Music Business

The Songwriter’s Single Song Contract – A Cautionary Tale

by Marty Dodson
Jan 22, 2017

When I was first starting on my commercial songwriting journey, I was dying for someone – ANYONE – to like my songs. One day I got the call that a publisher was interested in one of my songs. Not just “A” publisher. It was actually a very well-known publisher. Not one of the big majors, but almost everyone would know the name of the publisher if I threw it out there.

I was elated! I was SO elated, that I nearly just signed the single-song contract without having a lawyer check it out. After all, this was a REAL publisher. In fact, it was a major Christian publisher. They wouldn’t give me a bad contract. Would they?

Fortunately, I decided to take it to an entertainment lawyer just in case there was an issue with it. Turns out, there was an issue. Not a little issue. A deal breaker issue.

In the contract, it stated that the publisher (who was already getting 100% of my publishing in the deal) would get 50% of my writer’s share if they changed “one note of my arrangement”. The “arrangement” was defined as “the recording on my work tape”. My work tape was very rough. Just a recording on a cassette in the room. No intro, no solo, nothing fancy. So, when the publisher demoed my song, what do you think the odds were that they would do a demo note for note from that work tape? You are correct. 0% change of that happening. So, I would have, in essence, given up 100% of my publishing and 50% of my writers share.

My lawyer said “absolutely not”. So, I had to turn down my first offer. And, I had to have the uncomfortable conversation with the publisher saying “Thanks but no thanks”. They asked me why I was turning it down and I said “Because you tried to rip me off”. They didn’t like that. I didn’t either.

The point of this cautionary tale is “Don’t get so excited about someone liking your song that you sign a bad deal”. Having no deal is better than having a bad one.

Before you sign ANY deal, ALWAYS have an entertainment lawyer look it over. And make sure YOU understand the terms of the contract. You need to know what you are getting into. And, check out the publisher. Any person on earth can call themselves a publisher and set up an office. Many of them have no more chance of getting you a cut than you do on your own. Why give controlling interest of your song to someone who isn’t a real player in the music business. That doesn’t make sense.

If you have a great song, lots of publisher’s will be interested, not just one. And you might find a more legit publisher that likes it and can actually get it cut. Tying up your best song with a fly-by-night publisher could be one of the biggest mistakes you will ever make and it could prevent you from getting a staff writing deal down the road.

Shop around. Be patient. And always, always, ALWAYS have an attorney look it over.

Write on! ~Marty

Marty Dodson

Marty Dodson

Marty Dodson is a multi-hit songwriter, co-founder of SongTown, and co-author of  The Songwriter’s Guide To Mastering Cowriting and Song Building: Mastering Lyric Writing

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