standard agreement for this that covers all songs.   

Although it is a purely create endeavor, songwriting must still be treated as a business. That means knowing and following the rules, getting the proper agreements in place, properly filing registrations as needed, monitoring and protecting your income, treating co-writers as business partners and more. Not taking care of the business side of your songwriter can result in lost trust, revenue and friendships.

About The Author

Vinny Ribas

Vinny Ribas is the founder and CEO of Indie Connect, an artist management, consulting and training company. The company also hosts networking and educational events and has published an app that connects people to the Nashville Music Industry. During his 40+ year career, Vinny has been a full time musician, artist manager, booking agent, songwriter, studio owner, producer and the Entertainment Director for the NV State Fair. He has also coached over 1000 artists and songwriters. He is a sought after speaker and has authored over 400 music industry articles. Vinny is also the CEO of Top 4M Entertainment, an independent film and television production company.