Publishing is an often discussed and rarely understood element of music. For those working as musicians or within the industry, understanding publishing and how it is divided is essential. However, even for those of us that have a grasp on publishing, answering the question of how publishing is or should be split is not easy.
There is no bright line rule or formula that must be followed when divvying up the publishing of a composition. In a common (and usually fair) scenario the publishing is split equally between all writers who contributed to a song. In an even clearer scenario, one writer (typically a producer for pop/dance music) comes up with a melody and a writer comes up with the lyrics. Then those two split the publishing 50% each.
As we all know, life and the music industry is just not that simple. Think about a band that has 4 members. One member writes the lyrics, one comes up with the hook, one contributes to the melody and one just plays the drums (sorry drummers). Should each band member get 25% of the publishing? Again, it depends!
If a band is truly collaborative then the drummer in the above example may have written the entire melody to another song while the lead singer fixed his hair in the mirror. Or maybe the guitarist wrote the entirety of a song while the rest of the band was at the bar. The scenarios of how a song are created are limitless. That is why we often recommend that a band enter into a band member agreement that states that all songs, regardless of who did what, are split equally. A band, like a family, is a delicate and complex thing full of personalities, egos, opinions and emotions. Setting up an equal split at the outset and putting that into writing can diffuse fights before they occur.
On the other hand, having a pre-determined and documented split could also build resentment and disdain. If your bassist never contributes to the creation of a song and the other members work tirelessly at song writing, chances are that the s$%t is going to hit the fan eventually and the agreement will be revisited to eliminate or lessen the bassist’s participation.
Bands are actually easier when it comes to splitting up publishing as compared to pop and hip hop music. It has been widely written about that many of today’s top 40 artists co-write with may top-line (lyrics) writers and producers. That’s if those pop and hip hop artists write at all.
It is not uncommon for a pop song to have 3 to 7 writers on it. Look at this year’s Grammy nominees to see just how many people it takes to create one song. A commonplace is to have a team of top liners work with one or two producers to create demo songs. Those demo songs are pitched to various artists by A&R reps from labels and publishing companies as well as managers and other industry insiders. A demo song could make the rounds looking for a home for years. Once it is finally selected by a recording artist the publishing splits are sometimes the last thing to be determined.
Playing out the above example, let’s say Kelly Clarkson selects a demo song that was written by the writing team of Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter (top liners) and produced by Mark Ronson. Kelly then puts her spin on the song and brings in her own producer, Jesse Shatkin, to tweak the production a bit. So now you are looking at 5 people that get a share of the composition. Now the question becomes, how are those 5 people splitting it up?
Again, the method is not always the same. However, the typical way a pop song’s composition is split is 50% to the producers who create the melody and music and 50% to the lyricists. In our above example, Mark and Jesse may split the 50% tagged for the producers and Julia, Justin and Kelly split up the remaining 50%. Are the splits going to be equal amongst them? We will leave that up to their respective lawyers and managers!
The bottom line when it comes to publishing splits is that it is always better to have a conversation with your co-creators sooner rather than later. The last thing anyone wants is to release a song, watch it do well and then fight over the splits. Trust us. That is no fun for anyone involved.