How to Make the Most Money From a Song: Split It Into 20 Pieces - Rolling Stone
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Artists Who Don’t Repurpose Their Music Are Leaving Money on the Table

As streaming becomes a superstar’s game, a film and television composer explains how the average musician can build a single song into 20 different revenue streams — or more

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Before going into the studio to record, an artist should be thinking of different ways that every seconds-long fragment of the song might serve a purpose in formats beyond the full song itself.

Photo Illustration by Joe Rodriguez: Photo used: John Lamb/Getty Images (Guitar); Synelnychenko Dmytro/Adobe

It doesn’t matter what kind of artist you are — a weekend-warrior cover band, a multi-platinum singer-songwriter, or a composer, or an instrumentalist — because musicians everywhere are coming to terms with the wrench that Covid-19 has thrown into their livelihoods. The majority are dealing with big losses in income due to the lack of touring and related merch sales, live events, and other in-person opportunities.

So how can an artist grow new income sources? There’s a strategic way of doing it that most people in the industry don’t know about: Thinking of every single piece of music as a dozen or more potential pieces.

As a composer and music instructor, one of the core principles I teach musicians is that viewing a song as one single entity is an outdated way of thinking about art — and one that limits your revenue opportunities. Traditionally, a musician would write a song, record it, distribute it, push it to radio, add it to streaming services, compete or pay to get on playlists, and play shows or tour to promote it. Lather, rinse, and repeat. But the landscape has changed, and now we have markets like video games, television series, advertising, and film, which give musicians many more opportunities to sell their music. The one-trick-pony approach is a thing of the past.

But this new approach requires a change in mindset. Before going into the studio to record, an artist should be thinking of different ways that every seconds-long fragment of the song might serve a purpose in formats beyond the full song itself. The funny thing about this strategy is that it doesn’t cost anything, but can help artists bulk up their revenue, catalog, fan base, and entertainment network by a lot. Here’s how it works.

A single song is 20 different revenue streams

A few years ago, I looked at my catalog of music: I had music in over 100 television shows paying me ongoing quarterly royalties from my performing rights organization (PRO), and I had scored 20 films and written the music for over 40 video games. Not too bad.

But I started thinking about how I could increase the value of the music I had already written. Could I find new markets for it? And what if this new approach could help me produce more profitable work in the future?

I’d been overly focused on old strategies that have existed in the music industry for decades. So, as an exercise, I took one piece of music that had already been used on networks like MSNBC and MTV and broke it into as many usable “parts” as possible. My goal was to have every second of music count, and for every second to have the ability to earn more revenue in many forms of media.

Here’s the product list I came up with for that single track:

  • 2 min. 00 sec. Full Instrumental Track
  • 15 sec. Version
  • 30 sec. Version
  • 60 sec. Version
  • 2 Alt Mix Versions
  • 8 Sting Versions
  • 32 Loops
  • 8 Stems

In only a few hours, I had 54 versions of it. That’s 54 new products to pitch with new titles and lengths, and suited to the different needs of each market.

I approached the L.A. music supervisor who gave me my first music placement for a documentary back in 2010 and asked if he was looking for any new music for his projects. He said yes — he was working on a six-part DirectTV series based on the Afghanistan War and needed background music that had a “tense, dark feel,” preferably with a set of loops. Was it luck or just good timing? I sent him the 54-track package I had just finished. He ended up using five tracks from the package in four of the episodes, and nine months later I received a royalty statement from my PRO. I was suddenly $10,000 the richer; since then, that series has been on Netflix and Amazon Prime, and still pays me royalties every three months.

I now use this approach for every new song or track that I write: I compose to get the most out of each track that I record. Deane Ogden, a drummer and producer who’s written for NBC and CBS, used this strategy — and tells me that creating a “breakdown package that editors can tailor for visual, right down to the singular elements” has quadrupled his royalty income.

I write mostly instrumental music, but this approach can be applied to songs or tracks written by singer-songwriters, bands, beat makers, and musicians in all genres. For example, here is a breakdown of the versions a typical pop or rock song might yield using this repurposing approach:

  • 3 min. 30 sec. Full Track With Vocals
  • 3 min. 30 sec. Instrumental
  • 30 seconds Full Track With Vocals
  • 30-second Instrumental
  • 60 seconds Full Track With Vocals
  • 60-second Instrumental
  • Drums & Bass
  • Alt Mix
  • Guitar 1 Stem
  • Guitar 2 Stem
  • Vocal Stem
  • Background Vocal Stem
  • Bass Stem
  • Drums Stem
  • Keys Stem
  • 1 min. Loop 1
  • 30-second Loop 2
  • 30-second Loop 3
  • 5-second Sting 1
  • 5-second Sting 2

The artist now has a 20-piece package for the song with many versions, all of which are individually registered with their PRO, and all of which can be used in different markets.

