Songwriting Business

Staff Writers

Working As a Staff Writer

For many songwriters, earning enough money to allow them to quit their day job and devote 100 percent of their energies to their creative pursuit is the ultimate dream. This is most often accomplished by signing a staff-writing deal.

It's hard to imagine the music publishing industry without the concept of staff-writing. Every major music publishing company has staff-writers under contract and almost every song on the charts was written by a writer affiliated with a publishing company. Only a handful of songwriters who are not also recording artists have ever achieved and sustained major success without being signed to a publishing company at some point in their careers.

What Staff-Writing Really Means

"Staff-writing" is a misnomer, as a staff-writer is neither an employee nor a staff member of a publishing company, but a songwriter who has entered into an agreement to publish all of his or her songs exclusively with one music publisher. Being a staff-writer essentially means that during the term of a songwriter's contract with a publisher, all songs, melodies, and lyrics that the writer creates are automatically published by the company to which he or she is signed.

Being a staff-writer is synonymous with signing an exclusive songwriting agreement, a contract that defines the terms under which a writer's songs are published by a given publishing company. While the agreement (sometimes called a term songwriting agreement) is in force, a staff-writer is signed exclusively to one publisher, foregoing the right to publish his or her work elsewhere.

Staff-writers receive neither a salary nor employee fringe benefits, such as health insurance or a retirement plan from the music publisher to whom they are signed. Any money they receive is considered an advance to be recouped against their future royalties. At the same time, they are not required to keep set hours or to work at their publisher's offices either.

Staff-writers, however, are required to deliver an agreed upon quota of songs per year. The number of songs a staff-writer is required to write and turn in to his or her publisher is referred to as the delivery requirement and is specified within the exclusive publishing agreement. It typically ranges from 10 to 15 songs annually. But this number only applies if the staff-writer is the sole author of each song he or she writes. To meet a 12-song-per-year quota, if all of a staff-writer's songs are co-written, 24 songs must be delivered. Likewise, songs that result from a three-way collaboration are counted as one-third of a song.

A staff-writer's song delivery requirement is expressed within their exclusive songwriting agreement as the number of songs that must be turned in monthly, quarterly, or annually, for example, one song per month; three songs per quarter; or 12 songs per year.

Successful writers, as well as those with money in the proverbial pipeline, can receive advances exceeding $200,000 per year or more.

How Staff-Writers Are Paid

Writers without established track records rarely command large advances when signing a staff-writing deal, but they typically earn enough to allow them to devote 100 percent of their time and energy to writing songs. Writers who have had major hits, those also producing established artists, and those who co-write with successful artists, pose little financial risk to publishers. Therefore, these writers typically receive advances on the highest end of the spectrum.

In some instances, as part of an exclusive songwriting agreement, a writer may offer the publishing rights to one or more songs that have already been recorded by a successful artist and are either anticipated to, or are in the process of, generating significant income. In exchange, the writer would likely receive a higher advance. In these instances, again, the publisher incurs minimal risk by offering an advance equivalent to up to three-quarters of the amount it anticipates receiving from the song. This money, which has already been earned, but has not yet been received, is often referred to as pipeline money, or royalties that are "in the pipeline."

Successful writers, as well as those with money in the proverbial pipeline, can receive advances exceeding $200,000 per year or more. But this money is essentially a loan of the writer's own future royalties and will be deducted when applicable payments are received by the publisher. No publisher would grant this large an advance unless there was a tremendous likelihood of it being recouped. Staff-writers who have not yet demonstrated their ability to generate income for a publisher should expect an advance in the range of $15,000 to $35,000 per year, with writers in Nashville (with its lower cost of living) typically receiving lower amounts than those signed to companies in New York and Los Angeles.

Depending on a publishing company's policy, advances are paid weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annually. Songwriters are responsible for paying income taxes and social security contributions on their advances. Because they are not considered employees, money is not withheld for any purpose.

In some instances, an attorney may be able to negotiate a signing bonus, a portion of the advance to be paid to the writer upfront, upon the signing of the contract. Often, this is done to allow the writer to purchase equipment for a home studio. This money, as well as virtually all other sums advanced to a writer from his or her publisher is typically recoupable, meaning that it must be repaid.

Staff-writing agreements almost always cover a one-year period and include provisions for the publisher to extend the duration of the agreement for additional periods. These extensions are referred to as options. In most instances, an exclusive songwriting agreement grants a publisher two or three one-year options. By having the opportunity to continue the agreement, a publisher increases its chances of recouping the money and time invested in developing a staff-writer.

Excerpted from Jason Blume's "This Business of Songwriting" (Billboard Books). In addition to information about how to conduct business as a songwriter, This Business of Songwriting includes samples of virtually every contract a songwriter would ever be likely to encounter; and each contract is explained one paragraph at a time — in plain English.


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