Cory Wolff

PUTTING IN WORK: Music copyright laws explained simply

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Greetings from Florida! Sorry I missed a week for the column. I’ve been like a rolling stone these past few weeks, traveling from Vermont to North Carolina and now in Florida. I’m getting it in while I can!

DISCLAIMER: I am not a lawyer. If you think I’m a lawyer, then you’re just silly. Any serious musician will find legal help. This is meant to give you a general understanding of the differences in copyright, and how the music industry uses them to make money.

This article is part of a series that breaks down music copyright laws simply. Read Part 2 and Part 3.

Now that we got that out of the way, let’s talk a bit about copyright and how it works. We’ll start by changing how we think about a song. Many of us think of it as a singular entity, but in the eyes of the legal system, it’s two separate things.

When it comes to music, there’s two copyrights – one for the musical composition and one for the audio recording.

The composition is the lyrics and the melody. Think of sheet music. You create the lyrics and melody, but at this point, it’s still not anything that’s been recorded.

When this musical composition is played and actually recorded, a new copyright is created. This is the one that we’ve all heard before, commonly referred to as the master.

Lost yet?

Let’s go back to the ‘50s. In those days, most of the songs you heard on the radio weren’t written by the artist. Take the King himself, Elvis Presley, as an example. He only wrote 10 of his own songs. Most of his catalog was written by a number of different writers. This was extremely common back then – and still is in pop music today.

Those melodies and lyrics were written by the songwriters, not by Elvis, so why should Elvis have any right to them? The writers own the copyright to their respective compositions.

When Elvis went into the studio and recorded these songs, he put his own flair and style into them. They wouldn’t be classics without Elvis. When he created the actual audio recordings from those musical compositions, a new copyright was created – the sound recording copyright or master.

I’m sure you’ve all heard of the term “recording artist.” That’s where it came from. Many times the artist took a musical composition and recorded it.

I’ve had it explained to me this way: the composition is the blueprint for the house. The recording artist builds it using the blueprint.

Written on a phone driving down I-95 while listening to “To Pimp a Butterfly” by Kendrick Lamar. You should listen to it. It truly is modern art and the return of the album.

Putting in Work: The Beauty of Music & Business is a bi-weekly column filled with thoughts, inspirations, and experiences from a music marketer born and raised in Scranton. Let’s step our game up together.