Navigating the Complex World of Music Royalties and Copyright

by Nicole McCray

Recording artists, songwriters, independent musicians, and songwriters often miss out on their due royalties. It’s challenging when you’re trying to navigate copyright laws and how you can ensure to get paid for your original work.

The music industry is home to billions of dollars, and it’s likely some of those dollars may belong to you if you’re a musician. Below you’ll learn about the complex world of music royalties and copyrights in the music business.

What is a Music Royalty and Copyright?

Music royalties are the payments owed to music artists, composers, songwriters, and publishers for their right to use the property. Copyright laws give artists these exclusive rights to their work.

For example, when a musician creates a piece of music, in the form of a sound or a full song, there are two copyrights created:

  • The musical composition – consists of the lyrics and music (beats, notes, instruments).
  • The sound recording – the master recording of the created work.

Music royalties are earned through the licensing of copyrighted songs and recordings. They can be a primary source of income for artists since they determine the payment when negotiating the agreement to license.

The copyrights may be owned by two different people. An independent musiciancan create the song, but a recording artist may be the one who made the master recording. In some cases, both the musician and recording artist may sign over rights to a third party. The rights could be assigned to a record label if the artist is being represented by it.

Music Royalty Rights

Music rights, like copyright, are broken down into two components:

• Master rights belong to the owner of the master recording, which could be a record label, a music artist, or a studio. The master recording is then used for reproduction and distribution.

• Publishing rights go directly to the owner of the music composition or the publisher (composer). It refers to the specific notes, melodies, rhythms, lyrics, chords, and any other part of the original music composition.

Copyright laws grant exclusive rights to the control, reproduction, or distribution of a copyrighted work. Under a music royalty or license, the artist is granting permission or transferring the rights, for someone else to utilize the work in a specific manner. There must be agreements that are in writing and signed by both parties for legal purposes.

Types of Music Royalties

Contracts define the agreement between the creator (publisher, composer) and the distributor(licensee). Now that you have read about copyrights and how music royalties work, let’s break down the types of licenses, or royalties, that musicians can receive.

Public Performance

One of the most common licenses you can receive is public performance royalties. Streaming is a popular and easy way for people to get music, so payments for these works are made when music recordings are streamed, played on the radio, and even played live on stage.

Most public performances of the music compositions, not of the recordings, are licensed through a Performing Rights Organization (PRO), which ensures that the publisher or composer gets their due payment. The license fees are collected when the musician, composer, or publisher registers with the PRO. Some of the most common PROs in the United States include BMI and ASCAP.

Another example of public performance would be through dramatic stage plays, like musicals and operas. These types of works aren’t licensed by PROs, but rather, by the copyright owners directly. 

Synchronization (Sync)

Sync royalties are payments made to the artist when copyrighted works are paired with visual media. It’s another common type of license, typically for content creators who want to utilize music where you’ll encounter a copyright claim on YouTube or those who use intro and outro music for a podcast. 

The sync license gives individuals or companies the right to use copyrighted songs for films, television, commercial ads, video games, and more. Using a pre-existing recording of a song needs to have permission from both the copyright owner of the composition (publisher) and another license for the master recording. 


The U.S. Copyright act gives the exclusive right of those who write original music (copyright owner) the ability to make copies or reproductions of their recordings and distribute them. Getting a mechanical license is when the copyright owner issues another entity (i.e., a record label) the ability to reproduce and distribute the music. 

In days when record labels were essential to music artists making it big, the labels had to obtain mechanical royalties for the recordings. Now, under the Musical Modernization Act (MMA), you can get a “blanket” mechanical license that pays for recordings used by streaming services for on-demand recordings. 

It’s only available for streaming services and is administered by the Music Licensing Collective (MLC). Musicians and composers need to register with the MLC to get paid for the blanket license. 

Print Music

Falling by the wayside in today’s technology-driven world, print royalties are still active. Payments are owed to the copyright owner or publisher for printed sheet music. Music teachers often still have to purchase print music licenses when they distribute sheet music to their students or choirs. 

Larger-scale works by composers for orchestras, concerts, and symphonies are handled more on a rental basis. But these rentals can be as much as thousands of dollars for just a single performance.

Handling Music Royalties and Copyrights

It can be challenging to understand how royalties are received, and many music artists, songwriters, and sound creators can be left missing out on due money. The music industry is continually evolving and growing with technology, so there’s no doubt that new innovative ways will create even more complex aspects of music royalties.

It is helpful if you’re still fuzzy or unfamiliar with music royalties or copyrights to speak with a professional or someone well-versed in music legalities. Most musicians and songwriters focus on their creative process, which makes it hard to navigate the world of music legal jargon.
So if it’s worth the investment and allows you to focus on being a successful artist, hire some legal help when it comes to royalties, copyrights, and licensing. You don’t want to miss out on your rights where your hard work and efforts are turned into a lucrative cash flow.

by Nicole McCray

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