A few years ago, I wrote an article on the skill and dedication necessary to become a songwriter. Although we often read of famous songwriters who say, “The idea for the song just came to me one day, and I composed the entire song in 15 minutes,” the truth about songwriting is that like other creative processes, it can be an arduous endeavor requiring a great deal of time, patience, energy and often, luck.
The rewards of songwriting include a wonderful opportunity for self-expression and for telling the truth in ways that may be difficult to express in everyday conversation.
For successful songwriters, there may be more tangible rewards, as well.
Today, most popular musical artists are “self-contained.” This is a music business term that means the singer writes his or her own music. Many of these songwriters have learned that the song can generate income even when the singer is no longer earning money as a performer.
As an example, think about Whitney Houston’s amazing, wonderful performance of the song “I Will Always Love You,” probably the best part of the “The Bodyguard,” the movie in which she sang that song. She performed it often, long after the movie was no longer being shown. It became one of her best-loved signature songs. Of course, every time Whitney performed that song in concert or in a recorded version over the radio, television or Internet, the country singer Dolly Parton smiled.
Why? Because Dolly Parton wrote that song nearly two decades before Houston made the song famous again, and it is Dolly Parton, not Whitney Houston or her heirs, who receive royalties for Whitney’s performances of “I Will Always Love you.”
In the music business, the word, “exploit” is a good word. If your song is exploited, it has been used, and if it has been used, it should earn a license fee or other income.
If you have the dedication, the creativity and the good luck to write a popular song, how can your song be exploited? What are the potential sources of income for your song? How can you earn money from giving permission, or licensing, the right to use your song?
To answer that question, it may be easiest to see what protection the copyright law gives to original works of authorship.
Section 106 of the Copyright Act gives exclusive rights to the copyright holder, in this case, the songwriter, to do the following:
1. To make copies. This means the songwriter or copyright owner of the song is the person who can give the right to record companies to make copies of the song in sound recordings, including CDs, vinyl, mp3’s or other copies. The copyright owner of the song grants a “mechanical” license to the record company to make these copies, and the record company pays a royalty to the song copyright owner for each copy made.
2. To make derivative works. The song copyright owner is the only person who has the right to grant permission to make a new arrangement of the original song, and the copyright owner can issue a license and collect a fee for granting this privilege to the person who wants to make a new arrangement.
3. The right to distribute. This gives the right to the record company to distribute the recordings it made as a result of the mechanical license you or your representative issued. You will earn a mechanical royalty on all copies made and distributed of your song.
4. The right to perform. If your song is performed live in concert or broadcast on TV, radio or the Internet, your representative can issue a performance license and you will collect a performance royalty.
5. The right to display. You can issue a license and collect a royalty or fee if your song is displayed on the Internet or elsewhere
6. The right to perform a sound recording digitally. If you own your own sound recording of your own song, you can collect performance royalties for all performances of that recording on the Internet.
Mechanical royalties may be paid by record companies who record your song.
Performance royalties that may be paid for live or broadcast performance of the song.
Synchronization royalties or fees may be paid by people or companies to whom you give a license to synchronize, or use your song with a visual work, for example, as part of a commercial or movie.
Print royalties may be paid if your song is made available to the public in print format.
The songwriter may agree to license the song for special purposes such as using the song in a musical greeting card, or for toys, ringtone, or other special use.
The songwriter may receive royalties if the song is performed or played on a jukebox.
The song will earn royalties if it is used as part of a theatrical production.
The song may also earn royalties if it is performed or recorded in foreign countries.
Famous songwriters and their heirs rely on continued income from their music, even if their income as performing musicians dwindles.
The Sting song, “Every breath you take,” has earned more than $20 million since it was written in 1983.
Irving Berlin’s song, “White Christmas” has estimated earnings of more than $36 million and the heirs of the Hill sisters, who are credited with writing the song that became “Happy Birthday,” have earned more than $50 million.
Dolly Parton’s song, “I Will Always Love You,” has been earning these royalties for more than 40 years although she does not perform it anymore. She has good reason to smile.
Dr. Janet Nepkie is a member of the music industry faculty in the music department of the State University College at Oneonta. Her columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/musicbeat.