How to Start a Music Publishing Company
(Disclaimer: The author of this article is not an Attorney; the information contained herein should not be taken as legal advice. For specific legal questions, always consult with a trusted and qualified Music Attorney.)
Professional musicians, Composers, Songwriters, Arrangers, and Producers all face the same issues and challenges in getting their music out to the general public, and getting paid for the use of their music through licensing and publishing deals. While the issues surrounding monetizing intellectual property are indeed myriad and complex, the solutions don’t necessarily have to be. Whether a newcomer to the music business or a veteran, we all need to carefully research the best solutions for ourselves and learn the ins and outs of how to get paid through publishing and licensing our music. There are some things you must know, and you may also need to consult with other professionals with direct experience, such as a good Music Lawyer and Accountant. The solution is usually to either start your own publishing company or depend on someone else’s company. You could also do both these things.
In our discussion of how to start a music publishing company, we’ll cover:
- How intellectual property is protected
- Naming your music publishing company
- Registering your publishing company name
- Structuring your music publishing business
- Choosing your prganization
- Advancing your career in music publishing
The costs are not high to start your own company, however, there are some steps needed to get to the point when you are ready. This article will outline those steps for you as clearly and directly as possible.
How Intellectual Property Is Protected
The founding fathers wrote into the U.S. Constitution that protection of ownership for works of intellectual property should be provided for in the laws made by Congress. Their goal was to incentivize progress in science and “useful arts” for the good of society. The original laws made by the Congress to this effect sought to protect inventions and creative works of art or authorship by providing for patents and copyrights, respectively. Nowadays, inventions are typically still covered by patents, while works of art or authorship are protected using copyrights. The last time the laws on copyrights had any meaningful updates was in 1987. A lot has changed since then.
For a written or recorded work, there are actually two licenses: one for the composition and one for the recording (the latter is often called “mechanical”). It’s important to understand that to qualify for protection, a work must be either written down or recorded by some means, usually audio or video. For example, if I recite a poem or sing a song I made up out of my head, and that’s the only place it exists, it will not qualify for protection under copyright. If I write it down, the composition is automatically protected by a “simple” license, and I can also get a more formal copyright to prove when I wrote it, and that it was written by me. If I choose to record the composition, then an additional copyright will apply to the recorded version of the song.
When we use the term “music publishing” we are referring to the structure of ownership along with the process by which it is protected, licensed, distributed, or otherwise sold. There are some exceptions to the protections provided by copyright, such as “fair use” and “de minimis,” but explaining these go beyond the scope of this article.
Let’s Get Started
Assuming you have a song or collection of songs already composed, written down, and maybe recorded, you will definitely want to take steps to protect your intellectual property. There really shouldn’t be any doubt this is a prudent and wise business decision. So where should you actually begin? You will need to do a little research on the types of business entities available, and the performing rights organizations (PROs) you might consider joining up with. The basic steps are as follows:
- Form your business entity.
- Open a business bank account.
- Register with a PRO.
a. Find or invent a name
b. File for a d.b.a. (a.k.a. business certificate “doing business as”)
c. Consider various business structures, i.e. LLC, LLP, C-Corporation, etc.
While this might seem simple at first look, there’s some complexity to the decisions that need to be made each step of the way. In the next sections, I will explain some of the considerations in more detail for each of these steps.
Assuming you have a song or collection of songs already composed, written down, and maybe recorded, you will definitely want to take steps to protect your intellectual property. There really shouldn’t be any doubt this is a prudent and wise business decision.
Naming Your Music Publishing Company
Perhaps the most important, and most difficult aspect of starting any business is settling on an appropriate name. Let me rephrase that: we need to find the perfect name. The name of your business is the one thing you’d like people to remember. If they don’t remember your name, how will they ever find you? It’s not as easy as one might think to come up with a good name that will stick in the memory of your prospects. For one thing, most good names are already taken.
At this point you may ask, couldn’t I just use my own name? While this may work for the artist part of your business, it isn’t such a great idea for a publishing company to use the name of the owner. Since the nature of publishing is often collaborative, having your name front and center could hurt the potential for co-publishing deals, as other Writers collaborating with you on songs or productions might be turned off. There are other reasons why you may not prefer to use your name for the name of your publishing company; for example, it may not be particularly memorable. You might also want to separate your personal life from your business life for privacy reasons.
Once you start playing around with words and finding names you think might work, you are likely to find all the good names are already in use. One tried and true solution is to make up a word not already in existence. Companies like Kleenex, Verizon, Comcast, and Xerox are examples of companies that chose this option. A friend of mine called his publishing company DooDa Music. Use of acronyms is not generally recommended, although companies such as IBM and AT&T have taken this approach. The issue with acronyms is people forget what they stand for – do you instantly recall that IBM stands for International Business Machines?
