If you aspire to earn income on your compositions, music publishing is one of the most important–and least understood–aspects of the music business. It’s how songwriters make the majority of their money, and how they’re able to earn royalties when their work is covered by another artist, synced for film or TV, broadcast on the radio (internet or terrestrial), or played in a live venue. Particularly if you’re an independent artist, having a good grasp on music publishing basics will ensure you know how to collect royalties and earn an income on your music when the time comes.
What is a music publisher?
Music publishers take co-ownership of an artist’s composition and subsequently assume the responsibility of earning income on it. In the case of compositions, royalties are typically split 50-50 between the songwriter and the publisher. The 50% royalty cut for a songwriter may also be divided amongst multiple parties if more than one person wrote the piece. Collected royalties, in this case, come from music licensing for the various purposes described above.
It’s important to make a distinction between Performing Rights Organizations like ASCAP and BMI and music publishers. PROs are not publishers; they simply help facilitate collection of performance royalties, which includes radio play, live venue play, and TV/commercial sync. PROs do not collect mechanical license royalties, which are most often purchased when an artist decides to cover or re-interpret someone else’s composition for their own use.
What does a music publisher do?
Interestingly enough, music publishing has existed since the European Renaissance some 500 years ago. The name “publisher” itself comes from the fact that, in its earliest form, music publishers literally printed copies of a composer’s sheet music for distribution, in the same way that a literary publisher prints books.
Early publishers collected all of the income earned from sheet music sales, took a 50% commission, and returned the other half to the composer. The publisher-artist relationship allowed composers to spend less time hustling their work and more time writing music. For creatives, the service was invaluable.
These days, publishers no longer print physical copies of sheet music, though their role is still as essential as it was 500 years before. Publishers make themselves desirable by providing an important service to songwriters. They may help promote an artist’s work and offer potential connections for royalty-earning licenses. Ultimately, music publishers help songwriters make money on their work for a 50% cut of any revenue generated.
Music Publishing in Record Contracts
When an artist signs a standard contract with a record label, publishing rights are automatically assigned to the label. In this case, an artist’s record label functions both as publisher and distributor. Labels will often offer music for placement in film and television, subsequently collecting 50% of those earned royalties.
Today, the three major labels in the industry–Warner Bros., Sony, and Universal–are all owned by a larger parent company. Because of this, a company like Universal Pictures will typically only license music from publishers owned by their parent company. So, artists signed to Universal Music or an affiliated label have a much greater chance of their music being licensed for use in a Universal movie.
Standalone Music Publishing
If a songwriter doesn’t plan to perform his/her work as an artist, and instead prefers to ghost-write for performers, the writer doesn’t need to sign a standard record contract. The songwriter would instead sign a contract with a record label’s publishing department. These types of publishing deals offer a songwriter the most freedom. Since they’re not releasing albums under one name, a writer with a standalone music publishing deal can work with as many artists as they can and earn income on each of those various releases.
This type of deal is a simple agreement between the writer and the publisher. The publisher will assign the songwriter to certain artists or projects and keep 50% of the writer’s royalties.
It’s possible for a songwriter to act as their own publisher, as well. If an artist never signs a contract, they retain 100% of their publishing rights, which is obviously an ideal move. However, an artist working independently may miss opportunities for promotion and licensing that a publishing company can offer. On the other hand, the artist retains complete control over their compositions and ultimately their career by not getting involved with “middlemen.”
It’s difficult to determine whether self-publishing or working with a traditional publisher is the best move. Of course, there are many, many ways to distribute music independently, which favors the self-publishing route. Again, however, the songwriter is missing out on a publisher’s ability to leverage more licensing opportunities at a higher rate.
For songwriters who haven’t started much of a “buzz” on their own, teaming up with a publisher may be the most beneficial career move. For the independently minded artist, you may earn less on your compositions overall, but you will retain 100% of your royalties.
Music Publishing Summarized
As we’ve discussed, publishers co-own a songwriter’s composition(s) in exchange for collecting income on it. Historically, music publishers printed and distributed a composer’s sheet music. The publisher kept 50% of the commission and returned the other half to the composer. Because the artist didn’t have to sling his/her own work, more time could be spent on making music rather than selling it.
Today, publishers still take 50% of any royalties collected. Royalties are earned from a variety of different music licenses, all of which publishers have the clout to earn for the artist. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship which allows artists to focus on their work, letting a publisher chase after and return any income.
In a record contract, publishing is signed over to the record label itself. Standalone publishing deals are agreements between writers and a label’s publishing department, allowing songwriters to ghost-write for a number of artists without signing a traditional record contract. It’s also possible to retain 100% publishing rights by never signing a contract and operating independently.
Whichever route presents itself, having a fundamental knowledge of music publishing is crucial for anyone planning to make an income on their compositions!