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SONGWRITER’S HANDBOOK #4 … Publishing Contracts - Dec 8, 2013

picture An unsigned songwriter can be forgiven for snatching a publisher’s hand off in their eagerness to sign their first publishing contract, but they may ultimately live to regret not paying due care and attention to the terms they are committing to. In this edition of Songwriter’s Handbook an array of top songwriters and publishers offer their advice on what to think about before putting pen to paper.

Click on the interviewee name for the original full interview.

When you’ve been offered a publishing contract what should be your first move?

CHARLIE PINDER (Head of A&R at Kassner Music, former MD of Sony Music Publishing UK):

“Get yourself a lawyer. You need independent legal advice in order for a deal to be legally correct. Most lawyers know what they’re doing and will get a good deal for you. Publishing contract these days are generally very favourable to the writers. The deal is there to protect you if there’s a problem.”

What things should you look for in a contract before putting pen to paper?

KRISTIAN LUNDIN (songwriter/producer for Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Celine Dion ): “Make the terms of your agreement as short-term as possible, so that you're able to re-negotiate sooner if you are successful.”

ERIC BEAL (publisher A&R and former songwriter): “Most co-publishing contracts do not build their term around calendar years, but rather the completion of contract periods. Nothing is more important for songwriters to understand: know how your contract period is defined, and understand your MDRC (Minimum Delivery and Release Commitment).”

STEPHANIE SALZMAN (songwriter): “Look at what your obligations are. For example, if they’re gonna ask you to write ten songs a year as part of the contract, make sure you can meet the demand and can fulfil their terms.”

TRACI HALE (songwriter for Rihanna, Brandy, Mýa): “A full song is 100% and if you have a four song deal and are only writing 25% of the songs then it’s going to take a lot of songs to make up your 400%. I would look at the song commitment more than the amount of money they’re giving you upfront.”

“Make sure that you work with a publisher who has what you need. Do you need money or is it more important to have someone who really knows how to shop your songs?

KANDI BURUSS (songwriter for N'Sync, Boyz II Men): “Not every song you write for every artist is going to come out because a lot of artists get dropped and different things happen. If your eight songs don’t get released then you’re stuck in their terms.

If you can get the lowest amount of songs that you have to get released, that’s better than getting a huge cheque. If you’re writing enough then later on eventually your money is going to be there anyway.”

SS: “Look at the reversion clause: How long will they have the song before it goes back to you? If they do get the song recorded, how long a period of time do they have the song until it is released?”

If you’re an unsigned writer shouldn’t you just accept what deal you can?

TOM NICHOLS (songwriter for Kylie, All Saints): “Hold of for as long as you possibly can. Never sign the first publishing contract that is presented to you, it’s usual that the first deal you get is not the greatest in the world.”

JOHN CAPEK (songwriter for Cher, Bonnie Raitt, Rod Stewart): “If you have a good personal relationship, if you feel good about the person and you are just beginning then I’ve not been afraid to enter a contract presented to me by the publisher, no matter what the terms, just to get activity.”

TN: “Some deals you're going to sign to get you through the front door, to help you get more work, which is fine. Just try to sign a deal that doesn't go on too long, so that if you have success, you can get out of it reasonably quickly and then sign a pretty good deal.”

JACK KNIGHT (songwriter for Christina Aguilera, P. Diddy, Usher): “If you put a $75,000 cheque in front of a kid from Brooklyn who never really had much, nine times out of ten he’s going to take it. But the more successful you are with music and writing and getting records, you can always negotiate new terms to your contract. It’s a step-by-step process.”

How should you assess whether the publisher is right for you?

SS: “Make sure that you work with a publisher who has what you need. Do you need money or is it more important to have someone who really knows how to shop your songs? Those two attributes don’t necessarily come in the same publisher package. Find out exactly what they’re gonna do for you.”

MICHAEL GARVIN (songwriter): “Sometimes the right publisher may not be the one who is offering a whole lot of money. If they get you cuts, then you are going to make money. The decision is: who is going to work the songs the hardest? The advances you have to pay back anyway.”

BEN MALÉN (Former MD at Air Chrysalis Scandinavia): “When you're a new writer, you're looking for somebody who wants to be a part of what you're doing, so really you have to judge the person, and not the deal, first. The deal is obviously important and good to fall back on when there is a disagreement, but you should commit to a company because of the people in it, the other writers and the staff—that’s what the company is. Talk to the writers who are signed there for a while and ask them what's good or bad about the company.”

