I don’t think I’ve ever met another songwriter that doesn’t truly love what they do. Some might be burned out or bitter, sure…but deep down, they do it because it’s their passion. And if you do something because it’s your passion, you do it regardless of whether or not anyone pays you for it. Making bank is just a bonus.
Although this is admirable, it’s not realistic. Money may be a dirty word to us artistic types, but it’s how we do things like buy groceries. Or pay the mortgage. Or keep the lights on. And if you’re at all serious about making a living out of your passion, you need to take that first, treacherous step – ask to be paid. And don’t feel embarrassed about doing that – our art adds value to people’s lives and there’s nothing wrong with asking for a little something in return. Even if it’s just 99 cents.
1. Get Paid for Cuts
I was watching the People’s Court once, and there was a ridiculous defendant testifying before the judge. He had a big, furry, purple hat with feathers in it, a pimp cane, and was resplendent with gold rings and chains. I don’t remember what the point in his testimony was, but I do remember him saying this: “The first three rules of pimping are simple. Get the money up front, get the money up front, and get the money up front.” He’s not wrong. A lot of times, songwriters are simply flattered that an indie artist wants to cut their song. A lot of times, it may be a first cut. But keep in mind, that artist can sometimes be struggling just as much as you – they may be selling CDs out of the trunk of their car at shows. They may have the best intentions about paying you, but things happen. Aside from the fact that the checks may be slow in coming, it’s pretty burdensome for the artist to have to do inventory at the end of every month and write you a check. Ask for your portion up front – 1,000 units is usually standard, but some writers ask for more – and it lessens the hassle for everyone. Also, you get to eat. Bonus.
2. Register Your Performances with your PRO
Most Performing Rights Organizations have some form of paying songwriters for every time their song is played live in a licenseable venue. What is a licenseable venue? Well, the sports bar down the street is. Your uncle’s basement is probably not. It might not be much, but if you’ve played your song out – or the artist that cuts it has – you should be getting a check in the mail. Just be sure to check with ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC for details on how to do this properly.
3. Play for Pay
There are exceptions to this rule – Nashville being a major one – but many places will at least pay you something to play live. Even places that don’t pay you may offer you a free meal or allow you to put out a tip jar (I’ve never heard anyone object to this). If you’re working for a tip jar, don’t forget to ask the patrons to throw in a little something – there’s no shame in that. Remind them that even though you enjoy playing, there’s a lot of expenses involved for gigging artists. Most people are happy to contribute a buck or two to the cause. As far as negotiating playing for pay, that’s a whole other post in and of itself. But suffice it to say that if you broach the subject with the booking manager, you might be pleasantly surprised to find that they’ll pay you at least something. The worst they can do is say no.
What are some ways you have found to make money at songwriting?