Do you need to sign a music publishing contract?

Having explored the ins and outs of the record deal in a previous Roland blog post, here we’re looking at its equally important, more diverse and potentially longer-lasting counterpart, the music publishing deal.

While the record deal establishes ownership of and royalties paid on the recordings made by an artist for a record label, the publishing deal is all about exploiting the copyright in the songs themselves (ie, melodies and lyrics), and ensuring that the songwriter gets paid whenever they’re played on the radio, online or live in front of an audience.

There are hundreds of publishing companies operating in the global music industry, spearheaded by the heavyweight likes of Kobalt, BMG and Warner/Chappell. No matter how big or small any given publisher is, though, they all serve the same purpose: maximising the income generated by their artists’ songs. As well as doing everything they can to get the original recordings of those songs licensed for public play as often as possible, this also means convincing other musicians to record and release cover versions of them, thereby multiplying the revenue stream.

What happens when you sign a music publishing deal?

“Indeed, to be allowed to sell the recordings of songs made under a record deal in the first place, the label has to get permission from the publisher in the form of a mechanical license”

In signing a music publishing contract, the songwriter hands the copyright of all songs written under that deal (which could be a fixed number, or all of them for a period of time) over to a publisher, who takes on the jobs of licensing them, keeping track of their usage (radio play, live performance, etc) and making sure they get paid for that licensing and usage. This is all done in conjunction with the publisher’s local royalty collection agency.

A collection agency is an organisation that sells non-exclusive licenses to perform music (ie, gives radio stations, etc, legal permission to play their members’ songs in exchange for money), and collects and distributes the royalties earned by those performances. These royalties are forwarded to the publisher, who takes their cut and gives the rest to the songwriter(s). Every country in the world has one or more collection agencies: in the UK, for example, it’s PRS for Music (Performing Rights Society), while the USA has several, including ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), BMI (Broadcast Music Inc) and SESAC. The collection agencies comprise an active international network, so a publisher only has to register a song with their local agency to have the worldwide royalties for that song channelled through it.

As well as performance royalties, collection agencies also claim ‘synchronisation’ royalties generated by use of music in movies, TV shows, advertising and video games, plus ‘mechanical’ royalties for every copy of a recording physically manufactured (ie, CDs and vinyl) or streamed online by record labels. Indeed, to be allowed to sell the recordings of songs made under a record deal in the first place, the label has to get permission from the publisher in the form of a mechanical license.

How much can you expect to be paid?

“Of course, a songwriter can alternatively opt to handle their own publishing, but it’s a highly specialised job that really is better handled by a team of experts”

The royalty split under a publishing deal is usually 50/50, 60/40 or 75/25 (the lower amount going to the publisher), depending on how ‘big’ the songwriter is; and an advance might be offered, similar to that of a record deal. While 50% might seem like quite a lot of money for an emerging artist to be forking out, it’s actually a fair price for the extensive multi-stream licensing opportunities that an experienced publisher brings to the table.

There is another form of music publishing contract, though, called the ‘administration deal’, which takes the publisher’s cut down to around 10% but ditches all obligations on their part beyond registering the songwriter’s music with collection agencies and collecting the money on their behalf. Administration deals generally only get offered to veteran songwriters who already have a proven track record and thus only need a publisher to handle the logistics of royalty payment.

Of course, a songwriter can alternatively opt to handle their own publishing, but it’s a highly specialised job that really is better handled by a team of experts. If the idea of publishing your own material appeals, give it a go, by all means, but be sure to sign yourself up to your local collection agency and expect to find yourself quickly overwhelmed by publishing-related tasks (where do you even start to monitor worldwide airplay, for example?) when your musical career starts to take off.

So, do you need a music publishing deal?

Obviously, a publishing deal is essential for anyone looking to sell their songs, either via their own recordings and performances or those of others. Indeed, it’s not unheard of for artists to hit the skids in terms of record sales but find considerable success through publishing alone. Signing up with a good publisher committed to pushing your songs through as many commercial channels as they know how to can be as – if not more – lucrative in the long term as any record deal.