Not everyone who writes music dreams of becoming a global star, performing to millions of people around the world. Some pursue the craft of songwriting as a career.
How do songwriters really make money? First we need to start with a few basics.
Each song is a composition, and a recording of that song is called a record. An album is a collection of records. Confused yet? In the resources section I’ve provided some great books that will teach you the basics around copyright law and music publishing.
My goal here is to help you understand how you can make a living as a songwriter, and the steps you need to take.
The two components that make a great song
What makes you think you can write interesting lyrics if you don’t live an interesting life? A writer friend of mine who has written many #1 songs with pop artists actually LIVES the life portrayed in the songs. Stories of late-night parties, spontaneous trips to Las Vegas, high-school emotions don’t readily spring from the imagination unless you have those experiences to draw from.
How to write great lyrics
Every songwriter should have a unique voice and style, but that shouldn’t prevent you from learning from the greats. One exercise I recommend is to take 10 of your favorite songs, write out the lyrics, study the meaning, and re-write the song in your own words. Compare this to the original. What can be improved? Do this over and over.
Great melodies will stick with fans for decades. Brilliant lyrics without a soaring melody is like a powerfully tuned engine sitting on blocks instead of inside a Ferrari where it belongs.
How to create the perfect melody
Composing a great melody takes practice, deliberate practice. Again, take your top 10 favorite melodies and dissect them. Do you know how to play an instrument? Play the melody on a guitar, on a piano, and even on the drums! (There are such things as melodies for drums). Do this to engrain the melody into your memory through different mediums. The more you can do this the more your brain will begin to be wired in a way to turn out great melodies when you compose.
How to make money as a songwriter
There are several ways to make money as a songwriter, but we are going to focus on the ones that are most meaningful. To make a living as a songwriter today comes down to two core revenue streams, Performance Royalties and Sync Licensing.
1. Performance Royalties
Every time a “public performance” of a composition occurs, performance royalties are generated. Public performance is defined by laws in each country, but essentially it means music playing in an area with large groups of people (a restaurant) or transmitted to large groups of people (i.e., radio, live internet streaming).
The largest payments of performance royalties come from FM radio airplay. A radio hit will generate millions of dollars of performance royalties that are collected by Performing Rights Organizations (BMI, ASCAP, SESAC, etc) and distributed to songwriters and music publishers.
Performance royalties generally dwarf the other revenue streams produced by songwriting.
Of course you are thinking, “ok, but it’s nearly impossible to write a hit song for the radio!” I’m not going to pretend that it is easy, or even that there is a specific formula that can be followed, but there are a few steps a writer can take to best position themselves.
Writers tend to excel at a specific part of songwriting, but rarely everything. It is important to objectively learn your strengths and weaknesses focus on working with other writers who complement your strengths.
Some writers can compose great melodies and lyrics, but more often a writer is stronger at one or the other. Spend time getting honest and objective feedback. This is where a great writer manager or music publisher can really assist you. More about that later.
Once you’ve identified your strengths, co-write with other writers and producers who are great in the areas where you are weak.
So how do you go from here to writing a song with a major artist for the radio? This comes down to access. How do you get access? Through connected managers and publishers.
How a music publishers helps:
Most common advise for new artists recommends to NEVER sign away publishing. There is no black and white answer to that question, every deal is unique. However, in order to get access to working with the best in the business you need the right team.
Music Publishers are fundamentally responsible for collecting royalties owed to the songwriters they represent when compositions are performed publicly. That is the text book answer. But for the sake of this conversation, think of them as a “Writer Development Machine.”
Similar to record labels, music publishers have an A&R staff. These individuals are tasked with finding and signing great writers to develop and place into opportunities. Some publishers focus on signing writers who are also major label artists because they have a more immediate path to revenue. In those instances not much emphasis is placed on developing the artists as writers, these deals are more administrative.
Some music publishers focus on developing writers and dedicate all of their resources to this process. Those are the kind of publishers you can help get you to the next step. These publishers tend to be smaller, sometimes owned by a successful music producer or writer. They also may have Joint Venture agreements with major publishers or record labels.
