Publishing is an often discussed and rarely understood element of music. For those working as musicians or within the industry, understanding publishing and how it is divided is essential. However, even for those of us that have a grasp on publishing, answering the question of how publishing is or should be split is not easy.
There is no bright line rule or formula that must be followed when divvying up the publishing of a composition. In a common (and usually fair) scenario the publishing is split equally between all writers who contributed to a song. In an even clearer scenario, one writer (typically a producer for pop/dance music) comes up with a melody and a writer comes up with the lyrics. Then those two split the publishing 50% each.
As we all know, life and the music industry is just not that simple. Think about a band that has 4 members. One member writes the lyrics, one comes up with the hook, one contributes to the melody and one just plays the drums (sorry drummers). Should each band member get 25% of the publishing? Again, it depends!
If a band is truly collaborative then the drummer in the above example may have written the entire melody to another song while the lead singer fixed his hair in the mirror. Or maybe the guitarist wrote the entirety of a song while the rest of the band was at the bar. The scenarios of how a song are created are limitless. That is why we often recommend that a band enter into a band member agreement that states that all songs, regardless of who did what, are split equally. A band, like a family, is a delicate and complex thing full of personalities, egos, opinions and emotions. Setting up an equal split at the outset and putting that into writing can diffuse fights before they occur.
On the other hand, having a pre-determined and documented split could also build resentment and disdain. If your bassist never contributes to the creation of a song and the other members work tirelessly at song writing, chances are that the s$%t is going to hit the fan eventually and the agreement will be revisited to eliminate or lessen the bassist’s participation.
Bands are actually easier when it comes to splitting up publishing as compared to pop and hip hop music. It has been widely written about that many of today’s top 40 artists co-write with may top-line (lyrics) writers and producers. That’s if those pop and hip hop artists write at all.
It is not uncommon for a pop song to have 3 to 7 writers on it. Look at this year’s Grammy nominees to see just how many people it takes to create one song. A commonplace is to have a team of top liners work with one or two producers to create demo songs. Those demo songs are pitched to various artists by A&R reps from labels and publishing companies as well as managers and other industry insiders. A demo song could make the rounds looking for a home for years. Once it is finally selected by a recording artist the publishing splits are sometimes the last thing to be determined.
Playing out the above example, let’s say Kelly Clarkson selects a demo song that was written by the writing team of Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter (top liners) and produced by Mark Ronson. Kelly then puts her spin on the song and brings in her own producer, Jesse Shatkin, to tweak the production a bit. So now you are looking at 5 people that get a share of the composition. Now the question becomes, how are those 5 people splitting it up?
Again, the method is not always the same. However, the typical way a pop song’s composition is split is 50% to the producers who create the melody and music and 50% to the lyricists. In our above example, Mark and Jesse may split the 50% tagged for the producers and Julia, Justin and Kelly split up the remaining 50%. Are the splits going to be equal amongst them? We will leave that up to their respective lawyers and managers!
The bottom line when it comes to publishing splits is that it is always better to have a conversation with your co-creators sooner rather than later. The last thing anyone wants is to release a song, watch it do well and then fight over the splits. Trust us. That is no fun for anyone involved.
It seems to be a constant battle for songwriters to economically receive what is rightfully theirs. First, fighting with labels over rights and royalties, then finding a publisher (big enough) to collect those royalties, now going after digital service providers to payout those royalties, and the government for providing an obnoxiously low rate for reproductions rights and an outdated statute that can’t seem to keep up with the technological age. Yes, it has been a rough one as these factors are often working together in perpetuating this curse more commonly known as the compulsory license.
A compulsory license for sound recordings was created by Section 115 of the Copyright Act and allows anyone to reproduce and distribute a composition that has been released to the public either by digital or physical means with the copyright owners permission. (sounds good). Most of the time an artist records the composition, the label sends the created recording to its distributor and the distributor sends it to the digital service providers or DSPs (Spotify, Amazon, Google, iHeart, you name it) who in exchange receive dollars through subscriptions, ads and downloads. It seems like DSPs should be giving songwriters a call right? (Because they are reproducing the composition and saving it to their platforms to be streamed or downloaded.) Shockingly, they don’t call. In fact, if you are an independent songwriter (not represented by a major publisher), it is unlikely that you are paid mechanical royalties from any of the DSPs. Why? Because of the compulsory license and these evil excel spreadsheets called “author unknown” NOIs.
If you want a compulsory license, Section 115(a)(2)(b) of the Copyright Act requires you to serve the copyright owner of the composition with a notice of intention (or an NOI). However, IF there is no registration or public record filed with the Copyright Office of your ownership of that composition with an address where the licensee can serve you the NOI then you are considered an “author unknown”! (insert evil laugh). Basically, did you file and pay the Copyright Office to register your copyright that you already own (even though under no law are you required to register your copyright to validate your ownership) for the purpose of getting paid a royalty that, by statute, you are rightfully entitled to? That’s some hardcore bs, right? In fact, instead we are going to give DSPs and whoever else, an out to not pay you. Just submit an “unknown author” NOI to the Copyright Office, which is basically an excel spreadsheet with the title of the song, the DSP info, and unavailable written across the columns for any type of songwriter info. It doesn’t matter if the song is registered with a PRO, if you submitted the metadata to the label to give to the DSP, it probably doesn’t even matter if you call Spotify up and say “hey I’m your missing songwriter!” Nope, after a copyright search you are done. Also to add more bad news, if you file for your copyright tomorrow Spotify, Google and Amazon are not required to back pay on any of those royalties as long as they submitted an NOI to the Copyright Office.
Although a bummer, we will end on a positive note that this curse has not gone unnoticed and some are choosing to do their part to help. Insert Sound Exchange NOI database! (Superhero sound!) A simple system that organized the unknown author NOIs submitted to the Copyright Office so that you can easily discover who is not paying you and for which song. Although its not exactly putting the money you are owed into your pocket, it is getting us a step closer considering the Copyright Office database for NOIs is next to impossible to navigate. It consists of huge excel spreadsheets submitted by DSPs that often are not even downloadable without a zip compressor. If you are able to download the excel sheets, you will see DSPs list hundreds sometimes thousands of songs in no particular order that are submitted daily! It is an absurd waste of time. So thank you Sound Exchange for making it easier for the songwriters out there. I encourage all songwriters to sign up (its free) and search for any NOIs here. We at L4M are going to do our best to keep on this fight and find best practices to get these royalties paid out for our clients. We will keep you posted, but feel free to comment with suggestions and success stories as we want to keep songwriters informed on how to avoid those unknown author NOIs!