The latest music industry advice column from Rohan Healy – The songwriter holds all the power
Rohan Healy is currently running for election to the Board of IMRO (Irish Music Rights Organisation) as Writer Director. IMRO members can vote using the email sent to them containing voting details.
A cursory glance at the history of copyright is all it takes to understand that the underlying story that spans the past 6 centuries is dominated by the ongoing power struggle between those who create, and those who make those creations available to the insatiable public. This applies to all creative fields, however as my personal background is in music this is where I’ll focus my attention.
I’m talking, on one hand, about the songwriters; the proverbial progenitors of the music we hear on radio, TV, in cafes, bars, restaurants, shopping malls, airports, in films, in games and in our personal collections and playlists. And, on the other, the distributors; the record labels, publishers, managers, streaming services, distribution platforms, retailers and radio DJs. Ever since the rights of authors began to become legally recognised with the Copyright Act of 1710 in England, a symbiotic relationship between those who create and those who deliver the creation has developed and evolved. A tug of war ensued as creators and distributors fought for the greater share of the profits from the sales and public performances of the works. The labels, publishers, radio stations, retailers and these days the streaming platforms would argue that without them the music would never reach enough listeners to generate significant income and therefore they deserve the greater cut, while the writers would say that without the songs there would be no product to sell and no industry at all!
This is not dissimilar to most product industries, be it farming or manufacturing. There are those who produce the product and those who sell the product. However music is not only a product, sold in units like records and mp3’s, a song is also a piece of property (Intellectual Property), and the owner of any property should surely receive compensation from the use or exploitation of that property, no? This is where things get sticky.
Let me say at this point that I don’t believe there are any inherent evils along the chain from writer to distributor to listener. As an owner of a record label I understand the challenges and costs associated with recording, producing and promoting a musical work, and as a songwriter I understand the process of writing, producing and protecting a work. With that said I do believe a lot of songwriters are somewhat unaware of the power they hold.
For example, lets take a look at Moral Rights. From the moment a song, be it words,
music or both, is formed and written a legal inalienable moral right to that work is bestowed upon the author. This “Moral” right allows the author to object to the alteration, distortion, or mutilation of the work that may be “prejudicial to the author’s honour or reputation”. Moral rights are distinct from any economic rights tied to copyrights. Even if an artist has assigned a percentage of their economic rights to a publisher or label in return for promotion, placement or distribution, they still maintain the moral rights to the work.
So for example, if your publisher lands a placement in a McDonald’s ad, but you are a vegan and have a reputation for championing animal rights, your Moral right allows you to block the deal even if the publisher is a majority holder of the economic rights. This Moral right is recognised worldwide as of 1989 when the United States became a signatory to The Berne Convention which had been protecting authors rights in Europe since 1886.
Neighbouring rights are another example. If you’re a writer who also performs on recordings be they audio or visual, and these works are performed in public on radio, TV etc, you are entitled compensation for it. In copyright law a unique performance of a piece has its own copyright. So that guitar track you recorded and is now playing on national radio is generating income for you, not only as writer but as performer as well. In order to receive the neighbouring royalties you must register the song, and what you played with a collection agency like RAAP in Ireland or PPL in the UK. A full recording of a song also has its own copyright, this usually belongs to the record label who paid for and distributed the record. In the case of independent artists the master recording copyright belongs to whoever paid for the recording, however in order to receive the royalty for performances of the recording they must register it with a collection agency like PPI in Ireland or PPL in the UK. So in short, if you wrote the song, performed on the recording and funded and released the recording yourself, providing you have the work registered properly you will claim a great deal of financial compensation should the song perform well on radio, in a visual placement, on a streaming service etc.
While there’s no doubt that incredible work is done by the labels, the marketers, the publishers, music manager, the radio stations and DJs, the record stores, and the download and streaming services in facilitating and bringing decades of wonderful music to the people of the world, let’s not forget where it all begins: the writer.
Without the initial spark of inspiration our lives would be filled with silence instead of sound tracked by the incredibly vast and varied collection of styles, genres and moods that the human race has collectively produced. And as someone who identifies primarily as a songwriter and musician by trade and by nature, I feel it is imperative that as songwriters we understand the importance of our role and the rights and compensations to which we are entitled. Sadly there is an immense disconnect between the general perception of the songwriter as the struggling, “get a real job”, dreamer and the blatant fact that songs are everywhere we might go, that “life is nothing without music” is a common term, that everyone has a favorite song or artist and that music is almost as pervasive as the air that we breath.
So as songwriters, know that whether your contribution to the great human song book be big or small, you hold a tremendous power; morally, legally, culturally, financially and emotionally. Whether you write for a living or for pleasure, or both, and whatever you may be told, or the perception may be, know in yourself that, at the end of the day, the songwriter holds all the power.
Note – This is the sixth article in a series by Rohan Healy on how to make it in the music industry. You can get more helpful tips and advice below:
- How to make a living playing your own music live
- How to make a living playing your own music live part two – making it stick
- How to maximise your royalty earnings
- Making the most of studio time
- The art of stagecraft
About The Author.
Rohan Healy, a dual citizen of Ireland and Australia, is owner and CEO of Beardfire Music. After studying acting, music, legal studies and commerce at Trinity Catholic College Lismore, Rohan began a full time career in music which has spanned the past 15 years. In that time Rohan has written, recorded and produced 10 solo albums, appeared on The Voice UK and Busker Abu with The Dublin City Rounders, shared the stage with the likes of Cat Power, Lloyd Cole and Jim Lauderdale, booked and performed almost 1,000 shows in Australia, the UK, Ireland and Europe and has dozens of production, songwriting and performance credits on other artists’ works.
Rohan also studied acting at The Australian Theatre For Young People and appeared in a number of stage plays as a young adult. Rohan works closely with father David Virgin (Healy) (of SPK, Sekret Sekret) and brother Al “Quiff” Healy (of Quiffs N Coffins) on The Dublin City Rounders, The Annual Dublin City Rounders Alt-Country Song contest and the running of Beardfire Music.
Rohan offers personal music business consultation on booking, management, live performance coaching and music exam prep, publishing and royalties, and is a music producer at Beardfire Studio.