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“Can I actually make a living as a Songwriter?”

This is the big question every Songwriter faces at some point. Usually, the drive to be full-time is to make money so that you can write more songs and sing them for people.

But how do you make this a career? How have others done it?

The short answer is that most Songwriters are doing okay. The Bureau of Labor Statistics1 estimates the average salary for a working Songwriter is just shy of $52,000 per year. (They appear to lump Songwriters and Composers into the same salary category.)

So yes, there are middle-class Songwriters out there, making a decent living, working in the industry without having a star name.

But how much do top Songwriters make? To get our answer, we’ll take a look at:

  • How major Songwriters make money
  • Dan Wilson’s story of success
  • Will.i.am’s story of success
  • Mark Foster’s story of success
  • Tips from successful Songwriters
  • How you can make money as a Songwriter
  • What you can do today to succeed

How Major Songwriters Make Money

Sometimes it can help motivate you when you see that others have gone before you and how they’ve done it. So here are how some hit Songwriters made their way to success. We’ll also learn just how much they’ve made in the past from their roles as Songwriters.

How much does a songwriter make per song?

Caleb J. Murphy

There are so many variables to how much one song can earn, so it’s nearly impossible to say how much one song can earn. But to give you an idea, here are the different ways a song earns money: Mechanical royalties pay 9.1 cents per sale or download of the song. Performance royalties vary, and they’re collected and paid by Performance Rights Organizations. Sync licensing fees also vary widely but can pay as much as six figures for the use of one song.

Dan Wilson’s Story of Success

Dan Wilson started his music career in a psychedelic band in the ‘80s. It wasn’t until 2012 that his song “Someone Like You,” sung by Adele, came out and made $882,700 in songwriting royalties, Wilson presumably getting half of that.

Along the way, he has been in bands, has released some solo music, and has done some producing, working with the likes of the Dixie Chicks, Pink, and Chris Stapleton. (He’s even a well-respected Painter and Illustrator).

His story is one of persistence and a passion for music.

Will.i.am’s Story Of Success

Will.i.am started out with the band that brought him fame, The Black Eyed Peas. The band started when he was in 8th grade, and four years later they signed a record deal.

He and the Peas wrote “Boom Boom Pow,” which, at the time it came out, was everywhere. It was a smash-hit pop song. It ended up making the band $859,950, Will.i.am presumably getting a 25% of that since there are four members in the band.

His path to stardom was one of getting together with like-minded, talented musicians, playing and making music together, and getting discovered.

Mark Foster’s (of Foster The People) Story of Success

Mark Foster is the lead vocalist and Songwriter of the band Foster The People, whose big song (and first-ever released song) is “Pumped Up Kicks.” That song made $406,861 — and he doesn’t have to split royalties because he wrote the song on his own.

But before all of his success, he waited tables, painted houses, wrote jingles and was a Bartender. He said Bartenders in Los Angeles (where he was living) could make six figures. So he recommends any budding Songwriters start bartending until they can afford to do music full-time.

Foster’s journey to success is one of hard work, determination, and a well-honed craft.


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Tips from Successful Songwriters

To help you become a successful Songwriter, let’s turn to some people who have done very well for themselves in that field. Below you’ll read both songwriting tips and advice on how to succeed as a Songwriter in the music industry.

Who is the richest singer-songwriter?

Caleb J. Murphy

Some of the richest songwriters today (in terms of net worth) include Paul McCartney, Bono, Jimmy Buffet, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Jon Bon Jovi, Sting, and Mick Jagger. It should be noted, there are many songwriters making a very good living behind the scenes. These songwriters write with or for well-known artists and earn a portion of the royalties.

Ester Dean

You may not know who Ester Dean is, but you’ve definitely heard her music. She has written songs for Rihanna, Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Usher, and many other big stars. She spoke with Cosmopolitan about her songwriting tips, and here’s a summary of them:

1. You don’t need a typical music education. Dean writes her songs by coming up with lyrics and melodies to Producers’ music-only tracks. No music theory required.

2. If you write a hit song, you’re not getting paid for a year. It takes time for the song to get recorded, released, and then played by fans, so the mechanical royalties take a while to come rolling in.

