What is?

Music publishers control compositions (on behalf of composers)
Record labels control sound recordings (on behalf of featured recording artists)

What a Music Publishing Company Does
If you are a songwriter with a publishing deal, a music publishing company will manage your songs and make sure all of the royalties to which you are entitled are being collected. In exchange, the music publisher gets a cut of income generated by your songs.

Don’t confuse a music publishing company with a record label. While both share many of the same goals for their songwriters, publishers provide a wider array of services. A music publisher’s role is to make deals with songwriters, promote the songs their songwriters compose to musicians and anyone else who may need a song for advertising, a movie, a promotional campaign, etc., issue licenses for the use of the songs they represent, and collect licensing fees. This work usually is referred to as the administration of a song.

Some publishing companies are hands-on and get involved in everything from the creative process to heavy promotion. For instance, many publishing companies have a person or department devoted to providing feedback to songwriters on their work, making suggestions for new directions, and matching songwriters for collaborative efforts they think may produce interesting results.

The companies that get deeply involved with the creative process also are the ones who tend to be significantly proactive when it comes to placing their songwriters’ work and soliciting new opportunities.

Other publishing companies are far less engaged with their clients. They tend to evaluate a composition, make a decision about its profitability potential, and then purchase a chunk of its royalties. These companies offer little, if any, creative support to their songwriters and are more reactive than proactive when it comes to seeking licensing opportunities. Although they will still handle the administration of the songs on their rosters, they tend to respond to offers rather than going out and trying to generate them.

Types of Companies

In addition to different styles of music publishing, there also are different types of publishing companies. These mirror the different types of record labels that exist, and many publishing companies are associated with or own record labels. Music publishing companies fall into four main categories:

Major: These are the big boys, associated with the Big Three labels: Sony BMG, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group.
Major affiliated: These are independent publishing companies that have deals with the majors to handle their licensing administration. Think of these like major distributed independent record labels.
Independent: These publishing companies handle their own administration in-house without the aid of one of the majors. They also are self-funded.
Writer-Publishers: It is not uncommon for songwriters to handle their own publishing. If the workload demands, they may hire someone to handle their song administration, but this person is an employee of the songwriter who gets paid for their work. They are not taking a direct cut of the income generated by a song.

How They Make Money

Music publishers earn money through licensing fees and royalties. In terms of song ownership, a publisher usually gets a 50% stake in a track. In other words, the original copyright owner (the songwriter) assigns a portion of the copyright for a song to the publisher.

A deal with a good publishing company can significantly increase a songwriter’s earning potential. However, publishing deals can be complicated and signing the wrong deal can leave a songwriter burned for many years to come. Always seek legal advice before making a publishing deal.

Why sign a publishing deal?

If you write your own songs, at some point in your career you will want to consider whether signing with a music publishing company makes sense.

Music publishers are sort of like record labels, but for your compositions rather than your master recordings which embody your compositions.

The right music publisher can take your career (and your earnings) to the next level. The wrong publisher can do the opposite. As with choosing a record label, choosing a music publisher is one of the most important decisions of your career, and should be treated as such.

Here are some things to consider when looking at signing with a music publishing company:

Is it the Right Fit?

In essence, all music publishing companies do the same thing: they license your songs and collect your music publishing revenue. However, every music publishing company does this differently. Some publishers work very closely with their writers, arranging co-writes, providing feedback on compositions, and generally guiding the direction and growth of their writers’ careers. This sort of “proactive” publisher often has a creative team that works directly with the writer, and actively pitches their songs to music supervisors, corporate clients, and labels.

On the other end of the music publishing spectrum are more “reactive” companies, that focus more exclusively on administration. These publishers are happy to approve a placement that lands on their desk, but won’t actively pursue it. This music publishing entity is essentially an accounting firm that assesses the value of a potential client’s catalog and earning potential, and buys a piece of it for a price. This “price” is known as a publishing advance, and can be quite sizeable. Seven figure music publishing advances still exist in 2017. Indeed, music publishing is one area of the music industry that continues to have serious value, despite the downturn in music sales.

When is the Right Time?

For most songwriters, signing a music publishing deal is a question of “when” rather than “if”. So: when is the right time? The answer is different for every songwriter, but something I have learned over my years as an entertainment lawyer is this: you will know when the time is right.

Sometimes a deal comes in the first year, sometimes it takes a few decades and a thousand songs. Last year I negotiated a million-dollar music publishing deal for a client who at the time had only written and released seven songs. The hype and excitement around this particular writer was exceptional and of course atypical, but it was quite clear based on the offers being tabled that the time was right to strike a deal.

Most of us aren’t so fortunate, so it’s really a matter of doing your thing until the right offer is presented. It might take one year; it might take twenty.

Do You Want a Major or an Indie?

Many of the largest publishing companies are directly tied to major record labels. Warner Chappell and Warner Music; Universal and Universal Music Group; eOne Publishing and eOne Recording; Nettwerk Music Group and Nettwerk Publishing.

Many indie companies contract a major to administer their catalog. Then there are the “fully indie” companies that do it all themselves.

As with the record label discussion, it’s really up to you to determine what size of publisher is best for you.

While the smaller publishers might be more personalized and focused on you as an artist, they might lack the connections of the big time players.

And while the majors have the connections and the resources to take you to the top, you might get lost in the shuffle of the other clients on their roster, when your songs are competing against those by Beyoncé, Coldplay, Adele, etc.

Why Do They Want You?

As mentioned earlier, all music publishing companies essentially do the same thing. One question I always pose to my clients: why does this particular publisher want to sign you? You’re giving up 25% to 50% of all your publishing revenue streams, so they better be worth it. Why are they excited about your songs? What do they plan to do with them? What placements or endorsement deals do they think fit your brand and artistic vision?

Before you sign away a significant chunk of your music publishing revenues, make sure someone at the publishing company is excited about your music and has a plan for it going forward. You also want to make sure that this person will be available and responsive to your questions and concerns after the deal is signed.

Do You Need a Publisher at All?

Many songwriters self-publish, and avoid signing with a third party publisher at all. Songwriters who retain their publishing rights and earn 100% of the publishing income generated by their songs. In addition to earning twice the revenue, self-publishing ensures that you control all creative and business decisions regarding your songs.

The major drawback to self-publishing is similar to that of self-releasing your music: you miss out on the benefit of the connections and clout brought by a publisher (or record label).

In other words, as a self-published artist, you will have to secure placements and generate income yourself, while handling the accounting and administration. Some artists are good at it; many are not. Ask yourself whether you have the knowledge and time to be an effective publisher, and what sort of demand your catalog is generating.

Signing with a music publisher can take your career to the next level, but be sure you do your research, pick the right one, and know what to expect going forward.