Music Publishing: Everything You Need to Know - Careers in Music
Start Here:

What are you most interested in? arrow pointing down

Get Started
songwriter playing a songmusic producer at work stationrock star performing on stagetour manager making phone callmusic teacher with studentmusic therapy session
songwriter playing a songmusic producer at work stationrock star performing on stagetour manager making phone callmusic teacher with studentmusic therapy session

Creating music is hard, getting people to hear it is even tougher, and becoming a chart-topper and making a living with art is nearly impossible. Yet there are still a lot of people who manage to do just that.

While major players in the industry get paid huge sums to play concerts and endorse brands, one of the most lucrative arenas in music is publishing.

It may be where most artists earn the bulk of their income, but it is also one of the least understood facets of the business, and it can be rather confusing, even for those who are receiving checks.

There is so much to learn if one wants to become a music publishing expert, and it can take days of reading up on the topic, speaking to those who work at Music Publishers, and even negotiating contracts to really be in the know.

But there is a certain amount that must be understood from the get-go. If anyone is looking to make money from music and perhaps even turn the passion into a career, grasping the basics of music publishing is an absolute must.

Here’s everything you need to know about how music publishing works if you’re just getting started in this world:

  • What is music publishing?
  • Musical copyrights
  • The difference between compositions and sound recordings
  • How is money made?
  • Mechanical royalties
  • Performance royalties
  • Other royalties
  • How is money collected?
  • Performance rights organizations

What are you most afraid of that is holding you back?

What Is Music Publishing?

This is a question that can be explained in a few sentences, or in a 5,000-word-long essay. Let’s start with the former.

Music publishing is, essentially, the management of music copyrights in any commercial manner. The entire field is based on taking creative works, in this case, songs, and finding ways to use them commercially. It is also about ensuring that when songs are used in some way and money is owed, it’s properly accounted for, collected, and dispensed to copyright owners in a timely manner.

The definition makes it seem fairly simple, and at its heart, music publishing is easy to understand. It’s one person writing a song, and another using it in a movie, playing it at a bar, or streaming it on Spotify. Then, a company tracks all that usage, collects the money owed for using that tune, and pays the creator.

Diving into the subject is when it quickly becomes a bit more confusing, but it can all be understood with a bit of time and patience.

Musical Copyrights

It all begins with the art itself. When someone sits down and writes a song, they own that copyright immediately, as long as they can prove they came up with it first. If it was penned by one person, they own it outright, but if it was a collaboration between several artists, they all can claim ownership, and it must be figured out how much each person put in (as it’s not always equal).

When a musician goes into a studio and records that song, things get a bit more complicated. If they pay for that time and the services themselves, everything belongs to them. If it’s funded by a record label, one of the copyrights goes to the company. I’ll dive into that more just below.

While it’s true that the minute a person puts pen to paper or their voice to a memo in their phone, they own that creation, it’s best to take the time to actually register copyrights properly.

There’s a process that takes place with a government agency that allows anyone to register a copyright for intellectual property (something original a person created), which is much easier to prove in a court of law, should there ever be any arguments about ownership or theft. This article explains how to do this.

The Difference Between Compositions and Sound Recordings

There are two different types of musical copyrights. Music publishing deals with both and it’s imperative that every musician understands that they are and the difference between them.

The composition is the music and the lyrics, and that can be copyrighted separately. If a musician writes a song and puts it to music, either on paper or in any other form, they can claim ownership over that creation, as long as it’s original.

The sound recording copyright is connected, but different. When a band goes into a studio and puts instruments and their voice together and makes that composition come alive, that’s a sound recording, and that can be copyrighted and owned as well. This is what is typically controlled by a record label, as those companies often foot the bill for larger acts to make music.

If a song is covered in any way, that constitutes a different sound recording, and it is one that can also be owned as well, but by different parties.

Here’s an example of how this all works:

Leonard Cohen wrote the song “Hallelujah” in 1984. He was responsible for the composition of that track. When it’s covered by another act, such as Jeff Buckley or Rufus Wainwright, both of whom have found major success in doing so, Cohen still controlled the composition, since it’s his words, but those newer acts (or their labels) own the sound recording, since they’re new.

