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If you are writing and creating music and you want to earn money from it, then you will need to understand music publishing.

In this post, I’ll explain how music publishing works, and provide the information and action steps you should take to start earning royalties from your music right now through publishing and licensing deals.

Here are some of the terms and questions you should know related to music publishing:

  • What is intellectual property?
  • Different types of copyrights
  • What is music publishing?
  • What’s a PRO?
  • What does a Music Publisher do?
  • Why have a Publisher?
  • Types of royalties
  • What percentage does a Music Publisher take from a song or album?
  • Does a Music Publisher own the copyright?
  • Types of publishing deals
  • What is music licensing?
  • Music publishing and getting your songs in film/TV/commercials

I will give some brief explanations so you can understand the basics of each point. This will help you get ready to start earning money with your music and boost your music career.

(Note: The Author is not an Attorney and no part of this article should be construed as legal advice. Always consult a qualified Attorney when you have questions pertaining to legal issues, such as ownership of a copyright.)

What Exactly Is Music Publishing?

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. A Publisher might be considered the owner and administrator of the copyrighted work. Most Songwriters form a publishing company to hold the rights to their work, or sign a deal with an established publishing company. Some do both.

A Music Publisher, or a publishing company, is responsible for ensuring the Songwriters and Composers receive payment when their compositions are used commercially. They also secure commissions for music and promote existing compositions to recording artists, film, and television.

Songwriters or Composers can form their own publishing company, and it’s not difficult to do so. It’s possible to own your publishing and also co-publish with other Publishers. One way or another, it’s important to have your music published if you intend to earn royalties from it through licensing deals or automatic royalty payments.

A note: if you ever get confused by any of the terms in this article, scroll down to the bottom of the piece. We’ve provided a glossary to commonly-used music publishing terms.

What Is Intellectual Property?

The U.S. Constitution states that protection of ownership for works of intellectual property should be provided for in the laws made by Congress. The writers of the Constitution sought to incentivize progress in science and “useful arts” for the good of society. The original laws made by Congress to this effect sought to protect inventions and creative works of art or authorship by providing for patents and copyrights, respectively.

Today, inventions are typically still covered by patents, while works of art or authorship are protected by copyrights. Both kinds of works are considered forms of intellectual property (I.P. for short) which qualify for protection under law. If you create a piece of music, this is a form of intellectual property in which value resides. When we commercialize IP, it means we are extracting value from it. Protecting IP from infringement (theft) requires documenting who created it, and when it was created. This is typically done through copyrights.

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Which Copyrights Apply to Music?

For a recorded work, there are actually two copyrights: one for the composition and one for the recording (the latter is often called the master rights). It’s important to understand that to qualify for protection, a work must be either written down or recorded, usually as audio or video.

For example, if I recite a poem or sing a song that 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” or compulsory copyright, and I can also get a more formal copyright (more on this below). If I choose to record the composition, then an additional copyright will apply to the recorded version of the song. Copyrights can also apply to a specific arrangement of a song.

Follow the Money

Understand that when we are talking about copyrights, or “rights” to a song or a recording, we are also talking about the money which will go to the owner if the work is sold or licensed, including from publishing. These payments, called royalties, can be in the form of licensing fees or automatic payments. Therefore, the words “rights” and “royalties” are sometimes used interchangeably.

Since much music is created in collaboration with others, it can get a bit complicated in determining who has the rights to what. In this case, the division of the rights will dictate how the royalties are split, so it’s super important to make sure formal agreements are in place. Artists working with a Producer might wish to share a part of the master (recording) royalties, but not the rights for composition.

If a musician is collaborating with a Lyricist, they might split the royalties for the composition, but not the recording. You can see how difficult it could be especially when there are many Songwriters and Producers working on a song. It’s advisable to draft a split sheet before making any recordings, so it’s clear in advance who is entitled to which portion of the rights (note here again that rights = royalties). If there is no split sheet or written agreement in place, the law provides that all contributors will receive an equal share in the proceeds.

What Is a Performing Rights Organization (PRO)?

In order to publish your music and earn royalties, you will also need to register your songs with a performing rights organization, or a PRO. There are important benefits to doing so. The most common ones in the U.S. are BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.), ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), and SESAC (Society of European Stage Authors and Composers).

As a member of SESAC, BMI, or ASCAP, you will have use of their blanket licenses, and they can collect your fees and pay you for use of your music globally. There are some differences between the PROs, so make sure to compare by reading the info on their websites, and talking to their member services teams.

What Does a Music Publisher Do?

Whether you decide to self-publish or seek a company to publish your music, the job of a Music Publisher is more than just registering and administering songs, compositions, and recordings. Music Publishers usually look for artists with a track record of sales and successful self-promotion in the industry, or who are signed to a label, so that they can assist with getting their music placed in advertising, visual media, or with other well-known performers.

