11 Rules for Protecting Yourself (& Your Music) Pre-Release
The music is mastered and the marketing plan is written, but are you prepared for release? Don’t let clearance issues, unrealistic expectations, or loose ends jeopardize your work.
Here’s how to ensure your business goes smoothly, allowing you to prevent unwelcome surprises, control your rights, and collect your money.
Note: To simplify things, I’m assuming the performing artist in this piece is not a songwriter and not self-producing. (I’ll tackle both in a follow-up.) While I’m identifying the most significant issues you should be alert to, I’m not an attorney, so there may be additional questions or issues specific to you and your record that you need to address.
Timing is everything
We may be in the era of on-demand music, but charging ahead with unresolved issues can put your release at risk. Also, distributors and aggregators require varying lead times; use them to set your deadlines, especially if you want to release your work to all platforms simultaneously. Take the time to finalize everything—before you upload and distribute anything.
Start with the credits
Where to start? Gather the credits. Get the songwriter(s) and producers(s) to write everything down. This info is necessary to complete your artwork and required by your distributor or aggregator.
Metadata doesn’t just appear online; it’ll be used to pay people (including you), so get things right on behalf of everybody, even if it means chasing them for it. Misspelled names are embarrassing, but missing credits can prevent payments from happening and make collaborators ineligible for awards.
Treat the credits like a to-do list. For each collaborator, ask yourself some questions.
Did you agree on payment?
What do you expect them to provide in connection with their services?
Is a contract necessary?
Your relationships may be creative, but you still have to take care of business. (Note: in most situations, an email that confirms what was agreed is sufficient.)
If you invite a featured artist to perform on your song, confirm their deal too.
What compensation do they expect?
Do they want reciprocal use of the song?
Did they write their part and are looking for a songwriting split?
Also, if they’re signed, you will need label clearance as well; it can be a headache to negotiate one after the fact, so get in front of it early.
Going through the credits can tell you other important things—they’re a checklist of potential issues.
If an extra songwriter is listed that you don’t recognize, does that mean the splits are incorrect?
If there is a co-producer you didn’t know about, does that mean you have another deal to do?
If there is mention of a guitarist you weren’t aware of, have they been paid?
These issues can create problems down the road, so get the credits as early as you can and use them to catch red flags.
Do a producer deal
Your producer is one of your closest collaborators. They oversaw the sessions. They made you sound great. Maybe they even co-wrote the song. Your name might be on the record, but your producer played a big role in it. Pay them back by finalizing their deal and getting your attorney to paper it.
If you used a premade beat, make sure to read the paperwork. Beat lease agreements vary in quality, and sometimes some terms prevent artists from having all the rights they expect (and need). Even if you bought the beat retail, reach out and have a conversation about the deal.
Keep things moving
Your collaborators have business to do as well. Songwriters will need to confirm ownership splits and register their compositions with their PRO and the MLC. Producers may have to do the same, as well as register with SoundExchange.
Understanding everyone’s role and helping (or reminding) them will keep everyone happy, and happy collaborators always do the best work (and cause the least trouble).
Keep your artwork clean
Titles aren’t copyrightable, so don’t worry about them. If you took photos and/or designed the artwork yourself, you have no worries (as long as you didn’t infringe on anyone else).
Read what your distributor or aggregator requires as to content and format. Not following their instructions can mean changing your art and/or delaying your release.
If someone else took photos or created art, make sure you have the rights to use their work. Also, make sure they didn’t use anybody else’s. Visual art is protected by copyright, just like musical works and sound recordings. Photographers, illustrators, and other visual artists expect to own what they create. Ensure everyone is clear on what elements you’re using, what their rights may be, and what they are getting paid.
Clear all samples
Speaking of headaches, problems, and red flags: clear all samples. Whether your composition interpolates a couple of notes from the bass line of another song or the production samples a drumbeat from another record, any uncleared use—even a tiny one—can mean a copyright infringement claim. At a minimum, the rights holder will file a DMCA notice to have your music taken down across all digital service providers and stores. At a maximum, you could get sued.
Clearing samples does take time and may cost money, but with the availability of clearance experts, there is no reason not to. Besides, an uncleared sample can kill a licensing opportunity, taking money out of your pocket. And as an insurance policy against ugly surprises, put language in your producer deal that ensures your producer clears and/or is responsible for any samples they include. It’s my experience that some think sampling is no big deal. Trust me, their opinion won’t matter when you’re the one on the hook.
License your covers
What about a song you and/or your collaborators didn’t write? Covers require clearance, too, known as a compulsory mechanical license. The Harry Fox Agency issues them and collects royalties on behalf of songwriters and publishers. HFA’s Songfile system makes it easy to get a license for most. If you can’t find the composition, find their publisher and reach out. They’re likely to have an online form to use. Just be sure to get that license before your record comes out.
Register your work
In terms of song registration, your songwriters and producers likely already know about copyright forms, PROs, and the MLC. But if you own the sound recording, there are two other registrations to be aware of. Sound recording owners register their copyrights just as songwriters register theirs. Additionally, copyright law provides for a separate royalty payable in connection with the public performance of masters. If you are self-releasing, any streaming of your sound recordings generates these royalties. The money from such digital audio transmissions is collected and paid out by SoundExchange. There are percentages due to the sound recording copyright owner, the featured artist, and other creative participants, including the producer and any backing musicians.
If you have yet to sign up with SoundExchange, you’re leaving money on the table.
Don’t forget your mixes
One other important consideration for the performing artist lies with the final mixes. Do not walk away from your mixing session with only the final pass. Consider the song and how it might be used or exploited in the future.
If you plan a radio campaign, should you remove any curses and create a clean edit?
Do you plan to perform the track and therefore need a “TV mix” (both with and without background vocals), or should you print stems for more flexibility when putting together a live show?
Are you planning to commission remixes and therefore need an a cappella version?
Will you need an instrumental in pitching the track for sync uses?
Getting the right mixes prevents delays, unexpected costs, and missed revenue opportunities.
Back it up
Lastly, the materials that went into creating your record are assets to safeguard.
Did you get a copy of the entire multitrack session and all the mixes and stems?
Do you have multiple copies stored in different locations as backup?
Not taking the time to make safety copies of your masters means putting your legacy as an artist at risk. Ignore this at your own peril.
Wrap everything up
Whether signed to a record label or not, performing artists are the face of their records. For DIY artists, not having a label means taking care of everything yourself or hiring the right people to help you.
Success is often measured by the quality of the music and the reach of the marketing plan, but neither matters if problems plague the release. Honor the work you put in as an artist by ensuring your release goes as smoothly as possible. Take the time to take care of business.