International Songwriters Association (ISA) Songs And Songwriting The Basics
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ISA Songwriting - The Basics

This page, penned by Jim Liddane, is the first of a series of twelve short and very simplified articles, designed to help you understand the basics of songwriting and the songwriting business. The series is called "The Knowledge".

At the end of each article you will find a blue button, and by clicking on that, you will move to the next article in the series.

You will be able to read all twelve articles in less than sixty minutes, and when you are finished, you should have a thorough understanding of all aspects of the business, from writing the song, to copyrighting, promoting and publishing it.

And remember, if having read this or any other article, you have a query, simply email us HERE and we will be more than happy to respond.

ISA Songwriting Basics

If you are not totally new to songwriting - then look away now, lest the utter childishness and banality of this article offends your intellectual sensibilities!

If on the other hand, you know nothing at all about this business, then these short notes by Jim Liddane just might be of help.

What is a song?
A song is a musical composition comprising a melody (the tune) and lyrics (the words). A "song" is not just the tune, nor is it just the words, and the music industry only deals with "songs" - not words on their own.

What is a songwriter?
Obviously, anybody who writes songs is a "songwriter", but lyricists who write words and composers who write tunes both go under the collective name of "songwriters".

I have this brilliant idea for a song - what next?
Keep it to yourself! No, honestly I am not being sarcastic but do keep it to yourself. For now anyway.

The last thing you want to do at this moment is to tell everybody about your stroke of genius, so treat your idea like you would that winning lottery ticket which cannot be cashed in until after the weekend. In other words, clasp it close to your bosom. Sleep with it even. (OK that's probably overdoing it but you get my drift - keep it safe).

You see, newcomers assume that their song is in most danger of being stolen by that cigar-chomping publisher in Tin Pan Alley. (Come to think of it, does such a creature really exist outside the movies?) But in fact they're wrong.

That cigar-chomping publisher wants to sign your song, not steal it. After all, if you can write one hit, you can conceivably write more, so he will be only too happy to offer you a contract with the lowest royalty rate you are willing to accept, and then milk your talent for whatever it's worth in the years to come.

In fact, very few complete songs are ever stolen anyway, but the best ideas from songs occasionally are. So if anything is going to get pinched, it is more likely just the "hit bit" of your song - but rarely if ever all of it.

And if somebody is going to pinch anything, it is an acquaintance or band colleague or collaborator who is more likely to do it than anybody else.

So how do I protect myself?
First of all, legally speaking, copyright exists from the moment you write the song so you are not obliged in law to "protect" your property. Of course, if a dispute ever does arise, you might need to produce witnesses to prove that it is your property. This is not usually possible unless people hung around watching you write it, but you can prove ownership by showing that on a certain date before the song went public, you were in possession of it.

Since this date is a date prior to publication, (which it would have to be if you wrote the song in the first place), then the rival claimant will be faced with the task of showing how you could have been in possession of a song which he claims you did not write, on a date prior to its publication by him.

So the first thing to do is to protect your ownership. Only when you have done this should you let your work of genius emerge into the cold light of day.

For a full explanation of copyright, and advice on how to obtain a simple protection, click on "Song Copyright" at the top of this page.

I have already done that - now what?
Well, in that same cold light of day I to which I referred above, let us look at what it is you actually have.

You have a title? Good. You have words? Great. You have a melody?

Ah, so you don't have a melody? Well then you do not have a song that can earn money - just part of one because in order to have a song that can earn money, you need a title, you need words and you need a melody.

So you will now have to either write one yourself, or collaborate with somebody who can.

Well I know I cannot write a melody myself
But are you sure? You do not have to be able to write down music to write a melody. In fact, you more than likely already have an idea in your head of what the melody should sound like so all you need to be able to do is to sing it into a recording device. Once you have done that, you have a full "song" - it does not have to be written down in notes or anything like that.

Alternatively, you can collaborate with a musician who is able to dream up a melody for your words. It will cost you nothing initially, but of course, you will eventually stand to lose up to 50% of future royalties to your new partner. However, do remember that 75% of all hit songs are written by partnerships and not by single writers, so the most successful songwriters in the world already split their income anyway.

