The entertainment business has more than its fair share of unscrupulous people trying to take a buck from some idealistic young wannabe. There are so many frightening stories in the music business about people having their songs stolen or never getting their rightful earnings. There are managers running off with concert ticket proceeds and agents shelving acts that aren’t producing. But you can’t let that stop you from finding a manager, a producer, or an agent. Instead, you need to learn something about how the business operates so you know what the “norms and conventions” are.

How It Should Be……..

Every business has normal operating procedures. For instance if you were an actor, one of the first people you would search for would be an agent, who would send you out for auditions and take 10% of what you earn. In the music business an agency doesn’t send you out on auditions, they book shows, so you don’t need an agent until you are ready to tour. Most agencies only sign artists who already have a record deal or who are very close to having one. At that point you could be attractive to an agent who might put you on the bill as an opening act for a large national touring group. The agent would get 10% of your earnings from the show.

Your Songs

Probably the most notorious way you can get ripped off is by not getting royalties for the songs you wrote. When you write a song—which is made up of melody, chords and lyrics—you own the entire song until you give parts of it away. Get a copyright form from the US Copyright Office (Form PA) and copyright your songs. Royalties are the money you earn when the song is recorded (either by you or someone else) and that recording is sold to the public. Songs aren’t bought and songwriters aren’t paid for writing (unless they are hired by a publishing company to write) until there are record sales. If you are a singer who doesn’t write, you should find songwriters whose songs you can use. Remember, you won’t pay for them (except in some rare situations) —not even if they write songs especially for you—but you won’t own them or be able to stop the songwriter from giving those same songs to other artists either. If you are the songwriter, there are many situations in which you would be willing to share the royalties. You would give up a part of the ownership if you collaborate with another writer. The general agreement, unless otherwise stated, is that each of the writers gets an equal share. If you’ve written most of the song and don’t want to give an equal share to a cowriter who might, for instance, rewrite the chorus, you must negotiate the percentage you’re willing to give before you have the person work on the song.

If a publishing company likes your songs and thinks they could either interest a record label in you or get another artist to record them, they would sign you to a publishing deal and become co-owners of the song with you. Traditionally, the song is divided in half between the writer’s share and the publisher’s share but this is negotiable. If you are about to get a record deal and therefore there is very little risk to the publisher, your percentage might be larger. Publishing and royalties are pretty complicated but are beautifully explained in John Braheny’s book The Craft and Business of Songwriting (which is available at my Web site


The Producer

Another scenario might be a producer who is getting paid less than this usual rate for his production duties and wants some of the publishing in exchange. Sometimes you might even give band members small amounts of the publishing even though they didn’t write the songs. This could be for the invaluable help of creating the song’s arrangements or just for sticking with you all those years. But in the end, these are all your decisions to make. If someone wants a percentage of your publishing royalties, they believe in your future—they won’t be paid until there’s money coming in. But be aware that there’s only 100%, and if you give it all away to the people who offer to help you, you will have nothing left.


Lis Lewis is a vocal coach in Los Angeles. Her website has all the information a pop singer needs to further their career. Her clients include Rihanna, the Pussycat Dolls, Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, Jack Black, Jimmy Eat World, and the All-American Rejects.

Originally posted 2008-11-16 00:41:48.