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January 23, 2021

So one of the questions I hear most from independent artists is this:

“What should I do before I release my music?”

And the answer to that has to do with something every musician should be concerned with: Copyrights and royalties!

“What do I do first? Do I need to join a PRO? What about a copyright administrator?  What are these weird entities like BMI and ASCAP?”

The questions go on and on from there. So I’m going to help clarify things a bit!

Basically, there are three types of organizations and services that we’re concerned with when it comes to copyrights and royalties -

1. The National Copyright Office

2. PRO’s (Performance Rights Organizations)

3. A Publishing Administrator

All three deal in some way with the ownership of your music, as well as the licensing and royalties that are involved. 

Now, if you don’t care about collecting royalties that you are rightfully owed for some crazy reason, you don’t need to concern yourself with anything in this blog post; but you’re leaving money on the table. 

Even if you’ve already put your music out on Spotify and the other streaming services, it’s not too late to go back and register with these organizations, and I would definitely recommend doing so.

Let’s talk about Copyrights.

A copyright protects the ownership of a creative work (like your music). As soon as you write a song, as soon as it’s literally out of your brain and onto a disc, a hard drive, a napkin, any form of tangible medium (i.e. it exists in the physical world and not just your brain) you own the copyright to it; but that doesn’t matter unless you actually register that copyright.

Here’s exactly why you should do that. Actually going through the process of registering that copyright can help you in a myriad of ways. It proves that you wrote your song - and when. 

So let’s say someone comes along and tries to claim that they wrote your song. Or worse, that YOU actually stole the song from THEM. A registered copyright is going to be your legal defense against that and many other possible scenarios. 

How do we do that? In the United States, we would use the National Copyright Office ( If you live outside the United States, basically what you’d need to do is Google “copyright office X” where X is the name of your country and take it from there. 

On the Topic of PROs.

Next, let’s talk about Performance Rights Organizations (usually referred to as PRO’s). ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC are the big ones in the United States (and once again, you’ll have to use your Google-fu to find the relevant PROs if you’re outside the US). 

Now what exactly does a PRO do? Basically, they collect performance royalties. If your music is streamed on Spotify or performed in public, guess what - you are owed a royalty. If someone covers one of your songs, or if your music is played in a club or a bar, or even on TV, you are owed a royalty for that performance. But in order to collect, you guessed it…

You need a PRO. 

Now you can only register with one of these organizations, but whichever one you choose-  definitely don’t miss out on this: If you’re owed performance royalties, these guys will get you paid.

Publishing Administration and You

Finally, let’s take a look at Publishing Administration. Whenever you write and record a song, there are two separate copyrights involved (assuming that you are the one that wrote and recorded it). First, there’s a copyright for the recording (what you actually uploaded to Spotify, etc), and second, there’s a copyright for the song itself.

This results in two different kinds of royalties. Royalties paid out to you as the artist that performed on the recording; and royalties paid out to you as the songwriter that wrote the song (aka "mechanical royalties")

Here’s the bottom line: By using both a PRO and a publishing administrator, you’re going to collect all of the royalties you’re owed, whichever kind they are.

Let’s recap:  

  1. Copyrights protect your ownership of YOUR music. Register your copyrights as soon as you can to officially protect your ownership of that music and make sure that you get paid all the royalties you’re owed.
  2. Register with a PRO and they’ll collect performance royalties for you.
  3. Register with a Publishing Administrator, and they’ll collect any royalties that aren’t collected by your distributor.

So what should you do first? Register with a PRO (like ASCAP or BMI), then a Publisher (like Songtrust). You only have to do this once!

Then, whenever you write new music you’ll -

  1. Register your copyright
  2. Register your song with your publisher
  3. Upload your music to your distributor

So hopefully that helps shed a little light on the first steps to take after you record your music. The world of copyrights and royalties may seem a little overwhelming at first. But, it makes a lot more sense as you become familiar with the process and start collecting those royalty checks!

Music Promotion Insiders
Music Promotion Insiders

About the author 

Adam Rich

Adam Rich is a drummer with a vested interest in music marketing and content creation. He has written hundreds of articles covering a dizzying array of subjects related to online marketing and social media entrepreneurship. A lifelong writer and musician, his main goal is to help talented musicians get their music out to the widest audience possible and make a living while doing it.

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