The easy answer is that you record them, put them online and people just throw money at you. Too bad it’s not the right answer. Preparing an original tune for sale is not entirely straightforward but, it’s not impossible either. Here are a few steps you can take to get your songs ready to sell.
The first thing you should contend with is copyright. It’s absolutely true that as soon as you’ve written your song down or recorded and “fixed” it in some form or another it is copywritten. Unfortunately that’s not quite enough to be able to enjoy all of the benefits of copyright protection. You must register your copyright with the Federal Government. You can do so here.
A great video which walks you through the process is here:
I whole-heartedly recommend the book Music Law: How to Run Your Band’s Business” by Rich Stim. It goes into the subject of copyright and good music business practices in depth.
It’s worth noting that the song and the recording are two different copyrightable works which may or may not have the same owner. If you own the song and the recording you may have to register the copyright twice.
Lots of contemporary music makes use of samples. Samples aren’t free, there’s no set standard of what constitutes “fair use”. Just like you expect to get paid for your songs, so do the original copyright owners.
Some people assume that they’ll be able to fly under the radar and just get away with using a short sample. This isn’t a wise choice. Realistically, any court battle is going to cost more in legal fees than the vast majority of songs will net in profit. It’s best just to go ahead and apply for a “Master Use License” for your samples.
The process of clearing samples is more than I can go into here but it’s covered in Rich Stim’s book; Getting Permission: How to License & Clear Copyrighted Materials Online & Off
You will want your recording to be professionally mastered. Generally this is done at a different studio than where you recorded or where you made the mix. This gets a different set of ears on the tracks which can often catch things the others have missed.
Mastering EQ’s the mixed songs and brings all the songs into relation to each other sonically. Compression and limiting is applied to the tracks to make them seem louder and more cohesive. Each track’s volume is normalized and the tracks are arranged in order. Space is added between the tracks. Often times tube warmth will be added to digital recordings.
Tracks ready to be mastered shouldn’t be mixed loud. Leave a little headroom. Also don’t clip or shorten the tracks, they’ll do it for you. It’s important that you like your mix before you master because afterwards it’s a done deal and can’t be changed.
Bring multiple mix-downs with you. Music and vocals should be on separate stereo tracks. Bring a separate instrumental mix and a vocals only mix. It would also behoove you to bring a combined mix of instruments and vocals in the relationship that you feel is correct. Just to be on the safe side, bring two more mixes; one with the vocals 1 or 2db higher and one with the vocals 1 or 2 db lower.
Create an international standard recording code for each track. The ISRC is part of the primary identification system for sound recordings. An ISRC code is a unique tag for your specific recording which is independent of the format on which it appears. It’s like a digital fingerprint.
ISRCs are widely used by download sites and by collection societies. An ISRC can also be permanently encoded into your recording. This allows your recording to be automatically identified when it’s time for you to get royalty payments.
You can get your ISRC here. There is a one time membership fee before you’re allowed to start making codes.
If you are acting as your own publisher you will want to affiliate with The Harry Fox Agency. Harry Fox makes it easy for people to record a cover of your song. It handles the issuance of mechanical licenses, the licenses required for distribution of a person’s original composition. Harry Fox collects the money, issues the license and cuts you a check. You could conceivably do this yourself but realistically it’s not worth the hassle. Harry Fox makes it easy.
Performance Rights Organizations
Now it’s time to register your songs with your performance rights organization of choice. Usually this means either BMI or ASCAP although sometimes it means SESAC. These people collect fees from venues, hotels, restaurants and other places where your music is played. They then distribute that money to you. It is important to be a member of one of these organizations.
Why is it important to be a member of a performance rights organization? Look at it this way. Let’s say you’re a singer-songwriter who plays your own compositions once a week plays at a local coffee shop. The shop pays you a small fee for your performance. At the end of every night you send your performance rights organization a copy of your setlist. The performance rights organization will then send you an occasional check to compensate you for use of the composition. If you don’t do this you’re just leaving money on the table.
If you’re working with a publisher they will register to receive the “publisher’s share” of your performance rights organization income and you will only register as the songwriter. If not, register twice, once as the songwriter and once as the publisher.
SoundExchange is responsible for payouts for noninteractive streaming serviced. It brings in 16% of the music industry’s income and that share is growing with the increasing popularity of streaming services.
If you’re the owner of the recording you will register here twice, once as the recording owner and once as the featured artist. If you do not own the recording register only once, as the featured artist.
Once you’ve gone through these steps you’re ready to start considering how you’re going to package, market, and distribute your songs. In the future I’ll share with you my opinions on these choices. I hope this was helpful. If you have any questions feel free to leave them in the comments below.