The purpose of this is to generate revenues from the music that the artists wouldn’t have had otherwise. By growing interest in an artist and helping to sell and license the music for different uses, the Publisher can share in a stake of the money coming in and remain profitable. They should then use some of those profits to generate even more interest and sales for their signed artists, Writers, and Producers.

Music Publishers typically have relationships with Music Supervisors (individuals or businesses that work on behalf of advertising, film, or TV broadcast companies to actively secure music for their clients), record labels, A&R Representatives (Artist & Repertoire), Artist Managers, and others in the industry who are on the lookout for new music, and they can really help to promote you to those industry players. They are always on the lookout for great music, so if you have the goods and an audience to match, you could really benefit from a music publishing deal to get your career to the next level.

Why Have a Music Publisher?

In addition to what I’ve written above, a Publisher can be a great partner to you in developing your career in new directions. This is because their interest in growing your career opportunities and getting your music to be heard by new audiences is fully aligned with your own interest. A Music Publisher can do so much more than just collecting and paying you royalties.

They can manage your licensing arrangements, introduce you to potential co-writers who are also signed to their company, get your music in front of new up-and-coming artists who could have a hit with one of your songs, promote you at industry conferences, and more. A great publishing company can introduce you to labels, Artist Managers, and even help you get live gigs through their music industry network. Don’t underestimate the potential for a Music Publisher to add rocket fuel to your artist development formula.

What Are the Different Types of Royalties?

Money from your published works can come into your account in several ways. For example, you would be paid royalties for a composition or song you wrote any time someone uses it commercially. This might include advertising revenues from a YouTube video of another artist who covered your song, for example. You would receive money when a copy of the record is sold or the song is played on the radio.

Your original recording of the song can also generate royalties for the master (recording) rights, as mentioned previously. Often, these master rights could be owned by the record label, in full or in part, and also the Producer of the recording could have a stake, as determined by the pre-agreed-upon split. Master rights exist separately from the rights to the song or composition.

A mechanical license covers agreements with labels, distributors, and Publishers and usually stipulates a certain payment for each copy sold. A mechanical license is also required when recording a cover song for a release, even if the song is changed or adapted, or just a small fragment is used. Sometimes called just “mechanical,” it is a license for a song to be used in an audio format only, such as for streaming, a CD, digital downloads, or vinyl.

Then there are synchronization rights: when music is licensed to be synchronized with moving pictures in a movie, television program, video, DVD, cartoon, or video game. This applies to theme songs, source music (music heard playing from a radio in a movie, for example), and background music.

As you can see, there are a number of different ways rights holders can earn royalties for their musical works. A publishing company is adept at tracking, collecting, and distributing all these types of royalties from your music.

What Percentage Does a Music Publisher Take from a Song or Album?

The answer to this question will depend on the individual publishing agreement in place between the creator and the Publisher. As with any long-term contract agreement, it’s advisable to seek the advice of a qualified Entertainment or Music Attorney before signing anything. You absolutely must fully understand everything in the written agreement, or you should not sign.

The job of the Attorney is to represent your best interests, explain everything in the agreement to you, and make sure that the agreement is legal under applicable laws in the jurisdiction you are in. There are more than enough horror stories about musicians who signed away their life’s work and future income because they were fooled by an unscrupulous business person. This is not to say that all business people are fraudulent, but there are certainly enough of them to keep our courts system incredibly busy handling all the lawsuits. You want to be sure that your story isn’t going to be another one in the litany of terrible deals foisted on naïve artists.

In a typical publishing deal, the Music Publisher is usually paid 50% (the “Publisher’s share”) of all mechanical and residual income, which is income from mechanical and synchronization royalties. For your performance income, since those monies are collected by PROs, the Music Publisher usually gets only 25%.

These cuts or commissions are significant, but more so if you consider that your record label and distributor might also take a cut, and so will your Manager. The artist is usually the last person to get paid.

Types of Publishing Deals

Artists often enter into publishing deals where the Music Publisher acts as administrator, registering works, processing paperwork for synch licenses, and working with other collection entities to collect royalties and distribute these to the artist. Some of these deals might pay an advance to the artist, which the Publisher will recoup from the earnings stream. The Publisher’s share is negotiated in this case, and would usually be from 15% to 25%.

Co-publishing agreements are when the artist gives up a larger share of royalties and control in order to incentivize the publishing company to pitch Music Supervisors, labels, and popular artists. The company will also help develop the Writer’s professional career by setting up co-writes with other Songwriters and having the artist perform at industry showcases, in addition to handling all the administrative tasks. Co-publishing deals pay a cash advance, which will need to be recouped by the company before additional royalties are paid to the artist. This kind of an arrangement might allow a Writer to quit their day job to focus on writing full time.

Work-for-hire agreements are when creators offer to write and record material for other artists or companies for a flat fee. In this case, you would be signing away all future rights to a song, and might not be credited as the Composer, since whoever hired you would be listed as the Writer.

What Is Music Licensing?

