6 and a half steps to working out a fair band percentage split

Published by nedmortimer on

It’s a scenario a lot of us have been in before.

You’re in a band. Maybe there’s a singer, a guitarist, a bass player, someone who plays keys, and a drummer. You’ve just hit the studio and recorded some killer tracks together.

You’re feeling pretty great; the songs sound really good and you have a release date to get them on Spotify and iTunes and all the other distributors. This could be your breakout moment as a band and you’re all getting on well. The tracks go live and some money starts coming in.

Then someone asks the question you should ALL have asked several months ago…

How much do we all get?

Most of the band assumed you’d each take an equal cut of the money. This seems fairest – after all, you were all in the studio together, you all invested the same amount of money, so why shouldn’t you take the same out again.

But then the singer points out that it was HER who WROTE the songs – the lyrics, the tune – and so she should get a higher share of the royalties.

Without an agreement beforehand, this breaks into an argument which threatens the future of the band, just at the moment you thought you were going to have your breakout moment…

This was my precise experience. My band had had a number of really good Spotify playlist features and a good amount of money was coming in – but we hadn’t agreed all the splits in advance.

As someone with a law degree, the lack of a prior written agreement between the band was pretty humbling. Still, we learned our lesson, came to an agreement and are (most importantly!) still all friends…

With this article, I want to tell you how we resolved the disagreement and various ways you can work out what a “fair” percentage actually is for your band.

But first – a HUGE piece of advice

**Agree all of this stuff BEFORE you go into the studio**

I cannot emphasise this enough (hence the bold, underlined italics with asterisks). It will make your life much easier down the line if you agree this before forking out hundreds or even thousands of pounds towards hiring a studio.

With that in mind, this is how I suggest approaching the question.

FIRST – understand the difference between the MASTER and the PUBLISHING

When you record a song, there are actually two different types of right in that recording.

Firstly, there’s the song itself – the intangible song, which can be played live, or covered by someone else. This is what we refer to as the “publishing”.  

 
Secondly, there’s the master. This is the recording of that song.

The person who PAYS for the recording time very often (but not always) is the one who owns the Masters and makes money from digital sales, streams, downloads, radio plays, etc that stem from the RECORDING (rather than just the song itself).

For Masters, it should be pretty simple – if everyone in the band contributed equally to pay for the recording time, everyone should own an equal share in the masters.

This is how we approached it (and indeed there was never much argument about this).

Where it gets more complicated is: what percentage does each band member own of the song itself?

This is relevant for the income you get from PRS for Music. When the song is performed live, or played on the radio, or listened to in a public place (e.g. an office with a Spotify playlist), you should ALSO be getting songwriting royalties – a payment based on the fact that your song has been listened to in public.

It can also be relevant when you get a sync – i.e. your song is used on a film or TV advert etc – because part of the money paid to use the song is paid to the person who WROTE THE SONG (and the rest to the person who OWNS THE MASTER RECORDING).

[Note: these income streams are separate from the income you get from each Spotify stream or iTunes download – that is more like someone paying to have the recording (whether to stream it once, or download it permanently).]


So, we come back onto the big question: what % should each band member get in the publishing/songwriting?

For this, I would ask a series of questions:

Question 1: who wrote the lyrics?

The person who wrote the lyrics should automatically get 50% of the publishing rights.

The general rule is: 50% for the lyrics, 50% for the music.

If more than one person wrote the lyrics, then you need to start thinking about how much each contributed to the lyrics. For example, if the lead singer in the band did most of the work on the lyrics, and a couple of phrases here and there were contributed by the guitarist, you might give the singer 45% and the guitarist 5% (for a total of 50%).

So we’ve considered lyrics – now we’re onto the music (which is more complicated!)

Question 2: what did each band member contribute to the melody/tune?

The melody is generally the most significant element of the song – the thing that will make a song stand out to its audience. 

If the melody was written by one person (e.g. the singer), that person should get a lion’s share of the MUSIC half of the royalties.

Question 3: are there any riffs or lines in the song that are a big factor in making the song distinctive?

Think of the guitar riff intro to Sweet Child o’ Mine by Guns ‘n Roses (I try to as often as possible).

It’s a HUGE element in the song. For a lot of listeners (like me!) it’s probably the thing that grabbed their attention and made them love the song.

If one of your songs has a particularly powerful and attention-grabbing riff, this could earn the person that wrote it (e.g. the guitarist) a few extra %, maybe even 10% (out of the 50% for music).

Point 3a: One way to think about this is: if someone covers the song, are they likely to use that riff/line in their cover version? 

Imagine a cover Plug-In Baby by Muse without the amazing riff at the start! (I actually did a Spanish guitar duo version of plug-in baby in my old band at university).

If you can’t imagine the song without that riff, you could argue it’s a fair portion of the songwriting.

Question 4: think about what each band member contributed – is what they did closer to ‘songwriting’ (parts that are of central importance to the song itself) or ‘arrangement’ (just filling in the space around the song to make the recording better?

This is where you need to take a step back from the recording and try to identify the difference between the SONG and the RECORDING OF THE SONG.

You can use Point 3a for this too – think about what a cover version might sound like.

Question 5: how much time did each band member contribute to writing the parts that form the SONG rather than just the RECORDING OF THE SONG?

This was a big point of contention for us in the band – the fact that the person writing the original lyrics and melody had spent hours and hours coming up with different ways of doing the song and eventually coming up with the song in its final form in studio. 

The whole point of agreeing fair band percentages is that you’re rewarding each band member proportionately to their contribution (the work they’ve put in) to the song.

With these ideas, hopefully you can untangle any disagreements and work out what’s fair.

Another huge piece of advice here though – DO NOT LET MONEY RUIN YOUR FRIENDSHIPS.

Yes, it is important that everyone is treated fairly. You don’t want to be pushed around by your band members. But you ALL have a duty to remember why you’re playing and writing together in the first place – it is supposed to be fun.

The whole point of negotiation – and this applies whether you’re discussing this stuff before or after you’ve been to the studio – is to find an agreement that works for everyone.

The chance that your agreement makes more than a few hundred pounds difference here and there is highly unlikely – and if you can get through this disagreement once you can be better prepared for the future!

As always, thanks for reading and please leave comments below – have you experienced something similar, and found your own way of solving it?


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