How the Shift to a Singles Market Impacts Writer’s Income

By George Howard

One of the interesting unintended consequences of the trend away from albums and back towards singles is that there is now less mechanical income being generated for writers.  Remember, a label must pay the copyright holder of the song (i.e. the writer and/or publisher) for the right to “mechanically” reproduce the writer’s song on the label’s release (be it on CD, vinyl, download, etc.).

The current rate, as set by statute, is nine point one cents ($.091) for songs under five minutes in length.  Labels often insert a clause into recording contracts that reduces this amount when the artist signed to the label is also the writer; this so-called controlled composition clause reduces the mechanical royalty that is paid by the label to the artist by as much as 25%.


Whether the writer receives the full-rate or a reduced rate, this mechanical income is very material.  Typically, mechanical payments must be paid to the artist from the label from this first record sold, and these payments should not be cross-collateralized against the artist royalty.  What this means is that, as is the case for many artists signed to labels, even if an artist’s account is un-recouped (meaning they have not made back in sales what the label has paid to sign, record, and (often) promote their record), the label still must pay the writer of the song(s) a mechanical royalty.  This mechanical payment is thus often the only money a writer sees from the label.

During the album era, if you wrote all of the songs that were released on the album — and for easy math assume the typical album had ten songs on it, and that you were getting a reduced mechanical payment of seven point five cents per song — this meant that for every record sold, you, the songwriter, were owed seventy-five cents (the reduced mechanical of $.075 for each song multiplied by the ten songs on the album).  If you were to sell a hundred thousand records, you were owed $75,000.  This is not chump change, and there is a compelling argument to be made that the true benefit to signing with a label was that they were the promotional engine that drove mechanical royalties.

The advantage of this for the songwriter during the album era was, of course, that there may have only been one or two songs that captured the public’s imagination — the hits on radio, for example — but the writer still got paid for all of the songs on the album that she wrote, even if the majority of people bought the album just for those one or two songs.

Even during the 7”-single era (i.e. small vinyl), savvy artists and managers would make sure to put a song they had written on the b-side so that when the record was purchased because of the a-side, they made some (or double) the mechanical income.  This strategy of putting an original on the b-side of a single with the a-side as a cover is in some respects the reason why The Rolling Stones, for example, began writing their own compositions.

Today, we’ve largely left behind not only the full-length album, but also the 7”-inch single.  Customers download specific individual tracks.  In so doing, this results in non-single tracks on the album not being downloaded, and thus not generating any mechanical royalties for the writer.

Certainly, there are artists who still sell “albums”; i.e. their customers either still buy the full-length CD (or vinyl) and/or download an entire album, but clearly the trend is towards à la carte downloads (or streams) of singles.

This impacts, of course, not only those performers who are signed to the label, and also write their own material, but also writers whose work is covered by a performer.  Unless this writer’s song that is covered is the single, the chances of generating the type of mechanical income that was derived from sales during the album era is pretty much nil.

It will be interesting to see how this economic reality impacts the creative output of artists.  If there is less economic incentive to write material that is unlikely to be a “single,” will artists write less or write differently?  It’s frightening to think that in today’s single driven market (one without even b-sides) that the Stones might have contented themselves with being a cover band — never writing — and releasing records only so they could tour.

What are your thoughts? Does the “album” concept still matter, given the lack of economic incentives? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

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George Howard is the former president of Rykodisc. He currently advises numerous entertainment and non-entertainment firms and individuals. Additionally, he is the Executive Editor of Artists House Music and is a Professor and Executive in Residence in the college of Business Administration at Loyola, New Orleans. He is most easily found on Twitter at: twitter.com/gah650

  • http://www.filmfundingclub.com Nancy Fulton

    I think songwriters need to realize they are artists part of a community _bigger_ than music. Filmmakers always need music, and a trailer for a film that mentions the name of a song or artist can drive a lot of hits to a sales page. Everything from podcasts to events needs music. And musicians need videos.
    The trick is to routinely trade music for a “hit” to the right site. I run the FilmFundingClub which is a network of folks who work in the film industry. We have 300+ members across the US. Many are musicians.

