How Music Royalties Work

Who Gets What?

The first thing we need to do is distinguish between recording-artist royalties and songwriter/publisher royalties.

In The Internet Debacle - An Alternative View, Janis Ian, a singer/songwriter, states:


If we're not songwriters, and not hugely successful commercially (as in platinum-plus), we [recording artists] don't make a dime off our recordings.

She's referring to the fact that recording artists and songwriters do not earn royalties in the same way. Recording artists earn royalties from the sale of their recordings on CDs, cassette tapes, and, in the good old days, vinyl. Recording artists don't earn royalties on public performances (when their music is played on the radio, on TV, or in bars and restaurants). This is a long-standing practice that's based on copyright law and the fact that when radio stations play the songs, more CDs and tapes are sold. Songwriters and publishers, however, do earn royalties in these instances -- as well as a small portion of the recording sales.

The only current instance in which artists earn royalties for "public performances" is when the song is played in a digital arena (like in a Webcast or on satellite radio), is non-interactive (meaning the listener doesn't pick and choose songs to hear), and the listener is a subscriber to the service. This came about with the Digital Performance Rights in Sound Recordings Act of 1995. This act gave performers of music their first performance royalties.

We'll go into more detail about the types of licenses and royalties later in this article. But first, let's look at song copyrights.