How Is Money Made?

Music publishing is all about the money, and there is certainly a lot of it in this field. The cash made from publishing is referred to as a royalty, and there are two main forms—mechanical and performance royalties—as well as a few others—licenses for synchronization, licenses for sampling and printing rights for sheet music—that can still be lucrative, but which don’t make up the bulk of revenue.

Mechanical Royalties

Mechanical royalties are perhaps the most important of all royalties, and they are oddly rooted in old-school music industry practices (though the business has caught up in many ways). The idea is that every time a composition written by one musician is copied (or reproduced), that artist is owed a mechanical royalty. That means whenever a track is pressed onto a new CD, purchased from a store like iTunes, or even streamed (though that comes with a different rate).

Performance Royalties

This form of royalty deals with whenever people actually hear a composition. There are countless examples of performance royalties being generated, such as when compositions are spun on radio (either traditional or satellite, like SiriusXM), streamed on platforms like Spotify or Apple Music (yes, this appears twice), performed at a venue, or even used in a commercial or movie.

Anyone who benefits from using that composition—Spotify, the local radio station, the TV network, etc.—all owe a performance royalty when they’ve broadcast the track in some form.

Other Royalties

While both mechanical and performance royalties are where any musician will likely make the lion’s share of their money when it comes to music publishing, there are other ways to monetize (or exploit, which is the proper lingo) a composition or sound recording to bring in more cash.

Syncs are when tunes are used in visual media, like a movie, TV show or video game. They can be very valuable to musicians, and sometimes companies will pay top dollar for a hit that works perfectly in a new film or in the pivotal scene in a program. Whenever a song is synced and used, a royalty is paid to both the owner of the composition and the sound recording, making it a real moneymaker.

Sampling has become incredibly popular over the years, and it’s now common to hear snippets of other tracks, perhaps hits, in new releases. A musician must secure the right to do this when composing a new piece, and when it’s performed (streamed, played on radio, etc.), a royalty is generated for both the Songwriters and the owner of the recording actually being sampled.

That is, unless only the lyrics are being utilized in a new fashion, in which case only the composition copyright owned gets a payday.

Composers and Songwriters also receive money when sheet music of their work is printed, though that’s not as common today as it once was.

How Is Money Collected?

Music publishing companies are the ones who will typically help their clients get syncs in major media and collect mechanical royalties. That firm takes a cut of that money, sometimes up to half, because it can be complicated tracking down all the times a song was streamed or a TV show episode featuring a tune was played in reruns.

Performance royalties are collected by performance rights organizations, or PROs, and here’s a bit more on those groups.

Performance Rights Organizations

Usually referred to simply as PROs, these organizations are the ones responsible for collecting a royalty anytime a sound recording from one of their clients is played on satellite radio, traditional radio, used in a commercial, aired on TV or even played in a music venue.

There are three major PROs in the U.S. which a majority of well-known figures (and smaller bands) work with, and they are ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. There are benefits and drawbacks to each one, and it’s up to each and every musician to decide which works best for them.

Reviewing How Music Publishing Works

So now that a lot of names and technical terms have been thrown out there, let’s recap on how music publishing actually works.

A Songwriter and musician create an original piece, and then they record it. That artist then copyrights the lyrics and music, as well as the actual recording, if they’re smart. Once that track is out in the world, radio stations begin playing it, fans stream it, diehard followers buy it and it finds its way into movies and TV.

Publishing companies and PROs then track its use, employing a variety of means, and collect both mechanical and performance royalties from those who benefited from using the music. Then, after taking their cut, that money is eventually paid to the original creators.


How do I register the publishing company?

Alison Stolpa (Careers in Music Staff)

To register your music publishing company, you first need to set yourself up as a business in your home state by registering with the Secretary of State. You can set up as a sole proprietorship, partnership, or corporation. Next, you need to submit your application as a Music Publisher to BMI or ASCAP. Once accepted, they’ll walk you through their registration process!

Site Search
We use cookies to understand how you use our site and to improve your experience. This includes personalizing content and advertising. By continuing to use our site, you accept our use of cookies, revised Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.