Music licensing is when the Publisher or artist gives permission for someone else to use their musical work in a broadcast, re-creation, or performance. Music licenses can be based on a flat fee for a specific time period of use, on royalties from sales of physical copies, or on total revenues from distribution. Licensing is how your music can be authorized for use in everything from live shows to movies, advertising to videogames, theater productions to soundtracks.

How Publishing Relates to Getting Your Songs in Film/TV/Commercials

As we’ve seen, Music Publishers can play a crucial role in getting your music placed in all kinds of visual media, through their established connections with Music Supervisors, labels, A&Rs, other Writers, distributors, and performing rights organizations. Signing a publishing deal with a top company can lead to lucrative licensing deals and also help you to promote your career as a Writer and performer and get to the next level.

Like Managers and other industry players, publishing companies typically look for that intangible “something special” that makes an artist different and unique. They also want to see that an artist has commercial potential; that is, they will likely appeal to a broad audience. Before signing an artist, they look for “social proof” in the form of a sizable interactive online following, steady gigs, or paid performances, and they will want to see that an artist is fully committed to pursuing a sustainable music career.

Signing with a major publishing company can give credibility in the industry and lead to many other opportunities for artists. Alternatively, you can start your own publishing company. Either way, you will be able to retain control and ownership of your music while getting career support and access to a wider audience. Publishing your music is a key step to realizing your goals and dreams as you begin to generate earnings from the talent and the hard work you pour into your music.

Music Publishing Glossary

Here are some quick definitions of common terms which you may find helpful.

Publisher

A Publisher is considered the owner or the administrator of the copyrighted work. Most Songwriters form a publishing company to hold the rights to their work, or sign a deal with an established publishing company. Before recordings, most music was sold as printed sheet music, or on player piano rolls. Hence, the term “Publisher” is still in use today, though it’s perhaps an outdated term for our digital world.

Music Publishing

A Music Publisher (or publishing company) is responsible for ensuring that Songwriters and Composers receive payment when their compositions are used commercially. They also secure commissions for music and promote existing compositions to recording artists and to film and television.

Royalties

A sum of money paid to a patentee for the use of a patent or to an Author or Composer for each copy of a book sold or for each public performance of a work. (Note: sometimes also called “Residuals” because the value “resides” in the work.)

Performing Rights Organization (PRO)

Companies that represent artists’ performance rights for copyrighted musical works. The largest in the US include the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI), and the Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC). These companies use a blanket license to collect and distribute performance royalties to the copyright holders, usually based on a complex formula of how many times a song was played.

Intellectual Property

A work or invention that is the result of creativity, such as a manuscript or a design, to which one has rights and for which one may apply for a patent, copyright, trademark, etc.

Mechanical License

An agreement between a music user and the owner of a copyrighted composition that gives permission to release the song in an audio-only format (interactive audio streams, digital downloads, CDs, vinyl). This permission is sometimes referred to as “mechanical rights.”

Syndication

Music syndication is the license to use music in broadcast television programs, radio programs, movies, advertisements, videogames, or other visual media.

License

The agreement by which the copyright owner gives permission for someone else to use their musical work in a broadcast, re-creation, or performance. There are different kinds of licenses, which can be based either on a flat fee for a specific time period of use, on royalties based on unit sales of physical copies or tickets sold, or on total revenues resulting from distribution (more on this later). Some licensing agreements provide for additional royalty payments when a film in which the music is included earns above a predetermined threshold.

Licensee

The person or company to whom the work is licensed; the purchaser of the license.

Licensor

The owner of the copyright for the musical work, usually the artist, Songwriter, or Composer. The person or entity issuing the license.

Broadcast

The playing of live or recorded works, including radio; TV; webcasting; podcasting; streaming; etc., to multiple listeners in a setting such as a restaurant, nightclub, or retail store.

Performance

A public performance of a musical work, whether live or recorded. A performance could be an adaptation or changed version of a piece (e.g., a “cover”). Playing a music recording (tape, CD, streaming, etc.) in public is considered a “performance” of the piece, as is a song played on the radio. A license is required even if using only a small part of the song.

Synchronization Licensing (Sync License)

When music is licensed to be synchronized with moving pictures in a movie, television program, video, DVD, cartoon, or video game. This applies to theme songs, source music (music heard playing from a radio in a movie, for example), and background music.

Master Use Licensing

Relates to the use of a specific recording to be used in a movie as a soundtrack, or background music in a film.

Print Rights License

As the name implies, the print rights refer to printed copies of sheet music. It applies to printed sheet music compilations, and whenever printed copies of sheet music for a song are created or reproduced.

Theatrical License

Widely used in the theater industry, allows for an onstage performance of a song with an audience present.

Public Performance License

One of the most common types of music licenses, is used for any broadcast of an artist’s work. This includes concerts, but also music played in businesses or any place frequented by the public, such as a restaurant, bar, or store. Most public performance licenses are administered by performing rights organizations (PROs) such as BMI, SESAC, and ASCAP who collect music royalties and distribute to artists based on the number of plays of their songs.

FAQ

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!

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