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How Music Royalties Work In The Music Industry: What You Need To Know


Music royalties constitute payments made to various stakeholders within the music industry, encompassing recording artists, songwriters, composers, publishers, and other copyright holders. These payments are made in exchange for the use of their intellectual property. U.S. copyright laws provide these creators with exclusive rights to their works.

Music royalties are generated through diverse forms of licensing and utilization, with the four primary categories being mechanical royalties, public performance royalties, synchronization royalties (sync), and print music royalties. These royalties serve as a fundamental income source for musicians, with specific arrangements established through contractual agreements between creators and distributors.


There exist four distinct types of music royalties, each linked to separate and well-defined copyrights. In the music industry, revenue streams originate from these four main sources:

1. MECHANICAL ROYALTIES: Mechanical royalties pertain to income generated from the physical or digital reproduction and distribution of copyrighted works. This covers various music formats, including vinyl, CDs, cassettes, digital downloads, and streaming services. For instance, songwriters receive mechanical royalties from record labels each time their music is reproduced on a CD. Independent copyright owners can also earn mechanical royalties from digital music distribution services.

2. PUBLIC PERFORMANCE ROYALTIES: Public performance royalties generate income when copyrighted works are publicly performed, recorded, played, or streamed. This encompasses venues such as terrestrial radio, television, bars, restaurants, clubs, live concerts, music streaming services, and any other public setting where music is played. Performance Rights Organizations (PROs) like ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC negotiate licenses for public performances, monitor their usage, and distribute the royalties to rights holders. To receive 100% of performance royalties, registration is necessary as both the writer and publisher of the work.

*Click ASCAP, BMI and SESAC in the paragraph above to learn more about who they collect from and why you should sign up. You may have money waiting for you!

3. SYNCHRONIZATION ROYALTIES (SYNC): Sync royalties result from the pairing or synchronization of copyrighted music with visual media. Sync licenses grant the right to use copyrighted songs in films, TV shows, commercials, video games, online streaming, advertisements, music videos, and other visual media. Notably, a sync license does not cover the use of an existing recording in audiovisual media; a master use license is required for such use. Both licenses are necessary for any application of protected music in an audiovisual project, whether it involves a full song or a short sample.

4. PRINT MUSIC ROYALTIES: Print royalties, the least common form of compensation for copyright holders, pertain to copyrighted music transcribed into print format, such as sheet music, followed by distribution. The copyright holder disburses fees based on the number of copies produced.


Understanding music royalties and copyrights can be intricate. This guide offers an overview of the fundamental rights and uses associated with musical compositions.


Music copyrights encompass two core elements: master rights and publishing rights.

- Master rights belong to the owner of a master sound recording, typically the artist(s), record label, recording studio, or the party that financed the recording.

- Publishing rights pertain to the owner of the actual music composition, covering elements like notes, melodies, chords, rhythms, lyrics, and other components of the music.


Copyright law endows copyright owners with six exclusive rights to manage the use and distribution of their copyrighted work:

1. Reproduce and create copies of the original work, including digital downloads and physical formats like CDs or vinyl.

2. Prepare derivative works based on the original, encompassing cover songs, remixes, or any altered versions.

3. Distribute copyrighted work to the public through music distributors, digital downloads, or record labels.

4. Perform copyrighted work publicly, as in live concerts or public performances.

5. Play copyrighted work publicly via music streaming, satellite radio, music videos, FM radio, and TV shows.

6. Display copyrighted work publicly, which involves showing a visual representation of the work, such as sheet music or performance photos.

Copyright owners can transfer these exclusive rights, either wholly or partially, through licensing and assignment agreements, provided they are documented in writing and signed by the copyright owner or an authorized representative.


Numerous roles within the music industry are associated with the receipt or distribution of royalties for copyrighted music:

1. SONGWRITERS: Songwriters compose both the music and lyrics of a song and receive mechanical, performance, or sync royalties based on the utilization of their recordings. When multiple songwriters contribute to a song, they typically use a split sheet to determine ownership percentages and distribute royalties accordingly.

2. PUBLISHERS: Publishers are responsible for ensuring copyright holders receive compensation for the use of their music. They may acquire songwriting copyrights in exchange for royalty privileges and issue licenses for the music they represent. The resulting publishing royalties are shared between the publisher and the songwriter.

3. RECORD LABELS: Record labels market and distribute original works by artists, often holding master rights to recorded songs but not publishing rights. They derive income from mechanical and public performance royalties, with contractual agreements specifying royalty payments to artists.

4. DIGITAL MUSIC DISTRIBUTORS: Digital music distribution services assist independent artists and labels in placing their music on prominent online music platforms and streaming services. These distributors collect mechanical and public performance royalties from music sales, downloads, and streams.

5. PERFORMING ARTISTS: Performing artists interpret the original work of songwriters and generate performance royalties for them through public performances. These royalties are usually managed by Performing Rights Organizations (PROs) like ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC.

6. PERFORMING RIGHTS ORGANIZATION (PRO): PROs are responsible for collecting public performance royalties and disbursing them to songwriters and music publishers. They also monitor public performances and broadcasting of registered music.

7. MECHANICAL RIGHTS AGENCY: Mechanical rights agencies oversee the licensing of mechanical rights for music publishers and issue these rights to entities reproducing and distributing copyrighted compositions. They often charge a percentage of gross mechanical royalties collected and, in the United States, the Harry Fox Agency fulfills this role.

8. SYNC LICENSING AGENCY: Sync licensing agencies secure rights from record labels and music publishers to issue sync licenses for music in visual media. They also distribute royalties from sync licenses to the owners of master recording rights. Music users typically collaborate with music supervisors for sync licensing, acting as intermediaries between artists and companies or directors seeking music for visual media projects.


In summary, this guide provides a concise overview of the copyright and licensing concepts discussed:

- Each song encompasses two copyrights: composition rights and master rights. Composition rights include the underlying music and lyrics, while master rights involve the reproduction and distribution of the master recording.

- Licensing grants music users permission to utilize intellectual property owned by others, while royalties represent the payments generated from this utilization.

- Artists often cede exclusive rights to a publishing company in exchange for royalties. The music publisher may then release the recording or assign rights to a record label or mechanical rights agency.

- All parties involved in music production receive a portion of royalty payments, with the specific amounts typically negotiated and documented in legally binding agreements.


The music industry is continuously evolving, leading to the emergence of new royalty streams. These royalties serve both to safeguard music and provide a vital source of revenue. Navigating this world can seem daunting and I hope this breakdown has helped you.

Learn More About Liz Kamlet


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