When a writer finds the perfect match with a publisher, the results can be magic. The publisher’s A&R department focuses on securing “co-writes” for the writer. This means that the writer’s A&R rep will speak with other publishers and writer managers to secure writing sessions with other writers. When a major pop artist is putting together a new album, the label releasing the album will usually signal to the publishing community that they are “Seeking Songs.” This means that they are looking for writers to write songs for their artist and submit them as potential cuts on the new album.
When a publisher is securing co-writes, these are sometimes set up with a specific artist target in mind based on who is “looking for songs.”
That is how you get the opportunity to write for or with major artists and get the opportunity for a radio hit.
Writer Managers can also provide the same services of setting up “sessions” (another term for co-writes). Well connected managers will have relationships with publishers, label A&R reps, writers, producers, and other managers. They will focus on putting you in the right sessions and working with the right writers who complement your skills.
A skilled and connected manger or publishing A&R rep will know to pair you with writers and producers who, combined with you, will hopefully produce amazing material. It is their job to help you discover and hone your skills so that you become a sought-after writer for those specific skills. RARELY are writers known as being a jack-of-all-trades, great at lyric, melody and production.
Your goal will generally be to write songs that will become RADIO SINGLES. If you are lucky enough to write a song that lands on a major artist’s album, the difference in earning power between a radio single and album cut is vast. A top 5 single on the pop radio charts will generate millions in performance royalties. That song will often go on to sell millions of downloads and streams, generating additional thousands or millions in “mechanical royalties.” (royalties paid at a set rate to songwriters from music sales). A song that only appears on an album, but not as a radio single, might only sell a few stand-along singles, but most revenue will come from album sales. It doesn’t take a genius to know the state of affairs with album sales these days. Even an album selling a MILLION copies will only generate a five-figure payout for the songwriter of an individual track.
2. Sync Licensing
Getting paid to have your music used in TV shows, Movies, Video Games, Commercials, etc is another way to make a living as a songwriter. Yes, hit songs will generally get licensed more than non-hit songs, but the opportunities for diverse music are more widely available in the TV/Film and Advertising industries.
Sync licensing revenue comes from a song “sync’d” to a TV show, Film, Video Game, Trailer, YouTube Video, etc. Any visual medium with a bed of music.
Revenues produced by sync licensing range from the low thousands of dollars to the low millions based on the usage rights, popularity of the song, and other factors. Sync fees are split evenly between the “Master Side” (the actual recording) and the “Composition Side” (The lyric and melody). Songwriters make money from the composition side of the copyright.
So how does a songwriter who ISN’T an artist secure sync licenses? By working with the right artists. Depending on if your style leans more towards the indie, electronic, ambient, and acoustic genres of music, you can target those artists by providing value in the form of your specific songwriting skill. Remember, by perfecting your unique skill you become more valuable to the music community for that particular skill.
If you are a great melody writer, you may approach an electronic artist to create melodies that were never available to that artist before. You may have a story to share with an acoustic artist that could turn into a song that you co-write. Remember, live an interesting life and people will want to know what you have to say.
You can also approach this analytically. Write down all of the songs used by a particular TV show over the course of a season. Look up each artist and try to notice commonalities. This may unveil preferences and biases in the music supervision staff for that TV show.
Doing this for a diverse set of media, commercials, video games, etc, will help you learn what types of songs are licensed more often. This knowledge can be used to inform your writing if your goal is to create more sync licensing opportunities.
How a music publisher helps
Again, Music Publishers are very valuable in securing sync licenses. They usually have a team of “song pluggers” who pitch music to music supervisors. An independent writer will have a much harder time gaining access to opportunities without the right team in place. In recent years some services have emerged to give independent artists opportunities for song syncs. This is less relevant for a writer who isn’t an artist.
Don’t focus on sales
I haven’t focused on sales, or mechanical royalties, as they simply aren’t a major factor unless a song is a big hit single. The current Statutory Rate (the fixed amount paid to songwriters per song sale) is set at $.091.
Get to work today
Learning how to make money as a songwriter is just the first step to making a living as a songwriter. It isn’t an easy path, but if you apply some strategy you can move yourself to the head of the pack.
Photo credit: John Benson