Basics of International Music Business

Music is a beautiful thing. It is an art and a language — a universal way for people to communicate across cultural and linguistic divides. Music inspires and moves people. It helps us express our deepest thoughts and emotions with words and emotive sound. Music rocks! But music need not merely be a medium for your artistic passions; it can be your livelihood. It can be the route to that highly sought after ideal of a job you love. Given the opportunity, why not have your cake and eat it too?

So how does one succeed in the music business? There are many answers to that question. The music business changes every day. Accordingly, the most lucrative revenue sources follow music industry trends. In the digital age, music has become a global business. In a single day (or hour) a songwriter can record a track, upload it, and have it heard by people all around the world. But learning the ins and outs of international music business and how to best capitalize on the industry can be very complex, to say the least. Degree programs like the Frost School of Music’s online Master of Music in Music Business and Entertainment Industries can offer aspiring professionals the knowledge and experience necessary for success in international music business.

How Is International Music Business Different From the Domestic Industry?

In general, music business is the same the world over: People make music; people sell music; people perform music; and business-minded people figure out how to make money from that music. But the laws, revenue streams and trends involved in exploiting music vary by country. Here are just a few examples of the many complicated aspects of international music business.

Music Consumption

We tend to think everyone listens to music in the same way, but people in different countries actually consume (and pay for) music through many different channels. While people in the United States often download music or stream it through services like Spotify, that kind of music consumption relies on high-speed internet. In countries like Greenland, for example, internet access is very expensive and not widely available, so people buy CDs and listen to the radio. Music business professionals looking to exploit how consumers “buy” and listen to music will have to understand these and other differences in music consumption from market to market in order to capitalize on revenue potential all around the world.

Music Law

An extremely important aspect of the music business is understanding music law, primarily music copyright law. To figure out who makes money from music, one needs to know who created that music, who owns it, how revenue is collected, and how that revenue is distributed. By United States copyright law, when one or more people write a piece of music (melody and lyrics) and it gets documented in some way, that piece of music is automatically considered copyrighted. The song is owned by the songwriter(s), and they alone have the right to use and make money from that song (or assign those rights to anyone else).

Going into further detail with music copyright law is beyond the scope of this article, but understanding it is essential if you want to be successful in the music world. And copyright law varies from country to country. For example, when a songwriter assigns copyright of their intellectual property to a publisher, that contract may be legally valid in one country and worthless in another. This brings up another important aspect of international music business: Publishing.

Music Publishing Across Borders

As the music industry has shifted away from physical sales to downloads and streaming, the financial aspects have changed as well. And, in general, revenue from downloads and streaming is far less than it was when people primarily bought vinyl, tapes and CDs. Music industry revenue on the whole has seen a sharp decline since this digital shift, so people look elsewhere for profits.

Publishing has become an essential part of digital-age music industry revenue. By copyright law (in most countries), any time a songwriter’s music is used by anyone (or any business) other than that songwriter, that songwriter needs to be paid. The way this happens, the amount of money involved, and how it gets distributed depends on the way the music was used as well as music law (again, varying country to country).

Often, the songwriter enters into contract with a publisher wherein that publisher negotiates on the songwriter’s behalf with film directors or whoever wishes to use the music. Both parties agree on fees, and they issue licenses for use of the songwriter’s compositions. Although those fees are collected in different ways depending on the country, they are eventually paid out as royalties, split between the songwriter and publisher according to their contract.

These days, publishing is where the money is. Music is heard everywhere: movies, TV, commercials, video games, radio, streaming services, online video platforms, etc. Songwriters and publishers are entitled to revenue from all of those sources, worldwide. A good publisher who builds a diverse catalog of music they own or represent can get that music to a wide array of potential clients in different markets.

Regardless of whether you want to be a touring musician, publisher or radio executive, understanding music business and law specific to different global markets is necessary for exploiting revenue sources in those markets. A strong working knowledge of international music business can be the key to success in the increasingly globalized music industry.

Learn more about the Frost MBEI online program.


Passman, D. S. (2015). All you need to know about the music business (9th ed.). New York: Simon & Schuster.

Digital Music News: Now You Know Everything About Music Publishing…

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