How Songwriters Make Money Writing Songs

Ever wondered how songwriters make money? How much songs may earn per stream, and how songwriters break into the industry? In the following article, we’re going to delve into the world of songwriting, and in particular how to make money writing songs, along with additional information on the business side of songwriting.

Is there money to be made writing songs?

Ever since I received a handful of royalty checks in the mail, all the way back in 2005 (for an EP I had done a lot of the writing on), I’ve been interested in how to make money writing songs.

In my case, the earnings were hardly enough to begin seriously thinking in terms of a career, but it lit a spark that I know many others share.

Music is everywhere

While it’s incredibly competitive, the music industry is huge, with annual global revenue estimated to be as high as $25.9bn as of 2021. Americans listen to, on average, 4.5 hours of music per day and that’s just the music we choose to listen to.

Music is also a major player in television, film, and advertising, not to mention video games, and more. Music is everywhere and it’s a big business.

How To Write Songs that Resonate

Smiling man listening to music through headphones

If you write songs, while you should always aim to develop yourself as a more well-rounded musician, your primary focus is best spent honing your craft e.g. writing songs, lots of them.

With this in mind, before we dive into the specifics of how to make money writing songs, below are a few points to focus on as a songwriter that will give your songs a better chance of resonating with the typical listener.

  • Listen to lots of great music e.g. music that inspires you, along with what’s popular, especially in your chosen genre e.g. create a playlist of music that is similar to what you are trying to do and study it.
  • Learn to analyze and understand what makes some songs great.
  • Be very targeted in your writing e.g. write for a specific genre or have a specific artist in mind.
  • Focus on writing hooks e.g. ensure the phrasing and phonetics of your vocal melodies are prioritized over lyrics.
  • Get to the hook of the song quickly e.g. within the first 30 – 40 seconds.
  • Write in a commercially successful format:
    • Write songs between 3 – 4 minutes in length. Successful songs are usually never more than 4 minutes.
    • Write songs between 120 – 140 BPM as most commercially successful songs are usually within this range.
    • Write songs that contain no more than 4 parts e.g. song structures that are too sophisticated are usually not memorable unless talking about Bohemian Rhapsody.
  • Write relatable lyrics e.g. lyrics and themes people can connect with, but remember melody is far more important than the lyrical content.

Of course, rules are made to be broken and great music is rarely formulaic. But, working within a framework can also be liberating, as there’s nothing more frightening for many than a blank sheet of paper and no idea where to start.

How Songwriters Make Money

A Buskers Guitar Case With Coins

So let’s say you already have a catalog of great songs. How do you go about earning an income from them?

In rare cases, songwriters make money in the form of an advance e.g. a front-end fee (more akin to a loan) paid by a publishing company or record label. Others receive compensation as independent musicians in the form of royalties paid by end users for the use of the songwriter’s copyright material.

Being realistic, unless you’ve carved out a reputation as a seriously good songwriter, or have industry connections, harboring ambitions of becoming an in-house writer or signed artist is unrealistic.

When first starting out you will typically be working as an indie musician (independent) essentially running a small business, so understanding the different royalty payments associated with songwriting and how they apply are important.

Royalties

A royalty is essentially a form of payment provided for the licensed use of something (e.g. a song that is streamed) or derivative works e.g. a sample taken from copyrighted material.

Below are the most common types of royalties that relate to independent songwriters:

Performance Royalties

Songwriters receive performance royalties when a song they have written is performed. This doesn’t just include live performance, it also includes digital performances e.g. streaming, broadcast media e.g. your music is played on the radio, and music licensing for businesses e.g. your music is played at a venue e.g. a bar or restaurant.

Sync Licensing

Sync licensing (short for synchronization) refers to licensing music for syncing with media e.g. film and TV, along with video games and other forms of multimedia.

If the sound recording is used e.g. as might be the case for TV advertising a royalty is also paid to the sound recording copyright holder.

Mechanical Royalties

Mechanical royalties refer to the reproduction of a product. This was mostly associated with music that was reproduced in a physical format before the emergence of streaming technologies e.g. CD, cassette, or vinyl.

