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The professional songwriting demo process is a necessary part of the equation for songwriters aspiring to get their material heard by music industry decision-makers and, hopefully, cut by successful recording artists. Despite the fact that hundreds of demos are recorded every week in places like Nashville, New York and Los Angeles, new songwriters often find themselves overwhelmed and a bit intimidated by the prospect of getting their songs demoed and ready for prime time. By highlighting some of the mistakes I’ve encountered in my years of recording songwriter demos, I can hopefully help new songwriters avoid some of the pitfalls that result in either unnecessarily expensive or ineffective recordings.
Mistake #1: The song isn’t finished.
It would seem obvious but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been paid – on the studio clock – for the privilege of watching a client’s finish writing their song in my studio. I do understand why this happens. It’s incredibly exciting to feel like you’ve got a great song on your hands and the temptation is to get it recorded right away even if there’s a “small tweak or two” left to finish. I mean, how long can it take to re-write the second line of the bridge, right? Well, the reality is that when you’re in the studio and the clock is ticking, the environment is a lot more stressful than it is creative.
This is definitely not the ideal place to make sure your lyric is perfect. Unless you’re planning on only being a songwriter for another week or so, be patient, take your time and know that waiting another week – or even another month – to make sure your song is done before you book the studio time is always a good policy. Remember, you’re going to be spending real money on this recording so be as certain as you can that your song is finished before you begin the process of recording.
Mistake #2: You haven’t made a rough recording.
Everyone’s writing process is different and vive la difference BUT one essential part of making sure your song is finished is making a simple rough recording. When I say “simple” and “rough,” I mean recording one instrument – usually guitar or piano – and a vocal into anything from a hand-held recorder to your smart phone. Here’s why. Without listening back to your song from the perspective of an audience member, you’ll miss a critical part of the writing/editing process. It doesn’t matter if you’ve played the song live a hundred times, by sitting back with a lyric sheet and just listening to the song, you’ll notice little flaws and missteps that you might never have heard if you’d been playing and singing.
The rough recording gives you the necessary perspective for those last few adjustments. I’d recommend re-recording your rough every time you think you’ve got the song totally finished. There’s an added benefit as well. Once you’re absolutely satisfied with your final rough recording, you’ll then have something to provide the demo vocalist so they can learn your song and you’ll have a reference for the session musicians when they get to the studio.
Mistake #3: You think the demo will fix what isn’t quite working in your song.
Every once in a while you’ll finish a song and feel like it’s missing a certain something but you’ll convince yourself the song is fine and just needs the full demo treatment to give it what it lacks. My experience is that if you have reservations before you demo, the demo won’t solve the problem. Of course all songs sound better with a full band of great players on them BUT don’t invest that money to fix a problem that most likely needs to be addressed in the melody and/or lyric of the song itself. If you find yourself feeling like your song is missing something and you’re not sure what it is, play it for a trusted friend or put it away for a while and come back to it. Demoing to fix the problem is an expensive way to get unsatisfactory results.
Mistake #4: You think you’ll save money by recording/playing on the demo yourself.
I completely understand the mindset. I did it myself for years. The difference is that I was as passionate about becoming a recording engineer and session musician as I was about writing songs. If you’re only looking at recording and playing on your demos as a way to save money and not to become a professional engineer and session musician, then you’re better off hiring experts. The key is to end up with a recording that marks you as a professional not one that saves you money and isn’t up to par. There’s no point in saving money on a demo that isn’t pitchable.
Take your ego out of the equation. No one else can write your song for you. That’s where you’re the expert but unless you’re also an expert at recording, playing and singing in the studio, it doesn’t make sense to do that part of it yourself. When it comes to making a great first impression with your demo, your recording has to measure up to the highest quality standards and that’s worth paying for. At the end of the day, if you’re trying to make money with your songs then remember it’s a business and you have to invest money in order to make it.
Mistake #5: You decide to record a full-band demo without having a VERY good reason
It’s understood that professionally recorded, full band demos sound amazing BUT it’s also understood that they’re expensive. Sometimes, VERY expensive. Depending on why you’re demoing your song, a simple, professionally performed and recorded guitar/vocal or piano/vocal may very well be all you need. In my opinion, there are only a few reasons to record a full band demo. First, you’ve got a film/tv pitch opportunity and they’re looking for a full-band sound for a particular scene. A second reason would be that you’re planning on using your demo as an artist project for the singer doing the vocal.
For excample, you may be working with a great, young singer and you’re planning on killing two birds with one stone by demoing the song you wrote but also putting together a series of recordings that showcase that singer as an artist. In that case, do it up. You’ll be well served by going all the way with these recordings. That being said, I would strongly suggest not recording a full band demo of every song you write just because you want to. Professionally performed and recorded demos are never inexpensive but you can get more bang for your buck doing simple, clean guitar/vocal demos of several songs in the place of a fully blown out demo of one song.Remember, you can always go back and add more instruments to a professionally recorded, stripped down demo later if the situation warrants.
