For many artists, making a living creating and selling music is the ultimate goal and understanding at least the basics of how music publishing works is a crucial first step in realizing this dream. Publication may be the most lucrative way to make money from your songs!
Publishers handle the business end for you (issuing licenses, pitching and promoting their work, tracking royalties, handling contracts, etc.) in exchange for a cut of royalties and all or some of the rights to the songs themselves. If you’re considering this option for your music, read on for essential tips to find the right music publishing partnership.
Find the Right Publishing Partnership
There are varying ways in which music publishers work with artists. Traditional agencies and publishers usually sign an exclusive deal with the artists, representing all their songs. Sync publishers, who focus on placing individual songs in advertising, TV, or movies, often sign on a title-by-title basis, and leave the rest of your catalogue out of the contract.
Some music publishers, especially larger companies, take a hands-off approach to managing most artists. The publisher invests the most resources into a select few performers that they feel confident will make it big (and earn the publisher money). They’ll take care of the royalties for songs on the roster and respond to licensing offers, but they probably won’t pound the pavement looking for fresh opportunities for you.
Other publishers, especially smaller ones, may spend more time promoting their clients. They often will also want more creative input, giving feedback on songs and suggesting new directions for you to try. As you may guess, it’s especially important to make sure your personality and style mesh well to avoid “creative differences” conflicts.
If you’re interested in forgoing a direct relationship with a publisher and want to start your own successful record label, consider setting up your own web domain and official LLC or sole trader set up.
One important note: Many large music publishers, including the Big Three (Universal Music Group, Sony Music and Warner Music Group), don’t accept unsolicited demos. You’ll need to find an agent, producer, or other industry professional to make that introduction. In general, read guidelines carefully before submitting to any publisher to avoid an automatic rejection.
Get Noticed and Build a Relationship
The flip side to finding a music publisher that you jive with is convincing publishers and producers that you fit their goals, as well. This professional relationship is a two-way street.
Want to immediately impress the publisher? Demonstrate that you understand your own brand and your audience. Be able to define your niche as a songwriter or performer. Use your social media stats to prove that you can build a following, and don’t call any song a “hit” unless you’ve got numbers to back it up.
Work out the details of the relationship from the beginning with these questions:
- What rights are you selling? Who will ultimately have ownership over the composition and sound recordings?
- What opportunities will the publisher seek for you? Mechanical licenses, synchronization, public performance licenses, etc.?
- What is the compensation plan for you, the publisher, and the producer? What cut does the publisher take off royalties? Are producers paid by the hour, or by the project? What advance will you get against future royalties, and how often will you be paid?
- Will publishers or producers expect writer’s shares for playing an instrument, rewriting a verse, or rearranging a song?
- How long is the term of the professional relationship? What factors influence the decision to terminate or renew the contract?
Partner With Killer (Established) Musicians
One of the best ways to get your work noticed by music publishers is to collaborate with an established artist. Co-write songs with someone who already has a deal, or at least someone who has one or more publishers interested in their work. You may have a chance to impress publishers with your solo work, too.
Without Dr. Dre, who knows where Eminem might have ended up? Working together for two years between the releases of The Slim Shady EP and The Slim Shady LP played an important role in propelling Eminem to rap legend status. Akon’s collaborations with top artists catapulted him from the B-list to one of the top-selling artists back in 2007. His collaborations with Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Gwen Stefani, and more helped position him as an artist who could combine rap and R&B stylings into hit songs. In turn, Akon went on to mentor T-Pain, continuing the cycle of performer-songwriters bringing new talent into the limelight.
Of course, finding this co-writer is easier said than done. Songwriting workshops, camps, conferences, and music festivals are good places to meet other songwriters and artists. Songwriters’ organizations can also connect you with other songwriters and provide mentorship and valuable information about the business.
Hire a Music Attorney
Whether you take care of music publishing and administration yourself or work with a music publisher, hire a music attorney to translate the fine print. Talk to your attorney before rushing forward with any of these music milestones:
- Signing with a manager or record label: Don’t count on a friendly handshake. Get terms in writing, and include your lawyer in the talks.
- Cracking your knuckles menacingly: You hear your vocals sampled on some random artist’s track. A performer you licensed a song to suddenly refuses to pay. Before you start making threats, talk to your music attorney. They may even be able to deal with the offender without taking things all the way to court.
- Claiming copyrights and trademarks: You already know you should protect your songs, but what about your name as a performer, logo, and anything else you create? This can wait until you’re getting more established in your career, so you don’t waste money trademarking a band name you’ll change (whose idea was “Wilting Moose,” anyway?).
Don’t sell your publishing rights lightly, but keep in mind that music publishing can become an important source of income for you. Build your following and do your research, and you’ll be in a better position to negotiate the best partnership for your career.