If you’re an artist or songwriter, you’re probably aware of the importance of publishing your music in order to be compensated for what you create! 

Music publishing is a complex system and this is certainly not an exhaustive lesson on all of the details of music publishing. BUT we made this resource to help you begin to better understand the various components of music publishing.

Whether you’re looking to self-publish your first single or looking to get a publishing deal, this guide is intended to help you better understand what music publishing entails and what steps you can take to protect and be compensated for your music.

What is Music Publishing?

Before talking about how to have your songs published or how to get a publishing deal, it’s important that we define what music publishing actually is. 

Music publishing itself refers to how musical compositions are promoted and monetized. Music publishers, then, exploit your songs in exchange for part ownership of the songs written. They are responsible for creating opportunities for songwriters to have their compositions performed and reproduced, while also ensuring that songwriters receive royalties for their songs. 

Music publishing is a fairly complex system, with lots of changes over time and many moving parts and players.

That being said, before jumping into how to self-publish or get a publishing deal, let’s discuss some publishing basics. 

Music Copyrights

There are two types of rights for a song: the composition and the master. 

The composition includes the lyrics, melody, and music of a song. If a song has multiple writers, the composition rights are split either manually or evenly between writers. For example, if there were two writers on a song, an even split would entail that each would own 50% of the composition rights. A manual split, which is typically less common, would include an uneven split of the rights- 60/40, 70/30, etc. 

The master refers to the sound recording of a song. The people who own the rights to the composition may also own the rights to the master. However, the recording rights typically go toward whoever is financing a song. So, for artists who are signed to a label, the label or producer typically has the master rights. 

An example to help you understand the distinction between the two is that when someone does a cover of a song, they own the rights to that sound recording, but NOT the composition with approval from the original artists.

Royalties

In exchange for the licensed use of one’s music, institutions pay royalties out to those who possess the rights to a song, whether for the composition or the master. As explained above, rights holders can include songwriters, producers, artists, representatives, labels, etc. The institutions that pay royalties can include radio stations, TV channels, streaming services, etc.

There are six dominant types of royalties: streaming royalties, neighboring rights and royalties, digital performance royalties, sync licensing fees, public performance royalties, and mechanical royalties. 

We could write an entire separate blog explaining what each of these entail, so for now, simply be aware that there are various different royalties someone can receive!

Performance Rights Organizations

Other important players for writers to know about are Performance Rights Organizations (PROs). 

PROs help artists and artists, songwriters, and composers collect performance royalties. 

These royalties are collected by PROs when a song with a specific copyrighted composition is played in a commercial environment. This includes when a composition is played at concerts, on the radio, television, or other digital outlets. 

There are three primary PROs: 

  1. ASCAP 
  2. BMI 
  3. SESAC

Whether you have a publisher or are self-published, being registered with a PRO is crucial. Each of these PROs have slight differences, so be sure to do your research before deciding which one to go with.

Performance Rights Organizations

Other important players for writers to know about are Performance Rights Organizations (PROs). 

PROs help artists and artists, songwriters, and composers collect performance royalties. 

These royalties are collected by PROs when a song with a specific copyrighted composition is played in a commercial environment. This includes when a composition is played at concerts, on the radio, television, or other digital outlets. 

There are three primary PROs: 

  1. ASCAP 
  2. BMI 
  3. SESAC

Whether you have a publisher or are self-published, being registered with a PRO is crucial. Each of these PROs have slight differences, so be sure to do your research before deciding which one to go with.

In short, music publishing is really all about songwriters and copyrights. When music is used commercially (whether sold, licensed, or publicly performed), the songwriter and copyright owner is owed royalties. A music publishing company can offer multiple services for songwriters. As a ‘publishing administrator’, they administer the copyright – protecting the use of songs as well as collecting royalties owed from use. On the creative side, some music publishers focus on the use and exploitation of the copyrights they administer by securing opportunities in the form of ‘sync licenses’ for film, TV, ads, video games, etc. Additionally, these creative teams play an active role in setting up co-writes and pitching songs to artists and labels to be recorded for the first time.

Self – Publishing

If an artist wants to collect royalties for the use of a song, they have two primary options: self-publishing or finding a publisher. 

Most artists releasing a song or project are their own first publisher. 

Overall, the main advantage of self-publishing is having more control. Self-publishing also allows you to retain more money percentage-wise. This is because if you self-publish a song, you do not have to split your share with a publisher. However, having a publisher may help you share your music across a wider network of people, meaning that having a publisher ultimately could lead to a larger financial gain.

