Originally created 04/27/97

Songwriting lucrative part of music biz



Nelson Curry tried his hand as a pop music performer and doesn't miss it.

"I've been there, done that," said Mr. Curry, a North Augusta native who traded the performance stage for the often lucrative field of songwriting.

Recalling a West Coast road trip he took in the early 1980s, Mr. Curry said, "Earth, Wind and Fire were living in trucks while the songwriters had mansions."

He has penned more than 250 songs, including the 1993 hit Dazzey Duks performed by local group Duice. He says he prefers to be behind the scenes, exercising artistic expression and making the real money.

Yet, while touring and performing with the now-defunct group the Klass Band, Mr. Curry made some smart business moves: He made sure his songs were legally protected and set up his own publishing company.

"It was one of the most important steps I ever took," said Mr. Curry, who also operates Studio South Recording. "If you have a hit song and you own the rights, you'll be paid for it the rest of your life."

Although there is no set path to a successful professional songwriting career, there are some general rules of thumb, industry insiders say. They include copyrighting and the establishment of a self-publishing company or an equitable relationship with a publisher.

In its simplest terms, publishing involves copyrights, said New York City entertainment attorney Wallace Collins. A writer owns 100 percent of the copyrights and 100 percent of the related publishing rights until he signs those rights away, he said.

After the actual songwriting, setting up one's own publishing company can be the single most important decision of a songwriting career, according to another New York entertainment attorney, Robert Rosenblatt.

But Jim Hahn, a local songwriter and operator of Beat Zero studio on Central Avenue, said signing a fair contract - one that doesn't rip off the songwriter - with an existing publishing company is just as good.

Those who want to concentrate on songwriting would be wise to ask an entertainment attorney to work out a publishing deal, Mr. Hahn said.

Much less complicated is the copyrighting of songs. Once a song has been committed to paper or recorded, it is protected under copyright laws, said Mr. Hahn, who sings and plays guitar in local band Beat Zero.

But registering songs with the Library of Congress for $20 per entry can provide further protection, Mr. Collins said. "It's like recording a deed at the courthouse," said Mr. Hahn.

Artists and record companies get tons of unsolicited tapes every day, Mr. Collins said. Publishing companies and entertainment lawyers often have the inside track on getting a songwriter's work heard and therefore used by a performing artist, Mr. Collins said. "Some lawyers actively solicit deals for their clients by shopping demo tapes," he said.

Songs can also be sold for commercials, television, movie soundtracks, theatrical performances and live reviews.

Some artists bristle at the notion of selling their work for advertisements, but Mr. Curry said it doesn't matter to him because receiving payment for a product is the bottom line. "I'm in it to sell records no matter who buys them," he said.

Every time a song is played through the airwaves, the songwriter is paid a certain percentage, established by the industry and market, Mr. Collins said. "The great thing about songwriting is it's the work that keeps on paying," he said. "It is a beautiful thing in that respect."

Mr. Hahn said it is important to remember that songwriting is a business and to treat it as such. That means showing up for appointments on time and having a quality product, he said.

Tips for successful songwriting career

1. Write song, commit it to paper and/or record it and keep copies so it will be protected under copyright laws.

2. (Optional) Register copyright of work with the Library of Congress. A collection of songs on tape can be registered together for $20. The Library of Congress keeps the work and sends back a dated certification of registration. as proof of who wrote the songs.} For copyright applications and other information call (202) 707-3000 or write to the Library of Congress Copyright Office, Washington, D.C. 20559.

3. For best results, record quality demo tapes at a professional studio. Local studios include Beat Zero, 738-2755, and Studio South Recording, 793-7800.

4. With good demos serving as a resume, the songwriter is ready to shop the product. Entertainment attorneys, artist agents and publishing companies can be helpful at this stage with their industry contacts. Entertainment attorneys can be found in the Yellow Pages and classified ads of entertainment magazines, including the Music Paper and Rolling Stone. They usually charge an hourly fee or a percentage of a publishing deal. Hourly rates can run from $125 to $250 and higher. Some lawyers may charge a set fee, such as $1,000 or $1,500, according to New York-based entertainment attorney Wallace Collins.

5. Study the business aspects of the music industry. Several books are on the market, and various industry magazines can be helpful.