Friday, December 16, 2011

Songwriter Contracts

This is a reposting of an original 2009 blog post. This post was the start of a project exploring songwriter contracts. I never finished the project and am reposting this original post to kick start the project anew.

Today I had the pleasure to meet with a few Nashville Songwriters at the Country Music Hall of Fame. I was there to offer my services in a pro bono clinic as part of the For All campaign of the Tennessee Bar Association (TBA). This clinic was co-sponsored by the TBA's Entertainment and Sports Law Committee and the Arts & Business Council of Greater Nashville's Volunteer Lawyers and Professionals for the Arts (formerly the Tennessee Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts).

One of the questions I received regarded the distinctions between the types of songwriter contracts. That got me thinking that I should post a quick outline regarding the the different types of songwriter contracts. This just scraches the surface. But I plan on building on this post in the weeks to come.

When a person speaks of a “songwriter agreement” or “songwriter contract” they are referring to a contract entered into between a songwriter and a music publisher. Music publishers, as many of you know, act on behalf of songwriters to get their written songs “cut” (i.e., recorded on an album). This is known as “plugging.” Publishers also take care of all the administrative work related to plugging. This can include registering songs with the U.S. Copyright Office, issuing licenses, and accounting for royalties.

There are several types of songwriter agreements. Generally they are
1. Single Song Agreements
2. Exclusive Songwriting Agreements
3. Co-Publishing Agreements and
4. Administration Agreements

Single Song Agreements
Under a Single-Song Agreement, the songwriter transfers copyright ownership of specifically identified song(s) to the publisher. These are “non-exclusive” agreements because there is no term. In other words, these agreements are simply a one-time “sale” where the copyright is transferred from the Songwriter to the Publisher. The songs must already be in existence and are specifically identified in the contract.

Exclusive Songwriter Agreements
The main difference between exclusive songwriter agreements and single song agreements is that in an exclusive songwriter agreement the songwriter is transferring to the publisher copyright ownership of all songs written during the duration of the contract. Further distinguishing these types of agreements from single song agreements is that under an exclusive songwriter agreement the songwriter usually receives an advance that is recoupable from future royalties.

Co-Publishing Agreements
Under a co-publishing agreement, two or more parties (usually the songwriter and their publisher) share ownership of songs. In the typical co-publishing agreement, the songwriter transfers partial copyright ownership to the publisher and retain part ownership either in themselves or in their own publishing company. The songwriter’s independent publisher will have administration duties under this type of contract. The provisions of co-publishing agreements are usually very similar to those of exclusive songwriting agreements.
The main difference is that the songwriter will receive both the songwriter’s share of royalties (usually 50% of net royalties) and a cut of the publisher’s share the royalties (usually 25% of the net royalties).

Administration Agreements
Administration agreements are service contracts between the songwriter (or writer’s publishing company) and a publisher or administrator. These type of agreements are usually, although not always, reserved for established songwriters. In an administrative agreement a songwriter will pay up to 25% of net royalties for the administrative services of a music publisher. The important distinction between this type of agreement and the other types above is that the songwriter does not transfer any copyright ownership to the publisher.

On and off over the next few months I will be highlighting issues and pitfalls regarding these songwriter contracts. For those of you who are unfamiliar with songwriters and music publishers I suggest you check out the Nashville Songwriters Association International.


  1. Under a Single-Song Agreement, the songwriter transfers copyright ownership of specifically identified song(s) to the publisher. These are “non-exclusive” agreements because there is no term. If they add "in perpetuity" onto this clause, it appears to me that the songwriter is relinquishing all future rights I right? or does this need further clarification?

  2. Hi Kenneth, could you please tell me what bullet points are discussed in an Exclusive Publishing contract that is different from a Single Song Agreement, other than the advance and term?

  3. i found this very usful because i am dong a piece for my college work on songwriter contracts, but i am stuck on how you would be paid, im guessing it would be diffrent for each "agreement" ?

  4. I really dig the reviews, opinions, and tips about writing music. It’s a hard thing to progress at and sites like this help. Great post, keep up the good work. Thanks. IStillGotMyGuitar