Matt may be number one but it's the songwriters who'll cash in. . .
One hit song could generate enough royalties to last a lifetime, says John Meagher
Published 22/12/2010 | 05:00
Three months ago, Matt Cardle was just another pop wannabe. Now, he's enjoying a Christmas number one in the UK, having outsold Rihanna four-to-one, and the X Factor winner is expected to hit top spot when the Irish chart is revealed tomorrow.
With sales of his single, 'When We Collide', close to 500,000 on both sides of the Irish Sea, one would be forgiven for assuming that he will be rolling in the cash. But it's likely to be some time before the former painter and decorator sees serious money.
Instead, Scottish rock outfit, Biffy Clyro, will enjoy a Christmas to remember. As songwriters of 'Many of Horror' -- as the song was originally called -- it is they (and not Cardle) who will pocket royalties from sales, airplay and live performance. Estimates suggest they will make a six-figure sum in the short term, with substantial royalty cheques likely to appear in their letter boxes for years to come.
Royalties safeguard the interests of the songwriter, rather than the performer, and it's a system that dates back to the 19th century, when sheet music first came to be seen as a source of revenue.
Today, 'royalties' is a far-reaching term that covers everything from the portion of album sales an act can take, to payments accrued from radio play, from live performances, to a ringtone.
Not only will Biffy Clyro make money on Cardle's single sales, they will also take a cut whenever he performs the song live, or whenever it's played in a public place.
Agencies worldwide -- including our own Irish Music Rights Organisation (IMRO) -- are charged with ensuring that royalties are paid out.
According to Keith Johnson of IMRO, 7,500 Irish "members" -- aka songwriters / composers -- receive royalties. The payments vary from the U2s of this world to a fledgling band who might have had a song played a handful of times on radio.
At the upper end of the scale, royalties are worth millions when one factors in album sales and A-listed radio play.
Consider Brendan Graham, a songwriter from Nenagh, Co Tipperary. His name may mean nothing to even the most avid music fan, but he commands enormous royalty cheques with one uplifting song in particular, 'You Raise Me Up', ensuring that he will have no financial worries for the rest of his life. That ballad -- co-written with Norwegian songwriter Rolf Lovland in 2002 -- has been recorded by more than 400 artists, with versions from Westlife and Josh Groban selling enormously.
"Brendan has made millions from that song," says Westlife manager Louis Walsh. "The money is in the songwriting and that's where all the clever people are to be found: they get the wealth but they don't have to deal with the pressures of fame."
And royalties continue to be paid to a singer's estate when they die. The protagonist of Nick Hornby's novel, About A Boy, lives a gilded life thanks to royalties from a Christmas song written by his late father. Such a scenario is highly plausible when one considers the monies involved for songs with a long shelf-life.
In June, the estate of the late-Bing Crosby were paid $2m in royalty fees for the previous 10 years -- on top of the revenue already received during that time. The estate had been in conflict with the world's largest record label, Universal, over unpaid royalties and had successfully sued.
Unsurprisingly, when one considers the money involved, royalty payments have led to numerous disputes. In 1997, after years toiling in the margins, The Verve enjoyed a breakthrough hit with 'Bitter Sweet Symphony'. But the experience would be bittersweet -- the song, and accompanying album, Urban Hymns, sold by the truckload, but it was the Rolling Stones who pocketed all the royalties from the track because it featured an orchestral sample of the Stones' 1965 composition, 'The Last Time'.
Some years later, Keith Richards was asked if he thought the Stones' had deserved to receive all the royalties and he was unrepentant. "I'm out of whack here, this is serious lawyer shit. If The Verve can write a better song, they can keep the money."
At the other end of the scale, royalty payments can be low. A Dublin act who signed to EMI last year, received a cheque for just €45 based on the previous six months' radio play. Yet, a coveted support slot at The O2 saw them receive €5,000 in live royalties.
Their album, which retailed for €15, saw them receive a 20% cut -- €3 per unit sold. "It's not exactly big bucks," their manager says.
"We've been lucky on the live front -- you wouldn't want to be relying on Irish radio. They're too conservative to play local bands, no matter how critically acclaimed they are."
Meanwhile, Matt Cardle's earnings will be bolstered by live performances, merchandise and product endorsement. But if he wants to capitalise on royalties, he will need to hone his songwriting skills -- and quickly.