Remember how long it took you to become a competent songwriter? How long did it take you to be able to make a decent recording? It can take this same kind of time and effort to build the network of industry contacts that will place your hit song in a major film, or in the hands of the artist you’d want to record it.
This may be bad news for the shut-in all-star songwriter, but the reality is that it’s a “who you know” business and if you don’t know anyone, then you’re starting at zero no matter how great your material is. Building the network of people who know what you do and, on some level, believe in you is essential in getting your music out to the world.
It’s time that you start thinking like a publisher and truly earn your publisher’s half of your royalties. You should be constantly adding value to your song catalog so that one day a big publisher may want to take on some of that responsibility and administer your repertoire. It’s all possible by finding more proactive ways to channel your non-songwriting time to get your songs out there earning real money.
Minding your own business
Before you go looking for opportunities for your song, it’s always a good idea to know exactly what you’re looking for. The entertainment industry is vast and if you focus on the avenues that work best for you and your music, you may get to where you’re going much faster. When I talk with a lot of beginning writers, their goals usually revolve around the desire to make a living doing what they love to do—writing songs. If your dream is to have songwriting be your principal source of income, you should start by having a good understanding of how a songwriter gets paid.
There are two ways where writers can receive money for their songs: licensing fees and royalties. The licensing fee is the upfront amount that a company will pay you to use your song in their film, TV show, video game, commercial, or movie trailer. This fee can vary depending on the budget they have allocated to license music and how badly they want to use your song. It could be fifty bucks or fifty grand.
Some companies don’t offer you an upfront fee, leaving royalty payments as your only source of compensation. These would be collected on your behalf by your Performing Rights Organization (BMI, ASCAP, SESAC) and distributed to you quarterly. It won’t help you with this month’s mortgage payment, but it will eventually show up in your mailbox when you least suspect it. This only occurs if you register the song with your PRO and the production company submits accurate cue sheets containing the pertinent writer and publisher information. You’re entitled to royalties for any public performance of your song in film, TV, radio, live venues, night clubs, etc., if you don’t contractually waive those rights.
It’s also a good thing for you to be familiar with the infrastructure of this industry: who does what? You know that you’re a songwriter and you hear music in movies, TV, online and in video games all the time. Now you need to figure out what happens between you writing the song and that song showing up in some of those media. We’ll go over a lot of these and you’ll get a better feel for how you may be able to divert a little bit of your creativity away from writing and into imaginative ways to become a part of that scene.
I want to talk to your supervisor
As a songwriter looking for opportunities to gain exposure and large licensing fees for your songs, you’ll find that the almighty music supervisor is your new best friend. This person is in charge of finding and clearing the rights to use music for film, television, video games, movie trailers and commercials. Like every aspect of the industry, there is an elite group of music supervisors that handle most of the bigger projects. It may take a while for your network to legitimately include ones at the Kathy Nelson or Madonna Wade-Reed level, but there are a lot of very successful supervisors out there who could give your material more attention in consideration for their current project.
So where does a music supervisor find suitable music? If they can’t hook up their music-creating friends and favorite artists, they’ll often go to music libraries or publishers. Music houses or libraries are the middlemen between the songwriter and the production company. They’ll have thousands of titles organized in such a way to allow the supervisor to quickly browse through, in search of the perfect song for their project. Many of these libraries may be open to include your material if your songs are of broadcast quality and fill a void in their collection.
In the event that one of their clients wants to license your song, they’ll take up to 50% of the licensing fee. Beware of the music libraries who want exclusive use of your music, which would prohibit you from licensing your songs to anyone else. Other song houses will ask to re-title your song for their use only. This allows them to register as the publisher for that re-titled version and receive royalties from this version for which they get placement. This is a little shady, but if you’re willing to give up this portion of your publishing, well, these people do have an added incentive to work your material. These music houses will service clients and music supervisors in all corners of the industry.
Where do homeless songs go?
It’s not only good to be aware of who looks for music but also have a concept of all the applications where music can be used. Let’s take a crash course describing some of the places where your song may find a good, non-exclusive home.
Many artists and writers will be approached by independent film makers for permission to use their material in an indie movie. They usually have little to no budget allocated for an upfront licensing fee and it’s unlikely that you’ll ever see any royalties either. It could help your credibility as a writer/artist if the movie is well made and gets picked up by a major distributor. It’s not unreasonable to ask to see the script or a rough edit before committing your song.
Need more than just exposure? Most network TV shows do pay licensing fees and do file cue sheets that make you eligible to receive performance royalties. Cable TV shows do not have the viewership of network TV and consequently have much less money to secure music, though most pay performance royalties. Major motion pictures are harder to crack, especially without a major publisher and label on your side. Big licensing fees, royalties, inclusion on the accompanying soundtrack CD, and huge exposure make this the Holy Grail of song placement.
Also, major feature films have big budgets allocated to the production of film trailers—with a good portion of that for licensing music. Trailers are generally produced by a trailer company and not the studio that produced the movie. Trailer companies find their music through music libraries, in-house music departments, freelance music supervisors or independent composers.
Music licensed for use in commercials is the domain of the creative/music supervisors at the ad agency that is hired by the company selling the product. Similarly, outside music used for video games is selected by the music and creative directors of that video game company.
There are a lot of sketchy production companies that crank out DVDs and feel that your music should be a part of their video for merely the privilege of being there and getting a screen credit. Unless you’re familiar with the videos that they produce and see some merit in the exposure, I’d recommend reinforcing the concept that your music is not a free commodity. Many independent artists get taken advantage of by those who feel that music isn’t worth paying for. Sketchy characters will come out of the woodwork to prey on unsuspecting, naïve song writers. Be sure to have an attorney look at licensing agreements or any contract that anyone offers you.
We’ve got clearance, Clarence
If you have expanded your network sufficiently, you will be able to take advantage of more opportunities across this immense industry. There are specific challenges for independent, do-it-all-yourself songwriters. Unfortu-nately, as many of these outlets claim to just be looking for good music without much consideration for the artist who makes the music, there always seem to be more avenues for well-known artists. A recognizable song and voice will be licensed more frequently for more money than one that is obscure.
Yes, your original indie song has an uphill battle, but there is some good news. Because you own your publishing, control your copyright and can grant full use of your master recordings, some companies would rather use your song for faster, easier and often more affordable clearance.
Hit Song relocation program
Depending on genre, there could be a lot of artists looking for great songs to record and perform. The trick is to place your songs with those who have the greatest chance of selling a lot of CDs. The statutory mechanical royalty rate is 9.1 cents per song for every CD sold. So keep your eyes open for artists who are looking for outside material and who are signed to a major label, have a reputable management company behind them, are working with a well-known producer, or ones you simply believe in. That dime that you get every time an artist sells a CD can add up to big bucks with the right artist.
When a song is successfully placed with one of them, it’s not uncommon for the writer to be around for the recording of the song to assure that their “baby” is handled correctly. It’s just protecting one’s investment and, well, studios are good for networking opportunities, right?
No one said it would be easy being a professional songwriter. As an independent musician, there’s a time to focus on music and a time to concentrate on the business of increasing your network. The latter can very well assure that you’ll be able to make a living writing songs for years to come, so it’s worth it to strike a good balance. With this in mind, build up your repertoire, build up your contact list and above all, have fun with it all... after all, it’s just music.
Frank Gryner is a Los Angeles-based producer/engineer whose credits include Rob Zombie, A Perfect Circle, The Removal Act, and Stever.