Staff-Writer Contracts

Staff-writer contracts, also known as “staff deals” or “term songwriter agreements,” are what most songwriters dream of — until they get one. When you finally get offered a staff deal, you will probably have been living on mac and cheese for a couple of years. You will be tempted to sign the first contract that offers you the possibility of groceries in return for control of your life's work and half your future income. If you don't have a lawyer, you will get ripped off.

There are a million things you can ask for. Some of them, you might get. Of course, there are a thousand songwriters standing in line behind you, most of whom will gladly sign a contract without even reading it. Almost any deal is better than no deal. Negotiate the best deal you can and get on with writing great songs.

Most staff deals involve an advance of some kind. Instead of blowing it all on pizza and beer, see if you can get an entertainment attorney to help negotiate your contract in return for payment from your advance. Think of it as an investment in your future. The money you save might be your own.

Draw, Advances, and Recoupment

Most publishers offer their staff writers a draw, which is a small advance on future royalties. This is not a salary. It's more like a loan that you pay back with your royalties. If you sign an exclusive agreement granting a publisher the rights to all your work created within a given period, you should receive a draw to live on while you write full time. (Make sure it's in the contract, or you might not get it.) How much draw you get is something you have to work out between you and the publisher. Remember, a draw isn't free money; it's an advance against future royalties. Most staff deals also provide advances for making demos, but you should only be liable for half the demo budget, not all of it.

Your contract will probably have a clause giving the publisher control of everything you've already written, with the exception of stuff you've already signed away. This is pretty standard, but the publisher might fail to mention that it's also standard to pay for these songs. How much will vary, depending on how many songs you have and how much the publisher wants them.

All these advances get paid back. This is called “recoupment,” and it comes from your share of the royalties that your publisher collects (mechanicals, synch rights, etc.) and nowhere else. If you're a gazillion dollars unrecouped, the publisher can't take your car or garnish the wages from your paper route. All he or she can do is get you a cut and collect the money that way. Still, being recouped is good. It means your publisher is happy, because your songs are making money and you don't owe anything. It also means that you get paid royalties from your publisher instead of paying back advances, so everybody's happy.

Most entertainment attorneys charge between $100 and $1,000 an hour, with the median being in the $350 range, but they may agree to look over a contract for a specific, preset amount. Call around and see what you can get for $100.

More Fine Print

You'll have a minimum number of approved songs, usually between ten and fifteen, which you must write in each year of the contract. “Approved” means that your publisher thinks they're great. This doesn't mean that you can bring in fifteen co-writes. Your minimum is in whole songs — that's thirty two-way co-writes or forty-five three-way co-writes. For this reason, many writers are reluctant to co-write a song with more than one person.

Your initial term will probably be for one to three years, with several renewable one-year options at the publisher's discretion. This means that if you start getting hits, they can automatically renew your contract on the same terms. Ouch! On the other hand, if a publisher has been good to you, worked hard to get you cuts, and helped you to grow as a writer, a few years paying that back isn't so bad.

Smaller and newer publishers will often do a little “catalog building.” They may keep a promising writer under contract for a while without making demos or pitching anything, then terminate the writer's contract and wait for another publisher to make the investment in demos and pluggers. When the writer starts getting cuts, the previous publisher can then sell the copyrights on all that writer's songs in his or her catalog for a huge profit. If your contract doesn't guarantee demos and pitching, the publisher doesn't have to provide them for you, so you may be in danger of working with a catalog-building publisher.

Cross-Collateralization

This one is so nasty, it gets its own section. Cross-collateralization is a state where recoupment owed for one thing (like draw) can be taken from another (like your artist's royalty on your own project). Some people even try to cross-collateralize between different members of a writing team. This is bad and wrong. Make sure that your draw isn't recoupable from anything but the money your publisher collects for you as a songwriter. If the publisher wants to be able to recoup from any other source, like performance royalties or songs you may write after the term of your contract, refuse and tell everybody you know what happened.

Co-Pub

Co-publishing, or co-pub, is a wonderful thing that happens after you get some hits. It means that you not only get whatever money you have coming as a writer, but also a portion of the publishing income. This portion is usually tallied after administration and overhead costs have been taken out. It's crucial to have your attorney oversee the wording of your co-pub deal. Otherwise, you'll end up with your publisher's yacht listed as an overhead cost and you'll get next to nothing.

  1. Home
  2. Songwriting
  3. Legal Basics
  4. Staff-Writer Contracts
Visit other About.com sites: