The correct way to handle royalty shares

With the controversy around Ian Urbina and The Outlaw Ocean, I thought it’d be a good time to share my thoughts on royalties, music rights, and what you should do when given opportunities that require signing a cut of your royalties away.

Let’s begin with the obvious answer to the above statement: the correct way to handle royalty shares is to not. It’s that simple. If you have the ability to be 100% in control of your music, promotion, distribution, and every other aspect of the music business (booking tours, artist management, merch) then, by all means, do it. That being said, opportunities will definitely arise during your music career which will ask for a cut in royalties, this could be to cover costs of promotion, distribution, or some other expense from the other party.

So how do you correctly handle opportunities like this? Well, let’s take a look at what happened with Ian Urbina. To break it down simply (artist Benn Jordan has a more in-depth rundown if you’re interested in looking into it further), Urbina approached a number of artists (around 400 in total) to ask them to create music that’d be a part of his project The Outlaw Ocean in order to be a part of this, artists were required to not only give writing credits to Urbina but also a percentage of royalties to the label Synesthesia Media which, turns out, is owned by Urbina. So he’s getting both writing credits and a percentage of songwriting revenue for music he had no hand in creating.

When boiled down as simple as that it’s hard not to think that this is some sort of scam, however, Urbina did the typical trick a lot of people do in the music industry: making promises. Aside from Urbina himself being a Pulitzer Prize winner and a former writer for the New York Times – using his old NYT email to solicit artists (which might alone be enough to consider some people to sign on the dotted line), Urbina told tales of putting thousands of dollars into marketing and promotion, slipping in big names like Netflix, Spotify, and publishing house Knopf. All tasty little carrots on sticks to entice artists into signing their hard work over to him.

And this right here lies the problem: promises.

A quick side note: at time of writing, the label, Synthesis Media, has issued statements and apologies and are now offering artists full revenue from the music.

It’s no secret that the music industry is not short of people keen to make a quick buck from artists who might not know better. Artists who might naively jump at the chance of being featured in a write-up from a big publication, on the playlist of a massive project, or simply be a part of something that could be the next big thing. The only issue is, most of the time these are false promises. There are usually no plans to push this music to the highest heights, instead, these people bring hundreds of artists on board resulting in thousands of tracks having their royalties shared with that one entity which in the end results in a lot of revenue for them and little for the artists involved.

Ask questions… even the hard ones.

So what can you do before signing away your royalties? One thing I always recommend is to ask questions and don’t be afraid to ask the hard ones even if that means potentially having this opportunity pulled. One thing a lot of these people or organisations thrive on is the fear of burning bridges and that, for the most part, is how they catch you. Even if it’s something simple as a distribution deal for 10, 20, or even 30% of royalties, ask why they require this cut, what exactly are they offering for a share of your royalties? If they truly want to work with you they won’t be afraid to answer those questions, show you previous results, or even business plans (though this may require signing an NDA before proceeding). At the end of the day, nothing (for the most part) is lost if they end up pulling the deal because you asked them what their plans are with your music. I’d consider that a bullet dodged.

Next, I’d advise doing your research. In the case of The Outlaw Ocean, the biggest red flag, at least to me, is why an oceanic journalist would be wanting songwriting credits for my music? I understand he offered field recordings that artists could use in their music, but still, 50% for nature sounds is a bit much, I also understand that the music was part of a fairly large music push, but again asking for songwriting credits/royalties is a big red flag. I’d always recommend looking into the person or organisation’s background before you proceed with any deal. Look into their social media, look at how – if they’ve been involved in music previously – they handle other artists and releases, if it’s a larger organisation, look into who their founders are, look at the company history, if you can, find out who invests in the company (or if they have investors). It may sound like a lot of work but trust me, it’ll be worth it.

Cash Rules Everything Around Me

Another thing to be wary of is money. Don’t be fooled by dollar signs. Something that came to my attention recently was someone offering upward of $150 per track from artists with the aim to create a batch of tracks that’ll be added to a playlist and pumped with ad spend. It might be exciting to get hundreds of dollars for a piece of music you’ve written, but you must ask, what are their plans with something you’ve created, and are you getting any production or songwriting credits? Is what they plan to do morally sound or is it just another scheme to get rich quick off of someone else’s hard work? Finally, what are you being required to do in order to receive this payment and are there any written agreements or contracts being put in place to protect you and your music?

One thing that’s always difficult is legal jargon. Agreements and contracts are full of it and it’s often difficult to decipher exactly what certain clauses and annexes mean. Try and have another pair of eyes look over the contract with you, or better yet have a lawyer look at it (though admittedly this is a little more difficult and could be costly). The best thing to try and do is research some of the wording before you sign to try and make it a bit more sense, there are tools online like The Legal Jargon Dictionary which might help.

In times like this, I’ll always come back to the saying; “If it’s too good to be true”. Most of the time if what you’re being offered or promised seems a bit too good to be true, then it’s probably not true. Of course, there are very rare chances that this is incorrect, but hopefully with the advice above you can do your due diligence to see if the offer really is legit, or not.

I’d love to know your thoughts about sharing royalties with third parties. Feel free to drop me a message on Instagram!