There are many misconceptions of what it means to be a “staff songwriter.”
So, I thought I’d make an attempt at clearing that up. In layman’s terms, a staff writer has signed an exclusive agreement assigning a publisher some portion of every song they write during the term of the agreement. So, if a songwriter signs a “5 Year Deal” for a straight (100%) publishing deal, the publisher will own 100% of the publishing on every song the writer writes during those 5 years. However, a “5 Year Deal” is almost always actually a one year deal with 4 extra options that the publisher can exercise.
That means that the writer gets to write for the publisher for one year. At the end of the year, the publisher may or may not pick up that option. If they do pick it up, then the writer hangs around for another year. The same thing happens another 3 times. The publisher decides yearly to keep the writer or let them go. The writer generally does not have the option to leave until all 5 years are up.
In exchange for this, the publisher generally pays the writer a monthly “advance” to help them survive until they get some royalties coming in.
When the royalties do come in, the publisher gets to recoup those advances and any demo costs (the publisher pays these as you demo songs) BEFORE the writer actually sees any of the money. So, let’s say, a writer has been paid $10,000 in advances and has a demo tab of $5000 when they land a Carrie Underwood cut. The first $15,000 that the publisher collects would go to the publisher to pay back that debt. If another $5000 rolls in, the publisher would keep $2500 for the publishing share and pay the writer $2500 for their writer’s share. Recouping a catalog is important for that reason. Until the catalog is recouped, you are spending your money in “advance”, so you’re always in a hole.
In addition, the publisher provides services to the writer such as song administration, filing copyrights, licensing, registering songs with PROs and pitching songs.
Good publishers often act as writer managers by setting their writers up for advantageous co-writes and helping their writers develop their craft.
The staff writer is expected to meet a quota. Generally the quota is 12 wholly written songs. If I write with two other writers, that counts as 1/3 of a song. So, I generally have to write 25-30 songs in a year to meet my quota. The writer is also expected to turn in everything they write and to work at doing everything they can do to help get songs recorded.
A staff writing deal is very much like a marriage.
A great one is the best thing that ever happened to you. A bad one can be the worst. ALWAYS consult an entertainment attorney before you sign a staff writing deal (or any legal document). Make sure you know and understand what you are getting into.
As always, you can ask more detailed questions in the “Ask Clay and Marty” forum on the SongTown website.