Where do you pitch all this music?

Here are some potential clients for your newly repurposed package of music.

Television: You can pitch your original song to music supervisors and music editors — across reality TV, sports, crime drama, cartoons, documentaries, news, or whatever else — with the option to use short versions with or without your amazing vocals. Perhaps they’ll want to use both a section of the original in a heartfelt scene and the instrumental version in the ending montage scene. Maybe the 30-second version fits perfectly for a promo for the show, or the 20-second version works better with the 5-second sting helping the scene cut to a commercial. Perhaps they don’t want to use that particular guitar or synth track, or want to change the levels or panning on the mix itself — whatever the case, you’ve given them the ability to be flexible with your work. Music editors love being part of the creative process, and by giving them your tune’s stems, you’re making it easier for them by pre-packaging your work in different ways. In return, you can receive ongoing quarterly royalties, build your fan base by having your music on TV, and gain serious exposure. Music libraries and production music libraries are great places to start submitting.

Film: In the longer format of film, your music could be used as source music (music inside the film that characters can hear), or in the end credits, soundtracks, and trailers. Licensing your song to be used in a film usually includes a nice upfront sync fee and ongoing royalties — not a bad trade-off for taking that little bit of extra time in your studio during the mix process. Using this approach on your upcoming projects means that you should negotiate all of your music package mix requirements with your producer/engineer before you record a single note to avoid having to go back to them later to dig out the sessions and charging you more money to remix all of your song’s versions.

Advertising: Big money is spent on ad budgets across theaters, television, radio, and the internet, but it’s not economical to put all that money toward superstar artists. That’s where you come in. Instead of trying to license a six-figure famous song, music supervisors working for ad agencies can find a song in a similar vein from an up-and-coming artist or band for a more manageable fee. If you have repackaged your music, you already have your 30-second and 60-second versions ready to go for the pitch, making their life easier. Songs in ads are a great audience builder for your new and back catalog, expanding your fan base, and opening up new ears to your music.

Video games: When I began to repurpose my music, my sole idea was to get it into video games. With 24 million game developers across the world, all of whom need sound design and music for their games and apps, it’s a huge market. By taking my music apart to create loop and cut-scene versions, and then re-titling it to appeal to the game developer audience — yes, you need to appeal to them differently — I took music that had already been used in over 50 television shows across the world and marketed it to the hundreds of thousands of game developers who visit game-asset websites like Unity and Unreal Engine weekly to source sound effects and music. Again, you have something that this massive market desperately needs.

Big artists are already using the repurposing method I’m proposing. They may not discuss it publicly, but the re-titling and repurposing of music is a growing trend in today’s business. Singer-songwriters are writing multiple sets of lyrics for their songs, each created to appeal to a different audience, demographic, emotion, time, place, or concept.

Helen Austin, a Juno Award-winning songwriter of Americana group Big Little Lions, tells me she “always has stems and alt versions available” and is always looking for ways to stretch a song’s income — for instance, working with Dawn Dish Soap to tweak her song “Five Little Things” into a tune that’d fit Dawn’s tagline “The Little Things” in an advertisement. “A quick half-hour change and they had the song that they wanted,” she says.

Composers are taking their back catalogs, which are already making money in one or more forms of media, and time-stretching and pitch-shifting the tracks to create new cues and soundscapes that appeal to other markets, such as sound design for film and games. Beat makers, DJs, instrumentalists, and sound designers are earning more money and recurring royalties by creating sound packs for companies like Splice.

The entertainment world is a content machine — one that needs to be fueled by huge quantities of sound. Being part of the supply chain will pay you over and over and lead you to more opportunities to create. Not only that, it takes some of the pressure off your traditional income generators, like the minuscule royalty payouts of streaming.

Of course, not every musician needs to think of songs in this multi-format way, and a person can become a superstar without it — with the right combination of talent, timing, business acumen and, sometimes, sheer luck. But I encourage any artist who is having trouble making a living from their music to consider splitting their work into different formats — because it will, if nothing else, provide solid income. You still have the satisfaction that comes from a well-written piece, you’re just giving more people the opportunity to hear it.

So I say to artists: Keep being creative, keep gigging, keep recording, keep selling and streaming your albums and singles, keep selling merch and tickets to your shows — but add some insurance to your business by licensing, repurposing, and thinking more strategically about your hard work.

Craig Dodge is a composer whose music has been heard in over 140 films and television shows and over 45 video games. He founded and co-owns Taris Studios, which offers lessons to help musicians maximize their earnings.

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