Skip to main content

Who Really Owns Music - Part 1

Exploring The Dizzying Spiral Of Music Rights and Payments
(Part 1 of a 4-part series by Glen Sears)
The controversy surrounding music streaming and artist compensation has been earning quite a bit of press lately. Still, the actual process of licensing, publishing and compensating those involved in music publishing is complex and convoluted. This article offers a clear and detailed breakdown of exactly how music rights and payments work.

One Kurt Cobain post, "I wish there had been a music business 101 course I could have taken."

If you write a song, you own that song. maybe your record label owns a piece of your song in exchange for recording and distributing it. When your friend Andrew buys your song, the label gets a cut and you get a cut. The service it was bought from gets a cut, too. The more it gets used, the more everyone makes.

It's a simple formula, and it's how most of us think the music industry operates. In reality, this idea is quite inaccurate. Every song produced is a labyrinth of split ownership, licenses, and right subject to decades-old laws spread across 100s of countries. They determine where a song can be played, how it can be used, and where the money goes afterward.

Calls for transparency and fair pay in the music industry have finally hit critical mass, capturing the attention of news outlets like NPR and building support for activism by stars like Taylor Swift. TIDAL was launched as an attempt to increase the amount of money artists are paid from streaming. Berklee College of Music released a 28-page report on its suggestions for repairing digital music. Everyone cares about music industry payments now.

It's great news. But what about the next time you're at a party and someone starts the "aren't paid enough" conversation? How can anyone speak about music industry payments when they aren't armed with all the information?

How does song ownership and payment really work, and can it be explained in a way non-industry experts understand;

Part 1 - What Is Music?
Sound Recording, Composition, and Copyright

On January 10, 1956, Elvis Presley recorded his seminal hit "Heartbreak Hotel" at RCA Studio B Nashville. The moment The master tape stopped rolling, the genre-defining song became two main elements: a Sound Recording, and a Composition.

A song is made up of many pieces: lyrics, notes, structure, instrumentation, and melody. In copyright law, these intangible qualities that constitute a song are known as the Composition. When the composition is recorded, the recording of that composition is known as a Sound Recording. The sound recording is a "single acoustic event" of the composition that was put to tape. Two separate, uniquely important entities.

Making a sound recording from the composition grants special rights (called copyright) to the songwriters. Recording music, however, is a recent, is a recent technological advance. It is not the only way to turn a composition into a copyrightable work. The intangibles of music also become a composition capable of being copyrighted the moment they are written down on paper.

We've been writing down musical compositions for a long time. 1800 years before Elvis was lamenting his loneliness, an lonian songwriter was penning the Seikilos epitaph in what is now Turkey. It is the oldest-known complete composition (notes and lyrics). By today's copyright standards, it became a copyrightable composition at the moment it was inscribed in stone.

Copyright is, plainly, a set of exclusive rights granted to the owner of a creative work. For a composition, this includes the exclusive right to publish works (recordings or writings) depicting the composition. Copyright requires anyone else wanting to use the composition to obtain permission (called a License) from the owner.

Back in Nashville, the "Heartbreak Hotel" sound recording was also now a copyrightable work. Almost all artist-label contracts dictate the copyright in the sound recording is granted to the label. Copyright law now requires anyone wanting to use the actual recording of the song to obtain permission from the label.

Two distinct pieces of intellectual property (each with their own copyright rules) now existed for "Heartbreak Hotel:" (1) the composition, and (2) the sound recording.

To Be Continued.......
Glen Sears is Editorial Content Manager at MediaNet