Publish or Perish?

Should you sign a music-publishing deal or go it alone?
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Should you sign a music-publishing deal or go it alone?

The music industry's business end is not about art; it is aboutacquiring and maintaining power — power to make deals, powerto make money, and power to make or break stars. For every CliveDavis, David Geffen, and Jimmy Iovine you read about, a hundredlesser-known people are generating the currency that makes theindustry go round — the songs. Without songs, there is nomusic industry. The songs don't hold the power, though; that powerlies with the publishers, the people who can get the songs to thosewho matter.

Music publishing doesn't attract the kind of mainstream pressthat heads of record companies or famous artists do. For artistsjust starting out in the business, recording contracts and artistadvances are usually familiar concepts, but the ins and outs ofmusic publishing often remain an enigma. Take a look at thefollowing basics of publishing and how they fit in to your plansfor your music.


You are probably familiar with the term publishing asit applies to printed materials such as books, magazines, andnewsletters: when something is printed and distributed, it ispublished. That simple concept also applies to song publishing,although a song does not have to be in print to be consideredpublished. It merely needs to be composed and either notated orrecorded. However, the simplicity ends there. To understand moreabout music publishing and its importance, you need to know how itfits in to the music industry's general structure.

Songs generate revenue in many ways, and the two you may befamiliar with are mechanical royalties and performanceroyalties. Mechanical royalties are paid when a song on a CDor other medium is sold; performance royalties are paid when a songis played on radio or otherwise broadcast — by being played,for example, in a nightclub or a restaurant. Those royalties aresplit between the songwriter and the publisher, and the percentageeach receives depends on the deal the two entities have.

When you sign a publishing deal, you are handing the publisherpart ownership of your songs. In exchange for that, the publisherworks on getting your songs recorded by major artists, placingsongs on soundtracks and in commercials, and finding other projectsthat need music. That's not to say that you must sign with apublisher. You are perfectly free to act as your own publisher;many artists do. As you will see, though, being your own publisheris not necessarily the easy way out.


When you start writing and recording songs, you need to addressa few simple but crucial legal issues immediately, regardless ofwho handles your publishing. First, copyright your work, which iseasily done through the U.S. Copyright Office (for contactinformation for the USCO and other resources, see the sidebar“Getting in Touch”).

To register a song, file a Form PA; to register the recording ofa song, file a Form SR. If you wrote the song and recorded it, youmay file for both copyrights on a Form SR, without filing a Form PAas well. The fee for copyright registration is $30, but you mayregister more than one song at a time by calling it a“collective work.” You can download all the forms fromthe Copyright Office Web site.

You will need to join a performing-rights society, such asASCAP, BMI, or SESAC. Once you have some copyrighted tunes underyour belt, you are eligible for membership in any of thoseorganizations, but you can join only one. Performing-rightssocieties' main function is to collect and distribute performanceroyalties. Those societies also offer excellent resources tomembers, including regional showcases and educationalworkshops.


Now the big question: why would any songwriter give away part ofhis or her most valuable commodity? For many artists, thetrade-offs are many and varied. When you sign with a publisher, yougain access to numerous entertainment industry contacts. In short,publishers are responsible for selling the music they represent.They also monitor royalty payments and deal with other legal issuessurrounding the use of the songs in their catalogs.

You do

For musicians who are primarily songwriters and desire to havetheir work recorded by well-known artists, a good publisher is amust. Trying to peddle songs directly to producers is pretty muchan exercise in futility unless you're a well-known writer. Many ofthe biggest names in pop, country, R&B, and adult contemporarymusic do not write their material, which means many recordexecutives and producers spend a lot of time trying to match theirartists with the right songs. They often turn to publishers forhelp in finding them.

If you write and perform your music, you may not be thatinterested in having other artists cover your songs. You could,however, want much wider exposure for your music, in which case youshould consider working with a publisher. Those pros have dailycontact with music supervisors for film and television, gameproducers, and advertising executives. Like the record industry,those areas of the entertainment business are hungry for music.Often, they use the artists' performances of the songs, which meansmoney and exposure for you and your songs.

Even if you don't have lofty goals of worldwide fame, apublisher can be a good partner in your music career. If you don'tcare to learn many of the legal and business aspects of sellingyour music, consider teaming with a publisher — let him orher handle the business so that you can focus on your craft.

You don't

If you are mainly interested in writing, recording, producing,and selling your music yourself, you don't have to use a publisher.You may opt to do so for the reasons noted previously; otherwiseyou can handle it yourself. The positive side of being your ownpublisher is that you get to keep the songwriter share and thepublisher share of the royalties. The downside is that 100 percentof the royalties you earn might not add up to what 50 percent ofthe royalties for a better-selling song would have earned if yourmusic had reached a wider audience.

You might relish the business end of making and selling music,in which case acting as your own publisher could be a goodexperience. It is a business, though, so you'll need to approach itas such.

First, name your publishing company and fill out a fictitiousbusiness name statement or a DBA (“doing business as”)form with your county. Then educate yourself about the fine pointsof publishing. For example, how will you collect your royalties?The mechanical licenses for your songs, which make mechanicalroyalties possible, can be issued through the Harry Fox Agency. Inaddition to issuing mechanical licenses, Harry Fox also collectsand distributes the mechanical royalties and conducts audits to besure the proper amounts have been paid. The agency takes about 4.5percent of what it collects.