  • http://www.reverbnation.com/mrforge Mr. Forge

    From a business perspective it’s more economical to just release single after single. Less time, less studio/production time. However, I believe the “album” concept is still relevant especially from the creative aspect. As an songwriter/artist, I gravitate more towards the classic album and the true love of “creating”. For the love it. -=- Mr. Forge

  • http://www.benjaminbugs.com Benjamin Bugs

    As artists we have to become more creative and think of the singles as worms on a hook. I believe this will give the artist a better opportunity to put more creative work on their albums and make work that is totally not single driven so it has a bigger impact. The key is to generate enough revenue through singles to record an album cost effectively.
    -Benjamin Bugs

  • http://www.reverbnation.com/mrforge Mr. Forge

    I agree Nancy. Especially with the “market” already saturated, film/TV/commercials should be the most tangible resource for artists. I realized this once The Mentalist TV show used one of my songs. The benefits are certainly there and feasible. Would you be able to share more information with me about the FilmFundingClub? Thank you Nancy. Regards

  • http://imradio.com/statesecret MIKE NIND

    NEVER SIGN A CROSS COLATARALIZATION CONTRACT I FELL DOWN THAT BIG HOLE YEARS AGO WITH A FAMOUS WELL KNOWN RECORD LABEL AND EVEN AS I WRITE THIS PIECE SOMEBODY IKNOW HAS MADE CAASH OUT OF SELLING A SONG I WROTE ON THE WEB FOR 50 PENCE DIGITAL DOWNLOAD WITHOUT MY CONSENT
    REGARDS SONGSMITH

  • http://www.iamjenilee.com Twitter.com/jenileereyes

    It’s important for me, as an artist to make an ALBUM. Create the songs that are true to you and not mimic what’s a hit on the radio. The singles era have hurt our industry in such a way that has once unique artists all sounding the exact same because it’s the only sure fire way to ensure a hit record. I think it’s important to study hits and learn why they were successful but not follow trends, and stay true to what u do best. The stones have had hit after hit because they stayed true to their music instead of creating a song with dr. Luke that sounds like every other song on the radio with different artists you cant even tell apart. Be successful for YOU and not because of what you think will sell. Make an ALBUM you believe in that can possibly impact lives instead of having an ALBUM thats all over the place due to this singles driven market. Make each song matter and love it—and it will catch on. It is still possible and it’s up to us artists to bring real music back to where it should be.

  • wORLd oF bEAtcIRKUs

    Benjammin I certainly concur. At this time it ie best to push single artwe single. Once there’s enough of them , release them in album form. That way those singles will make money individually all over again.

  • http://www.reverbnation.com/soulsofrebellion DC

    This is why the music world is dying? You can’t judge a band/artist on 1 single. An album is a true body of work. Sure recording a single is cheaper but why is it all about the buck? It should be for the love of the music.

  • http://www.twitter.com/gah650 George Howard

    Couldn’t agree more, Nancy.
    Thanks,
    George

  • http://www.OBLaw.com Robert Burns

    I suggest that consideration be given to boosting mechanical royalties and definitely renaming them to end the mindless jargon.

  • http://www.purevolume.com/manifestdestinymusic josh

    i agree DC. what happened to the love and being content with making some money. i know this is very unpopular to say these days, i’d much rather make come money doing what i love and have to work a side job than make a killing being fake. that’s just me though, i also have a dream of touring the country and giving away my music cuz i care more about inspiring a generation than i do about being rich and famous!

  • http://profile.typepad.com/chriscash7 Chris Cash 7

    if you’re a musician for the art, and don’t mind starving at your coffee shop job, or working at Wal-Mart, then by all means the full album gives one a broader canvas with which to work. Once you decide to let the 9to5 life go and want to make a living from your craft, then certain of your decisions MUST be made with the aim of profitability in mind. there IS a balance between selling your music and just selling out. there’s music, and then there’s the musc BUSINESS. living comfortably with both is very possible, and is just another extension of the artist’s use of creativity and imagination. Best wishes to all, follow your dreams to the moneypot!

