The Registration Checklist for Independent Musicians
Making money as an independent musician is tough. You need to be consistent with your music, invest in creative marketing, and engage with fans to build a following. If you’ve begun earning from your music, congratulations! Now it’s time to make sure that you’re getting every possible cent. Even if you haven’t started earning as much as you’d like yet, it’s never too early to get started. Here are all the organizations you should register with to make the most out of your art.
Two important notes:
Music is protected by two copyrights:
The Sound Recording (commonly referred to as the “master”) protects the actual waveform of your track.
The Musical Composition protects the lyrics and instrumental.
This list is most helpful to artists based in the USA.
PROs, or Performance Rights Organizations, pay you a royalty every time your composition is “performed.” This includes actual performances, covers by other artists, and even at restaurants or stores (tracked by surveys and collected data). The US has 2 main PROs: ASCAP and BMI. Feel free research to see which you prefer, but either one will work just fine.
It’s important to note that if you don’t have a publishing deal, you’ll need to register both as a songwriter as a publisher to get your full payout, as the system automatically splits the publishing royalty down the middle.
SoundExchange works similarly to PROs but collects on the sound recording copyright rather than the musical composition. It mainly collects from services like Pandora that play music in a radio-style format. Keep in mind that if you’re independent, you need to register both as the sound recording owner and as the artist the same way you would for PROs. However, SoundExchange conveniently allows you to register for both at the same time.
The Mechanical Licensing Collective is a nonprofit organization that pays songwriters a different type of royalty called the “mechanical royalty.” It was created and launched in January 2021 to ensure streaming services paid this out to artists. Registering is completely free, but keep in mind that you’ll need to register for each song to make sure you get paid. You can either find your songs in their existing database or register them yourself. You’ll also need an ISWC code (a unique reference number for each of your songs), which you can find through your PRO.
Electronic Copyright Office
Registering your work with the Copyright Office is one of the most important steps any serious musician should take. While this might not net you more royalties, it’s the best way to protect you from losing out on royalties if someone uses your work without permission.
There are two copyrights you should file for each release. Form SR protects your master recording, and Form PA protects the underlying musical composition. You can also register the cover art (Form VA) and lyrics (Form TX) if you want to be extra cautious. Filing your copyright will set you back about $45 per work, but if you can afford it, it can potentially save you thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars down the line.
Once you’ve registered for all of these, you’ll be well on your way to making the most out of your music. I know this might all sound overwhelming, but a little organization will go a long way. Even keeping track of your registrations and payouts in a simple spreadsheet will do the trick. Good luck!