The tickle of curiosity. The gasp of discovery. Fingers running across the keyboard.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Musical Notes: Using Song Lyrics in Your Plot Line with James Morris

Welcoming back author James Morris. If you missed his earlier 
interview about screenwriting you can read it HERE

Fiona - 
Hi Jim, so glad you came by to help us out with questions concerning using song lyrics in our writing.

You have a new Kindle Scout winner that took you in a new direction and gave you an opportunity to learn about the music industry from a copyright POV. Can you give us a 101 overview of what you learned?

Jim - 
Lesson one: don't use song lyrics in your manuscript unless you believe them absolutely necessary. Song lyrics, if they are not in the public domain, require permissions, and tracking down and acquiring them can take time. They are also not free.

Lesson two: acquiring rights can by a byzantine process. For example, a song can have a few rights holders, which include both domestic companies, as well as international. And since my Kindle Scout book was going to be sold internationally, I needed to be sure I acquired both US domestic rights, as well as international ones.

Lesson three: should you go on this journey, prepare for a wait. The power rests with the rights holders, and they can take their time. Or in some cases, never respond at all. I don't want to name names, but some rights holders never even bothered to respond with a request. Also, some more popular bands may simply say "no" outright.

Lesson four: on top of acquiring the permissions, some of them come with end-dates. For example, the licensees I purchased need to be "re-upped" in five years. I figure I'll deal with it all again in 2020. But I have the excel spreadsheet ready, and at least I know who to contact; and since the companies already provided the rights once, I believe "re-newing" them will be an easier task.
If I were to write another book, I would definitely not pursue a song lyric route, and might instead, create my own. But in the context of the story I was telling, set in a world where music was illegal, I felt it was imperative to have a scattering of songs.

Fiona -
So you wake up in the middle of the night and you think "By George! I have the PERFECT plotline BUT I need to use these song lyrics. Can you take us down the winding path? How do you go about finding (short of hiring a PI) all of these esoteric holders of rights? How do you contact them? And what do you say?

Jim - 
I stared first just Googling the song lyric/band, and at the bottom of those it usually says: rights by so-and-so.

And while there are lots of song companies, what I found is that there are really only 3 major "clearing houses" that manage the rights for songs: Hal Leonard, Music Sales Corporation, and Alfred Music. For example, whether a song was by Universal Music or something, inevitably (after writing them an email, and then waiting weeks for it to go through the process), I'd get a response that the song was managed by one of those 3 places.

So, first - find out the first and most obvious: what is the music company that holds the rights, ala Universal Music. Then write them an email. They usually have an email FAQ on their website. And that's the start of the process. As a writer, I would definitely give yourself at least six months. A lot of the time is simply waiting. At some point, I had to stop waiting for permission for a song lyric I loved, and I had to move on.

Then, I would really ask: is this lyric that important, or am I letting this lyric carry the emotional weight of a scene rather than writing a better scene? I came to that conclusion a couple times: that I was "cheating" the emotion by having a lyric as a "stand-in." Once I realized that, I realized I didn't need the particular song lyric, and the manuscript got better. So, in a weird way, the waiting for the permissions made me re-think the places where I had wanted to use them - then I could really say to myself: yes, Jim, you need this lyric; or no, Jim, you're getting lazy by depending on this lyric to carry the weight of this scene.

Fiona - 
How much money are we talking here? Please don't be explicit - I'm really wondering if the cost will make sense in the greater scheme of a writer making a living?

That is a tough, and fair question. I've heard anecdotally that even publishing houses don't want to deal with song lyrics, as the waiting/cost can be a drawback. It's just one more legal thing on top of everything else that can be a pain.

Having said that, I knew going in, if I was going to write a story in which music was illegal, there had to be some reference point to music, something that grounded this alternate reality in something real. Otherwise, I feared the book would have a floating-out-in-space feel with no anchor. So, I was willing to pay. Now, if your book is only going domestically, of course, that cost is less. Adding another fee (with the international rights) adds more. And of course, all these companies want a favored-nations rule, which means you aren't going to pay more for someone one's lyric than theirs.

