Recording artists and songwriters are two different things. Sometimes they are one and the same, and sometimes not. But the distinction is pretty important when it comes to income (song royalties).
Put simply, recording artists make their money mostly on the sale of hard goods (CD’s, DVD’s, cassettes and vinyl) as well as digital sales. They make their money based on those recordings and they may or may not own the rights to the actual songs.
When you are covering another artist, you need to get permission from them and you’ll be paying them royalties based upon said agreements. You won’t be able to change their song without permission either, as the original songwriter(s) own the permission to allow derivative works. Yes, Weird Al Yankovic does a little due diligence before cranking out a spoof.
Recording artists also do not earn royalties for public performances, which includes playing live in a bar, on the radio, TV, etc. however, you can get royalties if your recordings are played on web casts or satellite radio – this is due to the Digital Performance Right in Sound Recordings Act of 1995.
Orrin Hatch introduced the DPRA due to a concern that digital productions would replace physical copies one day…imagine that! Of course, digital recordings were not on the radar back when the Copyright Act of 1976 was written. This act attempts to give more latitude to performers, but composers are still in the driver’s seat – between statutory licenses and other licensing agreements that need to be negotiated with copyright holders, a performer definitely needs to ask first.
Songwriting is the key
Songwriters, however, do accrue royalties whenever one of their tunes is played in public (whether live, on the radio, or even on a pub CD player), along with a negotiated portion of any physical recording sales. This is why copyright is such an important part of the process for acquiring income.
Copyright indicates who owns the song and sound recording. A song is automatically copyrighted when created as a recording or fixed representation (printed sheet music). Ideally, songs should be registered with the copyright office (Library of Congress) to avoid most legal hassles. There are other ways to go, but this formal copyright process is best in the long run.
When you copyright a song, you have the right to reproduce it, to create derivatives of the song, to distribute it to the general public, and to perform it publicly. Anyone else needs to ask for your permission. There are some other subtleties that every songwriter should understand and we’ll talk more about those in the next post.