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Q&A: What am I entitled to?
By Mary Dawson - 08/29/2001 - 02:45 AM EDT

Dear Mary Dawson,

For the last two months, I have been working on writing music and arranging for a singer who came to me with lyrics and a melody for an album's worth of songs. I wrote all the music (bass line, chords, drum beat) around the lyrics and melodies. We are now in the studio recording these songs (all recording expenses will be paid by her.) Her manager printed up a document that split all the songs into royalty percentages which only apply to media airplay (radio, TV, potential internet.) I agreed to a 50% split and signed the document. Since this is my first really big project with marketable potential, I was interested in getting a cut of profits and royalties instead of being just a "work for hire". However, we did not discuss the details and did not put anything in writing until we were about to record the CD. That's when I was told that my expectation to get any percentage of CD sale earnings or ANY earnings other than media airplay royalties was unacceptable. In the document, one paragraph detailed that I relinquish all rights to any earnings through sales (i.e. CDs, T-shirts, or any merchandise) or any earnings/royalties from live shows and tours. Also,(and this is my main point of concern) the document states that ALL songs on the CD are the property of the singer (under whose name the CD will be recorded and in whose name the CD will be titled) and that all copyrights apply to these songs as recorded by her. I have already signed the document, but am now wondering if these latter points will keep me from earning my fair due if these songs are sold to any other artists. I am new at the business side of music and would greatly appreciate any response.

Thanks in advance. -- A. Oz


Dear A Oz:

Thanks so much for your email. Your question is a very good one.

I recommend that you do some reading and study on music publishing -- how songs make money and the various kinds of royalties that songs can generate. One of the best and most user-friendly books on the subject is Music Publishing: A Songwriter's Guide by Randy Poe (Writers Digest).

There are basically two categories of royalties that have many subdivisions under each. One of the main categories is MECHANICAL ROYALTIES which are based on numbers of units (cassettes, videos and
CD's) sold. The other main category is PERFORMANCE ROYALTIES which are based on numbers of performances of a song on TV, radio and in ticketed venues.It sounds as if the agreement you signed with the artist allows you a percentage of the performance royalties, but not a percentage of the mechanicals. If you did not write the actual words and melody of the song....and if the artist who actually wrote the songs also paid you a fee for arranging the songs.....that sounds like a pretty fair deal to me.

Songs have four basic elements: WORDS, MELODY, HARMONY and RHYTHM. Of those four elements, two of them are non-negotiable -- the WORDS and the MELODY. The harmonies and rhythm can be changed in any number of ways to create different feels or styles (think of how many different
arrangements you have heard of Amazing Grace, but you can always tell it is Amazing Grace because of the WORDS and the MELODY).

Since you did not write or co-write the WORDS or MELODY, but simply put the chords and the rhythm in the arrangement of the songs, you are technically not considered a writer. On very rare occasions....if an arranger is very big and famous with lots of credibility and name recognition, the songwriters may include the arranger as one of the writers out of courtesy. Or they may include an "arrangers royalty" to be written into the agreement so that the arranger continues to receive
a percentage of the sales. But this is usually NOT the case in independent projects. Usually an arranger is included as a "Work for Hire" only.

Since you say you are just a beginner at this, I think this would be a very good time for you to educate yourself on the business of music so that you KNOW exactly how you want to be included in any future
projects. Then you can let the songwriter or artist know BEFORE THE FACT how you work -- if you do it as Work for Hire, or if you expect an ongoing royalty and if so...how much.

My advice to you is not to be too demanding at this stage. Get lots of experience and become the ABSOLUTE BEST at what you do. Then you will be able to command a greater amount in the days ahead.

All the Best,

--Mary Dawson


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