It's a personal choice: will I make my money back? I'm not sure. But like Hugh Howey talks about writing like some people buy cameras, this was a camera that I thought was worth doing right. And I'm really proud of the work.

I will reiterate: I would never use song lyrics again, as I don't think they are necessary in other books.

Fiona - 
But it's the author who deals and who coughs up the money/holds the rights, right? That way you would know at the beginning that you were accepted or not? It would be horrible to get a contract and then not be able to move forward.

Jim - 
True: the author does deal with the money up front.

And I knew what I had, and didn't have in terms of permissions.

As for money spent: all I'll say, is I'll have something to use for taxes this year as a business deduction.

Fiona - 
Business deductions! I hadn't thought about that. So tell me about your book, why lyrics were so important to tell this story and what songs did you choose (if that isn't a spoiler)

Jim - 
Ultimately, I narrowed the song lyrics down to 4 songs (from an original 7). The 3 I lost because I realized I didn't want to spend more money; I didn't want to wait anymore; and I realized those other 3 were unnecessary as I could write the scenes emotionally without their use.

The songs I used where: AT LAST, I'VE GOT A CRUSH ON YOU, ONCE IN A LIFETIME, and DON'T YOU WANT SOMEBODY TO LOVE. A mix of classic songs, and some semi-modern ones.

And they're not spoilers - how horrible would that be - because I've got to name the permissions at the very beginning of my book. And there they are, sometimes listed twice (with different rights holders - domestic and international), so it looks like it's been repeated erroneously, but no: it's all laid out legally.

Now, as to why they were used: that, I'd rather let the reader discover.

Fiona - 
As you keep saying legal and contract, I'm getting a little hivish -- did you find that this was all easier for you because of your background in script writing for TV?

Jim - 
No, not really. In TV, I didn't deal too much with legal things (though every script did go through Legal to make sure we weren't using copy-righted items, or using someone's real name). It's true: it IS hivish. I've paid, and agreed to terms to use copy-righted material, which is what song lyrics are. But, I wanted to do it right. I wanted to feel good that if anyone looked under the hood, that I didn't need to worry. And weirdly, in doing the process legally, it gives me comfort. Some people, especially if the book is self-published and the readership might be smaller, might just go ahead and say, screw it - I'm gonna use the lyrics and let the big companies come and find me! I understand that. I do. But since I knew this would eventually find a home, I wanted to do it right. And at the end of the day, it's on me. Not Amazon, or Kindle Press. I'm responsible. And I want to stand behind it. I've got the spreadsheets, the cashed checks, the licenses. I've done what I can to make sure it's proper, and I can sleep well knowing no one is gonna knock on my door!\

Fiona - 
Was there something that you wanted to share that I haven't asked you about today?

Jim - 
I would just say: the good thing about the song lyric process is that you have to remember, it's about companies protecting copyright, which is important. I may have gotten annoyed at the waiting sometimes, but at the end of the day, I'd like to think that there is legal protection for all of our work (writers, etc) to protect our own copyright. That helped, psychologically I guess, that I was dealing with other writers who basically wanted their work protected, just as I would want my own work protected, or acknowledged if someone used it.


Can love survive in a world without music?
The time – now; the place – America, but in a world where the government controls all forms of art and creativity. Any music sowing the seeds of anarchy is banned – destroyed if found – its creators and listeners harshly punished. Merrin Pierce works as an undercover Patrol officer assigned to apprehend a man who threatens the safe fabric of society, only to confront everything she thought to be true – her values, upbringing, job and future. What will she choose – duty or desire?

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  1. I understand although you can't use lyrics without permission, naming a song title or band is fine - which I do in my upcoming novel. I used a few words - same as the title - in the context of scene where one of the characters sings it. I'm thinking about taking it out before it goes into production just to be safe...

  2. Isn't there a 'fair usage' option of quoting lyrics from a song in a novel, as in quoting from longer works? If I wanted to quote ONE line from a copyrighted song and acknowledge the source, would I still have to get permission?