  • http://profile.typepad.com/christkhodadadi ChristKhodadadi

    Wait do writers get the same mechanical rate for singles sold vs. albums sold?

  • http://www.damoncisneros.com Music Production | Songwriter

    Can we afford to run the risk of sounding like our grandparents when we say “today’s music isn’t as good as the music I listened to when I was growing up”?? If it means rescuing the integrity of what we consider popular music.. then I say YES.
    We all have unique perspectives on this – mine is the angle of the producer/songwriter. I’ve worked with many artists that had the mindset to make every song a hit as well as artists that simply had something inside of them that needed to get out. Both are fine but I think that we should all get back to the roots of music, how it makes us feels, how we feel when we share our original works with people, etc.
    I call it the “less boardrooms and more raw creative spark” approach.
    Damon Cisneros
    Music Producer | Songwriter

  • http://www.scotsier.bandcamp.com Scot Sier

    I agree with you Nancy, film is a fantastic medium for music, they go hand in hand to tell a story.
    The key to making money today seems to be with licensing and we all saw the wrath The Black Keys got for using their song in a car commercial. But, that is what can launch an artist today into the mainstream and it takes connections to pitch to that community. ie., having a label, manager/agent behind you.
    The ad agency’s add another layer of complication to the artist making money. It is impossible to contact a Chiatt Day, etc., to pitch your music and going direct to a corporation is usually a waste of time. Most corporate marketers deal with their agency and rely on their expertise.
    It’s difficult to wind your way through the maze of middle men as an artist and speaking with the larger licensing companies, they are convinced that the industry is dead. To much product out there for free.
    In regards to movie trailers, getting people to pay once driven to an artists site is challenging as well, but it can be done with sites like http://www.bandcamp.com
    I’ll check out your film site, sounds like an interesting community.
    Scot Sier

  • Steveb

    As far as being an artist i write every song as if it could be a single or have appeal to someone. That’s what i am thinking at the time i write a song and as my creative writing gets better then yes ill have better songs. I am not to afraid about only your best songs getting downloaded because i write everything to be a best song and i think there is still appeal in buying albums for sake of having something physical from a band you like. And for all those people that can’t get a hard copy of your music then thats whats great about song downloads. Anyways most of the sales are going to be coming from your live appearancs through tickets and cd sales.

  • http://cannes-or-bust.com/ Michael in Cannes

    It’s a sobering thought when affiliate links to iTunes generate 5c. How does that typically compare to the guy or gal that wrote the song?

  • Dirtt Durk

    hahaha 2 many ppl n ths ths not true 2 music but the real r gonna rise while the fake sink.

  • Zemill

    I’m just starting in the business. Where can I go to get some solid direction on how the indusrtry works.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/amypetty Amypetty

    I would be an absolute nobody if it wasn’t for the interwebs. Sure, it would be nice if I could sell more full-length albums for the sake of making some more cash but realistically, the old model would have left me out in the cold. I make relationships with people all over the country via 140 characters and as a result, I put my songs in the ears of more people than I could any other way.
    It might make it a little harder to rake in the cash but we have to recognize the opportunities presented in it’s place. Maybe there’s no money in mechanical licensing via album sales, but there IS more opportunity in film and TV. Savvy artists in the business will learn how to work the system as it changes.
    And I will definitely continue making full-length albums. A good song is a good song whether you call it a single or a b-side.

