What happens when an artist decides to “help out a buddy” or lend a verse or bass line on the whim? Most of the time not much, but sometimes, the song ends up in places you never imagined; like in a movie, the internet or as a commercial jingle for a new adult diaper.
The more popular you or your band get. the likelier your friends or your acquaintances will start asking you for stuff. Everything from showing up to their concert, to posing for pictures, to recording a song. Think of it like a lottery winner finding out that he has third cousins, twice removed, that are in desperate need for money to fix their trailer. An endorsement or involvement from a popular musician is worth a dozen or so trailer repairs.
Here’s the problem, if you don’t set out the terms of the music that you nonchalantly give away, it may not be clear who owns it. Lending your voice to a song might qualify as a “featured” artist or it might be it is your creation which actually “features” your buddy who asked you help out. Without clearly stating whose song it is and what percentage split you will receive you are asking for trouble (usually in the form of a law suit).
One easy way to fix the problem is to simply register the song with the copyright office either before (as a pre-registration) or immediately after recording and release. Both the lyrics and the sound recording itself can and should be registered with the US copyright office (www.copyright.gov). The fee is only $35 and it can all be done on-line. The form is a bit tricky but with a little experience and guidance, it’s a no-brainer.
Registering the song as a copyright not only provides statutory protection in case the song is ripped off, it also clearly identifies the author of the song, the performer of the song and if there are any other entitled people involved (samples/publishers). The approach for any musician who is asked to participate in someone else’s song is that she will not lend her voice until the copyright registration is filled out.
The next step is to register the recording with your publishing rights organization. This will also allow you to identify who owns what for an individual track. Whether it is BMI, ASCAP or SEASAC, registering a title with a PRO not only allows you to collect every time the song is publicly performed (not in a concert but over the radio, tv, internet, etc.) but will end any debate as to who actually owns the song.
Creating music is clearly a creative process. Collaborations bring about some of the best music. Think of the hip hop and R&B world. How many songs are currently featuring Lil Wayne or have Ciara singing a verse? The formula for featuring another artist is a time tested winner. But just as with everything else in the music industry, set out your creative collaboration in writing before you enter the studio. It will allow everyone, especially your lawyers and managers, to sleep better at night.