By avoiding the above mistakes, you will be removing a good deal of angst from the songwriting demo process. It’s always a little stressful getting ready to put your money where your mouth is and the better the decisions you make in advance, the more able you’ll be to enjoy the recording process as you’re going through it.
Cliff Goldmacher is a songwriter, producer, session musician, engineer, author and owner of recording studios in Nashville, TN and Sonoma, CA. Cliff’s site,(CLICK HERE), is full of resources for the aspiring songwriter including monthly online webinars. CLICK HERE for the latest schedule.
Cliff’s company, http://www.NashvilleStudioLive.com, provides songwriters outside of Nashville with virtual access to Nashville’s best session musicians and singers for their songwriting demos.
As a songwriter, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the creativity and excitement of writing and forget about the business side of things.
A lot of times, the very subject of business, royalty splits and copyright can change the atmosphere of the room and dry up whatever creative juices were flowing.
However, it’s important to remember that it’s your copyrights that will get you a publishing deal, a licensing contract, and ultimately, an income in the future. If you don’t legally and properly claim your work, you could be missing out on thousands of dollars worth of opportunities.
Of course, this becomes a little more complicated if you work with other writers or producers to compose songs. Co-writing is pretty common these days among songwriters and the collaboration culture is growing rapidly in today’s music industry. It’s a great way to explore new styles, find inspiration, and discover melodies and grooves you never knew you had in you. However, it also means that all co-writers have a stake in the song and it’s up to you to determine just what percentage each writer owns. These splits will determine the royalties you receive in the future.
The Split Sheet
In the US, in the absence of a written agreement each co-writer automatically owns an equal share in a song. To get around this, you’ll need to create a split sheet putting each songwriter’s ownership down on paper. A split sheet is a short document that details which writer owns what percentage of a song. While it is a legal document, you probably don’t need to hire a lawyer, especially during the early stages of your career; instead, you could download this free template. You’ll need to create a split sheet for every song you write with someone else.
When to Create a Split Sheet
It’s best to create a split sheet up front, right after you’ve completed a song. You want to make it extremely clear who owns what before any income or royalties start flowing in. Often, having real money on the table can complicate things. Not to mention, the writing process will be fresh in your mind and it will be easier to determine the percentages.
If you’ve skipped split sheets on previously co-written songs, you definitely want to make sure you write one up before you enter into negotiations for any kind of license or deal. Publishing companies don’t want to get dragged into a copyright ownership dispute and may not let you sign a contract unless you have it figured out. On top of that, if ownership is not clear, PROs, publishers, or record companies may hold back any royalties your songs are generating to avoid liability.
How to Determine the Splits
There are a few ways to approach this, and it will vary depending on your particular situation. If you’re intent on avoiding confrontation, you could go the easy route and give each contributor equal ownership.For example, if you had two co-writers, it would be split 50/50 between the two of you for the writer’s portion.
Another option is to give each writer a percentage equal to their contribution. This is where things can get a little tricky. If you simply measure by the length of each contribution, the person who wrote the hook may only get 10% or 15%. However, most people consider the hook the most important part of a song and believe it deserves a much larger percentage. With that in mind, you need to evaluate each contribution by its length and value to the overall song. If you’re working with a producer, the genre will largely determine their ownership. For the most part, hip-hop and urban producers will get a higher percentage than other genres with jazz and classical producers receiving little to no ownership.
How to Write a Split Sheet
You can certainly write up your own split sheet. As long as all the information is there, it’s a perfectly legal document. Create a template in Word with labeled fields and space to fill in the song name, the contributing writers, their PRO and publishing company, their role in the song creation (producer, writer, etc.), address and contact information, the percentage of the song each writer owns, and a signature for each writer. Or download our free template. Once you have this template, you can simply make copies to fill out every time you collaborate on a new song.
Sit down with your co-writers and fill it out together. Once finished, make sure each writer has signed the sheet and are given a copy of the final split sheet.
If you’d like to learn even more great strategies, check out this free video lesson series. You’ll meet some of our students who are seeing real results and success and go through their winning strategies.
Of course, if you want to be a successful songwriter, you’ll need to go above and beyond split sheets and learn how to promote and license your music. In the New Artist Model online music business courses you’ll learn how to turn your music into a successful business. You’ll create an actionable and personalized plan that will help you achieve a career in music, and you’ll be able to do it all with the resources you have available right now.
Author bio:Dave Kusek is a digital cowboy, consultant, teacher, entrepreneur, musician, marketer, co-author of Future of Music, founder of Berklee Online, and the driving force behind New Artist Model.
The term “publishing”, most simply, means the business of song copyrights. A songwriter owns 100% of his song copyright and all the related publishing rights until the writer signs those rights away. Under the law, copyright (literally, the right to make and sell copies) automatically vests in the author or creator the moment the expression of an idea is “fixed in a tangible medium.” (i.e., the moment it is written down or recorded on tape.) With respect to recorded music, there are really two copyrights: a copyright in the musical composition owned by the songwriter and a copyright in the sound of the recording owned by the recording artist (but usually transferred to the record company when a record deal is signed).
