Should Songwriters Share Their Royalties With Musicians?

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Want to make some real money in the music industry? Don't be the person who performs the song that stays on top of the charts week after week—be the person who wrote it. That statement is meant to be a bit tongue in cheek—but just a bit. It's absolutely true that the person who writes a song has many more avenues available to them to make money from a song than do the musicians who perform it.

It's not necessarily an unfair thing. In fact, if you're a musician who performs songs that your label or manager has made a deal with a music publisher for you to record, you might not give it much thought at all. Sure, your contribution is an important part of the equation when it comes to making money off a song—the way you perform the song is a big part of what sells it—but you get paid for your performances through album sales and live shows. The songwriter gets their mechanical royalties, performance rights royalties, and so on.

When the Songwriter Is in the Band

Things get a little trickier, however, when the songwriter is in the band. Let's say your drummer writes all of the songs your band performs. You record an album filled with your drummer's compositions. Everyone in the band shares in an advance and royalties from album sales. Income from live shows performing those songs—plus all the merch you sell on the road—is all shared by the band, too.

Sounds fine, right? Well, on top of that, your drummer is due mechanical royalties,​ performance rights, and maybe other payments that are due to them as a songwriter, in which you get no share. Therein lies the rub for a lot of bands and, in fact, many a band relationship has blown up over this very situation.

What do you do when one member of your band is making more than you off the songs you share? Different groups approach this in different ways. For some songwriters, the choice is easy—they simply share all of the royalties they make equally with their bandmates. For others, it's more complicated. An equal split may not always seem fair if some members are less involved than others in creating the songs.

You may be asking yourself which approach is best. The truth is that there are no easy answers. Songwriters who are also musicians do carry an extra burden by being responsible for writing the material. The contribution of the rest of the band is critical, though. After all, a song without a musician to perform it is not really worth much. The only answer is to decide what feels right for your band and stick to it.

Make a Contract

Most importantly, put your decision in writing. Contracts between friends can feel weird, but they're important when it comes to protecting your business and your friendships. No one can act surprised when the money starts coming in if you've hammered out all of the potential disagreements beforehand (and hammering out those details is a whole lot easier to do before you start seeing any cash).

It's also important to always be very clear about exactly who is considered the songwriter for a particular track. That's easy if one person always writes the songs without any input. But as others add their ideas to a song, you may be surprised to find that one person's passing suggestion is another's full collaboration. If you think you've co-written a song with someone, make sure they see it that way, too. And ensure it gets registered as such.

The bottom line? Things can get a little tricky when the band has one songwriter. But as long as you keep the lines of communication open and get everything on paper, it doesn't have to become a make-it-or-break-it issue.