Working for "Royalties-Only" - Why That's a Scary Thought


October 2019


As a lyricist, I’m regularly asked if I work for royalties-only. The answer is no.


Working for "royalties-only" means a client doesn’t pay a writer or musician for their services upfront (or via invoice.) Instead, the project is undertaken in the hope the song generates royalties in the future. 


Here are six reasons I don’t work this way.


  • I used to – "Ain’t nobody got time for that!"

I started charging for my lyric writing services after I graduated from university. Before that, I did work for free… I mean royalties-only. The experience wasn’t positive or productive.


I license lyrics exclusively. My clients don’t want to set lyrics to music, only to have another artist release the same lyric with different music. Not all lyricists license their work exclusively, but it’s a crucial part of my ethos and business model.


So when people commissioned lyrics on a royalties-only basis – if you can commission anything without paying for it – and then never replied after I sent them the lyrics, it was beyond frustrating. I didn’t know if I could give the lyric to someone else. Technically, I could because no contracts were signed but I hated the thought of giving the lyric to someone else only for the original client to use it. Without confirmation that they weren’t using the lyric, and that they understood I was planning to give the lyric to another songwriter, I felt uneasy. I would send numerous messages and get no reply.


This didn’t happen once or twice. It happened COUNTLESS TIMES. After working hard on a lyric, it was demoralising to get no response. If they didn’t like the lyric, fair enough – but at least send an acknowledgement. More importantly, where are the royalties in this situation? I gave up my time to create a lyric written to their specifications for absolutely nothing. Not even a thank you. 


Since I started charging licensing and commissioning fees, nobody has treated me with that level of disrespect. All my clients have been serious musicians. From my experience and that of my friends and business contacts, not charging for your work results in people taking advantage more often than not. 


One of my producer friends had a guitarist not practice their part when collaborating on a royalties-only basis. The guitarist told my friend to correct the (many) mistakes in the guitar part using technology. This was a huge job. He got 10p in royalties. 


Experiences like this happened regularly. In the end, my friend felt he was folding himself in half till he snapped for people who didn’t appreciate or respect him.


Not everyone who hires professionals on a royalties-only basis takes advantage. However, it happened 90% of the time in my experience. What I’ve mentioned above is the tip of the iceberg. I’ve waited in hail for a musician who didn’t turn up, had long-distance travel booked only to get no response from the client on the morning I was supposed to leave home (and no response from that point on. How odd.)


The reality of working for royalties-only isn’t the pretty picture people paint when they tell you this is what you "should be" doing. It might be different if you have a good publishing deal. I don’t have the experience in that area to say. But I know when working independently, royalties-only can be a minefield.  

Do You Need Lyrics to Set to Music?


If you need lyrics of professional standard, please browse my pre-written lyrics. Each lyric is licensed exclusively. Once you license a lyric, it's removed from my website and is yours to use.​​


  • Lyricists have bills too!

Working for royalties is like a waiter or waitress working for tips. Tips might be generous, or they might be none at all (especially outside the US where tipping isn’t standard – to clarify the simile!) That’s why an hourly wage is expected. They deserve a guaranteed wage for their time and effort. 


I don’t see why this is different for songwriters. We also pay rent. We can’t survive without food just like the rest of society. So why are we less entitled to charge for our work? 


  • Fees can be justified

It could take years, decades, or even a lifetime, to earn enough money from royalties alone to work full-time in music. 


Lyric writing is my job. From a business perspective, working only for royalties doesn’t make sense. I also believe licensing and commissioning fees are justified. Here’s why.


For pre-written lyrics, I charge a licensing fee. This means you’re granted permission to use the lyrics. As mentioned earlier, I license lyrics exclusively. It’s not unreasonable to charge a licensing fee for this exclusivity.


For commissions, I charge a commissioning fee. This is when a lyric is written from scratch to your requirements. Commissions are more expensive because of the time needed. 


I’ve had comments that my commission rates are too expensive. I wouldn’t pay hundreds for a Gucci belt. As individuals, we’re bound to have differing opinions on what we’re prepared to pay for products and services. 


This is how I justify my pricing…


The commissioning fee is for the entire lyric, which usually takes 10-30 hours. This includes listening to your previous releases and/or reference tracks, writing the first draft, followed by 1-4 edits. I usually write more than one version, so you have more than one option to choose from. If this takes 10 hours, my prices are reasonable when you consider some coaches charge £250 per hour, some plumbers charge £90 per hour. I was quoted £150 when my mum got locked out her house. This was for a job that required literally two seconds of work to get the door open. (She got it for £50 in the end because the original firm cancelled.) 


If you do high quality work, you want to charge a price that reflects this. If you charge too little, people might assume your product or service is poor quality. I’ve tried to strike the balance between valuing my craft and time, and being affordable. This is why my pre-written lyrics are priced lower than the commissions. They take less time and I want to be accessible to indie musicians.


For every person who says I charge too much, someone else says I charge too little. We can only price to the best of our ability. I wouldn’t feel comfortable charging more. To the person who said I should be "ashamed" of my prices, I work to give my clients the best service possible. Also, some of my family live below the poverty line. I want to reach a point where I’m able to help them. I’m not ashamed of that. 


You can now support this blog on Patreon. My patrons help keep me going. Patrons also get ongoing discounts on my lyric writing services. Regular clients can make significant savings by subscribing on Patreon.

Please visit my Patreon page to learn more. I talk about why I joined Patreon in this blog post.


  • Let’s clear the way

By charging for our work as songwriters, we’re creating a road for others to walk down. The more we can shatter the concept that we should work for royalties-only, the easier it will be for others to do the same and make a living doing what they love.


For this reason, I’ve heard people criticise those who work for royalties-only, claiming they’re letting the next generation of writers down. I disagree with this because I think it’s personal choice. There are advantages to working for royalties-only. For example, you might get more work initially and be able to establish yourself quicker if enough of these projects go well.


You will be criticised whether you work for royalties-only or not. Do what is right for you. 


  • Get haggling!

When discussing pricing with a friend, he said just because someone charges a certain price as standard, if you really want to work with that person but can’t afford their rates, you lose nothing by reaching out to them. 


I politely turn down people who ask me to work only for royalties. I appreciate their messages and interest in my work, but it’s not something I’m open to because of my past experiences. It also wouldn’t be fair to my clients who do pay. 


However, I would potentially be open to other offers. It isn’t unusual for a lyricist to have a 25% copyright share of the song (instead of 50/50) due to recording expenses. You could offer me a higher % of the copyright in return for a discounted fee. You could suggest as it’s your first time using the service, you will pay full price but for two lyrics instead of one… the options are as endless as your imagination!


There’s no harm in haggling with someone. The worst that will happen is they say no.  


  • Work with me for less

I’ve taken measures to make my work more accessible. 


Do you want to work with me for $12? This is now possible! Songbay have introduced a Cover Version License. This means you can cover a song and release it to Spotify, etc. The upfront payment for this is just $12. Learn more here.


I currently have four songs available to be covered, including Dear Beloved Demon and Knuckles.


Let me know your thoughts. Do you charge upfront or work only for royalties?


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