The dictionary defines “professional” as “a person who earns a living in a sport or other occupation frequently engaged in by amateurs.” A “pro” golfer is someone who has earned their living over an extended period of time by playing golf. Someone who won a golf tournament 20 years ago and earned a $1000 prize is not a pro golfer. They are an amateur who has had some limited success. A pro songwriter is someone who has earned their living writing songs over an extended period of time. That’s what music business people are talking about when they talk about a pro songwriter.
In the business, the biggest “prize” is a #1 radio single. When we talk about having a “single”, we mean that our song is going to be released to terrestrial radio. That’s still a songwriter’s biggest money-making possibility. If your song makes it to #1 on the Billboard chart, you will make a LOT of money. These days, we also talk about releasing a “single” on Spotify, but this is not even in the same realm as a radio single. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars potentially for radio and hundreds of dollars for a Spotify single. “Singles” released to Spotify are using testing the waters to see how the public will respond to a new artist. But pro songwriters know this is NOT in the same ballpark as a radio single. With all of the new avenues open to new artists, it’s not uncommon to hear writers or artists talking about “my new single”. This typically means they are putting a song on iTunes or Spotify. It’s a great thing for any artist to have a new song out in the world, but that’s not what people in the music business mean when they talk about getting a “single”. You can’t make a living off of Spotify “singles”. You can make a great living from radio “singles”.
When we refer to a “cut”, we mean one of our songs has been recorded by an artist with national (or international) distribution. Sometimes we might bend the meaning for an artist that doesn’t have national distribution but DOES have a large following. Generally, a “cut” means a song has been recorded by someone with the potential to make us some money. A song on my buddy’s CD, for which he has no plans to pay me isn’t really a “cut” in the music business sense of the word. Many independent artists don’t pay the songwriters for the songs on their record – which is not cool. If they are making money from the album, the songwriters should be as well. Hold out for a “cut” that will make you money as well as the artist.
There you have it. If you want to play in the big leagues, it’s important to learn to talk the talk. Telling a publisher that you’ve had 50 “cuts” can be misleading if the publisher is thinking you have 50 songs recorded by major acts and you really have 50 songs recorded by independent artist friends of yours. That can be embarrassing for you and can cost you a relationship if the publisher thinks you are purposely misleading them. Use the words “pro”, “single” and “cut” the right way and you come across as knowing your stuff.