There are branding professionals who will name your company for you and create all your image identity materials (logo, website landing page, business cards, etc.) but they can be quite expensive, charging into the many thousands. With some effort, research, and creativity, you should be able to come up with a name for your company on your own. Show it around to friends to get their impressions. One pro tip is if the domain is available as a dot com, the name will likely be available for business use since almost everyone in business has a website these days.
Registering Your Publishing Company Name
This is actually quite easy. You will need to file as a d.b.a. which stands for “doing business as.” To do this, you will download a blank business certificate form from the web, or you can get one at any office supply store. This is a one-page form where you will write your name and address, and a brief description of your intended business activities (music publishing, music services, etc.) and sign in the presence of a notary public. (Pro tip: never pay for a notary, because your bank or a school can provide this service for free.) A notary will check your identification and compare your signature, to confirm for legal purposes you are who you say you are, and actually the person signing the form. Then they put a stamp on the signature. That’s it.
After you filled out the form, and with the notary stamp in place, then you can go to the clerk of the county or city court office to register your business. They will do a final check to make sure nobody else is using the same name for a similar kind of business in your area, and then you pay a one-time small fee to register your business with the court. It varies by county and city, but typically the fee is between $30 to $60 to file the business registration with the clerk of the court.
There are several reasons why it is important to file. The first is you will need the business certificate to open a business banking account. You need the business banking account to separate your business and personal finances, which will make your accounting and tax obligations easier to fulfill. Having your business registered will also protect your own use of the name. You can stop others from using your name or similar names that could be confusing to the public, and you can protect your own use of the name if you are ever challenged on it. Finally, you need a business banking account to join a performing rights organization. They require you to have a business account for payment of royalties. It’s as simple as that.
Structuring Your Music Publishing Business
At this point, you are what is known as a sole proprietor. This means you are the only owner of your business. I’ll put it another way: You ARE your business. Registering as a d.b.a. protects your chosen name and allows you to have a business banking account. (I’m not going to cover business banking here, as that is a topic in its own right and beyond the space I’m allotted here.) Some sole proprietors go one extra step and register their company with the state as a limited liability company (LLC). This offers a “corporate veil” which protects personal assets from liability from lawsuits, for example. It’s also possible to purchase business liability insurance, which may be cheaper than forming an LLC. There might be some other benefits to incorporation with the state, such as the ability to issue shares of stock to investors. To start out with publishing your music, for most people a d.b.a. will be sufficient.
Your publishing is the mechanism by which you will be able to get paid for the use of your music, whether from syndication (licensing), performances, sales of recordings, streaming, or any other use of your music. It’s also a way for you to be taken more seriously as a Composer, Songwriter, performer, or Producer.
Choosing Your Organization
Now you have decided on a name, registered as a business, and opened a business banking account, the final step is to affiliate with (join) a performing rights organization. The three main ones are ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers), BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.), and SESAC (Society of European Stage Authors and Composers). To do this, you pay a membership fee and submit a catalog of your musical works for them to track usage and pay you the royalties they collect on your behalf. Each PRO has their own methods and history, so you should research them thoroughly before making a decision. The best way is to contact each one directly, speak with a Membership Associate, gather information, read blogs or articles, and get the best understanding of each as to how they work, their specific requirements, benefits, and costs.
Advancing Your Career in Music Publishing
As I mentioned above, you now have your own “cash register” in your shop for music compositions, songs, arrangements, and productions. Your publishing is the mechanism by which you will be able to get paid for the use of your music, whether from syndication (licensing), performances, sales of recordings, streaming, or any other use of your music. It’s also a way for you to be taken more seriously as a Composer, Songwriter, performer, or Producer. When the business market sees you own your own publishing, it encourages them to view you as a more credible artist-entrepreneur. It shows you are taking charge of your destiny. You will, of course, still need to actively market and sell (license) your work. That is another whole can of worms, and there are many potential paths to the goal of generating income from your published works.
For example, there are individuals in the music industry called Music Supervisors whose job it is to match visual media content with music. They work for the Producers of films, television shows, advertising, and radio, and serve clients with very specific needs, budgets, and timelines. It’s a challenging job, and there are ways you can package and present your music to help them succeed, hopefully by suggesting your music to their clients. There are even websites such as marmoset.com where you can post your music and an algorithm will match your music to videos needing music, based on style and intensity variations. Building and leveraging professional networks will be crucial to getting placements for your music in syndicated programming.
Having your publishing in place means you will be taken more seriously as a Writer and Producer. It’s not too difficult or expensive to do, and for these reasons, I typically recommend to young musicians and Writers to get it done. Think carefully about all the aspects involved, and learn as much as you can through self-directed research, so you understand the decisions you are making and why you are making them. Owning your own music publishing company is one milestone on the path to success for Composers, Arrangers, Songwriters, and Music Producers.
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