Understanding the difference between a Composition and a Sound Recording is KEY to understanding how people get paid in the music industry.

And you want to get paid, right? 😉

A Composition and a Sound Recording are two very different things, two types of assets you can build your music career on.

Once you understand the difference between the two, you’ll be in a good position to identify promising revenue streams for your own music.

#1 – The Difference Between A Composition And A Sound Recording

If you write and record your own songs, then you’re both a Composer and a Recording Artist. But that’s not always the case.

For example, Leonard Cohen wrote the composition “Hallelujah” but there are lots of different sound recordings of that song.

By Leonard Cohen himself, who is also a recording artist for that song.

By other recording artists like Jeff Buckley, John Cale and k.d. lang.

Songwriters and Recording Artists are not represented by the same people….

Music Publishers will try to maximize the number of times the Composition is performed (on TV, on the radio, live, etc).

Because every time the composition is performed, the Composer and the Publisher get paid.

Record Companies will try to maximize the number of times the Sound Recording is copied (on an CD, vinyl, DVD, video game).

Because that’s when the Recording Artist and Record Company get paid.

#2 – Why Is This Important?

Making the distinction between the Composition and the Sound Recording is KEY because the two are different products: Composers and Recording Artists don’t make the same kind of money.

Also from album sales, streaming, MP3s, gigs, etc.

They just sold more. Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” has been so popular many people think that Buckley wrote it!

But here’s the thing….


Because Composers and Music Publishers get paid whenever their Composition is performed or a Sound Recording of their Composition is copied.

It doesn’t matter who is performing on the Sound Recording.

That means that even when Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” is featured in a movie, Leonard Cohen and his Music Publisher get paid. When someone purchases Jeff Buckley’s CD with his version of “Hallelujah”, Leonard Cohen and his Music Publisher also get a small share.

When you’re writing and recording original music, you are maximizing revenue streams because you can earn money related to the use of the Composition and the Sound Recording.

When you’re recording other people’s music (like Jeff Buckley in this example), you’re only making money related to the use of the Sound Recording you’re performing on.

But when you’re writing original music (like Leonard Cohen in this example), you’re giving yourself the option to have other artists record it. You could then find yourself in a position where your song gets visibility (and money!) when someone else performs it.

Which is exactly what happened to Leonard Cohen in the 1990s when the world fell in love with Jeff Buckley’s Sound Recording of “Hallelujah”…..

#3 – What Does That Mean For You?

As an indie musician, you don’t have a music publisher or record label to fight your battles…. or take a cut of your revenues 😉

Knowing the difference between a composition and a sound recording will help you identify potential revenue leaks for your songs. Maybe even help you see new income opportunities for your music!

A/ You want to protect your Composition and your Sound Recording

◊ When you’re considering working with co-writers, keep in mind that you will be sharing revenues related to the Composition.

◊ Revenues related to the Sound Recording is something altogether different and will vary depending on the agreements you signed with band members and/or hired session musicians.

◊ If you want your work to be fully protected, you’ll need to copyright both the Composition and the Sound Recording.

B/ You need to respect other Songwriter’s rights too

By all means, do covers of popular songs. They’re in demand and can bring a lot of visibility.

In fact, licensing a cover song can be a big jackpot!

Just be aware that, if you’re looking to commercially exploit someone else’s composition, you’ll need their authorization. The Harry Fox Agency can help you with this.

C/ You should keep in mind the different income opportunities that exist for Composers and Recording Artists

Singer-Songwriters and Performing Artists don’t get paid the same way, or by the same people for that matter.

Even if you own 100% of the rights to a Composition and Sound Recording, that’s important to keep in mind.


Because if you’re not aware of the difference, you could miss out on earning opportunities that don’t seem worth it upfront but could bring you money in the long run.

Or you could be working your butt off to get opportunities that pay ok upfront but have very little scalable potential and slowly burn you out.

Here are a few examples of different revenue streams depending on whether you’re a Composer or Recording Artist or both:

  • Music placed on TV/film: the Composer and Publisher get most of the money, through synchronization fee (upfront) and performance royalties (each time the Composition is performed)
  • Album sales: everyone gets a cut, Composer/Publisher and Recording Artist/Record Company
  • Radio plays: everyone gets a share in most places, although in the US, Recording Artists don’t get paid for plays on terrestrial radio

Next Steps?

Ok, this was a pretty broad overview but you get the key idea:

a Composition and a Sound Recording are two different products, two different assets.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, I’ve written 3 other posts that explain how you can protect those two assets and how you can maximize your earning potential related to those two assets:

  1. Make sure everybody’s on the same page, including co-writers, band members, hired musicians, music producers
  2. Protect your compositions and sound recordings in a fast and cost effective way
  3. Collect all your music royalties

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