For many songwriters, dealing with the day-to-day affairs of the music industry can seem like a lot. But understanding the complexities of song registration, rights management, and royalty collection are essential to getting paid in full. This is why every songwriter—even those with a manager who handles the business side—should have a solid awareness of these processes.
There are so many moving parts with song registration that songwriters are often unaware when issues are afoot and they’re missing out on the money they’re owed. Figuring out how to ensure that their songs are correctly credited/listed/registered can be an intimidating process, and without prioritizing the steps the MMF shares below, it’s possible those funds can go astray.
Annabella Coldrick is the CEO of the Music Managers Forum (MMF), an organization that provides educational support and resources to more than 1,250 members, ranging from those managing smaller artists to the managers of global-reaching artists like Paul McCartney and Gorillaz. And with 80 percent of the MMF’s music manager membership managing at least one songwriter, Annabella has seen first-hand how properly registering songs can significantly benefit songwriters and their teams. In 2019, they first published The $ong Royalties Guide to better inform managers on how artists and songwriters get paid, and how the system can be improved.
Spotify sat down with Annabella to discuss the vital role that song registration plays in helping songwriters to get paid.
Can you tell us a bit about the MMF’s efforts to educate managers about the ins and outs of song registration and royalties?
We started a project called Dissecting the Digital Dollar about six years ago now, trying to understand, particularly looking at streaming, how streaming services were licensed and what the challenges were.
But unlike with recording artists’ deals songwriting is more embedded in previous structures of copyright and collective management. Song rights were traditionally licensed to radio, and for live music and CDs, on a territory-by-territory basis, and in many cases this approach had been applied to streaming, especially outside of Europe. So you have radio play in Australia, in Brazil, in the U.K., and therefore your money is all going through the local collecting society and the local publisher, and you are then waiting for that money to come back to you. In a physical world 20 years ago, it was probably still annoying, but people were used to it and understood that you wouldn't get your money instantaneously.
In what other ways does this affect songwriter royalties?
We're now in a digital world where artists can see immediately that they’ve had a million streams. You can understand why songwriters are saying “Well, hang on a minute, I'm checking my royalty statements and I don't seem to have gotten anywhere near enough money for the million streams I've had around the world. Where on earth is it?”
As we started to delve into that, we started mapping out what we call song royalty chains. You might have streams in 30 different countries, and all those countries will have local people collecting your money, matching your data, and sending it back through the system. That takes an awfully long time—sometimes up to two years or longer—and that's only if the data is correct.
So, the research we did was to try and understand why songwriters feel so aggrieved. We can see the money coming in now from streaming, and the artist can see the money coming in on the recorded side…why are the songwriters really not seeing that? And some of it has to do with what share goes to the songwriter side. Considerably more streaming income is allocated to recordings than songs, sometimes because of copyright law, though more often because of industry conventions. That said, there are some other big issues too—after all, the percentage share received by songwriters on streams is bigger than what they received on physical. Plus, because of unbundling, revenues are now weighted towards songwriters whose work is popular. Under the old system, royalties from album sales weren’t allocated on a track-by-track basis and every songwriter shared equally even if one song was more popular.. Parts of it also come down to delays related to regional licensing and also the data they’d use.
You mention incorrect data as a reason for lost royalties. Are there other scenarios that lead to money not reaching songwriters?
Because there are so many parties involved, it's super important that when you write a song, you are really clear on what the splits are because if that information isn’t accurately logged into the music industry’s database, there is a high chance no one will get paid. And if a song was written with three people, is it three people absolutely equally who share in the proceeds of that song? Has one person contributed more than others? Did they come in with an 80% finished song and then they got some other people to help contribute?
There's a great project called the Credits Due initiative, trying to ensure that for all new recordings there is much better song data—not only agreements between writers, but making sure that all that data is ingested early and certainly as the song is released, which is the ideal (scenario).
Unfortunately, so much of the time recording artists can actually release a song without having agreed to songwriting splits. So there are songs that are still not registered, by artists that don't necessarily have publishers…the writers might not even be members of societies…and yet the songs are out there streaming. So it is hugely important, obviously at the start, to settle that.
Songwriters are the bedrock of the music business, if they're not properly compensated then it's hugely problematic.
What leads to a great working relationship between songwriters and their managers?
It’s interesting because there are as many types of songwriters as there are people. And it will depend on their income stream. Depending on their style of music they write, their aspirations, their earnings, they need to look for managers who have skill sets in those areas. For example, if writing is only one of the things you do and it earns 5% of your income and the rest of it is from touring or is from doing brand deals, you probably don't want someone who's just an expert in songwriting.
It's also important that songwriters and their managers are educated in understanding and asking some questions of their own royalty chains. If they’ve had 10 million streams around the world, how long will these royalties take to get back to them from different marketplaces? What are the routes they’re coming down? If the songwriters don't know that there are disputes over who owns a song copyright or how the copyright is split between collaborators, which will likely stop payments, it's very hard for them or their manager to try and resolve them.
And it’s often not because the writers don’t agree amongst themselves. It's because it’s this hugely complicated set of different intermediaries and different registrations, different publishers being involved, and writers changing publishers or societies…it leads to this data soup. And so we would urge all writers, no matter how experienced, to be checking the publicly available databases that they do have. In the U.S., you can check The MLC, even if you're a tiny writer. If you're an enormous one, don't rely purely on your publisher.
What changes have you advocated for when it comes to song registration and royalties?
We're U.K. based, so we’re involved in lots of roundtable discussions with the U.K. government about whether they can push for more legislative or industry codes of practice to improve the systems and the transparency.
One of the things we'd like to see is not allowing tracks to be released until splits are agreed to and they’re registered. That's getting nearer to something that could be considered, because it's now quicker to get song registrations done. It used to take months. People don't want to wait two or three months to make sure we've got all the correct codes in place on the writing side in order to be able to release it. They're like, “We want it out there.” That process is getting easier. * To learn more about the process of how songwriters get paid, check out the MMF’s $ong Royalties Guide *