Songwriter Vs. Recording Artist: Understanding The Difference

difference between songwriter and recording artist

Songwriter Vs. Recording Artist: Understanding The Difference

A lot of my clients are musical artists – either they write songs or they record songs, or both – so understanding the differences between the rights and royalty streams available to songwriters versus those available to recording artists is incredibly important to an artist’s career.

For the Songwriter:

Everything starts with the song. If you don’t have a song, nothing else matters. By “song” I mean the lyrics and instrumental bed of a singular piece of work. That song (or “composition,” as it’s referred to in the music industry) might be written 100% by one person, or it might be split up among several co-writers in any number of proportions. Either way, songwriters’ rights under U.S. Copyright law are highly protected, so that if anyone wants to record, sell or exploit a song, they will likely have to pay the writer (or writers) of that song certain fees, such as mechanical licensing fees for the right to reproduce the song (ie. as a recording for sale as a physical cd or digital download) and/or synchronization licensing fees for the pairing of the song with an audio-visual format (ie. for use in film, television or advertising). Songwriters are also eligible to receive public performance royalties for the exploitation of their song for commercial purposes (ie. music that plays on terrestrial radio, on television, in department stores, in bars and restaurants, etc.). There are other revenue streams available to songwriters, but those are the big ones. Be sure to consult with an experienced attorney and/or business adviser to learn more about the different revenue sources available to songwriters.

For the Recording Artist:

Oftentimes an artist who records a song is not the same person who wrote the song, so let’s practice thinking about them as two separate roles because they are, in fact, entirely different skill sets. A recording artist can’t look to the same revenue streams dedicated to songwriters; instead, they have to look elsewhere, and typically that includes a share of the revenues collected by the record label for sales of the song (ie. physical cd sales and digital downloads, minus the cost of distribution, including songwriter fees). Another source of revenue available to recording artists may come from “master use” licenses, the fee paid by a licensee when they want to use a recording in film, television or advertising (typically paired with a corresponding “synchronization” license for the songwriter, as noted above). Recording artists can also sign up with (or have their labels sign them up with) Sound Exchange, a non-profit organization that collects and distributes licensing fees for recordings played in certain instances over the internet. Consult with your attorney and/or business adviser to learn more about the different types of revenue streams available to recording artists.

As you can see, the categories of income available to a songwriter versus a recording artist are entirely segregated, even if the same person comprises both roles. However, it’s just as common for someone to only fall into one category – either songwriter or recording artist – and to have a very good career doing so. Regardless, it’s important for both songwriters and recording artists to understand how all revenues are distributed in the music industry, so that you can understand how to capture what is owed to you, either under contract law or under U.S. Copyright law. Contrary to common belief, money doesn’t just magically show up in your mailbox or bank account without demanding it first!

Beth B. Moore, Esq. is an entertainment lawyer at The Beth B. Moore Law Firm based in Atlanta, Georgia. Beth specializes in copyrights, trademarks, contracts, and general business consultation for clients who work in music, film, television, theater, gaming, literature, web development and other creative arts industries. You can reach Attorney Moore at

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