This is a guest post by Dave Kusek, the founder and former CEO of Berklee Online, the world’s largest music school. He taught music business at Berklee College of Music for 14 years and has worked with tens of thousands of musicians. He just launched the New Artist Model, an online music business course for independent musicians.
Copyright enables you to make a living off your art. When you write or record music you produce more than just a “song”. You also get exclusive rights (6 of them!) and no one else can perform the actions protected by your rights unless you give them your permission.
If you think about it that way, indie artists are in a more powerful position than you may have thought. Without your rights record labels or publishers wouldn’t have anything to sell and film and directors wouldn’t have any cool music to put in their movies. With this in mind, it makes sense to take the time to understand your rights.
There are two kinds of copyrights, the composition and the sound recording. The composition can be defined as the unique combination of notes - think written melody and chord changes. The sound recording is the unique combination of sounds, and it protects what you actually hear in a recording of a song. If you recorded two different versions of the same song - say acoustically and with a whole band - you would have two different sound recording copyrights.
In the U.S. and many other places, copyright is created when an idea (your music) is put in tangible form. So if you write your song down on paper, or even a napkin, you automatically own the rights to the composition. In the same way, if you record your song, even if its just through your phone, you automatically own the rights to the sound recording. It’s that easy!
While you may be tempted to hang on to all your rights as long as possible, it’s important to realize that copyrights are a significant form of currency. You should not be completely opposed to giving up some of your rights in exchange for services or money. When giving up some of your rights, the key is to make make sure that the deal will provide you with real value.
So, what kind of rights do you actually get from copyright and what are they used for?
1. Reproduction. This covers you when you or someone else makes copies of your song. You can make them or you can license others to make them. This is a core right that you get when you create a song.
2. Distribution. This is your right to distribute all those songs to the public. With this right you can send digital files of your music to digital stores all across the country and physically deliver copies of it to fans at live shows and in stores. The Reproduction and Distribution rights have been the bread and butter of the recording industry. Labels pay you for every time they make a copy of your song to sell : )
3. Derivatives. This helps you to create new works based on your song. This could be a new arrangement or even a theatrical performance that combines your music with dance. Of course, you can create your own derivative works, but the real money here is from licensing to others. Other musicians can pay to get permission to sample your music or create their own arrangements or variations or other creative use. It is a derivative after all.
4. Public Performance (Composition). This protects you when your song is performed to the public. Any time your song is played in public, be it over the radio or live or online, it is a public performance. Again, you’ll make the most money here by licensing your right to others. Radio stations and venues pay you, through a PRO, to be able to play your songs.
5. Public Performance via Digital Transmission (Sound Recording). This allows you to perform the sound recording to the public. Sound recording owners get paid when their recordings are streamed and played on internet services like Spotify and Pandora. Not much, but its a start.
6. Display. This is not as relevant in music as it is in other art forms since it’s difficult to visually display sound. However, you can utilize this right to display your song lyrics to the public via a YouTube video, on your website, or even a t-shirt. Many musicians are not as concerned with this right and, as a result, there are plenty of lyric sites floating around on the internet that pay no licenses to the songwriters whose lyrics they display.
As you can see you really have a lot to work with in terms of copyright, and we are only scratching the surface here. You can do just about anything with your copyrights and the cool thing is that a lot of people will pay you to be able to use your exclusive rights.
THIS IS A RICH AREA FOR YOU
You can license your music in so many ways. The more creative you can be with your music, the more money you can make. You can try to appear as a backing track for a big hit film or be lucky enough to get a popular YouTuber to use it as a backing track for their video. Or you can find other outlets, starting small and working out from there as you go.
You don’t need to wait until you’re rich and famous to begin licensing your music. For many musicians, this is the way they make most of their money.
In exchange for rights, a publisher or indie label should be able to provide you with a service that you cannot already do yourself, such as pitching your songs to major films and TV networks. Giving up or licensing away any rights is a big decision that could impact the rest of your career, so make sure you do your research and know what you are doing.
If you’re serious about understanding your rights and using them to grow your music career, the New Artist Model online course goes into copyright law and creative publishing in great detail, and much more. By the end of the 8-week course you will fully understand what copyrights you have and can create, what you can do with them, how you get paid, and how to effectively pursue music publishing and licensing.
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