OnlineRock: Empowering Musicians  

Our Music, Ourselves
Part II, Our Rights

When it comes to composing, recording and selling music, do you know your rights? Most of us don’t. Until very recently that group included myself. A little while ago I became convinced of two things; that musicians get a bum deal with the established major label recording industry and that the Internet offers the first real opportunity to drastically change that. The more I look into it, the more I am convinced that this is true. And I asked myself a question: if I write a song and record it myself, what are my rights?

If I write a song, produce it and record it myself, I own it! Lock, stock and barrel. Nobody has any right to make a penny from it, except me. As long as I protect myself by obtaining the necessary copyrights, the only way anyone can make any money from my song is if I allow them to. (I will not go into all the details of copyright protection here, besides I’m a lover, not a lawyer! Please check out these two great sites on the web that will give you all the information you could ever want to have regarding copyrights and how to obtain them, the US Copyright Office, it’s URL- For a complete explanation of what copyrights are, go to Now, why would I allow someone else to make any money from my own sweat and blood?

Because it is extremely difficult and prohibitively expensive to package, market, and distribute my own record. Also I have absolutely no (as in zip, zero, nada!) expertise in any of the fields involved. I am an expert at writing my own songs and even at arranging them for the band to play. And let’s pretend that I am also an expert at producing them as well. So we will assume that I personally handle every aspect of writing, arranging and producing my songs ( I’m sure that some of you reading this could handle that much as a lot of indie and underground artists have been doing this for years.) and have a ten song masterpiece ready for release. Now what?

There is packaging to consider. Who will do my cover art? How about graphic design? I will need to hire someone or some company that specializes in that to do it for me. I’ll want plenty of input on this, certainly. But I’m no graphic artist and I want it to be the best it can be. When I do hire someone to take care of that, do I give up any of my rights to the actual music I created? No! I will hire them to do a job and pay them for it. It’s very straightforward. The same holds true for CD mastering and duplication, marketing and distribution. None of the people involved in these processes are entitled to one penny of royalty money, and none have any claim or right as far as ownership of the actual music.

Let’s change gears here for a second. What if I didn’t produce the tracks myself, but hired an outside producer instead ? Does he "own" any of the music himself? No, that is still all mine as long as I own the copyrights and do not give him credit as far as songwriting and publishing are concerned. Is he entitled to any royalty money? Now the answer is, yes! He is entitled to a share of the Recording Artist royalties that are generated by any of the sales of a song or CD that he produces.

Something else to consider is the publishing aspect. The music publishing company is another entity that deserves a piece of the royalty pie. Many recording artists have established their own music publishing companies, thereby keeping that share of the royalty money "in house". But if the publisher is someone else, they get it, you don’t!

All these royalties that are payable to songwriters, producers and publishers are generated not only by record sales but by other factors such as radio play and live performance. There is in fact more than one way to skin a songwriter! These are called performing rights payments. These are actually good for songwriters however as it is another way to receive royalty money for your songs. The two performing rights organizations are ASCAP and BMI. Both of these companies have great web sites and a lot of the information I have used for this article was gleaned from them. What these organizations do is collect royalty money on behalf of songwriters, music publishers and (oh, no!) record companies for radio play, use in commercial advertising and movies as well as from live performance. They license your music for these purposes and you need to be a member in order to avail yourself of their services. But you don’t have to be a member to check out their web sites and learn a great deal about their organizations, as well as the specific details of royalty payments (which I will not be going into detail about here, it is way too complex for me to explain!) Check out the following URL’s, they will provide you with a wealth of information regarding how royalties are paid. Go to for ASCAP, and for BMI go to This is invaluable information for anyone interested in selling music.

So far this discussion has centered around the premise that I would do everything, or absolutely as much as possible myself, from song creation to publishing, packaging, marketing, and finally distribution. But what if I decided to sign with a record label instead? That is why I gave you the above sites to go and check out. Because I feel confident that when you do it will smack you in the face what a truly bad deal it is to sign up with an established record company, even an indie label. It just doesn’t make sense, because it entails signing your rights away. And the amount of money that you can possibly earn as a result is reduced from a flood to trickle. It’s like the difference between opening up Hoover dam and turning on your bathroom faucet. How would you like to make only 7.55 cents for each song on a ten song CD , or 75 cents for the whole damn thing ? And have to share part of that as well? This is why some of our top recording artists have likened the recording industry to "indentured servitude"!

When you record for a record company, you don’t make any money at all until your CD covers all the costs that the record company incurs for studio time, packaging, mastering and duplication, marketing and distribution. They do not "invest" in you; you owe them for all the services they provide. That is what you get when you sign on the dotted line, reduced revenues and a strictly "pay for play" relationship. Of course, you get all of their expertise, top-flight studios to work in and producers to help you. You get all of their marketing clout and distribution muscle. But in the end, is it worth it?

I don’t think so. My opinion is that the fledgling Internet music industry is the way to go. How about keeping two thirds or more of all the money you generate from downloads of your music, while also retaining all the rights to it? Of course, it means being a lot more involved in aspects of production and marketing, but if you are a member of OnlineRock then you exist in an online community where people will see you and hear you.

Also, as I write this, the rules of the royalty game are changing as a result of the Internet music revolution. The whole way of paying artists and what royalties will be is in flux right now. There is also what is known as SDMI, the Secure Digital Music Initiative that is concerned with having a secure file format so that you will not be able to "steal" music the way that you can right now with MP.3 files. Musicians need to stay abreast of all the changes that are taking place because these changes will invariably benefit them. It behooves you to know your rights!

As I said in my previous article, I truly believe that OnlineRock represents a better alternative to doing business than the established recording industry. This model definitely presents an artist with a much fairer payment scheme and as it grows in stature it will offer just as effective a way to market and distribute music. Honestly, at this juncture downloads of digital music pale in comparison to sales of CD’s that are produced and distributed in the traditional manner. But would you like to see artists continue to be treated as chattel and paid pennies on the dollar by the major record labels? Just say, NO!

Stay Tuned,

The Virtual Musician

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