A writer owns the copyright in his work the moment he writes it down or records it, and by law can only transfer those rights by signing a written agreement to transfer them. Therefore, a songwriter must be wary of any agreement he or she is asked to sign. Although it is not necessary, it is advisable to place a notice of copyright on all copies of the work. This consists of the symbol “c” or the word “copyright”, the author’s name, and the year in which the work was created, for example: ” (c) John Doe 2014.”
The filing of a copyright registration form in Washington D.C. gives additional protection in so far as it establishes a record of the existence of such copyright and gives the creator the presumption of validity in the event of a lawsuit. Registration also allows for lawsuits to be commenced in Federal court and, under Federal law, allows an award of attorneys fees to the prevailing party. To order forms and for additional information on copyright registration call (202) 707-9100 or go to www.loc.gov\copyrights. These days a songwriter can even register on line.
As defined by the copyright law, the word “publish” most simply means “distribution of copies of a work to the public by sale or other transfer of ownership, or by rental lease, or lending”. As a practical matter, music publishing consists primarily of all administrative duties, exploitation of copyrights, and collection of monies generated from the exploitation of those copyrights. If a writer makes a publishing deal and a publisher takes on these responsibilities then it “administers” the compositions. Administrative duties range from filing all the necessary registrations (i.e., copyright forms) to answering inquiries regarding the musical compositions.
One of the most important functions of music publishers is exploitation of a composition or “plugging” a song. Exploitation simply means seeking out different uses for musical compositions. Sometimes a music publisher will have professional quality demos prepared and send them to artists and producers to try to secure recordings. They also use these tapes to secure usage in the television, film and advertising industries.
Equally important as exploitation is the collection of monies earned by these musical usages. There are two primary sources of income for a music publisher: earnings that come from record sales (i.e., mechanical royalties) and revenues that come from broadcast performances (i.e., performance royalties). Mechanical royalties are collected directly from the record companies and paid to the publisher. Performance royalties are collected by performing rights organizations – ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC – and then distributed proportionably to the publisher and to the songwriter. In addition to plugging and administrative functions, it is also important to know that there is a creative side to music publishing. Since producing hit songs is in the best interest of both the writer and the publisher, good music publishers have whole departments devoted to helping writers grow and develop. The creative staff finds and signs new writers, works with them to improve their songs, pairs them up creatively with co-writers and hopes the outcome will be hit records.
A publishing deal concerns rights and revenues. If a writer decides to do a publishing deal then the main issue for negotiation is going to be the language pertaining to the calculation and division of the rights in the copyright and division of the monies earned. In the old days, most deals were 100% copyright to the publisher and 50/50 share of the revenues because there was a concept that the “writer’s share” was 50% and the “publisher’s share” was 50%. This, of course, was an invention of the publishers. Legally, these terms have no such inherent meaning but their calculation is defined in each individual agreement. Most modern publishing deals, however, are referred to as “co-publishing” deals where the copyrights are co-owned 50/50 and the monies are usually calculated at around 75/25 meaning the writer gets 100% of the 50% writer’s share and 50% of the publisher’s 50% share for a total of 75%.
It is best for the writer to insist that all calculations be made “at source” so that there are not too many charges and fees deducted off-the-top before the 75% calculation is made. Keep in mind, however, that the advance paid to the writer by the publisher is later recouped by the publisher out of the writer’s share of income from the song. So, the net business effect is that the publisher pays the writer with the writer’s own money to buy a share of the copyright (and the right to future income) from the writer.
Although a writer can be his own publisher and retain 100% of the money, the larger publishers in the music business usually pay substantial advance payments to writers in order to induce them to sign a portion of their publishing rights to the publisher – and this can be a good thing for the writer. Although a deal for a single song may be done with little or no advance payment (provided there is a reversion of the song to the writer if no recording is released within a year or two), there should be a substantial advance paid ($5,000-$100,000+) to a writer for any publishing deal with a longer term (e.g., 3-5 years or more). Moreover, sometimes the length of an agreement is more than just a function of time, it might also be determined based on the number of songs delivered by the writer or, even more difficult to calculate, based on the number of songs that get recorded and released on a major label (something neither the writer nor the publisher may have any control over).
Publishing deals have to do with more than just the money though. Since every music publisher is different, it is important for the songwriter to assess both the business and the creative sides of a music publisher before signing any deal. Ultimately, the songwriter is trading a share of something the writer already owns 100% of (the copyright) so it is important to be mindful of what it is exchanged for by way of services and money.
Wallace Collins is an entertainment lawyer based om New York. He was a recording artist for Epic Records before attending Fordham Law School. Tel:(212) 661-3656 /www.wallacecollins.com