You also need to register as a music publisher with yourperforming-rights organization in addition to registering as awriter. By doing so, you can be sure that you get both the artistshare and the publisher share of the performance-rightsroyalties.

Finally, if you're interested in selling your songs, industryexecutives and music supervisors need to hear them. As complicatedas publishing's legal details can be, the song peddling is the hardpart. It's like trying to get a record deal on your own: you needto network with industry executives and get that all-importantword-of-mouth recommendation that will open doors for you and yourmusic. That is tough to accomplish if you're an unknown.

Open options

Now that you've read the pros and cons of using a third-partypublisher versus the DIY approach, here's another option: be yourown publisher when your catalog is relatively small, and then signwith a publishing house later in your career. You can opt to signwith a publisher for your entire back catalog (if you own thepublishing rights) and future songs, for only the back catalog, orfor just the songs written from the point of the publishingagreement forward. Many publishers also offer single-song deals. Ifyou have a composition that is appropriate for certain projects,they will take the publishing rights for just that song.


Finding and signing with a publisher can be as tough a task asgetting a record deal. You need to produce quality demos of yoursongs and put together a press kit. Most important, you need asolid vision of what you want to accomplish by signing with apublisher. If you want to be a songwriter for the stars, you shouldhave an idea of what type of artists would be perfect to sing yoursongs. If you want to write for motion pictures, you should knowwhat type of scene or setting would be a good match for each ofyour songs.

In short, a publisher will not give you the time of day if youronly goal is to get whomever in whatever part of the industry tohear your music and make you rich. If you don't understand yourmusic and your goals, you can't expect anyone else to, either. (Seethe sidebar “Further Reading and Research” for a listof books that includes guides to domestic and internationalpublishers and several volumes that offer in-depth publishingadvice.)

The hunt for a publisher could be tough. With so many musicpublishers in the business, how do you know where to start? The bigplayers such as Warner-Chappell, BMG, MCA, Sony, and the like arealluring. Those companies are the movers and shakers in theindustry, with millions of songs in their catalogs. On the positiveside, they do deals daily with major players looking for music. Thenegative side is that they represent so many songs that your music— should you actually strike a deal with one of thosepowerhouses — could languish unnoticed among millions oftunes. Small publishers offer much more personal attention to theirwriters, but some might not have the reputation and contactsnecessary to break you into the big time. (For an interestingdiscussion of how publishers, big and small, approach theirbusinesses, see “Working Musician: Publishers'Roundtable” in the August 1997 issue.)

Research is key in deciding which publishers to send your songsto. Call the publishers and any other music-industry contacts youhave and ask which companies specialize in the kind of deal youwant. Find out how many songs are in their catalogs and about theirtrack record for song placement. Then narrow the field to five toten publishers; any more than that could be difficult for you tokeep track of as you do your follow-up work. (You can alwaysapproach more publishers if some of them from your initial listdon't pan out.)

Get the name of the person to give your material to and send himor her a personalized letter, a few of your songs, and a press kit.In your letter, state your goal of getting a publishing deal, showthat you're familiar with that publishing house's specialty, andexplain why you are interested in working with that publisher.Enclosing a prestamped, self-addressed response card is a good idea— it's an easy way for the publisher to let you know thepackage was received.

About two weeks after you send the package, call to make surethe right person received it and ask whether he or she has had theopportunity to listen to your work. You might have to call a fewtimes, but don't pester anyone. Polite persistence pays off farmore than aggressive rudeness.


Songwriters have many decisions to make before even gettingstarted with publishing. Analyze your music, your goals, and howmuch work you are willing to do and are capable of taking on. Wouldyou appreciate the satisfaction of the DIY approach, or would youprefer the partnership and exposure that come from working with apublisher? It's your music and your decision.

Mary Cosola is a contributing editor for EM. Thanks toMichael A. Aczon for his guidance with this article.


ASCAP tel. (212) 621-6000; e-mail; Web
BMI tel. (212) 586-2000; Web
Harry Fox Agency tel. (212) 370-5330; e-mail; Web
SESAC tel. (615) 320-0055; Web
U.S. Copyright Office tel. (202) 707-3000 (publicinformation office), (202) 707-9100 (forms and publicationshotline); Web


Whether you act as your own music publisher or sign with aprofessional, you need to gain some knowledge of how the businessworks. Hundreds of texts and directories are available on thesubject of music publishing. Here are a few books and directoriesthat offer solid information and helpful leads.

The 2001 Recording Industry Sourcebook, 12th ed.(, LLC, 2001)
The Craft and Business of Songwriting, by John Braheny(Writers Digest, 1995)
The Dictionary of Music Business Terms, by Tim Whitsett(MixBooks, 1999)
How to Have Your Hit Song Published, by Jay Warner (HalLeonard, 1988)
The Music Business (Explained in Plain English), 2nd ed.,by David Naggar (DaJé, 2000)
The Music Publisher Registry, edited by Ritch Esra (TheMusic Business Registry, 2001)
Music Publishing: a Songwriter's Guide, by Randy Poe(Writers Digest, 1997)
Music Publishing — the Real Road to Music BusinessSuccess, 5th ed., by Tim Whitsett (, LLC,2000)