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Sunday, April 9, 2017

Songwriter's Largely Unknown Benefits Part 1

The prediction that I'm going to make is actually pretty astounding really. Here goes, the vast amount of songwriters out there, most likely don't realize their value. Most of us love and live for songwriting. There's nothing like the feeling when a song is starting to flow and the process is all coming together. Everything is making sense and all the bricks are falling into place. Other times, it's a more tedious process that may take days, weeks, or months to write and make an arrangement out of. The end product of both is the same, however. When it comes together you have a feeling of satisfaction and achievement.

Of course, this has no monetary value. It's not as though the song is going to the top of the charts, or even on the charts, for that matter. The reality is that there is little chance, if any, that you'll have someone like say, Kenny Chesney, walk through the door where you're playing and say”WOW! I love that song! I would love to record it!” Then six months later it's out on the airwaves and on it's way to selling two million copies, on top of getting played on radio stations coast to coast every ten seconds.

I recall my publisher, McClure and Trowbridge Publishing Nashville, telling me he had signed a writer who had a hit song he co-wrote with three other writers, and with the royalties he earned, built himself a house outside of Nashville!

I have a song, “Yeah, A Harbor” that virtually every time I play it, people come up to me and say things like “I feel like I'm seeing a movie of life on a harbor when I hear that song!”, or “That song paints such a vivid picture”. It's one of those songs that motivates people to go out of their way and say something to me about it. People that I don't know and they don't travel in the music circles I frequent, will by fate alone, be at a gig I'm playing here in Key West. Maybe they're off a cruise ship? Maybe they're in town for the weekend looking for nothing else, other than to be a Duval Street renegade, or maybe they're here looking to go out on a fishing trip. Who knows? They may come from all walks of life, a teacher, an insurance executive, a student, a sports professional. you name it. However, these people, men, and women alike have gone out of their way to compliment me on the song.

What will I really get out of it? Well, most writers will get the first step of what I get, which would be maybe, a five dollar tip in the bucket. But what's after that?

Well, BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC, the three performing rights organizations in the US, can come into play after this.

In this case, BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC license bars, restaurants, and concert venues to be able to play music they license. They also cover radio, tv, commercials, and the like, however for this blog, we'll focus on live music.

As far as I go, I've been a BMI writer for seventeen years, the same amount of time I've been published. At the time, McClure and Trowbridge Publishing set me up with BMI when I became one of their writers. So, I'll be using BMI as the example henceforth as I have no experience with ASCAP or SESAC. Having said that, ASCAP and SESAC have similar programs.

With what I do playing in Key West, the music scene here caters mostly to tourism. Therefore, we're not so much highlighting our own music, per say. The clientele wants to hear songs they are acquainted with. They're not looking for original music. So, what we do is play some great covers, then sneak in an original.

What happens in this situation is the audience creates a bond with you on those first songs. Again, this is a tourist town bar, in Key West, not a coffee house in Greenwich Village. When in Rome... Myself, I never pre-announce a song to be original. I'll wait until I'm done and gauge the crowd's reaction to the original. I learned this through the school of hard knocks.

What would happen would be I'd get to my second song and say Hey! Here's an original I think you'll like” at which point ¾ of the crowd call for their checks! They hadn't even heard the song yet. What they heard was there was an original song on the way and their experience with originals was that they were just downright awful.

In feeling their pain, as I've likewise heard performers doing originals that were nothing above sludge. I also learned quickly not to announce an original until after it was over, and then only if there was a good reaction to it. Often, when they heard something they liked, they'd ask for more.

Consequently, over an evening I might get in ten originals or more.

What happens is, after the gig is over I'll list my gig songs with BMI.(I can also list covers if I want) BMI pays quarterly and after logging in my songs that I play at my gigs, I can expect a check from BMI for between $75 and $125, or so, depending on how many gigs and songs of my own I play over the quarter.

As a BMI writer, I only know how their system works. If you are an ASCAP or SESAC writer, contact their offices to find how to operate their procedure. He's BMI's in a nutshell:

With BMI, log in, then go to “BMI live”.

Click the blue box that says “Performances”

There will then be the events drop down box. For regular gigs pick “Concerts”

From there it will walk you through asking venue, date, and it will also give you your catalog of songs to chose that you played on that given date.

Every gig must be listed individually.

BMI pays quarterly.

BMI also has an app for smartphones. A great idea, as this way you can do them right after you finish your gig.

So, let's say over a year I make $400. Is that going to be setting the world on fire? Hardly. However, it's part of being a professional and for me, $400 is a heck of a lot better than what well over 90% of other songwriters are not getting because they simply don't file for it. You have to make the effort, with BMI, they have over 750,000 writers. They can't baby sit us, however, they do supply the tools for us to be a part of their system and get paid.

In 2015 BMI alone collected $1.03Billion and distributed $877M to it's writers.

The vast majority of songwriters are with either BMI, ASCAP, or SESAC. If you are not and consider yourself a songwriter, this is a first step in becoming a professional. Look at all three and see which one is best for you.

As for myself, I'm very happy with BMI. Through being a member, BMI has entered me into the Key West Songwriter's Festival for the last seven years. While this may sound like a colloquial event, it's actually a joint venture between Smokin' Tuna Saloon here in Key West and BMI Nashville. As of 2017, The Key West Songwriter's Festival is the largest songwriting festival in the world. This year, there are expected to be over 230 songwriters here in the event, plus who knows how many playing independent events? However, It was my publisher, McClure and Trowbridge Publishing Nashville, and BMI who got me into this incredible event, to begin with. There's also an incredible staff based here in Key West helping to organize the event. However, I say that only to point out that the performance rights organizations are great to have in your corner,

One note here. I understand fully venues such as bars and restaurants requiring licenses. At least in BMI's case, there is a provision for house concerts. At the house concerts that I have performed at, 100% of the door is given to the musicians. I strongly suggest that songwriters do not report house concert venues. Most are not licensed, however, unlike a bar or a restaurant where they are also making money on food and beverages, by and large, house concerts are largely private and a work of love for the music. In situations like this, I strongly discourage reporting songs you do at these events. I have heard of house concerts having heard from attorneys from ASCAP as the house concerts are reported for royalties and not licensed. 

We'll cover more on the performance rights in the next blog, but for the moment I've just shown you how to put some money in your pocket by just doing what you're already doing, playing your own music.

Feedback is welcome!

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