Copyright and publishing law is complex enough, but once remixed enter into the equation, the amount of gray area can often double. Here Chris Robley details some of the complications that exist, and what steps you should take to make sure a remixer is compensated appropriately.
By Chris Robley of CD Baby and the DIY Musician's blog
Music rights management comes down to two questions:
- Who owns what?
- Who’s owed what?
In many musical collaborations, things like copyright and publishing splits aren’t always cut-and-dry. Who wrote what? What are those contributions worth? What does the law say? What do the collaborators feel is fair?
There can be a lot of gray area.
That’s even more true when it comes to remixing, which is the process of taking an existing recording and making something new from the raw materials. And while there may be a few standard revenue-sharing options in the remixing culture, none of them are a catchall for every situation.
Why isn’t there ONE industry standard for royalty splits on remixes?
As a music distributor and publishing rights administrator, CD Baby looks at this from a few angles. First, we know artists just want to make music, share ideas, get it done, put it out, wow their listeners. In the enthusiasm of hearing, approving, and releasing a remix, all this royalty split stuff might seem like overthinking things. But then money gets involved. The more successful a track is, the more artists wish they’d ironed out the details ahead of time.
The complications with defining a remix:
- A remix isn’t a cover song — Not in the standard way you’d define a cover song, at least, where a whole new recording is created of an existing song. If the remix WERE a cover song, the remixer would own the new sound recording outright, license the composition, and make sure the publisher was paid the statutory mechanical royalties owed for the usage of the composition. But remixes make use of audio elements from an existing recording to make a slightly (or drastically) version.
- A remix could be a “derivative work” — The further a remix strays from the original structure, melody, or lyrical content of the source composition, the more it can be legally viewed as a NEW composition. This is known as a “derivative work,” a new song that uses elements of an existing song. Derivative works CAN be legally distributed, but only with the permission of the original composition’s songwriter/publisher. Those rights holders get to set the terms for the usage of the new song; they can also determine how much ownership they want of the new song; and lastly, they can say NO to the new song being released at all.
- A remix KIND OF uses “samples” — They’re not samples in the traditional sense, where it’s an audio reference, usually a snippet, that’s pulled into a new recording that everyone understands is supposed to be heard as a new composition. In this case you have provided your remixer with the session files (or perhaps stems) for your song. They’re going to use those tracks to create a new recording. That’s like super-sized sampling.
- Copyright, Creative Commons, Publishers, Oh My! — Different artists define and assert their rights differently. And it gets more complicated when other organizations are enlisted to administer rights on behalf of an artist. This means that every remix is as chance to have a unique negotiation. Oh, are there labels involved? That makes things even more complicated.
- “Work-for-hire” VERSUS shared revenue — You could pay the remixer a fee upfront with the understanding that they’re providing a kind of production service, and after that they’re relinquishing any claim to ownership in the sound recording or composition. Or, you could treat them as a co-owner of the remix recording and make sure they’re compensated accordingly on an ongoing basis. Or, if they DID create a derivative work that is so great you want to release it, you need to decide how to split the publishing too! Good luck.
Some things to consider when you have someone remix your track
Try to buy them out upfront
This advise isn’t coming from a particularly collaborative mindset, and if you think the remixer is deserving of ongoing revenue splits, then by all means honor that feeling (and the remixer’s work). But if they’re just as happy to get paid a work-for-hire fee ands deliver the recording, you might want to consider that for simplicity’s sake. No ongoing accounting. No “points.” No potential for future disputes. Just a clean transaction.
Whatever approach you decide is most fair, be sure that all parties agree in writing BEFORE you distribute the remix. Detail the splits for both the sound recording and the composition, the timeline of your accounting to one another, the term of the agreement, and anything else that’s pertinent.
Don’t work with sketchballs
Try to get a read on your potential collaborator before they start remixing your song. Ask other artists who’ve worked with the remixer about the creative process and any followup revenue sharing. Don’t work with jerks or train wrecks.
Keep your house in order
Be sure you have detailed records of streaming, download, sync, and sales activity for the remix. If your collaborator ever wants to audit you because they don’t feel like you’ve paid them correctly, you want to have quick and easy proof of accurate accounting.
Rally BOTH fanbases
A remix is an opportunity to impress two fanbases (yours and the remixer’s), and you want both those groups to be engaging with the track early on via email newsletters, social, Spotify followings, website announcement bars, paid ads, or whatever other means you have for spreading the word. Try to encourage your fans to follow the remixer, and vice versa.
You could be saying no to how the remixer wants to split the money. You could be saying no to the remix being released at all. Just be ready to say no. And be sure to say upfront that all forward movement on this collaboration is subject to your approval.
You have a lot to consider when releasing a remix, and many potential solutions to explore.
As you can see, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to splitting revenue with a remixer. Since it’s all a very gray area, I’d love to hear what’s worked (or hasn’t) in the past when you’ve collaborated on a remix. Holler in the comments below.
Chris Robley is the Editor of CD Baby's DIY Musician Blog. I write Beatlesque indie-pop songsthat've been praised by No Depression, KCRW, The LA Times, & others. My poems have appeared in Poetry Magazine, Prairie Schooner, The Poetry Review, & more. I live in Maine and like peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, a little too much.