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Defining The Role of a Music Publisher & How They Can Help Musicians

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Publishing is its own distinct component/sector within the music industry, and if you want to maximize your earning potential, it’s necessary to understand exactly what someone means when they claim to publish music.

Music Publishers - Everything You Need To Know

Starting at the Beginning: What Was a Music Publisher?

Traditionally, a music publisher was the person or company responsible for releasing physical copies of copyrighted music. The publisher was responsible for taking the music created by the musician and putting it into a format that could be shared. 

Usually, this meant actually handling the business of getting music onto physical media, working with duplication facilities and printers to make copies, from vinyl to 8 track to cassette to cd manufacturing and then negotiating with distributors to get the physical media into retail stores. 

The publisher could be a division of a major record company or record label. The record label would also provide artists with other services, including creative services for music video shoots, artists and repertoire (A&R) services for contract negotiations and more. 

The publishing part of a record deal would involve transferring a portion of the artist’s writing share ownership rights to the record company that would pay the upfront and expensive costs of manufacturing and distributing the music. 

Back to the Future: What is a Music Publisher Today?

Today, the traditional record company is largely a thing of the past, but publishing is as big as ever. This is because the Internet has changed the way that artists record, distribute their music and directly interact with fans. Prior to the Internet, you could either seek out a record contract, signing away portions of your ownership rights to cover the costs of manufacturing marketing and distribution. Or, you could spend the money and print up your own CDs and sell them yourself. 

If you sold them yourself, there were no online stores, so you usually relied on a merch booth at your live shows. Or out of the trunk of your car like 90’s hip hop legends Cash Money, No Limit, Rocafella, and Wu-Tang, and you might be able to get your music on the shelves of local or regional record shops. 

Publishing in the age of the Internet now means that virtually anyone can sell a recording online from anywhere in the world, and the act of doing this is what is now the new evolved world of music publishing. Because you can retain all of your copyright ownership from both the audio recording/master side and the written composition/publishing side. 

Essentially, you’re the one “putting out music”, and you can control the entire process from start to finish. The problem with this is that publishing takes time, money, resources and connections within the music industry in order to be successful, and it can be very difficult to handle all of the aspects of publishing while still making great music. 

So, What is a True Music Publisher?

To put things simply, a music publisher these days is a person or company that owns the right to sell someone’s music. The publisher is granted this right through an agreement with a musical artist or his or her representative. 

You can think of companies like BMG, Warner Chappell, Sony/ATV as publishers because they publish music for sale and provide an advance payment or commission to the creator.

>>> Related Reading: What Are The 3 Different Levels of Music Publishing?

>>> Related Reading: Songtrust Review: Collecting Your Royalties Doesn’t Have To Be Stressful

Publishing and Licensing: What’s the Difference?

You may hear the terms publishing and licensing used interchangeably, but they actually have two very different meanings and serve two very different functions. 

As a musician, understanding these differences can have a great impact on how much you get paid for your music. 

We’ve already discussed publishing as it relates to making music available for purchase to fans, but licensing music differs in that it makes music available for purchase by someone who wants to use the music for something other than personal listening and enjoyment. 

Licensing music means that you or your publisher are selling a license to someone else to use your music in a manner laid out in the licensing agreement. 

A perfect example of licensing is when a film producer or director wants to use a specific piece of music in a film. 

To do this, he or she would need to make the music, but if the music is already made, it’s copyrighted, meaning it belongs to the creator. 

The way around this is to license the music for use in the film. The film company would purchase a license for the music to be used in the film, and the licensing agreement would spell out who gets paid what.

The reason this is important as an artist in relation to publishing is that the publisher typically owns the right to license the music. 

As a creator, you won’t have any say in the matter if you sign this right away in a publishing contract. 

On top of that, the license to use the music may generate a lot of money for the publisher since the publisher is the administrator of the license, and you, the creator, may not receive payment at all if your publishing contract doesn’t stipulate payment terms for licensed material, even if the film turns out to be a huge worldwide hit.

Again, it all comes down to your agreement with the publisher, so you want to ensure that you’re maximizing your earning potential by understanding how your publisher handles licensing agreements.

Protect Your Rights and Your Earning Potential

Like any contract it’s important to know what portion of your ownership you’re giving up in exchange for what services and for how long this agreement will last. 

First, have an attorney read over the initial contract offer. Too often, musicians will be caught up in the moment when offered a contract, and with all of the promises made by industry executives about fame and fortune, it’s easy to see why. 

After all, you’re being recognized for your art, and you’re also being told that you’re going to be a big star with lots of money coming in – who wouldn’t want that? 

Instead, slow down and let a legal professional review things. Not only will he or she be able to understand the legal jargon in the contract and provide you with warnings and advice, it’s simply a good business practice to allow a qualified third party to look things over. 

Being too close to the situation can cloud your judgment, but having a legal professional read things over can ensure that both you and the publisher are receiving a fair deal. 

Next, think about your earning potential. This is a trap that so many musicians fall into when it comes time to sign a publishing deal. 

Remember, the publisher is buying the right to sell your music for the long-term, so don’t get sidetracked by short-term thinking about short-term money. Think about it like this: the publisher is offering you money now for something they plan to sell in the future. 

If the publisher offers you an advance, there’s a very good chance that the publisher believes that he or she can at least double the investment. As a result, why can’t you do the same? If the publisher believes so strongly in your earning potential, you need to look at the big picture and see that potential as well.

Don’t sell yourself short, but do recognize that the publisher is making an investment in your music, so consider seeking out a bigger commission per sale in exchange for a lower advance if one is offered. 

Finally, include a release clause. This clause in the contract should specify what actions will render the agreement null and void. When considering this clause, you once again need to think ahead. 

The purpose is to make sure that everyone holds up his or her end of the agreement, and it should clearly spell out what happens if the obligations of the contract are left unfulfilled. This should also include what legal process or actions take place if litigation is required due to missed payments and similar financial concerns.

Stay Engaged For a Healthy Partnership

At the end of the day, your publisher is a resource to further your musical ambitions and earn you more money. They exist as a business partner who also wants to get your music out to the world and make money on their investment in you. 

Although there are more ways to find a publishing partner than ever these days, it’s a good idea to carefully consider all options before signing an agreement. 

If you have questions about the publishing process, licensing, copyright ownership or anything in between, reach out to your publisher and simply ask. 

Most will be more than happy to break everything down for you to put your mind at ease. Music publishers should be in business to support talented musicians and artists, meaning they shouldn’t be in the business of taking advantage of the clients they rely on for income. 

With a little bit of forward-thinking on your part, your publisher and publishing agreement can open doors, help you to earn more money, maximize your exposure and help you to gain real traction within the music industry, both now and far into the future.

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