3. Don’t write what you hear on the radio. Write what you want to hear on the radio. This will help your song stand out.

4. You might get one out of 1,000 songs picked to be recorded. And that’s normal. This industry involves a lot of rejection.

5. Inspiration for a song can come from anywhere. So listen well.

6. Get yourself a mobile recording studio so you can record anywhere.

7. It’s better that your recording be powerful than perfect.

8. Work hard.

Ryan Tedder

Ryan Tedder is the frontman for OneRepublic and the Songwriter of a bunch of famous, catchy songs, like “Halo” by Beyonce, “Bleeding Love” by Leona Lewis, “Rumour Has It” by Adele, and many others. He shared some of his songwriting secrets with the BBC:

1. Don’t release a song until it’s completely ready.

2. Record every single idea you have for a song.

3. The first take is usually the best. That’s where the most real emotion lies.

4. Melodies are more important than lyrics. Because that’s what people remember years later.

5. People have to believe what you’re singing.

Jason Blume

Here’s another guy you’ve probably never heard of, but he has written songs recorded by people like Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. He’s also one of the most respected Songwriting Teachers out there. And he’s got plenty of good songwriting tips:

1. Song structure is uber important.

2. Make your melodies memorable.

3. Write lyrics that intentionally impact the listener.

4. To succeed, you must know the business side of being a Songwriter.

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How You Can Make Money as a Songwriter

Alright, now to answer the main question: how can you make money as a Songwriter?

To answer that, here are the most common ways Songwriters make money and ways you can make some income.

Can songwriting make you rich?

Caleb J. Murphy

Yes, songwriting can make you rich. With all the ways a songwriter can make money, it is definitely possible to earn a decent living from your songs, as we’ve seen with songwriters throughout modern history and today. However, getting rich as a songwriter is neither easy nor the reason you should write songs. Write songs for the joy of it and that will lead to better songs.

Songwriting Royalties

Even if you never write Beyonce’s next hit song, you can still make songwriting royalties

Live Shows

If you enjoy entertaining folks with your music, playing live shows has a few layers of money-making potential.

First, there’s the fee the venue pays you (a flat fee or an amount based on how many tickets you’ve sold). If you play at a coffee shop or brewery — two common spots for Singer-Songwriters — you’ll probably get a flat fee for playing X number of hours.

If you play a show at a theatre or a stand-alone music venue, you’ll need to pre-sell a certain amount of tickets. Then you’d get a portion of the profits (usually most of it) and the venue gets the rest.

Second, you can earn tips. This is going to be your main source of income if you’re playing at a coffee shop, brewery, or farmers market. It’s a concrete way to tell if the audience is enjoying your set.

And third, you can earn performance royalties. Any time you play your songs live in a public place, you are owed Songwriter royalties from a Performance Rights Organization (PRO) like BMI or ASCAP. Typically, you report your setlists to the PRO you’re registered with and you’ll be paid. As of this writing, BMI usually pays me $1-2 per original song each time I play it live, but that dollar amount can vary from quarter to quarter.

Sync Licensing

Sync licensing is an ever-growing market in the music world. This is when you allow a company or filmmaker to use one of your songs in their commercial, TV show or any kind of video in exchange for them paying you a fee. That fee can be hefty if you work with a successful company with a big budget.

You can also try to get a lot of smaller deals that range anywhere from $50 to a couple hundred dollars per license.

You can start by listening to the music you hear in commercials and shows and trying to make music that sounds similar.

Then you can start pitching your music to music licensing libraries and companies, like:

You can also pitch your music directly to Music Supervisors, the people in charge of choosing the music for a TV show, movie, or commercial. If you’re interested in getting your music heard by these Supervisors, check out some of our advice on the subject of music licensing.

Write, Record, And Release Music (Streaming And Mechanical Royalties)

This is the way most Singer-Songwriters imagine finding success. It’s definitely the most romantic way to go about it. If you put out your own albums, you can then earn streaming royalties, which are paid by Spotify, Apple Music, and other streaming platforms.

