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What about compilation CDs? Are they a good deal for an aspiring songwriter or not?
By Mary Dawson - 12/14/2008 - 11:24 PM EST

Question from Meilyssia

I was wondering if you could address the issue to songwriters about "compilation CDs" and whether or not it is good for a new artist to be published on one. I recently had a "known" artist interested in one of my songs and he is offering to publish it to his compilation. He says the profits will go to charity...and so I am requesting a contract to keep the song as my exclusive property. Do you think this is smart? What should a new artist do in this situation? I do not have a large following but I am getting a decent level of interest in my music. I need the exposure and promotion. So I don't want to ignore this compilation opporutunity. What is a good way to determine whether he is legit or if he is trying to take advantage of new artists? Please write an article about this...and reply your opinion. I would greatly appreciate it if you could. Thank you for your time.


Answer from Mary Dawson

Meilyssia is asking some great questions here and also is showing some real business savvy when encountering such “opportunities.”

Before we look at compilation CDs in general, Meilyssia should REGISTER THE COPYRIGHT for her song. According to Copyright Law the song is automatically copyrighted the moment the song is "fixed" on paper or in a recording. But if someone should try to steal the song, the author cannot pursue legal action unless the song has been "registered" with the Library of Congress. So that would be very first step before proceeding with any further activity with the song. Once the song has been registered, there are several points in Meilyssia's question that should be addressed.

First of all, let’s clear up the word published in the first part of the question. Just because you are included in a compilation recording doesn’t necessarily mean you are being published. According to the Copyright Law, a song is not published until there has been:

  • Distribution of copies or phonorecords of a work to the public by sale…


  • An offering to distribute copies or phonorecords to a group of persons for purposes of further distribution, public performance or public display

In other words, if the compilation CD is just going out to a small group of people who don’t intend promote it to a larger number of people, the song is technically not “published.” In these days of re-defining music terminology, I usually like to think in terms of numbers. If a song will be on a recording where 5000 or more units are manufactured, I think you can consider it “published.”

The second term that needs to be clarified is known artist. To whom is he/she “known?” To her family? To a local group of fans? A regional demographic? Or nationally? And even if the artist has some kind of national recognition, is that person a “household name” artist…or only known to fans of a specific genre of music. The fame and credibility of the artist is another consideration as to whether you should allow your song to be included on a compilation.

Meilyssia is a very wise writer to perceive that she needs a contract for this kind of agreement. As the writer, Meilyssia is also the de facto publisher and should ideally license the song for use on the compliation. The contract should specify exactly how the recording is to be used…and the “term” of the agreement. In other words, all contracts should have a start date and an ending date. You may wish to allow the compilation producer to license your song for a specific purpose and a specific time, but it is unwise to sign anything with no start or ending perameters.

OK…having addressed these important issues, let’s get down to the bottom line. The answer to Meilyssia’s question is simply this: Sometimes a compilation deal can be good. Sometimes it can be bad. There is no one pat answer for all compilations. Here are some pointers that may help determine the one you are considering:

  • Do you know the producer of the compilation personally? Or do you know of his reputation? – You may want to do a Google search on the producer and the charity he represents. If they seem to be legitimate and well-respected, that’s a good sign.
  • Ask for references – It is not inappropriate at all to ask for the names and contact information for some of the other artists who have participated in this producer’s compilations in the past. Then contact them and ask them what their experience has been with this producer. If they are very complimentary and if it really helped their careers to be on the recording, that’s another good sign. Of course, if they don’t have anything nice to say….well, you know….
  • Are you being charged to be on the compilation CD? – Some compilations charge each songwriter a fee to be included on the recording. This is OK, but if you are being charged, you should ask for a “tracking record.” This means that the producer should provide you with a manufacturer’s invoice showing the exact number of recordings manufactured. He should also provide a list of stations and venues where the songs on the compilation will be heard. If he/she is not willing to provide this documentation, reconsider the whole deal. You may end up paying a lot of money and having no idea if or where the songs were played at all – or even how many copies were made. (Some song sharks will only manufacture 50 copies…send them nowhere…and collect your money to be a part of such a deal.)
  • Will you be allowed to keep your publishing on the song? – Some compilation deals require finished master recordings (that you paid for) and then in the small print of the agreement, they also assume ownership of your copyright. Be extremely careful about this. If you don’t understand how songs make money or the difference between the songwriter’s share of a song and the publisher’s share, do some reading before you sign anything.

In a bit of shameless self-promotion, may I suggest my book, How to Get Somewhere in the Music Business from Nowhere with Nothing, which will answer these kinds of questions simply and clearly. (

In summary, I know of several very reputable compilation programs and have participated in them with my own songs. One very successful songwriter here in my city sent his song to a compilation company (after much careful research) and it resulted in his songs becoming hits in Europe. He was invited to do a seven-nation European tour and discovered that he was the most requested independent Country artist in several countries. A couple of years later, that same compilation went to Australia and New Zealand and opened the door for him to do a tour Down Under.

Personally, one of my own songs was part of a compilation CD that took the song to #15 on the Christian Contemporary Charts overnight. So, by no means am I trying to discourage compilations. It’s just a matter of being realistic and “Buyer Beware.” If you have an opportunity to be a part of a compilation, consider it carefully and thoughtfully, but don’t become paranoid either and lose an opportunity. Seek counsel if you are in doubt and do lots of reading on the business of music.

Best of Luck!

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