I’m not going to pretend it’s easy to make a living as a songwriter. But it is definitely possible. In today’s world, you’ll need to be many different things – not just a songwriter, but also an artist, producer, performer, and music marketer. But for this post, we’ll just cover how you can make money as a songwriter.
How Songwriters Make Money
Songwriters, whether or not they’re also artists, can make money in a few different ways: performance royalties, streaming royalties, and publishing deals.
Songwriters earn performance royalties whenever their song is played in a public setting, whether as a live performance or a recording. So a performance royalty is generated whenever a song is played:
- Live by you or another performer
- On TV or a video streaming platform (AKA sync licensing)
- Through the speakers at a restaurant, bar, grocery store, clothing store, etc.
- On the radio
- In gyms
And the way songwriters collect performance royalties is through a Performance Rights Organization (PRO). These would be companies like BMI (United States), ASCAP (United States), SOCAN (Canada), and PRS for Music (United Kingdom).
Another way songwriters make money is from streaming royalties. Every time a song is streamed, the songwriter(s), the artist(s), and often the producer(s) are owed a royalty.
So for example, let’s say an artist writes a song with a songwriter. This is a what the rights and royalties breakdown could look like:
- Publishing/mechanical royalties: 100% to the artist (or to the artist’s publisher if they have one)
- Performance royalties: 50% to the songwriter, 50% to the artist
- Streaming royalties: 3% to the producer, 49% to the artist 48% to the songwriter
However, if two indie songwriter-artists write a song together and produce it themselves, they typically just split everything 50/50, and they wouldn’t have to give percentage points to a producer.
So as you can guess, there are a lot of variables that go into who earns what and how much each person would make from a song. But as the songwriter or one of the songwriters, you’re owed a chunk of its overall streaming royalties.
Another option for songwriters is to get a publishing deal. This is when a songwriter signs over some or all of the publishing rights to their song(s).
Usually how it works is, a publishing company will sign you to their songwriter’s roster with the understanding that they keep 50% of the publishing rights and you keep 100% of the songwriting rights. In exchange, the company gets you into co-writing sessions with successful songwriters and/or artists with the end goal of getting your song recorded by an artist.
Many times, the company will pay the songwriter an advance, which is basically a loan that the company collects from the (potential) royalties generated by the songwriter’s songs.
Sounds pretty cool, but Grammy-nominated and award-winning songwriter Ester Dean said a publishing deal won’t set you up for life. At least not right away.
“Even [after getting an advance from a publishing company], you definitely need a second job,” she said. “I worked in elderly homes for about seven years before I could pay my rent with songwriting alone, and it took five years after I got a publishing deal before I’d really ‘made it.’”
Can We Determine How Much Songwriters Make IRL?
It’s pretty difficult to say “you can earn X amount of money as a songwriter” because there are so many variables. The best way to find out is to, first, know all of the ways you are owed royalties as a songwriter (like we just talked about). And then, second, record and release your songs under your own name or let another artist release them. This will maximize your overall earnings.
How Indie Songwriters Can Make a Decent Living
So let’s make all of this info practical for you, an indie songwriter (and probably artist). Here are some ways you can start making money from your songs.
Register Your Songs With These Royalty-Collection Organizations
To earn all the royalties owed to you, you need to register your songs with a few different organizations.
First, you need to register every song you write and plan to release (or let another artist release) with a Performance Rights Organization (PRO). I personally use BMI (it’s free to sign up), but ASCAP is the other top option.
Next you’ll want to release (or have another artist release) your song on streaming platforms. You do this through a digital distributor. The best place to start is by learning about the different distributors and what they offer.
It’s also smart to register your songs with a publishing admin company. A publishing admin collects mechanical royalties generated from streams or sales of your music, which are paid by the streaming platforms. They can also collect performance royalties from other countries even if you’re registered with a PRO. I use Songtrust.
Lastly, consider registering your songs with SoundExchange (U.S. only), which collects digital performance royalties (think Pandora and Sirius XM).
Co-write With Others
When you write a song with someone else and it’s released by you and/or another artist, you are owed royalties when someone streams or downloads that song, whether or not you’re the artist on that song. You’re owed streaming revenue, and you and the other songwriter set up the splits through the digital distributor.
You’re also owed any performance royalties the song generates. And if you own part of the sound recording, you can earn mechanical and digital performance royalties too.
If you want to get a publishing deal eventually, you can try to write with songwriters who already have a publishing deal. This is the single best way to get your foot in the door. It usually means you have to move to a music city, like Los Angeles, Nashville, or New York.
When you play live, the venue pays you and you’re usually able to have a tip jar, depending on the venue. But on top of that, playing your songs live generates performance royalties. In my experience, playing live has earned me $1-2 in royalties per song. It’s not a ton, but it could be the gas money that gets you from one gig to the next.
Playing live also allows you to become a part of your local music community. Some people may call this “networking,” but that sounds like you’re only there to get something from other people. Instead, think of it like embedding yourself in the community. You help others when you can. And others help you when they can. Opportunities in the music industry are often about who you know, not just what you know.
Get Your Music In TV and Film
If you professionally produce, mix, and master a song you’ve written, you can get that song on TV and get paid for it.
You get paid upfront, which is called a “sync fee,” and that amount can range from a couple hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars. It all depends on the type of placement, how prominent your song is in the show, how many seconds of it they use, and the budget for that project. Then on the back end, that TV placement earns you performance royalties, which can vary widely based on the network and the region where the show aired.
So that’s how songwriters make money and how you can too. Just remember, the smartest way forward is by also being an artist, not just a songwriter.