Monday, May 20, 2013

Bringing in a Musician After the Song is Written

Dear Rich: I have many songs that were written/recorded to a drum beat (loop) or with no music. I write the lyrics, arrangement and compose the vocal melody. My understanding of publishing splits is 50% lyrics and 50% music. If I bring in a musician after the fact to help write the music, what is the publishing split since the music was written to my melody and vocal arrangement? A publisher told me the vocal melody is considered part of music composition. Is this true? Some musicians/composers often ask for 25% publishing since the song was written when they got involved and some want 50%. Which is correct and/or fair? Also, what would their copyright share be? When I co-write with someone from scratch, we split everything 50%-50%. I like to keep the math easy and both of us happy. If you are bringing in musicians after the song is written, there is usually no reason to share songwriting revenues. You can, if you wish ... Many people in your position simply pay the musician a fee and have them assign any rights to you. However, if the musician is doing more -- for example, rewriting the melody -- or you just want to share songwriting revenues instead of paying for an assignment, read on.
Three things:
  • There's a difference between sharing co-writing copyright credit and sharing revenues. Only someone who has materially contributed to the writing of the composition is entitled to copyright co-ownership. On the other hand, you're free to share your songwriting revenues with anyone.
  • A lot depends on how you structure the music publishing. We can't go into the gruesome details here but you can learn more about music publishing (and see examples of royalty splits for a band) in our Music Law book (or check out Randy Wixen's The Plain and Simple Guide to Music Publishing).
  • There are no fixed rules for dividing songwriting revenue.  
What's Common? Music publishing originated in the days of Tin Pan Alley. Songs were sometimes co-written by a lyricist (words) and a composer (music) -- the formula for classic show tunes like The Sound of Music and for rock tunes such as Satisfaction. Sometimes, as in the case of the latter tune, the lyricist also contributes the vocal melody. Typically these teams split the revenue 50/50. The Tin Pan Alley model is still around and so are lots of other variations, some of which reward people who had nothing to do with writing the words and music. Nowadays contributions that result in the song's success are given songwriting royalties -- for example, a DJ whose beats become the secret sauce for a new club hit.  Whatever you decide, formalize the arrangement in writing, even if it's just a slip of paper that you both sign indicating songwriting splits.

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