Publishing – A Brief Beginner’s Guide

© I.Woloshen

First of all, I want to emphasize the fact that my experience with publishing has to do with having my music on television series, which is different in some ways from having a song contracted to a publisher. Most of what I’ve learned has been through connections with other published writers or publishers themselves. But I do occasionally get emails asking what publishing deals are, or how to “sell” their songs (you don’t outright sell your songs, but more on that later)…and of course most people are curious as to how they can get a deal! Let’s start at the very beginning and discuss what exactly it is. Warning: Music biz lingo ahead! I’ll try to explain the terms that may be unfamiliar to you.

First of all, let’s discuss what a publisher does. A publishers’ main job is to create a catalogue (collection) of songs that they can pitch (promote) to artists or producers, anyone who might potentially get a song recorded or on a project. Larger publishers are often also connected with, or even a branch of, a record label. Kind of an “all in one” package. In this case, if a performing songwriter is signed to a label, her/his songs are usually published through that record label’s publishing branch.

But many publishers are strictly in the business of creating their catalogue in the hopes of getting one or more of their songs on a hit record. Why? Because part of the money that is made from a successful recording goes to the publisher. This is how it works:

When a song gets on the radio it earns royalties. You’ve probably heard the word “royalties” before. Simply speaking, the song being “exposed” to the public in some way, either on radio or television, in a restaurant…wherever you hear music publicly, earns money. Any company or organization that uses music in some way as part of their business, has to pay a lump sum fee to a “performing rights organization” such as SOCAN, ASCAP, or BMI…every country has its own performing rights organization (PRO). This PRO collects information on when a song was played and how much, and distributes this money to its members (publishers, songwriters, etc.). The more exposure a song gets, the more money the publisher (and songwriter) makes. Bingo.

For the songwriter, the advantage to having a song with a publisher is that the publisher will hopefully have some good music business connections and will work hard to get the song on an artists’ recording. They are interested in finding great songs! This is where you come in because you’ve got the great songs! But how do you find the publishers? How do they know about you?

One book I recommend you get yourself is called Songwriters’ Market. Check your local bookstore, or buy it online from any number of online sites, including mine. Not only does it go into detail as to what a songwriter can do to get her/his song heard by publishers, but it actually lists names and addresses of publishers to send your songs to! There are articles written by people in the business and it gives you some standards to adhere to as far as looking and sounding professional (very important!) This book is a great place to start gathering information on the business side of songwriting.

How do you get a deal with a publisher? Well, first of all, let’s discuss what a publishing deal is. There are basically two types of deals: a single song deal and a writer’s deal. The single song deal is easier to get, and simply involves signing only one of your songs with a publisher. The writer’s deal is extremely difficult to get…this involves essentially working for a publisher where the rights to all of the songs you write during this tenure are assigned to them. You do get paid, but only as an advance on potential future royalties. In other words, your songs have to eventually make money or they’ll dump you! These days a writer’s deal is even MORE difficult to get. Many labels and publishers are doing the ol’ “downsizing” and employing fewer writers.

So let’s assume that you’re only looking for a single song contract. You make your list of publishers to send your demo tape to, you ship them off and you wait. You get a call from a publisher (hey, if that happens the FIRST time you send your song out, consider yourself either LUCKY or an incredible, undiscovered writer!!). The publisher says he’s interested in the song and thinks he can pitch it to an artist who’s in the studio right now and looking for more songs to consider recording. What happens next? The publisher sends you a contract, you are hopefully smart enough to take it to an entertainment lawyer (!!), you decide it’s a good deal, you sign the contract, and voila! You have a publishing deal. Does this mean that the money starts rolling in? NO! The contract only gives the publisher the right to exploit the song for a period of time. “Exploit” seems like a dirty word, but it is the term used for trying to get a song heard. If during that period of time nothing comes of it, the contract runs out and the deal is off. That’s it.

If, however, the publisher manages to get someone interested in your song…what happens next? Does this mean the money starts rolling in now? NO! The producer/artist/record label has simply put the song on “hold”. A hold means that the publisher promises not to pitch the song anywhere else until the artist/producer, or whoever, decides if they want to use it. It sits in limbo until the decision is made one way or the other. If they decide to record it, you’re in business! Does this mean the money starts rolling in? Not yet. Once the song is on a CD and then manufactured, the first money you’ll see is a part of the mechanical royalties. Usually there is a contract between the writer/publisher and record label or artist for these royalties. The last I heard, mechanical royalties are just a little over 7.5 cents per CD. If they manufacture 10,000 CD’s, you’ll get a part of $750.00. In some cases, the publisher splits that with you. Doesn’t sound like much, does it?

