Did you know that when a song you wrote is sold as a download, you’re due a mechanical royalty? In the US, that royalty is paid through your aggregator (CD Baby, TuneCore, etc). Internationally, you need a publishing administrator like Songtrust to collect it.
For a $100 setup fee and 15% commission, Songtrust will help you register with a PRO (ASCAP, BMI, SOCAN) if you’re not already. Next, they’ll register your songs with over 40 collection societies worldwide. The setup fee covers 15 songs. 10 more songs are $10. If you’ve already got songs registered with your PRO, they’ll pull them into their system for free.
Publishing is complicated. Okay, it’s a total mess. My goal for this article is to share my experience with Songtrust, and help you decide if it’s for you, without getting into the weeds.
Why I signed up
A few years ago, I saw this post on the Songtrust blog, breaking down the various royalties Spotify pays to songwriters. I figured that since I’d earned a few hundred bucks from Spotify via CD Baby, the mechanical royalties Songtrust would collect for me would cover the cost of signing up.
I’d also earned about $14K through CD Baby, mostly from iTunes sales, several thousand of which were from iTunes Europe. Certainly there were mechanical royalties to collect!
Finally, I paid big bucks for radio promotion across France and Italy way back in 2000, putting my songs in regular rotation on over 40 commercial stations. The promoter guessed I’d get back about $1500 in royalties from the airplay, but I never got a penny, despite hounding ASCAP for months. I hoped maybe Songtrust would dig some of that up.
So, in early 2012, I contacted Songtrust and said I’d like to write an article about their service. I was granted a 25% discount off their top tier plan at the time, which was $250 per year for global collection, with no commission. The next year they changed their pricing structure to the current $100 plus 15% commission.
What Songtrust collected
Over the past four years, Songtrust collected a total of $480 on my behalf.
$440 of that was from ASCAP, mostly from reruns of an episode of The Real World that features one of my songs. Since I’d already registered with ASCAP as both a writer and a publisher, that means I lost money, even without factoring in fees paid to Songtrust.
Why? Since Songtrust takes a 15% commission, the $440 I received would have been $518 directly through ASCAP. That’s $38 more than the total $480 I received from Songtrust! That $38, plus the $287.50 in fees I paid, means I spent $325.50 more than I received. Ouch.
Songtrust collected only $16 in mechanical royalties, which I was counting on to at least cover my costs.
What happened? The manager of publishing operations, Emily Stephenson, was kind enough to explain.
It turns out that retroactive mechanicals are hard to uncover. Most societies require them to be claimed within 2-3 years. After that, they are redistributed to their members or blackboxed to cover operational costs.
Since my radio campaign was in 2000, and sales were highest in the mid-2000’s, my royalties are long gone.
Still, Songtrust is willing to try and collect them if I provide sales data. Unfortunately, I don’t see an easy way to gather that info from my CD Baby dashboard without manually sifting through thousands of microtransactions.
Is Songtrust right for you?
Even though the numbers didn’t work out in my favor, I’m glad I signed up with Songtrust. Otherwise I’d still be wondering if there was a pot of gold waiting for me at the end of the rainbow.
If you’re releasing and actively promoting your music, you need to be registered with a PRO and with SoundExchange. Those two agencies will most likely collect the vast majority of royalties for you.
Should you also join Songtrust? That depends.
If you’re regularly receiving royalties from your PRO as a writer, and don’t want to set up a vanity publishing company, then you should absolutely join Songtrust.
Better for them to take 15% than to leave 50% on the table.
For me, setting up a publishing company was super easy. I just filed a Fictitious Business Name statement. I didn’t even have to set up a checking account to receive checks under the business name, since ASCAP does direct deposit.
If you’re only receiving negligible royalties from your PRO, but are selling over $600 per year in non-US downloads, you should probably join Songtrust.
Here’s how I figure: A 9% royalty rate on $600 is $54, and if you’re selling that much, you’ll probably at least make another $6 in streaming royalties. That’s $60 x 2 years retroactive collection = $120, minus 15% is $102. Your first check from Songtrust covers your $100 setup fee! Theoretically.
If you’re already receiving both writer and publisher royalties from your PRO, the decision is more difficult.
If 10% of non-US sales is more than 15% of publishing royalties, you’ll probably come out ahead.
But you may not in the future! Download sales will likely continue to decline as subscription services, which pay far less in royalties, catch on. And 15% of one good placement could easily dwarf years of overseas mechanical royalties.
Beyond the financial uncertainty, there’s also the psychological uncertainty. Are you okay with not knowing how much you could’ve received?
To make your decision easier, the first 20 readers who sign up with the discount code PASSIVE get 50% off the $100 setup fee. [UPDATE: One reader reported it no longer worked, so maybe it’s run out]
There’s nothing in it for me, by the way, but I’d appreciate it if you’d report back with your experience in the comments!
CD Baby members are no doubt already familiar with CD Baby Pro, which is powered by Songtrust.
With CD Baby Pro, royalty collection is bundled with digitial distribution. You pay $5 more per single and $40 more per album. They take the same 15% commission.
If you only have a release or two, or really like having everything in one dashboard, CD Baby Pro might be a better option for you. Personally, I’d rather pay once and be done with it.
TuneCore charges a one-time $75 fee and 10% commission for publishing administration. They’ll even pitch your songs for film, television, and video game opportunities!
On the surface, that sounds like a better deal, but there’s a catch. TuneCore requires that you work with them exclusively for licensing.
And don’t forget, you’re paying $10 per single and $50 per album every year just to keep them in distribution! Who knows if they’ll continue to pitch and collect royalties for songs they no longer distribute.
Have you tried Songtrust, CD Baby Pro, or TuneCore publishing?
If not, what are you waiting for? Are there any other options I overlooked? Please share your experience in the comments!