You’re also owed mechanical royalties, which are collected only by a Publisher, admin publishing company, or royalty collections company.

Here’s a shortlist of companies that can collect your mechanical royalties:

Releasing original music can also help you build a fanbase — a collection of people who support your music and want you to succeed. And that’s good news for you in the long-run.

Publishing Deals

A publishing deal is like a record deal, but for writing songs instead of releasing records. A music publishing company signs you to their roster and you’re expected to write songs for their artists to record and release, usually in the genres of pop and country. So you become the one behind the curtain.

Usually, they’ll offer you an advance on your future songwriting royalties, so there will definitely be pressure to write songs that make money. Nowadays, if you’re not in Nashville or Los Angeles, it’s a long-shot getting into this market, especially because many Producers like to work with their preferred circle of Songwriters.

What You Can Do Today to Succeed

The absolute best thing you can do right now is to follow the tips from the Songwriters I mentioned earlier. And then write. Write like a madman. Do it every day, or else you won’t get better.

Next, you can pick one of the aforementioned money-making methods and focus 100% on it. See which one(s) you like that also pays well.

Start playing shows to figure out if you enjoy performing and if it’s financially worth your time. Record and release your music, and then pitch those songs to music licensing companies. Do a lot of songwriting and start reaching out to publishing companies or people you know who have publishing deals.

As any well-known Songwriter will tell you, work hard.

So yes, it’s possible to make a living as a Songwriter. It just takes laser focus, hard work, and a little bit of luck.

FAQ

How much money does a Songwriter make for a hit song?

Alison Stolpa (Careers in Music Staff)

A Songwriter receives 3 separate income streams from each song. These include:

  • Mechanical royalties: Physical album or digital download sales
  • Performance royalties: Live performances, online streaming, and radio play
  • Synch fees:Songs used in movies, TV, commercials, and video games

With mechanical royalties, the fee paid per song is currently 9.1 cents. This is often split between Co-Writers and Publishers.

Performance royalties have no standard rate. The rate is negotiated between the Songwriter and their Performing Rights Organization. BMI actually has a “hit song bonus,” which means a song will get a nice financial bonus once it is performed 95,000+ times within a quarter.2

Synch fees vary and are negotiated but generally speaking, the artist/record label would receive 50% of the negotiated fee and the Songwriter(s) would receive 50% of the negotiated fee.

Taking all these elements into account, it’s pretty much impossible to state a definitive amount that a hit song would earn for a Songwriter.

However, we can break down a portion of it. Let’s use Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” as an example. As 2019’s best-selling global digital single, the track sold 19.5 million units. The song has two Writers: Billie and her brother, Finneas. Therefore, at a rate of 9.1 cents per digital single, the two Writers would evenly split $1,774,500.

This figure does not include the sales figures for the song’s appearance on Eilish’s album, the performance royalties generated from covers, the song’s synch fees for use in a Calvin Klein campaign, or any of the other ways in which the song could continue to earn income for the duo.

How do I become a successful Songwriter?

Alison Stolpa (Careers in Music Staff)

Most successful Songwriters have done a combination of the following:

  • Study the great Songwriters and how they constructed songs
  • Learn how to sing and/or play an instrument
  • Practice writing songs
  • Get feedback on your songs from musicians you trust
  • Sharpen your skills through workshops or even a Songwriting degree program
  • Network with other musicians and Songwriters in your area
  • Record demo versions of your tracks
  • Pitch your demos to Music Publishers
  • Sign with a Music Publisher who will shop your songs around to labels and artists

Do artists get paid when their song is played on the radio?

Alison Stolpa (Careers in Music Staff)

Believe it or not, artists do not get paid performance royalties when their songs get radio airplay. Only Songwriters and Music Publishers generate income when a song gets played on the radio.

The only way an artist would make money from airplay is if they also had a songwriting credit on the track, which is not always the case.

  1. 1Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projections. "Music Directors and Composers". US Bureau of Labor Statistics. published: 10 April 2020. retrieved on: 11 June 2020
  2. 2BMI. "How We Pay Royalties". BMI. published: 2020. retrieved on: 24 July 2020
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