However, downloads from streaming platforms are also considered a reproduction of the original song. Be aware however that downloading a song is not the same as streaming which pays a much smaller amount, however, pays per stream.

Protecting Your Music – Copyright

Copyright

Before you attempt to earn money from your songs, you need to own the rights to your songs. This prevents other people from using your intellectual property without your permission.

Fortunately, as soon as you finish writing a song it is protected under copyright law, however, proving you own the rights to the song is another story.

Proof of Ownership

I’m certainly not a lawyer, but the reality is you need to prove ownership of the music you create by having a tangible example of your original work e.g. a sound recording, the written music, or lyrics.

The simplest way to get around this is to have a timestamped recording of the song. The metadata accompanying an audio file includes the date it was created. However, as this can be manipulated there are additional steps you can take.

For example, in the United States, you should also register with copyright.gov which offers additional protections.

Also, keep in mind, that you can’t copyright a chord progression or something as generic as a simple title.

Organizing your Digital Audio Files

If you are anything like me and have a large catalog of music you have written over many years may want to consider how you are storing and organizing your files.

For example, do you have a backup of your exported files? as well as the song’s stems? If so are they backed up offsite e.g. in the cloud?

If you had to prove ownership of a song, could you easily retrieve the original demo recording?

While the metadata associated with the file is useful, keeping your digital files organized is important. I use a folder system for each song I write that includes demo recordings, lyrics, and any completed recordings.

I upload all of these to Google Drive which allows me to retain a copy even if my computer suffered a catastrophic breakdown or my house happened to catch on fire.

This may not seem as important if you have only written a couple of songs up to this point, but think ahead and have a system in place. Losing copies of songs you have written can be hard to take.

Types of Copyright

Songs are protected by two forms of copyright: compositional copyright and sound recording copyright.

Compositional copyright protects the composition of the song, e.g the music, and lyrics, while sound recording copyright protects the master file e.g. a recorded performance of the song.

So, for example, if someone attempted to claim your song as their own or borrow elements (e.g. rip-off) parts of the song without permission, this would fall under compositional copyright.

If the published works e.g. a sound recording were copied and distributed this would fall under the protections of the master, or sound recording copyright.

The sound recording rights owner is usually the party responsible for producing the published work e.g. the producer, or record label.

As a songwriter, compositional copyright protects your work and prevents others from unlawfully profiting from its use.

The rights to a song may be split between one or more songwriters, and may also be distributed proportionately to the overall contribution of each individual involved e.g. the main architect of the song might receive a larger percentage of royalties.

How Do Songwriters Collect Royalties?

To get paid, songwriters require a way to collect royalties for the licensed use of their songs. Fortunately, there are organizations that collect and distribute that money to copyright holders.

PRO (performing rights organizations)

The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers

PRO’s work for both creators and business owners, essentially distributing licenses to businesses that play music and then collecting performance royalties on behalf of the compositional copyright holder/s. As explained above, this includes public performances e.g. streaming, radio broadcasts, and live performances.

So, for example, venues that play licensed music must pay a fee for the music they play at their venue. The owner of your favorite restaurant or bar cannot legally play music e.g. an Apple Music playlist over a stereo system to entertain patrons.

It is also illegal to publicly broadcast music that has been purchased e.g. a purchased download, as the license attached to the sale of the song entitles personal use only. Fortunately, many of the larger streaming platforms offer business solutions.

For songwriters to collect performance royalties they must register with a performing rights organization, (ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC within the U.S.) that distribute the money collected for licensing to the copyright holder e.g. you, the songwriter.

Music Publishing and Distribution

Music Publishing

Music Publishing Company Logos (Warner, BMG, Universal, and Sony)

Music publishing companies collect royalties for a song’s composition. They represent the songwriter and differ from record labels which collect royalties from the sound recording.

The advantage of a publisher is the company you are affiliated with is incentivized to promote you e.g. pitch your music to labels and artists, as performance royalties are split between the publisher and songwriter based on agreed terms between both parties.