What about radio airplay? Since most royalties come from that, you’d be really interested in your song getting on the radio, wouldn’t you? But that only happens if your song is chosen as a “single”. The record label decides which songs would be good as singles, songs that are chosen to represent the CD. If your song is not chosen as a single, you won’t see much in the way of royalties, certainly not to begin with. OH, it’s a long and complicated process, isn’t it? 🙂

Next, if the song DOES get some airplay, eventually you might see some royalties. Might? Well, you have to get a LOT of airplay for your song to be noticed. In Canada, where I live, radio stations send in a sample log to SOCAN (the PRO) once a month. What’s a log? It’s a stack of papers that show the songs and commercials and everything that was broadcast on that station for a day. The log that they send in has to have your song on it, in other words, it had to be played on that radio station that day for it to even show up as having had airplay. If your song played the day BEFORE, well, you’re outta luck! Doesn’t sound very promising, does it? Sometimes it takes months for a song to catch onto the listeners out there…sometimes a radio station will give up on it long before that. Not only that, but politics are involved. Record labels work hard at convincing radio stations to play their artists latest recording, but the programming managers at the station have to like it. Arrgghhh….! Let’s get back to the publishing deal…

All single-song contracts should have what is called a “reversion clause” written into it. Be aware of this! A reversion clause means that after a period of time (could be 6 months, could be two years) if the publisher is unsuccessful in exploiting your song, you get the publishing rights to the song back. Then you start all over. There are many songwriters out there with single song contracts, getting the song on a recording is much more difficult. A lot of publishers these days are working on getting songs placed in movies…this is another way for the song to earn money. Although movie theatres do not pay royalties like radio or television stations do, the song would be recorded on the soundtrack as part of the movie promotion. Just about every movie has a soundtrack these days! Getting your song on a television show is another way that you can earn royalties. I wrote music for several television series’…everytime that music plays, I get royalties! The beauty of my situation is that I am my own publisher, so the most I end up doing is paying a part of the publisher’s portion of the royalties to the producers of the series. This is a slightly different situation than the publishing deal you’re likely in search of. But as you can see, there are all kinds of possibilities out there.

Some things to be aware of:

If a so-called “publisher” asks you for money to record your song, or for any other reason…RUN THE OTHER WAY. This is NOT what a legitimate publisher will do. You should NEVER pay money to a publisher for anything! If they want to re-demo the song, they will do it themselves.

If a publisher wants to “buy” the rights to your song…again, RUN THE OTHER WAY. A legitimate publisher knows that you can’t buy people’s rights from them. It is not done. Well, maybe in some countries, but don’t be fooled!

Most publishers listed in Songwriters Market are legitimate…occasionally you’ll come across one that isn’t. How do you know? When they start making all kinds of promises to you. The old saying “If it sounds too good…” you know the rest. For the most part, it is not in a publishers’ best interest to start a bad reputation! They want to develop a good relationship with you, one that will benefit everyone.

Most publishers will want ALL of the publishing rights to your song. You may have heard of situations where songwriters own some of their own publishing. They are usually well-established songwriters who have a little more clout and can negotiate these kinds of deals. In the beginning, expect to compromise to some extent. Do you want a deal, or would you rather not? This is often what it comes down to. Later on, when you’re a famous writer 🙂 you can get yourself a better deal!

Is a publishing deal all it’s cut out to be? That’s up to you. In my case, I’m a performing songwriter and not as anxious to get published because I perform them myself. That doesn’t mean I won’t in future, but for now, it’s not in the cards. If you are not a performing songwriter, the only way you’re going to get your songs heard is by somebody else performing them. You may be able to find a group or an artist on your own! That’s the sign of a savy songwriter! But if you’ve decided you’d prefer a publishing contract, and after this article STILL think you want to pursue it, here are a couple of other resources you might check out:

For a more thorough description of royalties and how to get ’em, read Nancy Reese’s article for the Muse’s Muse…Publishing 101.

Robert Carter has also written an article for the Muse’s Muse explaining the sources of Publishing Income.

In fact, for a whole bunch of questions about publishing and copyright, why not take a cruise through Nancy Reese’s many Q&A articles for the Muse’s Muse…you might find your answer right here!

Hopefully, this information will give you a little insight into the mysterious world of publishing…Good Luck!

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