The May 2013 Publishers Quarterly: Unknown Songwriter Cathy Heller Writes Her Own Checks

In the year prior to the April 30 release of her debut full-length album, Cathy Heller took home more than $100,000 from synch licenses of her songs. The rest of her ledger sheet was almost all goose eggs-little income from download sales, no gigs or sessions--and almost equally blank were the costs of doing business. Heller self-publishes her music; works without a manager, agent or publicist; and pays her producer by giving him a share of her publishing.

By her count, 28 of her songs were used in films, TV shows and commercials in 2012, the biggest payday coming in an ad for Hasbro's "Words With Friends" board game. The spot used "We're Good Together," which has since been placed four more times elsewhere. While that placement started with a mid-five-figure payment, other songs have been licensed for as little as $1,500.

"It's a long-haul vision," says Heller, 33, an ASCAP writer who owns her masters and usually insists that any use be nonexclusive. "The big picture is about making music and not about paying the rent."

Heller, due to give birth to her second child in July, moved to Los Angeles from Florida nine years ago to pursue a music career. She went the conventional route, attracting interest from major labels and publishers, and went deep in discussions about writing music for a "Fraggle Rock" movie. As Heller was doing this, she observed the career Ingrid Michaelson was carving out, licensing songs and remaining independent.

"Keeping your integrity, making a good living and not worrying about being something that others want you to be--that became my model," says Heller, who got her first taste of a synch license payoff in 2007. "I'm an idealist."

Beginning in 2011 after she launched Cathy Heller Music, she created a working system for herself. First, she forced herself to write, sometimes working with another writer, and record one song per week with producer Bill Lefler (Michaelson, Cary Brothers, Patrick Stump). She kept track of TV shows that used music similar to hers and began cold-calling music supervisors with the offer of music and/or performances in their offices. In 2011 and early 2012, she did 26 showcases in supervisors' offices. The first payoff came in late 2011 when Frankie Pine paid $8,000 for Heller's "Count on Me" to be used in ABC's "Body of Proof."

"Cathy's music has a hopeful sense about it," Pine says. "As an audience member you want to root for the characters you have been following and her music helps you do that."

A key for her music, Heller says, is melodic accessibility, conversationality and sincerity in the lyrics and remaining subtle and broad. "Bill helps me find a way to make things sound homemade and yet commercial," she says.

Heller has recorded more than 85 songs--10 this year since the completion of the album "Breaking Free"--and now spends three hours a day, four days a week pitching to about 65 music supervisors. Her success has been widespread: No supervisor has used more than two of her songs in a project. "Gotta Make a Change," which appears on the album, is being used in a Special K ad and will also be in an upcoming episode of ABC's "How to Live With Your Parents (For the Rest of Your Life)."

"When I started, I didn't think about whether I needed a publisher or a publicist or someone to do this work," she says. "If a person is genuine and talented and loves what they do and is persistent, that's the mixture for success for anybody."