Lyric Permissions: The Process of Reprinting Lyrics
A friend of mine who’s writing a book recently asked me how to get permission to reprint lyrics, as both of my novels include quite a few (from groups such as Placebo, The Cure, Tori Amos, Smashing Pumpkins, and many more. See my previous blog post for more about that.)
I thought others might be curious as well. The fact is, it can be quite laborious and expensive (although not always). The first step is to find out who the lyric publisher is – not the label, but the publisher. Sometimes this is listed on the album sleeve, but usually not. The next place to look are the web sites for the two major performing rights organizations: BMI and ASCAP.
Once you find out who the publisher is, you need to contact them to find out their process. Some of them have online forms to fill out. (I actually created my own contract and sent it out in hopes it would be used. This seems to only work with small companies or when artists have their own company with publishing rights.)
These days a vast majority of lyric publishing rights are administered by one particular juggernaut. Be aware: their minimum fee for each excerpt is $100. I have seen a few for less, and a few for more. If you’re really lucky, you might even get something for free. For example, Tori Amos lyric publishing rights are controlled by her own company, Sword and Stone Publishing – they happily signed the contract I created and never asked for money. Thank you!!
Something to watch out for is the phrase “Most Favored Nations” in the contract. This means if the lyric publisher finds out you paid more than what they charged for any other lyrics in your book, they can come back to you and make you pay that higher amount for each of their lyric excerpts. That could be a nasty surprise!
I was able to get permission for at least 90% of the lyrics I wanted to use – although a few I chose not to use due to the cost. But also be aware some artists (such as Stevie Nicks) just don’t allow others to reprint their material, which I totally respect (although it can be disappointing!). Only one company just never got back to me, no matter how often I followed up. Thus I was unable to use “Into Dust” by Mazzy Star as I had hoped, for the heading to Chapter 18 in Afterglow.
While it would be wonderful to deal directly with the artists, this only happened once during my projects (out of a total of 39 lyric excerpts used). While obtaining permission to use “Pepper” by the Butthole Surfers, I ended up talking with Gibby Hayne’s manager on the phone. He said I should probably ask Gibby about that… then gave me his cell phone number! As you can imagine, Gibby Haynes was a bit confused about who I was and why I was calling, but after a few minutes he said that sounded fine – he just wanted to make sure I had the lyrics right.
After we hung up I was jumping up and down, yelling, “I just talked to Gibby Haynes on the phone! I just talked to Gibby Haynes on the phone!” to my empty house. Too bad I don’t have any more stories like that to relate!
Anyway, as you can tell, this can be a very time consuming and expensive process. But not always – and sometimes it can be exciting! And there can be a positive side to not succeeding: sometimes I was “forced” to write more lyrics myself – or rather Brian O’Kelly (the character) wrote them through me… but that’s another story…