All songwriters, from salaried librettists and record-company staff writers down to part-time writers who earn royalties on a few songs, can earn money for their work in a variety of ways. Even without a full-time contract from a music industry company, songwriters can earn royalty fees through various recording and music industry organizations. In order to become an established salaried songwriter, a person must find a way to distribute their music to businesses and garner enough interest to be hired.
The annual average salary among full-time staff songwriters working in the United States is $43,000, according to the State University website at the time of publication. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lumps salary data for salaried songwriters in with music directors, composers and conductors. The average salary for these creative professions was $52,750 per year, or $25.36 per hour, as of May 2010. Singer-songwriters who focus on performing their own work typically don't earn full-time salaries, but their average hourly salary is $30.22, about five dollars more than music directors and composers earn per hour, according to BLS.
A songwriter must do a lot of self-marketing for his product before gaining employment with a record company or music publisher. After writing their music, songwriters often record demo tapes or records, which feature their own music. Songwriters market these demo tapes in several ways: they publish them on the Internet through personal websites; they send them directly to performers; or they mail them to various recording companies and publishers. Singer-songwriters performing their own music also invite record executives or other administrative workers in the music industry to gigs.
Multiple careers are open to individuals who consider themselves as songwriters. Commercially, many songwriters involved with music recording work as staff writers for record companies, music publishers or recording groups. Full-time songwriters at these jobs receive a weekly salary, often treated as an advance on future royalty earnings or may work short-term as a freelance hire on specific projects copyrighted by the company. Songwriters also create commercial jingles for advertising companies, theme music for movies or television and musical librettos for live theater. Freelance writers working directly for musical performers, or freelancers given the rights to royalties by a record company, typically earn money through royalties on their music.
To earn royalties, a songwriter must first register himself and his music with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, or ASCAP; Broadcast Music, Incorporated, or BMI; or the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers, or SESAC. These organizations collect and distribute royalties for registered members when their music appears in television shows, films, live performances or any other situation covered by royalty law.
American songwriters qualify for four different types of royalties for which they are legally required to receive for the use of their work. Mechanical royalties pay based on copies of the song or record sold; at the time of publication, the mechanical royalty rates for American songwriters were 9.1 cents per song sold or downloaded digitally, or 1.75 cents per minute, whichever is greater. Performance royalties accrue when another singer performs a songwriter’s music. Songwriters typically contract to earn either 75 percent of all performance royalties or 100 percent of the writer's share and 50 percent of the publisher's share. Songwriters also earn synchronization fees -- flat rate fees worked into a contract that reflect the budget of the overall film or television production, and print income for sheet music sales.