Thursday, August 20, 2009




This is one of the cardinal rules of the music business. The intellectual property created by songwriters is the only permanent annuity that accrues to the creators of copyrights. Long after the artist is retired, and the recorded product is out of print, the song remains. The great ones are recorded over and over again by new and established artists. Under the compulsory licensing provisions established by law, anyone may record a song, that has been previously released on a commercial recording, without permission from the writer or publisher. The recording party remains obligated to pay the prevailing statutory rate, currently 9.1 cents, for each record sold, containing that copyright. However, they are not required to obtain permission from the administrating publisher in advance. It is up to the performing rights societies to track the use of the song and collect the monies due to their writers and publisher members. ASCAP, BMI and SESAC will distribute the domestically earned monies to the appropriate entities. It has become customary in the industry for writers to make co-publishing deals with established publishers. Hartmann’s Law #6 reminds you that the income stream from publishing may be the only earnings that will continue to accrue in support of your retirement. Although there are exceptions to every rule, and the major music publishers provide valuable services, it is best to never sell your publishing.


The most profitable activity in the music industry is music publishing. The myriad of income streams that flow from the users of music, to the writers and publishers, is a multi-billion dollar business. Every time a song is played on the radio, in night clubs, concert halls, elevators, or on movie and television soundtracks, a fee is paid. In the digital age, music is embedded in printed matter as advertising, greeting cards sing to us and digital downloads have surpassed CDs as the primary delivery system for music. Despite the legalities, most music in use is pirated for free.

From the antiquarian record business, to the postmodern era, mechanical royalties have been paid by the purveyors of sheet music and phonograph records to the creators of the copyrights. This income stream was the principal source of songwriter's wealth for more than one hundred years. The Internet has decimated the archaic infrastructure of the postmodern recording industry.

The digital generation has evolved a mind set that regards Internet content as part of the public domain. What the record business views as "stealing" is regarded by the youth as an inalienable right. If an intellectual property reaches the world wide web, it is considered free for the taking without moral obligation. A music fan who wouldn't even think of shop lifting a CD, will download a music file without a twinge of compunction. If its online its mine, is the only rule.

The big four record distributors are restructuring their systems and protocols to accommodate the decline of album sales. Since the Internet became the primary promotional tool for music, the record business has been forced to adapt. Their huge catalogs of copyrights and master recordings provide for low cost, high profit, exploitation of these primary assets. By shrinking their overheads and forcing 360 degree deals on the few acts that do get singed, they will survive.

The full force of the decline in record sales is felt most by the artists. In the early seventies, the seminal folk rock band Buffalo Springfield was sucked down the black hole of broken dreams and disbanded. Neil Young went solo. Stephen Stills joined David Crosby and Graham Nash to form the iconic act Crosby, Stills & Nash; and lead singer Richie Furay founded the first country-rock band, Poco. Orignally called "Pogo," they were forced by Walt Kelly, the creator of the famous comic strip, to choose another name. Poco is Spanish for "little" and proved appropriate.

The co-founders, Rusty Young, Jim Messina, George Grantham and Randy Meisner enjoyed moderate success out of the box. The title, "Pickin' Up The Pieces," is a reference to the breakup of the Springfield in 1968. It is the only debut album ever to be warded a perfect rating from Rolling Stone Magazine. A favorite of album oriented rock FM stations in the early 1970s, Poco was considered to be a highly innovative and pioneering band.

Although the band charted a handful of Top 20 hits, overall their Top 40 success was uneven, and many of their most innovative records were commercially unsuccessful. Throughout the years Poco has performed in various groupings, with the latest version still active today. With 24 original albums and 26 "Best of" and anthology collections, the band boasts a total catalog of 50 releases. The 1978 album "Legend" was their fourteenth LP and the first to go gold and platinum.

Two hit singles, Young's "Crazy Love," and Messina replacement, Paul Cotton's "In The Heart Of The Night," drove "Legend" to the top of the charts and Rolling Stone declared that Poco had finally made it. The hit records stimulated Poco's large record catalog and formed the basis of the long term success of their publishing company.

I was particularly honored a few years back when I received a call form Rusty Young. "I just called up to thank you," he said. " For what?" I asked. I could feel him smiling when he relied, "Every time I go down to the mail box, there's a check from ASCAP, and I remember how you insisted that I never sell my publishing." This was a gratifying moment, I'll never forget.

Of course there are no absolutes in this life, and there are always exceptions to every rule. Sometimes, young songwriters might sell their publishing, to finance their survival, and develop their writing skills. And, of course, after a certain amount of success is achieved, a valuable catalog will attract major publishers with large checkbooks and they might make you an offer you can't refuse. However, talented writers should avoid these temptations, and retain ownership of their intellectual property, whenever possible. The continuing profit flow should accrue to the original writers.

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