Music Copyright 101 – What you need to know about music law

Music copyright

Every singer should understand the basics of music copyright to protect themselves from being exploited. iSing gives you the lowdown.

Put things in writing and don’t get greedy. This is the sage advice of veteran music lawyer John Ireland, who has over three decades worth of industry experience. “When things get messy and lawyers get involved, it’s expensive,” he warns “Get written agreements and understand what you’re signing.”

To help you do exactly that, here’s Music Copyright 101:

Song copyright

The copyright of a song is typically divided 50/50 between the music and the lyrics. If you’re a solo songwriter, it’s straightforward. As soon as you record it, you’ll own the copyright for both the words and music

Waters become muddied when two or more people write together. Pro tip: agree in writing from the outset how the music copyright will be shared. If you’re stuck, the Musicians’ Union has a one-page template on their website.

Ireland recommends keeping things simple if everyone contributes the writing of a song: a 50/50 split for two people working together, one third each for a group of three, and so on. “The trouble starts when someone in the band feels like they’ve contributed more than the others and wants a bigger percentage,” he says. “If you want longevity, be nice and try and get along with your bandmates. It makes life so much easier.”

Even if your co-writers are your buddies, always put your agreed contributions in writing – an email will suffice. In the best-case scenario, you’ll never need to use it. But you never know.

Recording copyright

The crucial thing to know before you step into a studio is that the person who pays for the recording owns the copyright.

“If you and your band get together in the studio and someone offers to pay for it, don’t let them,” insists Ireland. “Otherwise they’ll own the copyright regardless of how hard you’ve worked.” This is of course unless you have a record deal – see more below.

You also need consent from everyone who performed on the recording which is easily done with a simple form, or payment of a session fee.

Record deals

Many artists see signing a record deal as the holy grail, proof they’ve finally made it. But Ireland counsels against getting misty-eyed if a label makes you an offer. “A record deal is simply a business agreement. It outlines what the label is going to do for you, and what you are going to do for them. They’re investing in you because they reckon they can make money out of you.”

Before you sign any contract, you need a lawyer. The label will insist on it, not for altruistic reasons, but because “if it ends in tears, you can’t argue that you didn’t understand what you were signing”.

There are several types of record deals:

The traditional deal

Typically, a label pays an artist an amount of money (called an advance) to cover recording costs and sometimes money to live on. In return, the artist hands over the recording copyright to the label and receives royalty payments once any profit has paid off the advance. Royalties are based on sales, with an artist getting anything between 15 and 25 per cent, depending on what’s been negotiated. Royalties are only paid after advances, recording costs and all other costs incurred by the record label have been recouped. If your album tops the charts, you’ll be in the money. If it’s a slow burner, it could be some time before you see any royalties, if at all.

The 360 deal

This a new type of deal where a record label also tries to take a percentage of other income streams such as merchandise, touring, publishing and endorsements. The terms of these deals vary depending on how much leverage you have as an artist and the deal your lawyer negotiates. Big labels argue that such arrangements are needed to justify their huge investment in breaking new artists.

Net profit deal

Commonly associated with indie labels, with a net profit deal you’re unlikely to get a big advance (you may not get one at all), but you will get a healthy percentage of net profit – commonly 50 per cent. This is, however, only paid after all expenses including recording, marketing and promo are covered.

Reality television deals

Ireland is blunt about record deals associated with this genre: “Basically, you get screwed.”

Often feted in the press as life-changing, in truth such deals are notoriously one-sided, favouring the record company, with little or no room to manoeuvre. “If you don’t sign it, then goodbye. They’re not having you on the show,” says Ireland. “But you get a huge amount of exposure with those shows. If you want that, you’ll probably sign.”

If a prime-time talent show wants to sign you, what should you expect? A long tie-in for a start: Kelly Clarkson was locked into her American Idol contract for 15 years. Of course, if your first release flops, you’ll be dropped like a shot. The label will most likely have a strong say in the music you make and want a big slice of your touring and merchandise action too.

Kelly Clarkson was locked into her American Idol contract for 15 years
Kelly Clarkson was locked into her American Idol contract for 15 years
Self-releasing

If none of these options appeal, you could take your cue from the likes of Simply Red and Radiohead and do it yourself. This can prove more profitable, but will also be more time consuming and you have to meet all the costs. “You have to ask yourself what you want,” Ireland says. “Do you really want to be doing it all yourself? Or do you want to be able to focus on just making music?”

London-based solicitor John Ireland represents artists in the music and entertainment industries. During his 30-year career has he worked with bands, musicians, composers, producers and musical theatre stars.


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Bronwyn Bidwell is an Australian journalist and editor based in London. She enjoys writing about music, books, history and popular culture.