Should Songwriters Share Their Royalties With Musicians?

Musician Composing Music.
vgajic/E+/Getty Images

Want to really make some real money in the music industry? Don't be the person who performs the song that stays on top of the charts week after week—be the person who wrote it. That statement is meant to be a bit tongue in cheek—but just a bit. In reality, it's absolutely true that the person who writes a song has many more avenues available to them to make money from a song than do the musicians who perform it.

It's not necessarily an unfair thing. In fact, if you're a musician who performs songs your label, manager, or someone else has made a deal with a music publisher for you to record, you might not give it much thought at all. Sure, your contribution is an important part of the equation when it comes to making money off a song—the way you perform the song is a big part of what sells it—but you get paid for your performances through album sales and live shows, and the songwriter gets their mechanical royalties, performance rights royalties, and so on.

When the Songwriter is in the Band

Things get a little trickier, however, when the songwriter is IN the band. Let's say your drummer writes all of the songs your band performs. Here is how the scenario could potentially go: you record an album filled with your drummer's compositions. You all share in an advance and royalties from album sales. You also share in income made during live shows while performing those songs and all of the other bits of income made along the way like the money from the t-shirts your fans want to buy from you because they love your music.

Sounds fine, right? Well, on top of that, your drummer is due mechanical royalties,​ performance rights, and maybe other payments that are due to them as a songwriter that you don't get a share in at all. That is the rub for a lot of bands and in fact, many a band relationship has blown up over this very fact.

What do you do when one member of your band is making more than you off the songs you share? Different groups approach this in different ways. For some songwriters, the choice is easy—they simply share all of the royalties they make equally with their bandmates. For other songwriters, its hands off, that money is mine.

You may be asking yourself at this point which approach is best. The truth is that there are no easy answers. Songwriters who are also musicians ARE carrying an extra burden by being responsible for writing the material. The contribution of the rest of the band is absolutely critical, though—a song without a musician to perform it is not really worth much. The only answer is to decide what feels right for your band and stick to it.

Make a Contract

Most importantly, put your decision in writing. Contracts between friends can sometimes seem weird, but they really are important when it comes to protecting both your business and your friendships. No one can act surprised when the money starts coming in if you've hammered out all of the potential disagreements before hand (and hammering out those details is a whole lot easier to do BEFORE you start seeing any cash).

It is also important to always be very clear about exactly WHO is considered the songwriter for a particular track.

That's easy if one person always writes the songs without any input, but as others add their ideas to a song, you may be surprised how easy one person's passing suggestion is another person's full collaboration. If you think you've co-written a song with someone, make sure they see it that, too, and that it gets registered as such.

The bottom line? Things can get a little tricky when the band has one songwriter, but as along as you keep the lines of communication open, it doesn't have to become a make-it-or-break-it issue.