How does a publisher assess a songwriter deal?

JIM VELLUTATO (VP, A&R Sony Music Publishing): “We first get the music and evaluate it. We speak to their attorney and figure out the different angles of the deal – what they are asking for and what we are willing to offer. Negotiations last about a month before money, retention, number of songs to be turned in, and the future options/terms of the deal are decided upon.

There was a time when if you had a record deal, publishing deals would get outrageously expensive, and often detrimental to the songwriter. The more money they would get up front, the more they would have to produce, which isn’t always the best option. The urgency of having to ‘make it’ is no longer there.”

When you sign a new writer, what in general does the agreement include?

AL SMITH (former publisher at Cherry Lane Music Publishing for Black Eyed Peas, John Legend): “There are different types of deals. Broadly, the most common sort of deal is one in which we will pay the writer an advance and they will make a commitment to have a number of songs released. When that happens, another kind of advance is triggered and that’s how they move through their contract. It’s not just songs written, they have to be released.

“When you're a new writer, you're looking for somebody who wants to be a part of what you're doing, so really you have to judge the person, and not the deal, first.”

Most commonly, it’s a 50/50 co-publishing venture, which means that we own 50% of an artist’s songs. The terms include an advance, if it’s warranted, and an x number of years that we’re going to be involved in the artist’s career. An advance is given if, for example, the artist has a body of work that we’re interested in exploiting.

The number of songs an artist needs to deliver varies from five to twelve, even to fifteen. Contracts generally span at least three years and ideally five. We don’t have a standard template for a deal, however; it just depends on how the relationship evolves and how comfortable everybody feels.”

What would a normal publishing deal include in terms of advance etc. for an unknown writer?

PAUL LISBERG (former publisher at EMI for Melanie C, Jennifer Lopez): “It could be anything from 0 to infinity - there are so many different types of deals and circumstances. It could be about £10k (approx. $16k) as an advance for an unknown writer, or it could go up to £30k ($49k) if other labels are chasing them. If the writer is already relatively well known, the figure might be as elevated as £50k ($82k). I've known artists signed to record deals who are 100% writers on their album receive £300k ($490k) and more as an advance, although that is unusual.”

Do you think for an upcoming songwriter a 50/50 deal is OK?

MG: “I think in today’s marketplace it’s OK. I know that doesn’t sound pro-songwriter. But I think if a publisher is making a financial commitment to you and you come in without having had hits, it’s a reasonable thing to do.

I would just like to see the copyright reverting back to the writer at a certain point. The standards of the different territories are quite different. Recoupment from Europe for instance is from more sources than in America. But it’s easier to get reversions in Europe.”

If the writer delivers 20 songs, haven’t they fulfilled their obligation and it’s then up to you to get them released?

CP: “No. If we are doing a deal with a writer we are pretty sure we will be able to get the songs released. But it’s not purely the publishers responsibility to get the songs released, it’s as much about the writer getting out there and getting to know other writers, producers, artists, managers, A&Rs, etc. Working themselves alongside with what we can do for them. We have to have some protection. If we are putting risk money down, the only guarantee of making our money back is if the songs are released.

So, the responsibility to get the song cut is shared between the writer and us.

Do the writers have their living costs covered?

CP: “Most of the time, yes. Most of the time it’s enough money to live on and pay the bills, but it depends on where the writer is in his career. With writers who are brand new, who know no one, who have no experience and no track record, there’s more of a risk attached to do these deals. More work that we have to put in, so it justifies not paying them a huge amount of money when they sign the deal. We have to manage our risk.”

What are the advances recoupable against?

CP: “It’s recoupable against all publishing income. Mechanicals, performances, synchronisation, etc.”

Let’s say our deal ends and I didn’t have any releases. Do I owe you money then?

CP: “You leave and the deal will be over. You leave your recoup balance here and don’t have to pay it back. But it’s recoupable against all income derived from your songs that we publish.”

Read On ...

* Songwriter's Handbook on artists demanding songwriter credits
* Songwriter's Handbook gives the lowdown on co-writing with the artist
* Co-writing sessions are the subject of Songwriter's Handbook