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Master Class: Song Release Checklist

January 20, 2016

Today it’s extremely easy to release a song and get it distributed worldwide. With the click of a mouse, you can upload your latest track and sell it on iTunes or stream it on Spotify and Apple Music. Within a few hours, the music can be in the ears of fans around the globe.

So, distribution is no longer a mystery, but musicians still often make the mistake of skipping the essential steps that music labels know they must take before they distribute music into the world, to protect artists’ rights and prepare to earn royalty income. There are seven simple registrations you need to take care of if you’re not working with a label.

But first, let’s review a basic understanding of copyright, as well as the steps to prepare your music business so you’re ready to register songs when you release them and can collect royalties starting on day one.


All seven registrations flow from the two copyrights you receive once you create a new original song. These copyrights give you ownership of the work. Some musicians make the mistake of only registering one of the two, but once you understand the two copyrights at stake—and the royalties you can make from them—you won’t miss the necessary registrations.

The first copyright is for the composition: the song itself. This is about the underlying work you created that can be recorded, performed, or covered by other bands. No matter how many different versions, arrangements, or recordings of the song are made, you only need to register the song once using the Performing Arts (PA) form. This is normally registered by the songwriter(s) of the song.

The second copyright is for the sound recording— sometimes called the master recording. Each sound recording you make of a song creates a separate copyright; for example, a live recording, a studio recording, and an alternate acoustic version are three different sound recordings and therefore three different registrations. To register each of these, you’d need to use the Sound Recording (SR) form.

Labels usually own the SR copyright and the songwriters usually own the PA copyright. But if you’re an independent artist and composer, you’re both the label and the songwriter, and you own both.

Registration with the U.S. Copyright Office is not required because copyright law automatically gives you a copyright in an original song as soon as you capture it in a fixed format (digital recording, sheet music, etc.). Most labels register the copyright, however, because it grants additional rights, including the ability to sue for damages and attorney’s fees. (And if you don’t register within three months of release, you lose some of those benefits, although you still own the song and can still register it in order to sue someone for infringement.)

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