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Everything You Need to Know About Music Publishing Deals

Everything You Need to Know About Music Publishing Deals
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Being a musician or a songwriter is one of the most creative paths one can take in their life. However, being a professional musician involves a lot more than just creative work; it means getting to know the basics of copyright laws, knowing how to read and interpret convoluted contracts, figuring out how record deals work, and familiarizing yourself with notions like mechanical licenses or performance licenses. It also involves knowing the ins and outs of music publishing and how it works - and this is one of the most crucial aspects of a musician’s work. 

This is how musicians and songwriters get the proper credit for their work, in the form of royalties. Of course, if you have an agent or music publisher already representing you, it goes without saying that you will be trusting them with taking care of all the relevant arrangements for you. However, there have been countless infamous lawsuits between artists and their agents or publishers, so it’s important to know at least the basics of these things to avoid getting ripped off, or scammed, by the sharks in the business, as they say. 

What is music publishing? 

The mechanism of music publishing can be challenging to grasp, even for people already operating in the industry, because there are so many factors at play and so much legality involved. Music publishing, in a nutshell, is the process of promoting and monetizing music, or musical compositions. Publishers are the entities in charge of making sure that songwriters get credit and royalties for their compositions. 

The business of music publishing has been around for many years, well before streaming platforms or even record players were invented. Back then, publishers took care of producing song books or sheet music, distributing them to stores and clients, and then properly compensating the songwriters for their works. Nowadays, publishers continue to represent artists in the music industry, like lyricists, composers, and songwriters, making sure they are compensated for the commercial use of their intellectual property. 

How does it work? Songwriters sign a publishing agreement with a music publisher company, assigning them the copyright to their work. The publisher will then work on behalf of the artist to distribute relevant licensing, monitor the fair use of the songwriters’ work, and collect and distribute royalties. The agreement can also state that the publisher will work to promote existing compositions on behalf of an artist, to film and television or other artists. 

What does a music publisher do?

A music publishing company is responsible for ensuring that songwriters they’ve signed with receive the proper royalties for their copyrighted work. Whenever a musical composition is used for a commercial purpose, on television, the radio, a cover song, or a live venue, the songwriter has to receive royalties, and that’s where the publisher comes in. 

Here’s where it’s important to note the types of copyrights that exist in the music industry, and the licenses required for each type:

  • Mechanical licenses - are required whenever someone uses the actual recording of a song; mechanical royalties are generated through digital streams, downloads, or sales of physical copies of a song (vinyl, CD);
  • Performance licenses - are required whenever a song is performed for the public, in a venue, on a live stage, on the radio, or television; performance royalties are consequently generated from live public performances of a song;
  • Synchronization licenses - required whenever a song is broadcast accompanied by visual media, namely through adverts and commercials, movies, video games, and so on. 

Mechanical royalties are distributed to songwriters through record labels, through agencies like Harry Fox. Performance royalties are distributed through PROs, or performance rights organizations, like ASCAP, SESAC, or BMI. Synchronization royalties are handled through a music publisher. 

So, while it’s important that, as an artist, you register your musical compositions with ASCAP or BMI, which work to collect and distribute royalties on your behalf, it’s not enough. You should also find a dedicated, trustworthy, professional publisher to represent you and make sure that all your royalties are collected. At the same time, PROs like ASCAP don’t grant licenses or distribute royalties directly to individual artists; instead, they do it through music publishing companies. 

The three types of music publishing deals 

There are three different types of music publishing deals that artists can sign, depending on how they want to divvy up the rights for musical compositions. In any publishing deal, you have the songwriter’s share and the publisher’s share of the rights, and more often than not, these are divided 50/50. Below are the three main types of publishing deals, explained. 

Full publishing deals

These used to be the industry standard, where an artist gives up 100% of their rights to the publisher. A songwriter will assign a lifetime copyright to the publisher for each musical composition created during the duration of the contract. This type of deal is more common when it comes to newcomer artists or unknown songwriters, and it’s a way for publishers to mitigate risk. The publishing company will invest resources to grow the career of the songwriter, but it has no guarantee success will come, which gives the publisher the upper hand in the contract negotiations. 

