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How to understand the music industry in 25 minutes

Gigomi Free Mini-Course

Day 2: Making songs & publishing them


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Day 2Making Songs & Publishing Them
00:00 / 12:21

Welcome to Day 2 of this gigomi Mini-Course on How to understand the music industry in 30 minutes.

Today we are talking about the basic building blocks of the music industry - songs - and how you can make money from them.

The business of making money from songs is called Music Publishing.

There are 3 things I want you to take away from this episode:


  1. How to make money from songs

  2. How you can do this yourself

  3. How you can work with a music publisher – there are pluses and minuses to think about

But before we get to any of that, your first job, your number 1 priority is to get good at writing great songs. If you have no great songs you won’t have to worry about making money from the because you won’t be able to. And the only way to learn how to write great songs is to write an awful lot of bad songs. And learn what you are doing wrong.

So, set yourself the task of writing for an hour every day. Make it as regular as cleaning your teeth. Finish each song and then – and this is the most important bit – play it to people. Play it live in front of people, record a demo and post it online. Watch their reaction, listen to what they have to say. What have you learned from them? What can you improve on your next song? Start your next song. Repeat this over and over.

Paul McDonald, manager of James Bay and George Ezra says “quote about having 100 songs to choose from for the first album”.

If you are self-conscious, why not post all the songs under an alias?


And maybe think of each song as a mini project. Don’t get too attached to it. Yes, make it as good as can be. Play it to people. Get feedback. Be interested in the reactions…and then on to the next one.

How to make money from songs

This is where I have to break the news that songs are more complicated than they first appear.
Because not only are they made of music & words but each song has a second, invisible side to it. Whilst the music & words are what makes your audience feel more alive, you can’t make money from them. The other invisible part of a song is called its copyright – and it is the copyright part of the song that makes the money. When a song is good enough, its copyright has a magical quality of money magnetism – it attracts money even when you, the songwriter, are asleep on a different continent.

These are the ways a song can make money:

1.    People record and release your song

You might be the first to record your song but others can follow. These other recordings are called cover versions. Everyone who makes a recording of your song has to pay you a share of the money their record generates and this share is known as Mechanicals. You even have to pay yourself mechanicals if you are both the recording artist and the songwriter. It might seem daft to take money out of one pocket and then put it into another pocket but don’t complain, these mechanicals can be very valuable if lots of people cover your songs.

2.  People perform your music

If someone performs one of your songs live in front of a paying audience, you, the songwriter, has to be paid a share of the money the venue makes. Or, if somebody plays recordings of your songs in a public place like a bar or a shop or broadcasts them on the tv or the radio or in a tv show, film, or advert they will have to pay you a fee. Both these types of income are called Performance Income.

3.  People feature your music in their tv show, film or advert

Before your song can be included in a tv show, film or advert, the people making the production must get a licence to do so - and pay a fee for the privilege. (They also have to get a separate licence and pay a second fee to whichever recording of your song they choose.)

This type of income is called Synch - short for synchronisation of music to film. Synchronisation just means making two separate things work in tandem, in this case: film + music. Synch is a one-off fee for the right to use your song.

As an added bonus, when the tv show, film or advert is then shown on TV or in cinemas or plays online this is considered a performance and you get Performance Income as well.

We in the song business love Synchs!

4. There are some other ways of making music from your songs but although you should be aware of them these tend to be for specialists only

Your song could be performed on stage as part of a musical theatre show or used as the music in a dance performance or, if you have written the music or lyrics to an opera, it could be performed by an Opera House.

In each case the performers will need a licence from you to perform your music. This is called a Grand Right license.

The orchestras or bands who play the music for the performers on stage will need sheet music. They have to rent it. This is called Rental income.

The final way of making money from songs is selling books of sheet music or chord charts for people to learn how to play your songs at home.

Do It Yourself

Does all this sounds complicated?

Don’t worry….it is!….but when you think about if for a while and get your head around the concepts, not so much.

And the good news is that you can cover a lot of the basics of music publishing yourself.

Most of the money from songs comes from the first two categories - Mechanicals and Performance Income.

Don’t worry. You won’t have to chase each bar or radio station to get paid. Everyone in the industry registers with collection societies who collect money from people recording and performing songs and pay it through to their members. You will need to become a member. In the UK the collection societies are PRS for Performance and MCPS for Mechanicals. (Pretty much all collection societies are known but a bunch of capital letters).

You can also have a go at getting synchs on your own. It’s not easy to do this on your own but it is possible: listen to Sara Lord and Ayla Owen explain how Synch works.

The other opportunities in Grand Rights or Sheet Music I mentioned before are probably too rare for you to think about in the early days of DIY. For now, you just need to be aware that they exist.

Think about a publisher

The 2 great things about the DIY approach to managing your songs is that 1) it is possible and 2) if you do it yourself you get to keep all the money!

The main downsides are that 1) it eats up your time (time that might better be spent writing songs, making records or playing live) and 2) it is a complicated business and you will be learning as you go.

An alternative to going it alone is to sign with a Music Publisher. They manage songs for a living and can take over managing yours.

What a publisher brings to the party:

  • they will take over most of the publishing work and save you time

  • they know the tricks of the trade and should help you grow the total amount of money that your songs make

  • they should have people pitching your songs to recording artists for them to cover

  • they should have an international network of publishers who are also helping grow your income round the world

  • they should have a dedicated synch team working to get your songs

  • they should be able to help with Grand Rights and Sheet Music

  • they should know lots of people in the industry – record companies, other writers or performers you might want to work with. They can connect you with people who could accelerate your career. They are highly motivated to make you successful – the more you make, the more they earn.

  • they often give an advance against future earnings and that might give you the money to quit the bar job and spend more time writing songs

And the downside?


  • they want your copyrights (you know the bit of your songs that make money)! Ideally, they want to own them outright, but if not, they want to control them for a long time before they are returned to you. And for as long as the copyrights are controlled by a publisher you have very little power over them.  

  • you will still get a share of the income the copyrights generate, called the Writer’s Share, but they keep part of the income, known as the Publisher’s Share.

This is one of the big decisions you will have to make: Do I sign with a publisher and if so which one?

If that sound big and scary, don’t worry. Pat yourself on the back. You are on your way. If a publisher wants to sign you it is a huge vote of confidence. They believe that you have a good chance of becoming successful and they are going to back you with their time and money.


Listen to Ian Ramage talk about the role of the publisher

Music publishing has more jargon than any of the other main businesses in the music industry. Don’t let it bamboozle you. Check out our Jargon Buster as a first port of call and drop me a line if you don’t understand something.]



Tomorrow we get into the record business

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