The Single Song Contract is probably the most basic publishing agreement a songwriter can enter into. If a songwriter has written a song, and a publisher thinks it can be placed on an artist’s album, or perhaps in a film or TV program, the two parties can sign a single song agreement.
An example of this would be if a publisher thinks a specific song could be placed with an artist such as Celine Dion or Whitney Houston. Both publisher and songwriter can then work out the terms of this single song deal.
Under this contract, the songwriter usually assigns 50% (or in some cases, 100%) of the publishing rights of a song to the publisher for a certain period of time, usually between 12 and 24 months. If the publisher secures a placement with an artist during this period (it doesn’t necessarily have to be Celine or Whitney), then the publisher becomes a permanent copyright owner of the song. The contract could also stipulate whether the securing of a film or TV usage for the song (instead of a record placement) is sufficient for the publisher to retain a permancent copyright interest.
If after the 12-24 month period the publisher hasn’t placed the song, then the agreement is terminated, and all rights to the song revert back to the songwriter.
Sometimes a single song deal, if the song is placed, can lead to a full-fledged staff writer offer from the publisher. It is not uncommon for a songwriter to be offered a $20,000 deal (or much larger) if the publisher now believes that this songwriter is a potential “hitmaker.” But even if there is no further offer, it is often surprising how much money can be made from having just one song placed.
If the song becomes a major hit, of course, there will be tremendous royalties earned. But even if the song is not a hit, but is on a big-selling album, the income can be substantial. I once signed a single song deal with a writer, and placed the songs on the Pointer Sisters multi-platinum Breakout album back in 1984. Sixteen years later, royalties are still being generated on this song.
Single song contracts for placement in film and TV are becoming increasingly common. There are a growing number of independent publishers who specialize in placing songs in film and TV shows. In these cases, the songwriter would sign a single song deal with this publisher, with the specific purpose of placing the song in film and TV, not for a record placement. Often, the writer’s demo becomes a master that is also being pitched for the film and TV usage. The licensing of the demo is often included in this type of single song agreement.
In a deal geared toward film and TV placement, the publisher might insist on 100% of the publishing of the song (or 50% of the gross earnings), because this song might be considered obscure or less commercial, and therefore more difficult to place. In these instances, the songwriter still receives the writer’s share of income (the remaining 50%).
There is one other type of single song deal. This is when a song has already become a hit (or is on a hit album), and the writer is in need of immediate funds. Then, the writer can simply sell part or all of the publishing rights for a fair price based on the projected income of the song. Most major publishing companies are happy to purchase a hit song in this manner, since they know it is already a hit, with a guaranteed income.
This type of deal is the definite exception to the “single song” concept. What it usually comes down to is a publisher loving one song, and trying to make something happen that would transform this song into a valuable copyright.