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An Introduction Into Music Publishing, Licensing & Copyright

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Do you know what it means to truly own your music? 

In a perfect world everyone’s response to that question would be a resounding yes, but the truth is, many artists either don’t know, don’t care or are confused and intimidated by the weight of this question.

If you can relate, I first want you to know that you are not alone but also want you to know that if you don’t at least try to understand music publishing and licensing, you might be in for a rude awakening in the future. 

Why you ask?

Music Publishing, Licensing and Copyright - Everything You Need To Know

Well while it’s true that you may own the copyright to your music as a creator, there are plenty of other hands that can take a piece of the action as your art reaches more and more people. 

Unfortunately, the tale of the musician that signed his or her rights away at the sight of the first deal that came their way only to find out they got shafted is often shared, but rarely heeded.

The good news is that, a little education goes a long way in protecting your rights and ensuring that you’re paid fairly for your hard work. 

If you’re unclear as to how the music business works where publishing and licensing is concerned, we’ve put together a handy guide to pull back the curtain and give you an uncensored view of how things work behind the scenes.

Understanding Music Copyright

Before delving into the nuts and bolts, you first need to understand what copyright is and how copyright affects the ownership of art. 

When you create a piece of music, you technically already own it and are considered the copyright holder. Whether you choose to actually have that piece of music legally copyrighted or not, the fact remains that you, the creator, own the work that you created.

It’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss the intricacies involving legal copyright, but in a nutshell, going through the formal process of submitting music for copyright protection is usually reserved for protecting your music in the event that someone else tries to claim that they created it or attempts to profit from it.

Understanding Music Publishing & Licensing

Where things get a bit more complicated is when publishing rights are assigned. You can think of a publisher as the person or company that is given the right to sell your music for you. 

In most cases, you will sign a legal agreement with a publisher who will then utilize its resources to get your music distributed in unique ways such as commercials, movies, radio, etc. As we discuss music distribution to platforms like Spotify and iTunes in detail on our site, think of publishing deals as distribution on steroids.

In the past, publishers were often a part of a record label, so if you signed a contract with a record company to record and release an album, the record company would also handle publishing the record by physically creating copies. 

Then, through relationships with distributors, the publishing arm of the company would get those physical copies into record stores as well as placements in the newest movies or TV shows.

The publisher serves an important purpose because they are responsible for all of the details surrounding accounting for sales, fulfilling orders, working with physical media manufacturers, negotiating with distributors, and administering the assignment of licensing rights so that music can be used in film, television, video games and other forms of media.

The Publisher-Artist Relationship

In return for its part of the deal, the publisher takes a percentage of sales from the music it represents. How much the publisher takes depends on the agreement, but what’s more important is the exclusivity of the deal. 

One of the most common warnings you’ll hear from veteran musicians is to carefully consider the length and exclusive nature of your publishing agreement. 

The problem is that some publishers will expect exclusive rights, and at times, the term is in perpetuity. This means that the publisher essentially owns the right to publish the music and profit from it forever, as long as the agreement stands.

When you sign a publishing agreement, you lose a huge percentage of the vote in terms of how your music can be used and how it can be sold. 

A publisher with exclusive rights can go on to make money off of your music even if you don’t want it sold for whatever reason. A publisher may even be able to go on to make money off of your music long after you’re death.

Basically, a publisher can pretty much do whatever it wants with your music and make money at the same time within the terms of your agreement, and even if you retain the copyright, your publishing agreement takes away the teeth from many legal arguments you may raise against how your music is sold. 

Once you grant publishing rights, the publisher can often act as the representative for your music in almost all cases within the terms you agree to.

Should You Work With a Music Publisher?

Now, we’ve just covered a lot of the potential downsides to signing a publishing agreement, but having a relationship with a publisher can actually be a very good thing for making money, as long as your agreement is fair. 

A publisher will take care of all of the administrative work and negotiations to get your music heard by more people and for sale in more places. 

They also take care of ensuring that your music is positioned correctly to be placed in advertisements and other mass media venues where you’re likely to earn larger revenue.

Selling a song or an album online through your own website will bring in whatever you charge, but if your publisher can get your track featured on a movie soundtrack, your earnings increase exponentially. 

Additionally, having your music in as many places as possible means more exposure for your brand as a musician and can open plenty more doors down the road.

So, again, a publishing agreement is actually a very good thing to have as a professional musician.

With that said, you have to ensure that the terms of the agreement provide you with a fair share of the revenue generated by your hard work. 

Thus, allowing you to maintain enough control over your music to avoid being held prisoner by a large company that doesn’t have your best interest at heart.

Learn as You Grow Approach

If you’re a new musician who isn’t quite comfortable with the idea of someone else having control over your music, why not start from the beginning and test the waters of publishing by working with an administrative publisher like Songtrust? You can learn more about the Three Different Types of Music Publishers Here.

Administrative publishers will be the focus for most independent artists and will usually only charge a commission, or a small upfront cost, and most are geared toward providing freedom and control to artists, so you’ll also be able to publish your music on as many non-exclusive platforms as you want.

You also are given the ability to market your music as you see fit and control how and where it is sold, offering you the chance to take your time to see how things work before seeking out a larger publisher.

As you learn and grow as an artist, you can then approach independent publishers with more confidence, and if you’ve put in the work to attract fans and make sales, you’ll be more attractive to larger publishers, thereby giving you an advantage when it comes time to negotiate your terms.

Independent publishers are usually led by musicians who understand the struggle and hard work that goes into making a living as an artist, as well as handling the financial side of things and will be more than happy to work with a musician who has demonstrated a commitment to the craft.

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