One of the most misunderstood areas of the music industry is publishing. Trying to explain that there are two equal halves of publishing each equating to 100% (getting you to 200%), you are bound to get some glazed over faces. We work with several publishers, administrators, writers and producers and think (brushing our shoulders off) that we have a pretty good handle of how publishing actually works. Our contributor, Lauren Schulz, does a great job of breaking it down in this straight forward article below. While this is by no means a comprehensive treatise on publishing, we hope that it can shine the light on some of they dark, mysterious and befuddling issues that is music publishing. Enjoy!
The Purpose of a Music Publisher; What Does a Publishing Contract Do For A Songwriter?
Many individuals in the music industry are aware that once a songwriter or composer starts to receive compensation for their compositions or work, they often sign with a music publisher. But what does a publisher actually do? And what are the various terms of a good publishing agreement?
In a nutshell, a writer signs with a publisher to have the publisher handle the rights to their compositions for the purpose of making the writer more money. A publisher is experienced in the business side of the music industry and often has the connections to create opportunities for the writer that they could not create on their own. Additionally, when a writer handles their own administration, accounting, and/or promotion of their work, there is often very little time to continue creating music, leaving the writer with a not so successful business plan.
To break it down, if a writer is signing a publishing contract, the writer is essentially hiring the publisher to handle copyright registration, licensing, collection of the writer’s royalties and accounting services. This is often referred to as administration. This is a huge job that often takes a considerable amount of time and knowledge of the music business. A publisher handles quote requests, license requests, monitors how a writer’s composition is used, delegates any fees or payments, prepares paperwork as well as often negotiates license terms. Additionally, publishers collect performance, mechanical and synchronization royalties on behalf of the writer. These royalties are paid in exchange for different uses and sales of the writer’s work and involve third parties such as performance rights societies or the Harry Fox Agency.
In addition to administration, publishers will provide writers with advances and career opportunities. An advance is similar to a loan, given to a writer so that the writer may have an upfront income for his or her work. Often once a song is released, it could take a year or more before it starts to collect any royalties, meaning the writer has to wait a long time to get paid. An advance allows a writer to have income so that he or she may continue to create music. The amount of an advance often depends on the writer’s popularity, skill and potential opportunities. The writer then recoups (or pays back the publisher) through his or her collected royalties. Publishers also create opportunities for the writer. Publishers are often the link to performing artists, record labels and producers that will help generate revenue for the writer. These opportunities help a writer to maintain a longstanding and successful career in the music industry; basically a stepping stone to help a writer reach the next level in his or her career.
The next question then becomes, if I am a writer trying to develop my talent and create a career for myself, how am I going to pay for these services that a publisher provides? A publisher is paid by owning a portion of the copyright to the writer’s compositions. This allows a publisher to receive a percentage of the writer’s royalties for the use of his or her works. The percentage of the copyright granted to the publisher varies depending on how much responsibility the publisher is given. A publisher who only conducts administration will receive a lower percentage than a publisher who provides all of the services listed above. Often when a publisher provides administration services, opportunities to develop the writer, and an advance, the writer will sign a co-publishing agreement. A co-publishing agreement grants the publisher fifty percent of the ownership to the writer’s work on the publishing side (or twenty-five percent of the ownership including the writer’s share). This explains why a publishing contract is exclusive. A writer will not want to assign any additional portions of the copyrights to their work, nor will they want more than one publisher to handle the rights to their work.
A publishing contract is limited to a term, or certain period of time. A publisher will only own a percentage of the copyright for the work the writer creates during that period of time. For example, if a publishing contract has a term of three years this means that the publisher will own a percentage of the copyright for anything the writer creates during those three years. Often writers will also give their publisher the rights to their work created prior to the publishing contract. This allows a publisher to promote a work created by a writer five years ago that was never released. In exchange, the publisher might give the writer a larger advance. It is important to understand that a publisher does not control or limit a writer’s creative process. A publisher does not control the type or style of music a writer creates nor does a publisher have the ability to force a writer to collaborate with other writers or producers. Instead the publisher will bring opportunities to the writer, and the writer and publisher often decide together whether the opportunity is a good fit for the writer.
Overall, it is best to think of a publisher as an agent for the writer. The publisher will handle the business work, promotion, administration and accounting for the writer while the writer can be left to do what the writer does best, create music.