If you choose to self-publish, here are some important steps to follow:

 

1. File copyright

When you are sure that there are no more changes to be made to your song, and before pitching it to artists or publishing companies, it is important to file copyright for your song with the federal government. This is important because if you do pitch your song to someone and later on a song that sounds a little too much like the song you pitched comes out by the same artist or publishing company you can sue for infringement. 

2. Register with a PRO 

Registering with a PRO is important for any songwriter, not just those who are self-publishing. PROs are how writers and publishers get paid for the public performance of their music, this is where they get their royalties from. If self-publishing it is important for a songwriter to register with a PRO as both the songwriter and the publisher so that all the royalties will be paid to the songwriter! It’s also important to know which PRO is the right choice for you. ASCAP requires a $50 one-time fee for songwriters and $50 one-time fee for publishers, whereas BMI does not require fees for songwriters but requires a $150 fee for individual publishers. SESAC also does not have a fee but is very difficult to register for as it is an invitation-only PRO.  

3. Register with SoundExchange – particularly important for artists 

SoundExchange collects digital performance royalties for recording artists and master rights owners. These digital performance royalties come from non-interactive webcasters like Pandora, satellite and cable TV, and satellite radio services. 

4. Use a platform such as CD Baby, TuneCore, Distrokid,  or Amazon to distribute

 

Pros and Cons of Self-Publishing 

Self-publishing is great for beginner songwriters who likely will not be approached by publishing companies. However, there are pros and cons to self-publishing that you should be aware of. 

A benefit of self-publishing is that you as a songwriter will have full ownership of their songs, which would not be the case if having a publishing deal. This means they are able to decide who uses their songs and who they pitch it to. When you self-publish, you also receive all earned royalties instead of having to split them with a publisher! Lastly, there is no contract involved with self-publishing – and contracts can be difficult to get out of. 

A con of self-publishing, however, is that publishing can be expensive and some writers will not be able to support themselves financially this way. Publishing companies are also able to cover demo costs and promotion costs and have more connections to other writers and producers in the industry than most beginner songwriters.

Publishing Deals

Publishers provide a variety of services to their writers. First and foremost, they ensure that a writer and their music are properly registered to be able to receive all of their royalties. Publishers also help to promote their songwriters and set up co-writes for their songwriters. 

One misconception about publishing deals is that it is one of the first steps after writing a song. Realistically, getting a publishing deal is closer to step ten. If you are looking for a publishing deal as a signed writer, you have to write a TON of songs. A publishing deal is the by-product of writing lots and lots of high quality songs. 

Another misconception is that in publishing deals, you sell your songs. This isn’t quite correct. 

In publishing deals, writer’s essentially give up a portion of their copyright in exchange for someone working as their publisher. Typically, publishers get 50% of the copyrights. 

So, if you wrote a song by yourself, for example, you and your publisher would each get 50% of the copyright. If you co-wrote a song with one other writer, you and the other writer would each have 25% ownership and the publisher would still have 50%. 

If you are established enough in your career, you may be able to negotiate a co-publishing deal where you are able to maintain more of the rights to your music and your publisher has less than 50%. However, these can be difficult to find and hard to negotiate. 

Keep in mind, though, that the goal of a publisher is to help you both find great opportunities and make money. That being said, publishers may be able to help you get cuts with artists with a larger following than you would be able to get on your own. 

How To Get a Publishing Deal

As we said, publishing deals can be difficult to obtain, but if your goal is to get signed to a publisher, here are some crucial steps to take!

  • Write and Write A LOT 

If you want to show that you are a serious writer, your catalogue should serve as evidence. Also be sure to be documenting the songs you write on a platform such as Song Space, Dropbox, or Google Drive with lyrics, your date of creation, a demo or worktape, and all writers listed. 

  • Co-write! 

One of the best decisions a writer can make is to co-write. Co-writing has numerous benefits. It can help you to grow your catalogue, it grows your ability to work with others, and can also help you be noticed by publishers. The more often you co-write with songwriters that are signed with publishers, the more likely it is that publishers are going to begin to take note of you as a songwriter. If you want to prove that you’re a writer, having a catalogue of about 50 songs is a great way to start. Furthermore, publishers are attentive to if you are getting cuts with other artists. 

  • Do Your Research 

Become familiar with publishers and writers you are interested in! If you get the chance to meet with a publisher, it’s important to show your care and that you have put in the time and energy to understand who they are and what they’re all about.

  • Form a Relationship First

Don’t blindly send your songs to a publisher! More often than not, this does more harm than good. Many music companies have policies that will state “no unsolicited material”, and will not listen to songs you send them if they have not previously asked. This is in order to avoid being sued. 

If you are at a point in your career where having a publisher makes sense, relationships with publishers will likely form naturally as you work with other artists with teams behind them or actively perform at shows or writer’s rounds. 

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