However, being realistic for a moment, as an independent songwriter you will usually also take on the role of publisher yourself, and therefore will be responsible for collecting royalties and promoting your music independently.

There can be confusion around what differentiates a record label and a music publisher because in many cases, record labels also have a publishing division. However, they operate as separate entities and have different administrators.

Music Distribution

Music Distribution Companies (CD Baby, Distrokid, Landr, and Tunecore)

Music distribution services including Tunecore, Distrokid, and CD Baby (amongst many others) effectively take your master and distribute it to the major streaming platforms e.g. Apple Music, Spotify, etc., and collect sound recording royalties on your behalf, allowing you to get paid for streams of your songs.

However, bear in mind you would need close to 1 million streams per month to establish a decent living.

I’ve written fairly extensively on using distribution services to get your music on the major streaming platforms if interested in learning more.

Production Values

Phew. While the issue of copyright and royalties is important, producing your music and finding a market for it is far more interesting.

But first, are you producing music intending to release it independently e.g. using a distribution service to get your music on the major platforms, or are you more interested in licensing your songs for others to perform?

Releasing Music Independently

If you’re a songwriter and want to release your music on Spotify, Apple Music, and the other large platforms, then you’re going to need to produce a product that meets industry standards e.g. a studio quality recording.

I’ve written about the recording process in more detail over a series of articles here, but in short, thanks to affordable, yet professional audio equipment including industry-grade DAWs and audio interfaces it’s certainly possible to produce professional-grade audio from home.

It’s not as simple as hitting a few buttons though, it takes an investment of time and effort to learn, but it is something you can get quite good at if you choose.

If you’re an independent musician and plan on doing it all yourself, low-quality production can detract from the song, so I would strongly advise learning as much as you can or using a third party.

I recommend mixing university and the total home recording course offered over at recording revolution if you are new to production. I’m not being paid to say this, I have used and believe both are great products for those new to production, and well worth checking out.

Recording Demos

Demo Tapes

If you are more interested in selling your songs e.g. the compositional rights, you won’t need to produce professional e.g. “release-able” quality audio, however, creating a high-quality demo is still a must.

I’ve written about recording demos here, but to summarize a demo is essentially a “demonstration” of a song. The end listener should be able to hear the hook, and/or potential of the song, which means the better the recording the less the production is likely to detract from it.

Do you need to be able to sing?
If you are a songwriter who records to license your songs then, technically you don’t need to be a great singer, but it doesn’t hurt if you can manage vocal duties well enough to clearly show the potential of the song. So if you can’t sing, consider working on your voice, the vocal melody is usually the most important part of the song after all.

How to Start Building a Reputation as a Songwriter

Ok, so how does one begin building a reputation as a songwriter?

The common advice is to accept that it’s going to take time, patience, an ability to handle the feedback you may not necessarily want to hear (and use it constructively), and a dash of luck.

If you plan on streaming your music directly to the public I’d suggest reading my article here which explains the steps from concept to completion concerning getting your music on the major streaming platforms independently and then effectively promoting it.

However, if you are more interested in writing music for other people to perform then a different approach is required, solely based on establishing a reputation as a songwriter.

But first, you need a place where people can hear your music and get in touch with you.

Having a Presence Online

Before you begin promoting yourself as a songwriter it’s best to make it as easy as possible for people to reach you.

A website is the simplest way to do this and allows you to showcase your songs and give people a way to get in touch with you that you 100% control, unlike relying on social media platforms which can change their rules at the drop of a hat, or worse lose popularity. MySpace, Vine., Google+ anyone…..anyone?

It also looks a lot more professional to own your own domain e.g. myawesomemusic.com and have an email associated with it e.g. [email protected]

Your website doesn’t need to be anything too sophisticated. Most websites built for musicians feature a fairly minimalist design. Just a home page with your best songs will suffice and a way for people to get in touch with you.