Co-publishing deals

Under a co-publishing deal, the songwriter and the publisher share the rights to a song 50/50. For such a deal to happen, the songwriter will have to create their own micro-publishing company to enter an agreement with the publisher. The author gets their 50% writer’s share, as well as half of the publisher’s share, in a total of 75% of the rights to a song. The other 25% of the publisher’s share will go to the publisher they enter into contract with. 

These deals are common among established artists who can still benefit from the exposure and promotion that a music publishing company can offer them. They have more leverage in the contract negotiations than newcomers. Moreover, these deals don’t offer the publisher lifetime copyrights; at the end of the contract, the songwriter will own their rights in full. 

Administration deals

Administration deals are exactly what they sound like: they provide the publisher the right to collect, audit, and distribute royalties on behalf of the artist, and nothing more. This is common among well-established artists who don’t need a publisher to promote their music or connect them to performing artists. 

For instance, a songwriter and producer like Max Martin, who’s written hits for Britney Spears, NSYNC, or the Backstreet Boys, and has won Grammys and several ASCAP Songwriter of the Year awards, doesn’t need any help from a publisher to find artists to work with or to promote his compositions. But he still needs a publisher, or administrator, to audit sync and mechanical licenses, collect the proper royalties, and distribute them back to the author. 

Under admin deals, the songwriters have the upper hand, and only have to pay the administrator, or music publisher, an administration fee (usually 10% to 20%). The publisher only gets a small share of the revenue, and no rights over the compositions, for as long as the deal is in place. 

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Why artists create their own publishing companies

Many artists, once they achieve a certain level of success, create their own publishing companies to make sure that they have control over what happens to the rights of their work. That’s because not all publishers have the artist’s best interest in mind at all times. 

An infamous example would be that of The Beatles, who formed their publishing company Northern Songs in 1963 together with publisher Dick James. In 1969, James sold his share of the company to Britain’s Associated TeleVision, which made ATV a majority stockholder in Northern Songs, which held all the copyrights for The Beatles’ work. 

That meant that the band members lost control of their own publishing company, and John Lennon and Paul McCartney decided to sell their share, and their own copyrights, and only hold on to their songwriter royalties. The loss of control over their own work reportedly played a big part in the eventual split of the legendary band. 

Publishing deals vs Record deals

There are a few key differences between a record deal and a music publishing deal. A record deal, by default, is something that artists seek because it helps them grow their music career and promote their music in different formats. The record deal also establishes the ownership and royalties that result from the recordings created by the artist for the label. Many performing artists, who write and perform their own songs, look to sign a deal with a record label, to promote their music and benefit from the exposure and marketing that such a deal guarantees. 

A music publishing deal, on the other hand, handles the copyrights in the compositions themselves, not necessarily the recordings. A publisher ensures that royalties are paid whenever an artist’s song is played on the radio, on television, online, or in a public venue. Whenever a songwriter signs a publishing deal, they’re transferring part of the copyright for their musical composition to the publisher, and in turn, the publisher collects royalties on the artist’s behalf. 

Generally, songwriters benefit from signing a music publishing deal. This way, even if they’re not performing the songs themselves, they will still always get the writer’s share of the royalties for any public performance of those songs, so it’s more beneficial for them. Performing artists or bands, on the other hand, typically sign deals with record labels, because such a deal helps them record and promote their work and reach a wider target audience with the help of the label. 

If you’re considering signing a deal with a music publisher or a record label and you want to make sure you’re fully prepared to get the best deal possible, then why not get personalized feedback from the top music pros and executives in the business?

Join Xposure Music and gain access to some of the best music industry professionals in the U.S. Top experts from Sony, Columbia, Def Jam, or Universal have already joined our platform, and they’re ready to give invaluable, on-point feedback on your work, which can help you land that dream record deal or publishing deal you’ve been working towards. Sign up now and reap the rewards. 

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Gregory Walfish
Co-founder of Xposure Music, Gregory Walfish stands at the intersection of music, tech, and culture. With a software engineering background, he's passionate about artist development and technology.

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