International Songwriters Association (ISA) Songs And Songwriting Selling Songs

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Selling Your Song

How can I sell my song? Can I sell it to a singer? Can I sell it to a music publisher? Can I sell just words? Can I sell my song online? How much money will I make?

These are the six most common song song promotion questions we receive at International Songwriters Association.

Jim Liddane looks at some of your options.

Selling Your Song

Can I not just "sell" my song?
You do not nowadays "sell" a song, in the sense of disposing of it to some music mogul in return for a large wad of cash.

Those days are long gone.

They did exist once upon a time - and indeed I know of cases as recently as the 1970s where songwriters down on their luck, handed over a song to a recording act in return for a (not so large) sum of money - receiving no contract, no credit on the ensuing recording, and obviously no royalties. One of those is nowadays a much-venerated multi million-selling recording act in his own right, but many years back, he sold songs for $50 each!

But that was then, And this is now. So nowadays - where exactly do you start? Which route takes your song from your head into record stores worldwide?

The Options
When you write a novel, you know what to do next - you take it to a publisher.

Even though you are well aware that books are manufactured by printers, and sold by booksellers, you are not likely to think of going to the printer or to the bookseller yourself with your manuscript. You realise that you need a publisher.

However, with a song, it is not quite as straightforward. True, you can go first to a music publisher and indeed many songwriters still do. But you can as easily go to the record label, or indeed to the performer himself.

But it doesn't stop there because the performer for example, is represented by managers of various hues, not to mention producers, sundry agents and lawyers, some or all of whom, may have an input into what finally ends up on record, or if not, are at least in a position to know what has that input.

So from the ever-increasing and ever-impressive list of superstars, corporations, moguls, would-be moguls and hangers-on, who should you approach with your song, if you have a specific artist in mind?

The Music Publisher
The music publisher is not only the best bet if you are pitching your song in no particular direction, but is often also the best bet if you are trying to place your song with a particular star. A letter to any large publisher suggesting a specific singer as a potential outlet for your song, will (if the song has any potential) often elicit a positive response. However, if you wish to be more precise with your promotion, then the last publisher to have a chart entry with that particular performer, is always worth trying first.

A word of warning before we proceed. Most American-based publishers refuse to accept "unsolicited" material from songwriters, and insist on returning it unopened.

There are exceptions, but these are becoming few and far between.

Some companies advise that you should write first asking for permission, and if they give it (and in so doing, give you a code to use in your address label), you are free to send the song. The problem we notice is however, that having advised you to write first, they often fail to reply one way or the other to such requests, which puts you back where you started anyway.

Click here for a whole section on Music Publishing, plus a list of the top music publishing websites.

The Performer
A lot of songwriters think that if only they could get to the star himself, they could very easily sell their song.

Hollywood is as much to blame for this fairytale scenario as anything else.

In the classic movie, the songwriter just strolls up to the singer and hands him a CD, or (if the scriptwnter is displaying a little more imagination that week), sings the song to him in the back of a taxi on the way to some airport or other. By nightfall, the song has been recorded in a state-of-the-art studio (which for some reason or other is never already booked out), and by the next morning, it is Number One everywhere.

Oh - and the songwriter gets the girl as well.

The reality is unfortunately, not quite as romantic. One of our subscribers dines well from his hilarious account of how, after weeks of tracking and hunting, he finally waylaid the star of his dreams as he left his hotel.

Pushing everybody else aside, our hero thrust the envelope containing his next hit into the singer's surprised hands.

The stunned superstar made a quick recovery - flashed him his famous winning smile, whipped out his pen, autographed the back of the envelope, and handed it back to the baffled songwriter just as they bundled the singer into his limousine.

Exit one delighted superstar, and one deflated songwriter in a scenario that is, I'm afraid to say, closer to reality than anything Hollywood has dreamt up to date.

Even if you can persuade a performer, hyped up on a heady cocktail of fame and illicit substances, to come down to earth long enough to listen to your CD, you can usually see from that faraway look in his eyes that within minutes of your bidding him good-bye, he will not remember that you were ever there - let alone what he did with your CD.

Stars are different - that's why they're stars, and they're rarely equipped to deal with aspiring songwriters, or indeed, real life. The direct approach has indeed worked outside the movies, but usually, it worked because it was a personal approach from somebody already known to the performer - and somebody who knew the most opportune time to make that approach.

The moral of all this? The International Songwriters Association rarely gives out personal addresses for singers, except where that singer has no current label or no current management - and if that's the case, should you be bothering in the first place?

The Record Label
Theoretically, the people at the record label are the only people who should matter, but when it comes to making that crucial decision as to whose song is used, this is not always the case. However, if you send your song to the relevant label, somebody there will at least know what to do with it, or else to whom to send it.

Most of the big labels have UK and US headquarters. Although, it makes sense to send a song for an American singer, to the American office, and a song for a UK singer to the UK office, there is usually nothing lost if you do it in reverse, as most of the larger labels operate courier services between branches anyway, so your CD should find its way home no matter where you send it.

Indeed, one of our subscribers, finding that his attempts to contact an American singer via his New York label, were being constantly frustrated by his CD coming back unopened, marked "unsolicited", sent it to the London office instead, marking it for the attention on the singer. To his amazement, two weeks later, he got a reply from the same New York office which had kept sending back his material heretofore! Apparently, since it now came to them from their UK office, they no longer regarded it as unsolicited!

