Breaking Songwriting Barriers

You have the lyrics, you have developed the hook, and now you need a vehicle to deliver your work to the right people, in the right places and at the right time. Most of us recognize that the entertainment industry is ever-changing and always unpredictable, but in the right hands, the potential for a song’s exposure dramatically increases.

So, how do you progress from simply writing tunes in your bedroom to getting the attention your lyrics deserve? First, ask yourself, “Who’s in my corner?” One of the most critical decisions a songwriter must make is the selection of a music publisher. This is the person who may assume the role of manager, agent and sometimes, lawyer. The publisher is generally the one who will assist with copyright registrations and policing of those registrations; registering songs with ASCAP, BMI, the Harry Fox Agency and other royalty collection agencies; arranging for various uses for the songs (e.g. in television, motion pictures, radio commercials, etc.); securing professional recordings of the songs; negotiating fees, issuing licenses and ensuring that accurate fees are timely received (among many other tasks). Selecting a publisher, however, is no simple task. Songwriters must research and educate themselves on the various publishing entities and select a publisher that not only best fits their needs, but one that presents opportunities that may otherwise be unavailable. In other words, a successful selection would include a publisher who is reputable in the industry and has the capability to properly promote the songs. Of course, the publisher has to want to work with the songwriter, as well. Remember – making an uninformed and uneducated decision about a publisher can have devastating consequences that can affect the songwriter financially and interfere with his or her creative abilities. Even an otherwise flawless contract can be harmful if it is executed by a publishing company who lacks the ability to effectively promote and represent the songwriter’s material.

Coupled with the difficulty in selecting the publisher to work with is the fact that most publishers do not accept unsolicited submissions. As such, songwriters should familiarize themselves and become acquainted with the attorneys, agents and managers that have been successful in the business (and the particular aspects you are trying to pursue) and attempt to get their materials to those individuals for review. For those publishers that will accept unsolicited materials, remember that your material should stand out to draw in the person reviewing it. Recordings should be professional and you should not inundate the publisher’s staff with a lot of material. Pick a few of your best songs and submit them along with any relevant information (e.g. song names with timing indicated, a lyric sheet, contact information, etc.). Also, do not be afraid to add a note about any success you have had thus far (e.g. placement in a TV or radio commercial).

Assuming a songwriter has found a publisher that he or she wants to work with and the feeling is mutual, the next decision is also a very important one – agreeing to the terms of the publishing contract. Similar to the industry itself, these agreements are always changing and generally each publishing company operates under its own agreement. There are two basic types of publishing agreements: (1) individual song contracts and (2) exclusive songwriter’s contracts. Since the latter version is generally reserved for established writers with a successful track record, I will comment here on the first type – the individual song contract. In this type of agreement the songwriter assigns the copyright of a particular song (or songs) to the publisher for a minimal amount of money. The central advantage of this type of agreement is that the songwriter retains the rights to all other songs and the option to work with other publishers on any other material. Generally a publisher will not sign a songwriter to this type of deal if he or she does not see the potential of the particular song (or songs) that pertain to the individual song contract. As such, the songwriter can take comfort in knowing that the publisher intends to promote the song(s).

Alternatively, songwriters can always try to co-write with another songwriter who is already signed exclusively to a music publisher. This presents many opportunities to the “amateur” song-writer, including the possibility of executing a similar, exclusive agreement with that publishing company. An exclusive agreement opens the doors to greater exposure (e.g. motion picture, commercial, and television placement), advances, and the like.

As a side note, just like any other business, the entertainment business is a lot about networking and who you know. To the extent you can attend songwriting conferences and other entertainment-related seminars, do so. These present fantastic opportunities to learn about the industry trends and current debates, and to meet people active in the industry. There are many trade associations and organizations that arrange these types of events and you should always be on the lookout for events taking place in your area. Many times, these events bring out the people that you would otherwise be unable to meet as an unsigned songwriter.

This article simply touches on the complexities involved with the publishing side of the music business and the relationship between the songwriter and publisher. Hopefully it gives the songwriter some insight as to a few important steps to be taken in developing songwriting into a career.

By: Michelle M. Wahl, Esq.

Image courtesy of Renjith Krishnan at

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Michelle is a Partner at Swanson, Martin & Bell, LLP and is licensed in Illinois and Indiana state and federal courts. With a Masters of Law in Intellectual Property, Michelle is the Vice Chair of the firm’s Entertainment and Media Practice Group and a member of the firm’s Intellectual Property Litigation and Transactional Services Practice Group. Her copyright and trademark practice focuses on intellectual property prosecution and related transactions, including performing trademark availability searches and providing advisory opinions, as well as preparing and filing trademark applications with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and copyright registrations with the United States Copyright Office. Michelle also assists with the oversight of the firm’s extensive trademark docket and conducts required monitoring and maintenance of clients’ trademark portfolios, as well as provides clients with corporate counseling and innovative corporate solutions to address their respective needs.

Michelle further provides comprehensive representation in the drafting, negotiating and executing of various entertainment-related contracts and licenses, including but not limited to band member agreements, artist management agreements, session player agreements, performance agreements, sound engineer agreements, recording and personal services agreements, publishing agreements and licensing agreements. As a former artist manager, she has implemented many facets of national and regional tours, assembled benefit and charity concerts, communicated with various industry personnel, facilitated radio and internet publicity campaigns, arranged radio, print and internet interviews, and assisted in the development of press kits and websites promoting local talent. Michelle has also guest lectured on entertainment and intellectual property-related topics at The John Marshall Law School, DePaul University College of Law, Chicago-Kent College of Law and Azusa Pacific University (CA), as well as served as a panelist on various other entertainment-related continuing legal education courses. Michelle is an author and editor of the Litigation and Industry Updates Column of the ABA’s Entertainment & Sports Lawyers Journal and has also had numerous articles published by the Chicago Music Guide.

In addition, Michelle serves as Chair of Swanson Martin & Bell, LLP’s Community Service/Pro Bono Committee and proudly volunteers her time as President of the Associate Board and as a pro bono attorney to Lawyers for the Creative Arts, a non-profit organization that provides free legal services to eligible clients in all areas of the arts. She also currently serves as Events Chair for the Chicago Chapter of Women in Music, a non-for-profit organization dedicated to fostering equality in the music industry through the support and advancement of women. She recently served as Chair of the Young Lawyers Division for the Illinois Association of Defense Trial Counsel, where she was recognized as the Rising Star recipient and received a Meritorious Service Award and President’s Commendation.

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in these articles constitutes general information and guidance and shall not be construed as legal advice applicable to or provided for any particular person or entity, and shall not be deemed to create an attorney-client relationship between Ms. Wahl and anyone who elects to read and/or rely, to any extent, on the material provided herein. In that respect, Ms. Wahl hereby expressly and specifically disclaims any such legal relationship, but encourages any person or entity seeking a legal advocate pertaining to the issues addressed and discussed herein to contact her directly for further information. Ms. Wahl may be reached at Swanson, Martin & Bell, LLP (330 N. Wabash, Suite 3300, Chicago, IL 60611 or via telephone at her direct line: (312) 222-8585 or e-mail at: