Songwriter Basics

One of my original songs from YouTube

Publishing Legalities

If you write songs you also are copyrighting songs. Each time you compose a song it is a copyright work of art. It is not necessarily published, nor is it even protected in a court of law if someone decides to steal all or part of it. If you want to be sure you are protected it is best to register the copyright with the Copyright Office in Washington, DC. Their website is Copyright.gov. If you ever need to legally challenge an attempt to steal one of your compositions, you will need to have the song registered with the Copyright Office.

To be up to date, be sure to check with the Copyright Office before you enter into any recording contract or before you place the song with a publisher. A publisher is the company or individual who makes copies of your song available, or promotes it for singers or bands or use in movies or commercials and TV. The publisher generally owns half of the total income from the song. In the publishing world there is a 200% approach in deciding ownership of the song. The writer or writers own 100% of the writer's income from the song. The publisher owns 100% of the publishing income. If there are two writers they each own 50% of the writer's income. Sometimes a publisher will make a totally different arrangement for the ownership if all parties are in agreement.

Broadcast Music or BMI is an organization which represents publishers and writers. American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, also known as ASCAP is also an organization for writers and publishers. There is one other such organization in the US. It is called SESAC. Follow those links to learn how to join one of those organizations.

Song titles cannot be copyrighted, but you will definitely run into trouble if you try to capitalize on a title which has become a part of the mainstream language and which is instantly identified as being another song or a trademark. You could write a song called "Tell Me Why" and not have much fear of anyone taking legal action. The reason is there have been many hit songs with the title of Tell Me Why. The Beatles had a song with that title. The Ames Brothers had a hit song with that title and Elvis had a hit with that title. All different songs. One more can't hurt. There's a good song title, "One More Can't Hurt."

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Money Expectations

How much will you make with your next hit song? It all depends on many things, of course. If your song ends up in a movie or in a commercial you will probably be able to buy Fort Knox. Let's assume you have a song which sells exactly one million copies and never gets played on the radio or TV. If you do not own the publishing, but you own all 100% of the writing, you will receive Mechanical Royalties of about $50,000. The Mechanical Royalty for manufacturing one CD is about 10 cents per song, with half going to the publisher and half to the writer. If your song gets lots of airplay you will receive a royalty check from BMI or ASCAP or SESAC. It could be any amount and it could continue to roll in every year.

I am my own publisher. I own Schmerdley Publishing which is a BMI publisher. I have had the company probably for 40 or more years. Most years I made nothing. In 1988 and 1989 I appeared on The Gong Show 13 times plus the pilot. I used 9 original songs on that show. I won the show a couple of times. I always did comedy things which were not high class at all. When my song was played, if at least 45 seconds was played, I received the "Full Boat." At that time it was about $8 per song per station. That show was on more than 200 stations. If they used my song after my act to play as an instrumental bumper, I received more money. In a few months on that show I did make several thousand dollars, more than what I was receiving as an AFTRA performer which was also very nice.

I knew a man in Newhall California who was a great songwriter. I did two shows with him late in his life. He wrote "It Is No Secret," "Remember Me, I'm The One Who Loves You" and "This Old House." All those songs were big hits and were recorded by many people. His biggest moneymaking song, however, was not well known. It was called "I Won't Go Huntin' With You Jake." It was never a radio hit. The reason it was such a good money song is because it was on the flip side of a vinyl recording by Jimmy Dean called "Big, Bad John." That record sold more than ten million copies.

The songwriter's name is Stuart Hamblen. He gained fame as a cowboy radio star in the 1930s in Los Angeles.

Songwriting can be lucrative, but it requires you not just to be able to write songs, but sell your song. Good luck.