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  • Songwriting 101 - The Logistics And The Demographics

    By Chris Marion |



    Do you write “the songs the make the young girls cry” as Barry Manilow proclaimed in his 1976 Grammy winning #1 single “I Write The Songs”?  Ironically, Barry’s song was actually written by Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys. But, the song content really speaks of the power of a song in its relationship to the essence of love and life.  While songs can certainly be identified and immortalized by the artists that record them, the ultimate beneficiary in the success of a recorded song is the songwriter.  In the next series of articles about the anatomy of songwriting, we’ll explore the demographics of songwriting as a career, we’ll profile some hit songwriters biographically and then examine their technique and writing sensibilities.


    Songwriters are ultimately compensated through royalties - a sum of money that is paid to the creator of a work for each public performance or instance of that work.  There are basically four different types of royalties that a songwriter can be paid:


    1.     Mechanical royalties or licenses:  The songwriter is paid a mechanical royalty for each time a song is mechanically reproduced or downloaded in some type of online media at a rate of 9.1 cents for a three minute song (1.75 cents per minute of playing time with additional 1.75 cent increments per additional minute).  These royalties are paid at the point of duplication (regardless of how many units actually sell) or periodically from download.


    2.     Performance Royalties:  Each time a song is played publicly either on radio or television, the songwriter receives a royalty of around 8 cents varying slightly from a large market to a small less populated market.  The number of airplays are calculated by reporting stations and tracked for royalty disbursement by performing rights organizations like ASCAP, BMI and SESAC.  These royalties are usually distributed on a quarterly basis either directly to the affiliated writer or publishing company.


    3.     Synchronization Royalties - These royalties are generated from the use of a song in a movie, television or commercial.  A writer could earn up to $300,000 dollars if the song is used in a film or commercial paid upon release.


    4.     Print Royalties – These royalties are paid if your song is notated and released either as a single piece of music or in a collection.  With the demise of the print industry, this type of royalty is a bit more obscure.  However, back in the day, especially in religious music, it represented a substantial component for compensation from songwriting.  The standard royalty rate for print release is 12.5% of the retail price for a solo piece of music.  Obviously, collections like a hymnal or songbook would disburse royalties divided amongst each songwriter or published song.  Yet, if you consider the fact that the classic Baptist Hymnal has sold tens of millions of copies, the cumulative incremental royalty could be potentially substantial.


    Since we started this article with a tongue in cheek mockery of Barry Manilow, let’s just use his “I Write The Songs” as an example of what a hit song can generate in royalties.  I guess the joke is really on us scoffers when you look at the hard numbers for Barry’s song. 


    First, let’s consider the mechanical royalties generated:


     -       Not only did “Trying to Get The Feeling” (the record that contained the single “I Write The Songs”) sell multiplatinum, but several of the subsequent greatest hits compilations also sold multiplatinum.  All totaled, there were 18 million units sold that contained the song.  18 million times 9.1 cents comes out to a whopping $1,638,000 dollars.  Not bad mailbox money…


    Then let’s calculate the airplay royalties collected:


     -       According to estimates, “I Write The Songs” is in the 3 “million air” category.  3 million times 8 cents adds another $240,000 to Bruce Johnston’s bank account.



    I would suspect that Bruce probably made more income off of Barry’s recorded version of his song over a three-year period than he made as a member of the Beach Boys.  Most artists will make more income off of songs they’ve written and recorded rather than their percentage of mechanical sales as an artist.  With classic rock radio playing classic hits on a recurrent basis, many singles continue to generate considerable royalties on a yearly basis.  In an interview with Don McLean, writer of “American Pie”, he reports that after 40 years, the song still generates in excess of $300,000 per year in royalties.  Of course, not every song can be a “Happy Birthday”.  Since 1893 when a couple of kindergarten teachers wrote that little ditty, it has generated over $50 million dollars and still brings in a cool $2 million per year.  It costs $25,000 dollars just to use the song in a movie or television show.


    Obviously, not every song recorded is going to be a gigantic hit.  In 2010, there were about 75,000 documented records registered and copyrighted.  With an average 12 songs per recording, a rough estimate would be that around 900,000 songs were recorded on nationally released projects.  For perspective, there were only 17 different songs that reached number one on Billboard’s pop charts.


    Every hit songwriter has to start with his or her first song.  They all bring their own story to their tradecraft as well as varied examples of preparation or training.  In the next installment of Songwriting 101, we’ll examine the profiles and backgrounds of several successful songwriters.  While they share common success and have written a long list of hit songs over several decades, they each have different backgrounds and techniques that manifest in their respective catalogs.   Until our next installment, write wisely my friends.


    EDITORIAL UPDATE:  Two days after this article published on Friday, June 13th, I received a call from the aforementioned writer, Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys.  It seems that I had inadvertently credited him as a writer by the name of Brian Johnston.  In the fast and furious effort to get an article completed, I was distracted by the byline that he had not written the song about bandmate Brian Wilson.  Stupid oversight on my part.  However, it was rather cool that Bruce took the time to reach out to me after reading the article and had kind words about the overall content.  The Beach Boys had just played Wendover, NV where LRB will be playing in a few weeks.  Bruce is a nice fellow.  He also assured me that although the mailbox money for "I Write the Songs" was great, touring with the Beach Boys has it's compensatory benefits! 


    chris-head-dde56fa3.jpg.0a4284d8d7bb835e602c8a7a2494b1cb.jpgChris Marion is an American musician best known as a member of Little River Band and for his contribution to the gospel and country music industries. Although graduating college with a B.A. in Psychology, he is a classically trained pianist and has worked in the music industry professionally for over 35 years. As a resident of Nashville, he is involved in the recording industry working in the genres of Gospel, Country and Rock. Since 2004, he has toured globally with the classic rock act Little River Band as a keyboardist and vocalist.  For more useless trivia and minutiae concerning Chris or to contact him directly, feel free to visit his personal website www.chrismarionmusic.com.




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    Good info there Chris. I would just like to forewarn folks that play covers in bars, the establishment should be a member of ASCAP, BMI or SESAC, if they are not the establishment could be looking for trouble down the road. There fees are not that high and music might be the reason folks hang out anyway. Do it right.I try to pen out tunes of a weekly basis, I tend to step back a bit and look at a tune as a listener would here the tune, it might take me 20 minute to write a song, or what is the start of a song, and then 3 hours, 3 days, or even 3 month to finalize it. What I tell folks is where ever you start write it down, because as quickly though enter you head they will leave and be long forgotten. I actually us a computer these days to move phrases and words around, but there's nothing wrong with and old fashion composition note book. Never tear out the pages, or delete anything, as you might be able to use it down the road.  Sometimes folks get lucky penning out a song, but most of the time it's work, It can be very therapeutic at times as well as frustrating.  I have yet to try to pitch a song or even try. I might work on that down the road.

    Thanks for listening. ~Mike


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