But first, you should try to do it on your own, because it is possible you may come up with something wonderful, and even if you only come up with part of a melody and have to get somebody in to finish it off, your part may reduce his percentage when it comes to negotiating the final split. So just click on "Writing Melodies" at the top of this page and have a go at it.

(Incidentally, if what you have in your head is a lovely melody but no lyrics, then click on "Writing Lyrics" at the top of this page instead.)

I have done all that. Now what?
OK, so now you have a finished song, which you have protected in some form or other, and all you have to do is to persuade somebody to record it and a record label to release it, thus putting you in line to collect royalties.

But to arrive at that point, you first need to promote your song to the "right people", and to do this, you need a demonstration recording (called a demo).

How good does this demo have to be?
First off, make the demo as good as you can. Having said that, what is the minimum you can get away with?

For a slow ballad, you can possibly get away with one voice and piano, if both the voice and piano are of a high standard.

For country material, you can often get away with one vocal and guitar, although most country demos nowadays have vocal, guitar, bass and drums, at a minimum.

For uptempo pop/rock, you will usually need a fairly full production, vocals (including backing vocals if required), keyboards, guitars, drums etc.

If the song is intended for a male singer, it should be demoed by a male singer and if intended for a female singer, it should be demoed by a female singer.

Do good songs get published when the demos are below par?

Well they can, because a good publisher should be able to hear the potential in spite of a bad demo.

Do bad songs get published when the demos are above par?

Rarely, although a good demo of a bad song just might interest a publisher enough to ask to hear some more material.

But at the end of the day, although it is the song that matters, you still have to be able to demonstrate just how good that song really is to people who may give you just 90 seconds of their time. And that probably means that a reasonably good demo is essential.

OK - I have my song on demo, what next?
It is now time to hit the promotion trail.

You have to get your masterpiece on the market, and to achieve this, you need to put your song in the hands of somebody who can do just that for you - whether that be a singer, a producer, a record label or a music publisher.

To learn more about doing this, just click on "Song Promotion" at the top of this page.

Right, I have chosen to send my song to a music publisher. What next?
Well the publisher may, if he likes the song enough, offer you a contract there and then. It does happen!

Again, if he thinks you have potential but is not interested in that particular song, he may ask you to send him further work to listen to.

But if he does issue you with a contract, he will usually already be of the opinion that he can get a recording on your song - that is to say, that he can persuade some singer to record your tune as his next single or perhaps as a track on his next album.

What should I look for in the contract?
Whatever about looking at it, you should never sign any contract without having it examined professionally. You may know a lawyer or solicitor familiar with show-business contracts who may be able to assist you, but failing this, your local Bar Association or Law Society will be happy to give you a list of suitable advisors.

Although we warn against signing a contract without having it checked ouit first, I will mention that in your initial discussions, you should be looking out for a short reversionary clause (one or two years for example - otherwise your song might remain tied for ever to a publisher unable to obtain a recording on it), and a minimum figure of at least 60% of income for yourself. Obviously the smaller the reversionary term and the higher the percentage - the better for you! But do not negotiate. Talk to a properly qualified legal advisor.

Do I have to have a publisher?
Songwriters often ask if it is possible to circumvent the music publisher, and deal directly with the record company. Of course it is possible, although a song still has to be "published" if you are going to collect money from it, and unless you have something special going for you, it may be difficult in the early stages of your career anyway, to keep all of the publishing for yourself.

However, where you have promoted the song and have obtained a recording on it yourself, you should try and hold on to the publishing, or at least as much of it as you can, because such a move can double your income from the song!

Some songwriters have their own publishing companies. Can I set up my own?
You can certainly set up your own company, and we have helped many songwriters to do so. The procedure is relatively simple, and we will be happy to send you information on the subject.

What is a "shark" publisher?
Well for a start, he is not a publisher at all - he's just a con artist who calls himself a publisher, usually exploiting the fact that lyric writers who are not in a collaboration with a melody writer, are easy prey for the unscrupulous.

