Single-Song Contracts

Before you get a staff deal, you'll probably get a few offers for single-song contracts. This is like a one-night-stand when you're looking for a relationship but, when you're lonely, the attention is nice. Just be careful and use a lawyer. If you play your cards right, you might even meet a nice publisher and settle down.

Almost all publishing contracts contain the words “standard contract.” It's something publishers or their lawyers put on the contract to make it appear standard, like it's the one everybody signs. There's no such thing as a standard contract. Question anyone who suggests otherwise.

When it comes to single-song contracts, you need to pay attention to the agreement on reversion — when you get the rights to your song back. Reversion is always a good thing. When you sign your contract, there should always be a reversion clause saying that if the publisher doesn't get your song “on hold” or cut within a certain amount of time (usually six months to a year), you get it back. According to some agreements, you may have to pay back any advances and half of any demo expenses to get reversion.

The Fine Print

Fine print on a single-song agreement might stipulate a small time window during which the songwriter must request reversion in writing in order to receive it. Pay close attention to this if you want your song back. Also look for the provision that the publisher is to be reimbursed for “reasonable expenses” pursuant to pitching or marketing the song, either if the song gets cut or before reversion occurs. Compensation to the publisher for these costs should come from the publisher's share of the royalties. If there are no royalties, the publisher hasn't done his or her job and isn't entitled to a dime in expenses. Other dirty tricks include the following:

  • Paying mechanicals on the wholesale price, but collecting a percentage of retail.

  • Paying you in cents per unit, so you don't see what percentage the publisher is making.

  • Paying 50 percent of the net instead of the gross, which lets the publisher deduct the rent, utilities, staff pay, his or her salary, and lunch before paying you.

  • Paying 50 percent of the gross, but only on a limited list of income sources. (Getting paid on the gross is good, but make sure the percentage is based on “all receipts.”)

  • Taking larger chunks of smaller sources of income like foreign royalties or film and video rights.

  • Reserving the right to issue licenses at a reduced rate. (This would allow your publisher to offer its affiliated record company your songs for next to nothing.)

  • Making deals with owned or affiliated sub-publishers in which income is not computed “at source.”

  • All's fair in love and publishing. You may sometimes be faced with a choice between a deal that doesn't seem equitable and no deal at all. This is a toughie. In the music business, the only way to ensure fair treatment is by having enough success to demand it and an attorney to enforce it.

    These are some of the most common tricks. There are hundreds more. Many of these are found in staff deals as well. Before you sign a contract, it's not a bad idea to have it looked over by a lawyer.

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