Music Publishing Royalties Explained: What is a Mechanical Royalty?

May 8, 2013{ 10 Comments }

What is a Mechanical Royalty? How does a songwriter earn money? —— [Insert your own punchline here.]

But the real answer is… music publishing!

There’re a number of different kinds of publishing royalties you can earn from the usage of your original music.

One of the big sources of publishing revenue you’ll earn as a songwriter is performance royalties. But an even bigger revenue stream (at least for the music publishing industry at large) is mechanical royalties, which we’ll talk about in this article.

Mechanical royalties and independent songwriters

Wikipedia says:

The term “mechanical” and “mechanical license” has its origins in the “piano rolls” on which music was recorded in the early part of the 20th Century. Although its concept is now primarily oriented to royalty income from sale of compact discs (CDs), its scope is wider and covers any copyrighted audio composition that is rendered mechanically; that is, without human performers.

In a nutshell: every time a song you’ve written is manufactured to be sold in a CD, downloaded on a digital music retail site, or streamed through services like Spotify and Rdio, you are owed a mechanical royalty.

Now for the longer explanation of mechanical royalties…

As a songwriter/publisher, you are owed a royalty every time your composition is reproduced (on vinyl, tape, CD, MP3, etc). In the United States, this royalty is generally equal to 9.1 cents per reproduced “copy” of that song, regardless of whether those albums or singles are sold. (The mechanical royalty rate for on-demand streams through services like Spotify and Rdio is far lower; and yes — those services owe you both a mechanical royalty AND a performance royalty for your music’s usage). But let’s get back to mechanical royalties for CD sales and downloads for a second…

If someone covers one of your songs and they manufacture 1000 CDs — they owe you $91, regardless of whether those CDs ever get purchased by customers. If they sell 100 MP3s of your song, they owe you $9.10.

You are also owed a mechanical royalty for the sales of your music on YOUR OWN albums. But here’s where things get a little virtual; if you’re acting as your own label and putting out music that you’ve written, you’ll effectively be paying that royalty to yourself from album proceeds.

At least that’s how it works in the US, where download retailers like iTunes and Amazon pass on that mechanical royalty to you as part of the net payment for the sale of the MP3. But in many countries outside the US, mechanical royalties are set aside BY the retailer, to be paid to collection societies who then distribute those royalties to publishers and writers.

BUT performing rights organizations like ASCAP and BMI do NOT collect mechanical royalties. Their job is to collect performance royalties, NOT mechanicals. So…

How do you collect “foreign mechanicals” generated outside the US?

In order to collect international mechanical royalties (as well as mechanicals for both global and domestic streams), you’d need to register your music with many royalty collection societies around the world.

As our friend Justin Kalifowitz of SongTrust is fond of saying, you CAN do it yourself if you really want to — but you’ll probably have to stop making music for a while. Affiliating yourself and registering your songs directly with all the international collection societies would not only take hundreds of hours of paperwork and filling out online forms, but you’d need to be proficient in dozens of languages — or hire a translator. And who wants to do that when you’ve got gigs to play?

That’s where CD Baby Pro comes in. We do all that work for you — registering songs directly with societies around the world — and then we’ll make sure you get paid ALL the publishing royalties you’re owed.

 Stop leaving money on the table; sign up for CD Baby Pro today!

Guide: Make More Money From Your Music

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  • Christopher Robley

    In Europe, most music retailers hold the mechanicals (unlike in the US where they’re paid as part of the normal sales revenue) — which then need to be collected on behalf of the writers/publishers. So yes, depending of course on sales and activity, there can be a large amount of uncollected mechanicals from international download sales. (Some CD Baby artists have collected thousands in foreign mechanicals). And as for streaming mechanicals, they’re obviously not huge per stream, but they add up quick.


  • Christopher Robley

    They differ all the time, based on the kind of listener (free ad-supported tier vs. paying subscriber, for instance, in the case of Facebook), the kind of ad served up, etc. The best way to get a feel for it is to look at your accounting statement from CD Baby or other distributor across several months.



    CD Baby Pro is just for americans an canadiand, thet suck

    • Christopher Robley

      It’s also available in the UK. We’re working to expand it beyond those three countries though.


      • HRFLIKK

        expand?? yeye, when im old and grey?. When Youtube is allready making it happen, so why dont cdbaby able to to the same. i get paid for my youtube streams, and i live in skandinavia, NOT us, NOT can, NOT uk. make it happen! or i tink other companies wild look at this as an opportunity to make money and snatch the market away from you! i would! make a company just based on streaming, not sales. here in scandinavia only maby 5% buy music, the rest of 95% JUST streams, mostly on youtube. so sales of music isent so intresting!! Streaming rules!

  • Christopher Robley

    Yes, there is a statutory rate for publishing mechanicals for interactive services in the US.

    Couple of points on this:

    • the royalty rate is not set as a per-stream rate but rather as a percentage of income, or a percentage of the sound recording royalty deal for these services. Here is a quick distillation that Billboard did when the rates were set back on 2012 that is useful:

    • some services choose to use this rate, others choose to negotiate rates directly with the publishers.

    • the non-interactive review that is going on now is not for mechanical royalties, but sound recordings (paid through Soundexchange in the US). there is no mechanical royalty for non-interactive services (just performance royalties for publishing).


  • Christopher Robley

    A sync placement on TV will earn you performance royalties via your PRO (ASCAP, BMI, etc.) and paid to them by the network/s. involved. Often you’ll also get an upfront sync licensing fee for both the usage of the sound recording AND the usage of the composition.

    2. Regarding the placement company, are you talking about mechanical sync uses such as in a video game? That would normally require a mechanical fee per copy (though most, these days, get negotiated at a flat rate for unlimited). That being said, none of that would affect CD Baby Pro because we don’t handle sync rights whatsoever.


  • Christopher Robley

    Mechanical royalties would be based on “reproductions” of the composition, so in the digital realm that means it’d be based on downloads redeemed, NOT the number of cards you print. Since we’re in the US, the retailer (CD Baby in this case) would pay YOU (the owner of the sound recording), and then it’s your responsibility to pay the publisher/writer that mechanical royalty.