D.I.Y. Musician: Double Your Royalties

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FIG. 1: SoundExchange's website features helpful tools for finding out if you're owed royalties.

Figuring out how to obtain performance royalties is not something that most musicians enjoy doing; it can be very confusing. After all, the system is made for labels and music publishers rather than musicians who do everything themselves. But if your music is out there and getting played on radio, television, satellite radio, webcasts, or even services such as Last.FM and Pandora, you should get all of the royalty money that''s owed you.

The first thing to know is that most musicians today are four things in one: songwriters, publishers, sound-recording owners, and featured performers. Unless you register for all four of those roles, you won''t get all the money that''s owed to you because each are paid separately. The second thing to know is there are two types of Performance Rights Organizations (PROs): song-performance PROs and sound-recording-performance PROs. You should sign up at both.

The reason there are two types of PROs is because when you record an original composition, you get two copyrights. One copyright is in the song (you as a songwriter); the other copyright is in the recording that you made of the song (you as a sound-recording owner). Both of these copyrights have different performance royalties associated with them. You don''t need to register your songs with the U.S. Copyright Office to get a copyright or even to collect royalties. You actually own both types of copyright the second you hit the Stop button on your recording device. But if you want to be safe, register both your song and your recording with the Copyright Office before releasing it.

To get royalties for a song copyright, you need to sign up for a song-performance PRO such as ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. They collect money from radio, television, live music venues, and businesses that play music, and then distribute the royalties based on which songs got played. These PROs are only focused on the song itself, not the recording, so if you have two versions of your song getting airplay—your own and someone''s cover of it—you can get paid whenever either one is performed.

When these PROs pay out, they split the money in half: One half is paid to the songwriter, and the other is paid to the person or organization registered as the publisher. If you only register as the songwriter, you will get only half of the money that is due to you. This is a mistake that many musicians make. If you''re acting as your own publisher, you''ll want to register with your PRO as both the songwriter and publisher for each of your songs. This will guarantee you two checks if any of your songs are picked up in their performance surveys.

The same structure is in place for the recording copyright. The PRO that monitors digital public performances of recordings of songs in the United States is SoundExchange (see Fig. 1).

The company pays royalties when recordings that you own are performed on services such as Last.FM, Pandora, or satellite radio. When this PRO pays out, it also splits the money: Half goes to the copyright owner, and the other half goes to the featured performer who played on it. So you should register as both when it applies. To maximize the chance of getting paid, you should also register for an International Standard Recording Code (ISRC) for each of your recordings as these PROs use tracks that have been so identified to determine if your music has been played.

Following the steps detailed here, and registering for all of the royalties that you''re eligible for, will help make sure that you collect all the royalty income that you''re due.

Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan are authors of The Indie Band Survival Guide: The Complete Manual for the Do-It-Yourself Musician and The D.I.Y. Music Manual, and founders of the open and free musician resource IndieGuide.com.