The Others
Some singers and acts are represented by just one person or company. Others maintain a battery of representatives, ranging from personal managers, through record producers, legal advisors, booking agents, business managers, public relations managers, general dogsbodies of uncertain status, and the wife's brother, whom nobody else would employ.

Generally speaking, if the International Songwriters Association gives a contact other than a record labe or a music publisher, it is either because we believe that that specific person has some input into the choice of material, or because that particular person or organisation, has proved an effective conduit for placing material with that performer in the past.

So - why not get yourself an agent?
Songwriters often wonder if they should get themselves an "agent" - in other words, somebody who is happy to represent unpublished songwriters purely on a percentage of future income basis.

Their search is usually fruitless.

There are of course agents who represent performing songwriters or singer-songwriters on a percentage of income basis.

In these cases however, there is usually already some current income from live performances, and consequently, a percentage for that agent to earn.

However it is difficult to obtain an agent who will operate on behalf of unpublished non-performing writers on the same basis - namely a percentage of income from the songwriting itself.

From time to time, you will come across advertisements from people who say they are willing to represent unpublished writers. Our experience to date is that they generally want

(a) a fee upfront

and often

(b) a percentage of the writer's income should the songs be eventually published.

But the one constant seems to be that upfront fee.

If you ask them to waive the percentage in return for a bigger fee, many will do so quite happily.

However, if you ask them to waive the upfront fee in exchange for a bigger percentage, they usually will not. They want their upfront fee first.

That lack of confidence in their ability to generate income for you in the future, speaks I think, for itself, and one has to wonder how much effort is likely to be made by an agent who has already been paid in advance anyway.

In reality, music publishers have more or less replaced "songwriters agents" or "songpluggers", and effectively, nowadays represent writers in their dealings with labels and acts.

As a top (agentless) songwriter once told me - "if you cannot persuade a publisher to accept a song, then it is unlikely that a plugger will succeed where your failed".

Selling Direct To The Public
You need a middleman - whether that be a singer, a music publisher, a record label, or an agent (or a combination of all four!) - to get your song to market.

But how about doing it all yourself by becoming the singer, recording the song, putting it on the web, and then selling it directly to your fans?

It can be done! But it will involve a lot of work, and if you end up turning out a really top product, you may still not make as much money as you might have done had you gone down the conventional route, simply because - as an unknown act - you will probably not sell anywhere as many copies.

And you will have to do a lot of extra work, such as handling sales, securing copyright and other matters that a music publisher wpuld taken care of for you.

But not to worry! We have a special article titled "Putting Your Songs On The Web", as well as features on copyright, promotion etc., on this site, and all you have to do is to click Click
here for all the info!

Some Last Words
Well, now you have decided which route you want to go down, you have to turn your attention to how to get your song into the hands of he who matters.

You can always go down the tried and trusted postal road, or else use an online method such as asking the executive to visit your site or (if the company has such a scheme), send your MP3 to their DropBox.

The main thing is to try and avoid being anonymous.

If you have a name in a record label, music publisher or management office, you should address your submission to that person, even if you're not sure as to the relevance of the name you have.

If your letter is addressed to a named (even if irrelevant) executive, the person who opens it will nearly always re-direct it to the correct executive anyway.

If you have no name - then telephone the company concerned, introduce yourself confidently as though everybody should know who you are, and in your most polite fashion, ask the telephonist for the name of the person to whom your letter should be sent. Even though I am quite sure that most telephonists have been told to be wary about giving out names to people they do not recognise, if you sound confident - you may well get the information anyway.

If you are unable to obtain a name, then address the CD to the star for whom the song is intended. Mail addressed to the star is usually directed to whomsoever handles that performer's affairs, and whoever gets it will hopefully re-direct it to the relevant executive handling choice of material.

Above all, try and avoid addressing the CD simply to the company itself. With no name whatsoever on it, the package will be opened by the lowest staff member around, who may very well not have the slightest idea what to do next with it. Or worse, he may have a blanket instruction to dump anything which is not addressed to a specific executive. With an executive's name (or a star's name) attached, it will travel higher up the ladder, to be dealt with by somebody powerful enough to make decisions, or intelligent enough to refer it to somebody who can.

And as an ISA Member, you can learn how to put the package in the right hands anyway!

Finally, make everything look professional. Typed labels, clean jiffy bags, and a smart appearance, help concentrate the mind of the recipient.

He must never get the impression that this song has been round the block, and rejected by everybody else. It must always appear new - and he must be convinced that he is the first person to hear it.

Copyright Songwriter Magazine, International Songwriters Association & Jim Liddane: All Rights Reserved

The Knowledge

If you have wandered onto this page by accident, then you may very well be wondering what "The Knowledge" button above is all about.

"The Knowledge" is a free multi-part course which takes you from thinking up the basic idea for your song, through using AI or Artificial Intelligence to help improve your writing skills, to penning the title, the lyric and the melody. It then covers plagiarism (what to do if you're told your song sounds like another one!) and copyrighting your song, so that you can take action if your work is stolen.

Finally, it deals with selling your song, promoting your demo, music publishers, putting your songs on the web, and in movies, or on television, getting the money in, raising cash to fund your career via crowd-funding, before setting up your own music publishing company so that you get to keep all of the money! And that blue button at the bottom of each lesson simply takes you to the next lesson.

If however you would like to go back to Lesson 1 and start the course (it will take about 90 minutes to complete), then just press HERE!

ISA International Songwriters Association (1967)

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