The collaborative process between music producers, topline writers and vocalists (who may or may not also be the topline writer) in creating a song, should lead to an end product which all parties can be proud of. However, when it comes to the respective rights of each person involved, it can also lead to conflict and misunderstandings – like this example of Avicii and Leona Lewis.
In the complexed and multi-faceted area that is copyright and royalties it’s not hard to see how confusion can ensue. However, there should be no excuse for failing to recognise the rights of topline writers and vocalists, as well as those of producers, whom have jointly created music together. Unfortunately, we see too many cases where at least one party has not had their rights recognised nor registered with the necessary organisations. These are most often due to a lack of understanding and administrative oversights, as opposed to malice. This is why it is so important that topline writers, vocalists and music producers all take responsibility for being as knowledgeable in this area as possible and ensuring they are discussing terms from the outset of a collaboration. In turn, record labels must also take responsibility for recognising the Rights of all parties involved in the creation of a record and reflecting this in their agreements.
As a vital aspect of making and monetising music, we will be writing about this in more detail and offering resources to topline writers, vocalists and producers on this in future. However, let’s start with the basics. Whether you are a topline writer, songwriter, producer or vocalist, if you have collaborated on the creation of a song in any way these are the rights you need to be aware of and what you can do to ensure these are being administered correctly.
Songwriting Splits (Copyright)
If you write any part of a song, whether it is the topline melody, the lyrics or the backing track, you are due a songwriting split (and in turn a share of publishing income – mechanical royalties and performance royalties) of that song. Therefore, this would be relevant to topline writers and lyricists, as well as music producers if their production constitutes songwriting work (i.e. they wrote/produced the instrumental parts of the song, as is typical in electronic music). You would not be eligible for a songwriting split (or any publishing income) if you recorded vocals on a track as the singer, but did not contribute in any way to the writing of the song (please note – in rare cases there could be exceptions to this if you had been expected to do a large amount of vocal arranging, create (write) extensive harmonies or heavily ad lib). It is also not unheard of in electronic music that a featured vocalist who did not contribute to the songwriting may still be offered a songwriting split, in lieu of a session fee, by way of payment.
The way in which songwriting splits are decided are often determined by a few different factors – for example, how many people have been involved in the songwriting process or how much you contributed to the song. Historically, the lyrics and topline melody of a song would make up 50% of the song, while the instrumental/backing track parts would make up the remaining 50% of the song. However, in electronic music these two features of a song aren’t always equal. Furthermore, whilst a song may be split 50/50 between a topline/lyric writer and a producer, it is common practise that both parties will actually own 50% of both the topline/lyrics and the track – despite who wrote what. More on songwriting splits and the complexities of determining each writers split here and here.
Whichever splits are agreed between the songwriters, it is important that this is stated in writing (as early as possible but certainly before the song is exploited in any way) and that each writer then registers their share of the song so they receive the correct publishing income which may arise. To ensure you catch all the types of income which are generated from owning any musical copyright you must register your songwriting splits with both the Performing Rights Society (PRS) and the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society (MCPS) here.
Mechanical Rights compensate the writer(s) of a song when that song is reproduced or distributed either in physical form, such as CD or DVD, or streamed/downloaded from the internet. Therefore, you are entitled to Mechanical royalties if you wrote any part of the topline melody and lyrics, or indeed the instrumental backing track, and thus it is relevant to topline writers, lyricists and producers. It is not relevant if you only recorded a vocal without having written any part of the song.
If you have written any part of a song which is due to be released on a record label, you should be awarded mechanical royalties even if you are not the named or main Artist of the song. This is often overlooked if you are a topline writer collaborating with a producer or Artist who signs the song on which you collaborated to a record label. Labels do not always use due diligence in checking how many writers were involved in the creative process and will sometimes agree mechanical splits with the main Artist/producer without including the topline writer. This is a too-often occurrence in dance music.
Therefore, if you are a topline writer you should be ensuring that your contribution to the writing is reflected with a share of the mechanical royalties, and that both the Artist with whom you are collaborating and the label releasing the song are fully aware and in agreement – ideally before the song is signed but certainly before release. You should also be a member of the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society (MCPS) who will collect the mechanical royalties due to you, on your behalf.
Performing Rights compensate the writer(s) of a song when that song is played (in either live or recorded form) publicly at concerts and festivals, as well as being broadcast on radio, TV and certain digital platforms, or played in clubs, venues, shops, and public business establishments such as gyms etc. Therefore, you are entitled to Public Performance Royalties if you wrote any part of the topline melody and lyrics, or indeed the instrumental backing track and thus it is relevant to topline writers, lyricists and Artist/producers (in the context of electronic music). It is not relevant if you recorded a vocal without having written any part of the song.
If you are the writer of any part of a song, in order to receive your writer’s share you need to ensure you are registered as a rights holder member with the Performing Rights Society (PRS) in the UK. You can do so here.
As with the above, Neighbouring Rights also relate to public performance of a song. However, while public performance rights compensate the writer of the song when their music is publicly performed, neighbouring rights compensate the master holder (usually, the record label) AND the performer when a song recording is played in any public forum. Therefore, if you perform on a song (for example, sang the vocal) you should be awarded neighbouring rights even though you did not write any of the lyrics or melody. These rights therefore apply to lead vocalists, backing vocalists, session singers and all instrumentalists who perform on a song recording. This means you will be awarded royalties (the ‘Performers Share’) each time a record you perform on is played on radio and TV, or in clubs, venues, shops, and public business establishments such as gyms etc. If you are the performer on a record, in order to receive your performers share you need to ensure you are credited as a performer at the time the song is registered with neighbouring rights societies – Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL) in the UK. You can do so here.
Please note that neighbouring rights aren’t paid in the USA, and therefore not applicable to US plays of your record.
Disclaimer: please note that rights, royalties and how they are administered can differ from territory to territory – the above are specific to the UK. Most other territories have equivalent societies as all those mentioned above.