  • http://Www.9giantsteps.com George Howard

    Couldn’t agree more, Amy. Well said.
    George

  • http://www.myspace.com/brmuse bkr

    Well put, ‘CC7’. It remains the case however, that a wealth of musical expression and musical information has been marginalized, into a premature obscurity because of the current trends technology has brought us to, in terms of music creation and music consumption… thus far.Historically, new technologies have ALWAYS altered the course and form of musical expression. There have always been people on either side of the issue of whether or not those changes were for good or ill. Having grown up listening to AM radio on the East Coast of the USA, singles, especially the 2′:38″ MASTERPIECES that dominated then (and are STILL referenced today), left an indelible mark of love on my heart, and in my consciousness. Those examples of songwriting and formalism evolved because of the format, the technology, in particular, its LIMITATIONS. The limitations spawned a next chapter in the Art Of Song. Following that, was what I’ll call the “expansion”. The short-form was exploded – again, in part because of technological advances, and because the cultural zeitgeist demanded that release. Imagine the rising and falling of a breathing organism… The expansion will return. For MANY it has never left, and the (musical) information garnered in that period is incredibly valuable to them, and in lots of cases calls for a different kind and quality of attention, from both the creators and the listeners/receivers. Let’s not imagine that we (artists) derive our value and meaning only as we do or do not function within the current trend/model of commerce. We are impelled to expand not only our sense of what being creative is, but also our creative sensibilities. The Artist ALWAYS challenges the context from which she springs. Not as a directive, but rather as a result of following the call-ing of what they’re “hearing/seeing/feeling”. A tremendous amount has been seen/heard/felt by those who have come and gone before us. As we cope with the present situations in “the business”, let’s also carry forward the undefinable, wild, teachings upon whose wings we ascend even higher, for THAT IS THE EXPERIENCE, THAT IS THE POINT.
    Be smart, but not too smart. Be sacred, and be profane; real and unafraid. Stand for something, but not for “a cause”. BE (the) CAUSE. Let others concern themselves with EFFECT…

  • CROOKEDHANDZ

    I`m a hip hop artist.The one thing I know is that hip hop was always technology based. Now what gets me is the exsisting “ghostwriter” in the genre where writing should be the first thing your able 2 do. S o know the artist is getting paid 2 perform and the writer gets paid for writing one time.If writing, for a writer is second nature,He`s not working at all.But if u write and perform your worth your weight in gold!

  • http://www.myspace.com/ggmusic Glenn Gordon

    Hello
    Nancy,
    I am a songwriter/singer musician and i agree with you. I would love to get my music in a film, movie, comercial, or tv. I have a single on the market since 2005 and it is doing great but i would love to get it in a movie. Please tell me what do i have to do to become a member of your organization. Please e-mail me.
    Glenn “GG” Gordon
    GGandFRIENDS BAND

  • http://www.myspace.com/ggsmusic Glenn Gordon

    I agrre 1,000 percent. Music should be from the heart and not what’s sellin today but what you feel in your heart. Music should touch people and tell a story. If you are true to your music and craft i believe it will be true to you. I believe music is just like a painting a person should be able to see or feel the warmth and essence of your work.
    GG

  • http://www.myspace.com/ggsmusic GG

    I really like what you have said here and i wish to thank you for that. I am a true believer that music is very good for the soul. To me music is like food to the body what you put into it is what you are.
    I love music that agrees with the soul in a good way meaning not hurting someone or cheating on someone or stealling from someone but of course that’s just me.

  • http://www.myspace.com/senorfancypants Eric Salazar

    I think artists and writers need to start writing better albums as a whole so that more people will be willing to buy the whole album without feeling ripped off. That way, there will be less shitty music out there, and the good artists and writers can be rewarded for their genius and hard work. If artists and writers can’t make good albums, they should find another career…

  • Fred Fnord

    I don’t think the point is whether you write every song to be ‘the best it can be’, and I think it’s very interesting and telling that you do.
    If you’re writing every song to be a single, you’re not writing for the concept album, you’re not trying to write songs that fit together, you’re certainly not doing short-tracks or ever doing instrumentals.
    Think of all the fabulous concept albums of the 1960s. They were better than the sum of their parts, and some of those parts are pretty incredible by themselves. There is no longer any interest in a unit of music larger than the individual song, unless you’re talking about film soundtracks or Broadway musicals. And that’s a huge loss.

  • Fred Fnord

    Spoken like a true musician — i.e. someone with a day job.

  • Fred Fnord

    Just FYI, this is true for those genres of music that are popular in film and TV circles.
    For the rest of us, there really isn’t much left any more.