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Music Publishing: A Primer for Independent Musicians

August 28, 2023
3 min read

What is music publishing? If you’re an independent musician who’s more focused on securing your next gig than music rights and royalties, this is one area you’ve probably yet to research. However, music publishing is a big business. In 2022, the sector generated revenues of more than $4.7 billion

Music publishing is a critical cog in a larger machine. Without it, composers, songwriters, and producers stand little chance of getting fully compensated for their work. If you’re keen to start monetizing your material, it’s definitely time to start exploring the potential benefits of music publishing. 

Understanding Music Publishing 

Music publishing is a fairly broad term. It’s essentially all the processes involved to produce and protect copyrights for pieces of music. What’s more, music publishers will actively administer and enforce this music copyright. For most companies, the management of intellectual property is just as important as publishing music. 

A music publisher works alongside songwriters and composers, with tailored agreements laying out how much they’ll be compensated for their works. What’s more, they secure new opportunities for commissions, opening up new revenue streams for independent musicians. 

What is a music publisher going to earn from such an arrangement? In a typical case, a music publisher may take around 50% of any mechanical music royalties collected. A music publisher will also usually register music with performance rights organizations (PROs). However, they won’t actively recoup any performance royalties for the artist. This is the job of the PRO. This means that music publishers tend to receive relatively little from performance royalty revenues. 

Music Copyrights and Protection 

The music publishing ecosystem is built upon a foundation of copyright and music rights. Once a music publisher is left to manage intellectual property and copyright, they can more easily recoup the money they’ve invested in a songwriter or composer. 

Every track will have two copyrights attached to it. The first is the sound recording copyright, often referred to as the master rights. If you own the master rights to a song, you’ll secure royalties whenever it’s streamed, downloaded, or physically reproduced. While some masters are owned outright by artists themselves, other sound recording copyrights are owned by record labels.

Then there’s the composition copyright, otherwise known as publishing rights copyright. This copyright is almost always owned by the original songwriter or composer. Securing copyright for your music can be a little confusing. In some parts of the world, copyright exists from the moment you physically produce your material. This doesn’t even have to be a sound recording, with even handwritten lyrics counting. 

However, in places like the United States, the process is far more involved and begins with registering with the US Copyright Office. Although time-consuming, it’s the only way for artists to protect their intellectual property against infringement. 

The Role of Music Publishers 

Music publishing is just the collective name for a large group of professionals. One of the main areas of music publishing activity is artists and repertoire (A&R). It’s the job of an A&R team to scout for and sign new talent. If a signed artist isn’t actively performing, A&R teams may also organize collaborations with other musicians or invest in career development opportunities. 

Then there’s the business side. What is music publishing without lawyers after all? These companies depend on lawyers to oversee the legal aspects of a music publishing contract. Lawyers work closely with the copyright department to determine the exact terms of each deal. This can include things like royalty potential when coming up with a figure for advances, outlining the term length of an agreement, and specifying a commitment period for artists.

Copyright teams work closely with PROs and mechanical collection agencies to register music, while royalty departments ensure data and income are collected from third parties. Finally, there’s the synchronization department. Most major music publishers have dedicated sync teams nowadays. These teams have far-reaching connections across the creative industries, including the video game market, film industry, and advertising sector. In many cases, sync teams will work closely with artists, providing them with detailed briefs if a particular assignment has been commissioned.  

Is It Worth Signing With a Music Publisher?

If you’re looking to tap into extensive resources and industry connections, signing with a music publisher makes sense. As well as benefiting from the support of industry professionals, you also give yourself added credibility within the business. 

However, independent musicians may struggle to get the attention they need from a music publisher. If a publisher has higher profile names on their book, it’s unlikely that an emerging artist will be seen as a priority. If you’re tied into an exclusive contract, this lack of interest can significantly damage your career and limit development. 

Would you prefer to take charge of publishing and royalty management yourself? With IndieFlow, it’s easy to register your tracks with rights organizations and collect the royalties that you’re owed. What’s more, hassle-free splits make the payout process simple, no matter how many collaborators you’ve worked with on a song. 