How can I recognise one?
Since music publishers do not usually accept lyrics, the shark often advertises looking for lyrics. He describes himself as a music publisher, and usually replies that he loves your lyrics and wants to put them on the market.

Sharks are getting scarcer mainly because the internet has helped songwriters to become aware of these scams, and if you remember that (a) music publishers rarely if ever look at lyrics on their own and (b) definitely never ask for one penny from a writer, then you will not be caught.

However, several of the more sophisticated sharks have developed new angles for getting money out of you.

Now they talk about "free" publishing, and "free" melodies (which naturally fools you into presuming that they must be genuine) while one famous shark actually warns you never to pay money for publishing or for a melody (before trying to get money out of you using a different angle!)

But at some stage, the shark will ask for money, to cover what he claims are "legitimate expenses" - things like:

(a) Arranging or orchestrating

(b) Accounting or book-keeping

(c) Promotion, postage, copyright etc.

There are many variations on the above angles, but if you remember the basic rule, "songwriters never pay money to publishers - publishers pay money to songwriters", you should be fine!

All very interesting, but I have a contract from a genuine music publisher. Now how do I get my hands on the money?
Well first off, congratulations on getting that contract. That is hard enough to do.

Money comes mainly from two sources

(1) Record Sales (let's call these "mechanical royalties"), and

(2) Broadcasts (let's call these "performance royalties").

Hopefully your song will shortly be released on record and put into shops, where (again hopefully), there will be a mad rush to lay hands on it, at which point the money trail will commence.

Basically, at the end of each month, the shop will pay over to the wholesaler a percentage of the retail price for each record sold, and the wholesaler will then pay over to the record label a percentage for each record distributed.

Finally, the record label will start to divide up what they have received from the wholesaler, between themselves, the recording artist, and the song copyright owner (usually you and the music publisher).

It is your music publisher who is responsible for collecting your "mechanical royalties" from the record label and then paying them on to you, which he will do every six months, sending you a royalty statement and (hopefully) a very fat cheque.

And that will take care of your "mechanical royalties".

Of course, in order to arrive at this happy stage, your song has probably been already played to death every day on radio, television, juke boxes, YouTube and the like, and now you and your publisher (as the copyright owners), are entitled to "performance royalties" also.

To obtain these, you simply register with a Performance Rights organisation (in the UK, the PRS, in the USA, either BMI or ASCAP), and wait for the cheque. They will pay you when they have collected the performance fees from all of the TV and radio stations both at home and abroad, but this time, the royalties will come separately to you and to your publisher, so you will get paid the same day as he does.

And that is very (very) basically how the money comes in.

How easy it is to make money in songwriting?
It is not at all easy - in fact it is very very difficult. The rewards of a successful career in songwriting can be huge and the sums that can be earned are vast, and in any profession where the rewards are potentially high, the competition is going to be absolutely intense - and that is just to get a song onto the market in the first place.

But even getting a song onto the market (a monumental struggle in itself) is only half the battle - it still has to sell. We estimate that fewer than 5% of all published songwriters actually make a living wage from this business.

But every week, somebody makes it big, which is probably what keeps everybody else going. But it is never going to be easy.

And that's about it.

And yes Virginia, I agree that this article was dangerously over-simplistic, but then they did ask you at the start not to bother to read it if all you were going to do at the end was sneer. Well didn't they?

ISA The Knowledge

Well, I did not honestly think you would stick it out this far, but perhaps there's nothing much on TV right now.

Anyway, how would you like to learn a bit more about the wonderful business called songwriting?

We have a series of articles on this site which could turn you into a Master Of Songwriting. Or something like that anyway. And all you have to is click the blue button below.

That will take you to the next relevant article in the series, and at the end of that one, there will be another blue button....and then another article....and then another blue button...and so on....and so on.

Enticing, isn't it?

Go on, click that button. You know you want to.

The Knowledge

ISA International Songwriters Association (1967) Ltd
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International Songwriters Association Limited
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Postal Address
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