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How Do I Sell or License My Song?

Songwriters often ask, “How do I sell my songs?“ A common misconception is that recording artists purchase the songs they record. However, that is not how it works. What is the best way for me to get my songs recorded and included in TV shows and movies? Songwriters achieve these goals by publishing and licensing the rights to their songs-not by selling them.

Work For Hire

Work made for hire refers to the relatively rare instances in which composers create songs or instrumental pieces with the intention of selling them outright. Generally speaking, a work for hire (as it is called) is a song, melody, or lyric written specifically for someone else in exchange for compensation. As a result, the creator relinquishes all rights to ownership and may or may not forego revenue.


Advertisers, jingle producers, theme park employees, and in-house composers create works for hire occasionally. It is also possible for someone to create music on a work-for-hire basis for a television show, movie, video game, website, or another audiovisual work.


A songwriter may also choose to have his or her music sold. An established writer may sell his or her back catalog - existing songs that may or may not have been released commercially - to a music publishing company. However, these scenarios are not what most people have in mind when they ask me how to sell their songs.

Successful songwriters typically license rather than sell their work. The common misconception is that publishing a song will result in a writer becoming wealthy, the song being recorded by an influential artist, and sheet music being produced and sold. Publication might indeed be the first step toward these outcomes, but they are neither guaranteed nor typical.

When publishing a song, publishers receive specific rights, including the right to issue licenses and collect income on behalf of the writer. Among the licenses that publishers grant are mechanical licenses (sometimes called recording licenses), synchronization licenses (which grant the right to use a song in a film or television show) and print licenses (which allow reprinting sheet music and/or lyrics). All or part of the publisher's share of the income generated by a song goes to the publisher. Generally, U.S. publishers receive 50% of the income. The remaining 50% of the income goes to writers. ​

Music publishers market and pitch the songs they represent to recording artists, as well as those who choose music for television, film and other uses. A publisher grants a mechanical license to an artist in order for them to record the song, which specifies, among other things, the royalty that will be paid for every unit sold. In addition, song writers make money by performing their works on radio, television, the internet, and other venues where music is performed or broadcast. An affiliate of a performing rights organization, such as BMI, engages the PRO to issue licenses and collect performance royalties on the writer's behalf. ​As a result, songwriters rarely get paid for their songs. Their works are licensed for sale and public performance by them (or their publishers). Their income is derived from royalties earned from sales and public performances.

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