Music Licensing and Distribution 

There’s a bit of crossover between music licensing and music distribution, but it’s important not to confuse the two. While both involve licensing and royalty distribution, they are two separate entities. 

Music publishing focuses more on finding synchronization, performance, and mechanical licensing opportunities. With music licensing, permissions are sought from the holder of the copyright to use a song in a specific way. This is often the case if a piece of music is used in a commercial and is usually referred to as synchronization royalties. 

In these scenarios, a licensee pays a fee to the copyright holder. Additional conditions may be attached to the agreement, such as crediting a music publisher and composer of the work. 

Along with synchronization licenses, there are mechanical licenses. These are required whenever an artist’s work is physically reproduced. They’re essential for distributing music in more traditional formats and are often agreed between artists and distributors, publishers, and record labels. Mechanical licenses also need to be obtained if you plan on using elements from an existing composition in your own work. 

Performance licenses are also common. Whenever an artist’s work is broadcast publicly, a performance license. This could be music played in a bar, restaurant, or retail space. In these scenarios, performance rights organizations are called upon to recoup royalties for artists. 

Self-Publishing vs. Working With a Publisher

Some independent artists may want to consider the benefits of self-publishing their music. This approach does have several perks, including maintaining full rights to music and securing maximum profits. However, this complete control comes at a cost. For starters, independent musicians won’t enjoy the financial security of an advance that’s typical of music publishing deals. What’s more, chasing up PROs for royalty payments can be time-consuming. Finally, self-publishing means that up-and-coming artists won’t be able to tap into the networking and PR potential offered by music publishers. 

Navigating Music Contracts 

Even if you have decided to work with a music publishing company, it’s important not to enter into any agreement without carrying out some due diligence. To ensure you’re getting the best deal possible, you need to wrap your head around all of the variables within a publishing contract. 

First off, you need to determine whether the contract makes clear who owns the copyright and the scope of ownership. Next, make sure you understand who’s accountable for what. Does the agreement underline who will be collecting money and issuing licenses? Furthermore, how long is the contract in effect for? An impressive advance might sweeten the deal, but if you’re locked into unfair conditions for years, you could limit your career trajectory.

For many budget-conscious artists, it’s the financial side that’s going to be most important. You’ll want a clear idea of the kind of advance you’ll be receiving, along with any terms and conditions attached to it. If you’re part of a band, make sure you’ve spent time talking about royalty splits. What’s more, look for hidden fees and costs attached to the agreement. 

It’s always a good idea to bring in expert legal advice before agreeing to sign anything. While it might seem like one cost you could do without, the long-term benefits to your career and earning potential can be considerable.

The Future of Music Publishing 

Music publishing has come a long way since the days when sheet music dominated the landscape. The rise of streaming platforms has changed the music industry considerably. In theory, these platforms are making content more accessible to listeners and opening up career opportunities for aspiring musicians. However, there’s also the issue of an oversaturated market. 

Now that would-be artists have a new pathway to the spotlight, music labels and publishers are no longer the only gatekeepers in the industry. Additionally, with more competition than ever before, there’s no longer such a thing as a traditional revenue model. Even high-profile musicians have joined in the discussion about fair compensation for artists. For up-and-coming talent, a combination of licensing deals, streaming royalties, and emerging revenue streams will need to be monetized in order for a music career to remain viable.

However, digitization is by no means a death knell for the music industry. In fact, changes in music publishing mean that more power than ever before is being put in the hands of creators. While musicians will have to invest heavily in social media engagement and other promotional activities, they can sit more confidently at the table when negotiating contracts.

Is It Time to Sign a Music Publishing Deal?

If you’re keen to start making some real money from your music, connecting with a music publisher is definitely something to think about. For independent musicians, music publishers also bring the added benefit of industry expertise and full knowledge of music rights and royalties. 

When you release music with a publisher, you can take advantage of new distribution and marketing channels. What’s more, even though these arrangements don’t come without a cost, a publisher will always negotiate the best possible deal for themselves and the artists they represent. Additionally, using a music publisher frees emerging artists from time-consuming administrative tasks. If you’d rather spend more time marketing your material online and performing to live audiences, taking the next steps with a music publisher makes total sense. 

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