If you aren’t confident building your own website, check out bandzoogle.com

Join Songwriting Organizations

Sesac - Songwriting Organization

While we’ve already discussed the benefits of being affiliated with a PRO, additional benefits include the ability to make connections e.g. find potential collaborators, get qualified feedback on your music, and members regularly receive discounts on equipment or services.

This includes:

It’s true many of the contacts you make, at least initially will be peers e.g. other songwriters harboring the same ambitions as yourself, but this will also give you a basis of comparison and the feedback you receive will be invaluable in helping you develop your songwriting.

You can read more about songwriting associations here.


Review Sites

There are websites that specialize in helping you get feedback for your music. Long before the software of the same name existed “GarageBand” was one of the bigger ones, and George Martin (Legendary Producer for the Beatles) was involved in an advisory capacity.

A project I was writing for won song of the week, and then subsequently was awarded song of the month. This put our music in front of people from all over the world that never would have heard our music before.

Unfortunately, Garageband.com officially closed its doors in 2012, and the domain is now owned by apple.com, but there are plenty of newer sites popping up including:

Forums

Taxi - Songwritinger's Forum

Another way to get involved, make contacts and get qualified feedback on your songs is to join forums. However, that doesn’t mean you should sign up for too many.

The fact is if you are trying to maintain a presence across a range of platforms, and forums and manage your own website you are going to be spread too thin, and do a poor job of things.

Pick 2-3 online environments that feel like a good fit for you e.g. supportive and insightful, and get involved. Make sure you are providing value e.g. don’t be overly promotional, or derail threads, seek and give feedback and don’t take negative feedback personally e.g. have thick skin when asking for people’s opinion’s on your music and get involved.

Below are a few songwriting forums worth taking a look at:

Social Media

You can also sign up for social accounts including LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, along with music-focused platforms such as soundcloud.com. You can also join songwriter groups e.g. https://www.reddit.com/r/Songwriting/ and begin networking and seeking constructive feedback.

While the people in these groups will also be songwriters, there is much to be gained by hearing from those who may be a little further along the path.

Also, don’t neglect YouTube. You can use video content to show a unique side to your music that isn’t really able to be captured any other way. For example, a songwriter’s Youtube channel may contain additional information on the process behind their songwriting, live performances, and even educational content.

Online Marketplaces

Did you know there are sites out there that allow you to upload and potentially sell your songs? Or offer your services as a songwriter?

That’s right, sites such as:

Are essentially marketplaces where you can upload and potentially sell your services as a songwriter. If you are a topliner e.g. someone who specializes in writing vocal melodies and lyrics over existing music also be sure to try vocalizr.com

Songwriting Contests

An excellent way to enhance your reputation as a songwriter is to perform well in a high-profile songwriting contest.

Songwriting contests including The John Lennon Songwriting Contest offer a great deal of diversity in terms of categories and if you are successful not only are the cash incentives very good but placing in a highly regarded contest will help doors open more easily for you.

The other benefit is, that your music will be in front of industry professionals (judges) who usually also have connections.

Depending on the songwriting contest you decide to enter keep in mind you will be paying an entry/signup fee, but this can be a good thing as it assures that only those serious about their craft are entering.

* Also be aware you may not receive feedback on your music.

Below are some of the best to enter, according to ascap.com

Wrapping Up. Final Thoughts

While there are plenty of exceptions, in my experience musicians are usually performers or creatives e.g. songwriters.

Performers, perform. They’re usually talented musicians, but due to a stronger focus on the performance side, haven’t developed the creative chops of those more drawn to songwriting.

Songwriters, on the other hand, are usually not as concerned with technique, instead seeing their instrument of choice as a tool for creating great songs. They also usually feel a strong compulsion to create regardless of the situation.

With this in mind, if you write songs, and love doing so, chances are you are going to do it regardless, so why not follow some of the recommendations above and get your music out there, gain valuable feedback and refine and hone your craft? After all, music is supposed to be heard.

Marty

Photo of author
My name’s Marty. I’ve been into guitars, songwriting, and home recording for over 30 years. Theacousticguitarist.com is my blog where I write about everything I have learned along the way.