What is the difference between a bona fide record release by a record label, and me just releasing and selling it online as soon as I've recorded it?
An independent artist is perfectly within their rights to release their own music online as quickly as they wish. There are now distributors that accept membership by independent artists, so it is quite possible to get your music into all the major online stores via one of these distributors. However, if you are hoping to get into the National Charts; or collect performance royalties for any airplay or public performance of your music, it will need to be registered properly by a record company member of a PRO (Performing Rights Organisation)
In order for the royalties to be paid and traced to the correct people involved in your release, you first have to allocate an ISRC (International Standard Recording Code) to each recording. This can only be done by an authorised producer or distributor. They are usually issued automatically by stores such as iTunes or CDbaby if music is sent to them for distribution that doesn't already have codes allocated. Once a recording has been allocated an ISRC it cannot be changed. That code stays with that recording for it's lifetime. Any new re-mixes or a significant re-mastering, would require it's own ISRC. You can't have two different releases of the same record that have the same number, and you certainly can't have two different records with the same number nor two numbers for the same record!
In order to collect royalties and be eligible for the National chart, you then need to register the recording with a PRO. In the UK, this would be PPL for the sound recording (p) rights and MCPS or PRS for the song rights. This is done by uploading all the recording details to the music registration database that is run by PPL, PRS & MCPS in the UK. Details include every person who performed, wrote and produced the recording and their individual roles. Also, details such as the studio and mix locations, release date, length, titles, publishers, rights and bar code are included. This needs to be done by a record company member of the PRO. To be eligible as a record company, you need to have had releases by at least 3 different artists. Membership can take a few months to be authorised after the application forms are submitted.
The minimum time scale required for these details to be registered for release is 3 weeks. The online distribution takes 8-12 weeks for the record to appear in all the online stores. It is therefore beneficial to plan a release date that is around 3 months away from the completion of your recording if you want people to be able to find the song in all the stores on it's day of release.
Protecting your release
Many new artists & songwriters are under the false impression that a song needs to be registered with a copyright agency to be protected. There are many independent services, including the US Government Copyright Office, that will happily take money from songwriters who may even be struggling to make ends meet. Some songwriters can be quite paranoid about the security of their songs and services such as these prey on that fact. Whilst it is true that in the USA, a song needs to be registered with the government copyright office in order for any copyright infringement claims to be eligible to be tried in the high court; it doesn't necessarily protect a song from being stolen.
The truth is that regardless of where you reside, copyright exists automatically from the moment a song is written down or recorded. It doesn't have to be registered with anyone, but cases taken to court can often be difficult to prove. The best thing that these registration services can do is to provide a date of registration that might be admissible as evidence should an infringement case be brought to court.
For many years indie songwriters have continued the practice of "Poor Man's Copyright". This is the practice of writing your song in manuscript form or recording it on tape or CD, then mailing it to yourself by recorded delivery. The point of this is that the postage frank is proof of the date when your song existed; and so long as the envelope remains sealed you should be OK ... WRONG! ... This kind of evidence (so far as I know) has never been admissible in court, as an envelope is deemed too easy to tamper with. However, now that emails have been used as evidence in many other kinds of cases, you could well be better off sending the song in an email to yourself, and keep a backup. It is still, however, easy for those adept at using computers to tamper with the date stamp of an email. If in doubt, always seek legal advice from someone who specialises in music industry and copyright law.
Whilst certain high profile cases do tend to find their way into the news; copyright infringement cases are very rare. After all, what is the point of stealing a song that you then need to spend a small fortune on in order to record and promote it to the stage where (if you are very lucky) it MIGHT make a profit!
Although it is unlikely that someone else would make any money from using your song, some opportunists will still try. This can be upsetting and occasionally disruptive to your music career. Unfortunately, in most cases, it is not even worth the expense to take them to court as they are unlikely to have made enough money from your song to cover court costs.
This is one area in which it is more beneficial to have a proper release. Opportunists will most usually prey on indie artists who have their compositions available for free download from many web sites. Songs by the average indie artist are unknown by the vast majority of people, so it is easier for an opportunist to try and pass one of these off as their own creation, than it would if they chose a well known hit record that most publishers and record companies would recognise. I have had at least two demo submissions that made me suspicious as to the rightful owners of the songs; one of which I did trace to the original composer who was horrified to learn that her song had been submitted to us by someone she had never heard of.
A good tip here is to make sure that before uploading any of your music to any web site, you have created an ID3 MP3 Tag with all the details of your song, copyright date, composers, performers, etc. This is how I found the rightful owner of the song I mentioned above. Most opportunists won't know how to view, create, or remove a tag from an MP3. Do you?
Most record companies and publishers in the UK do not register their songs with any kind of independent copyright agency. Registering the recording details in the industry database is proof enough of copyrights held; and this is not done until they are recorded and ready for release. Without an official release and a considerable amount of National media exposure, it is very difficult to prove that the perpetrator would have had ample access to your song prior to writing their own version unless you can prove that they visited your website and downloaded your song on a date prior to their claim to the work.
By far the safest place for your song is in your own head, but we all know that you wouldn't want that to be the only place to find it. So if you are one of those paranoid types, make sure you keep hold of your money, and instead, keep records of all dates, emails, web logs, and broadcasts that contain evidence of when and where your song was written, performed, uploaded and published.