So we’ve discussed how you can start a label to release your own music. What many people (artists, small indie labels) don’t realize is that you can also start your own publishing company. This is basically a central place to accommodate all your copyrights and any other copyrights or songwriters that you might want to sign.
Why start a publishing company?
So a good question right off the bat is: why would you want to start your own publishing company? For small indie labels it can be a relatively easy way to earn some extra revenue while still providing an additional service for their artists. As an independent artist it could be a way to control your own catalogue, or perhaps you are eager to sign more songwriters as well.
How to start a publishing company
There are several ways to start a publishing company. Think well about these decisions because they will impact your business for the years to come, and it would be a waste if you made a mistake all the way at the beginning.
So it’s possible to strike a deal with a publisher that’s basically a standard deal, but you get more money. Why doesn’t everyone do this, you might ask? Of course you need clout and leverage, as publishers aren’t exactly jumping to offer songwriters these deals. On the flipside, it often does make it easier for them to extend the term of the deal, so be careful. At the end of the day you are still building and contributing to their catalogue, depending on the term. This way you don’t really build anything that’s your own – or that you might even sell later on!
Register with PRO
The easiest way to start a publishing company is… to just start one! You can sign up to any PRO as a publisher – make sure you fill out the right forms – and you’ll need a legal business form. Make sure to check locally what form is best suited for you within your country, but once you sign up you’re good to go. After this you can register your copyrights with the PRO, start collecting money, start pitching your songs and enter into partnerships. It may be wise to set some money apart so you can successfully run your business. In addition to your usual overhead, you need to take into account that you might have to offer advances to different songwriters or even buy copyrights. (Take a look at how Hipgnosis does this.)
In practice, not a lot has changed for you, of course, but on paper it makes all the difference. Now when you approach media companies hunting for that sync or bigger record labels trying to place that song, you’ll be able to gain more credibility. And of course once you start building your catalogue and you get those first couple of syncs and placements your company name wil become more recognized.
For an overview of what publishers do, please check out this article.
So what exactly is expected from you as a publisher? Well, if you’re a small independent publisher it may really differ. Some publishers specialize in syncs, some in connecting songwriters and yet others have an amazing skill at getting songs cut by big artists. It’s good to decide for yourself what you want to excel at. This will also influence who you work with. You’ll need specialized partners who either amplify your strengths, or cover your weaknesses as a publisher. Choose wisely.
No one can conquer the world alone, you will also need help! As I mentioned before, it can really depend on what you need help with when choosing who to work with. And of course not listed but always an option is investors. If you can convince wealthy individuals or companies to invest in your company it can give you that initial capital that you need to get started.
So a partnership that is quite common is an administration partnership. It’s often impossible for a small independent publisher to collect all their owed monies worldwide without the help of a bigger publisher. Sure, you could sign a subpublishing deal in each territory with a different subpublisher, but before you know it you’re more busy with keeping track of revenue streams and keeping in touch with 20+ publishers than you are with your core business.
To find a partner who can help you with synchronizations I can recommend partnering up with a sync agent. These lone wolves often have an excellent network within the media world and they work very effectively. Of course you’ll have to make a deal regarding whatever song they sync for you, no one works for free – well, fools do – but on the other side this means that if no syncs are found, you don’t have to part with any of the revenue. Because of this, sync agents are quite picky but if they choose your song you know they’ll have faith in it.
To set up co-writes with other songwriters it can be helpful to enter ‘informal’ partnerships with other publishers. All publishers want their writers to be prolific, so what better way than to band together and have all your writers create together as well. Each publisher is of course entitled to their share of the pie but this is mostly seen as a win-win situation. Of course if someone synchronized this song others profit off of it as well, but since this happens to everyone this is usually not a big deal.
Another informal partnership you can enter is with record labels. Even though it seems like they operate in a different realm business-wise, there’s still some overlap. One of the tasks of a publisher can be to get songs cut (this means that an artist records and releases a song one of your songwriters wrote). Since labels are at the forefront of releasing music and advising their artists, it makes sense to pitch songs to them in the hopes of getting a cut. Labels don’t care about who owns the copyright as they (primarily) deal in master rights. I guess it’s a good example of synergy or symbiosis.
So if you have any ambitions of operating outside the scope of your own songs you will have to sign other songwriters or at least songs/copyrights. How you go about this is your own choice but it also depends on what the USP of your publisher is.
If you are focused on syncs, it makes sense to sign songwriters or producers specialized in production and quick turnaround times. They can offer you made-to-fit solutions for any syncs briefs you get in. Of course, you need to double check what the deal is with these producers, since work for hire often has a different deal structure than a traditional publishing deal. Besides these songwriters and producers, it would make sense to only sign highly syncable music. You could even only sign single songs that you believe are syncable, or EPs and albums in styles you believe (or know) that are syncable.
If you are focused on co-writes and getting songs cut, it would make sense to mainly sign (prolific) songwriters. You can pair them up with each other – keep it in the family – or with other writers from other publishers (or even unsigned writers!). Of course if they write with an unsigned writer it’s a good opportunity to either sign the other songwriter or get all the copyrights of the written song.
Catalogue or evergreen hits
Now at some point in your publishing career you will come across a chance to sign someone’s catalogue. This can be a great source of income because often these catalogues don’t require a lot of active work but they still result in revenue.
Some of these catalogues can also contain evergreen hits. These are hits that have withstood the test of time – so far – and can basically guarantee a certain income. Think of Venus by Shocking Blue or Wonderful World by Sam Cooke. They are still often used in commercials and are in high demand for movies, ads and videogames. So if you ever think you can sign an evergreen hit, go for it!
Hopefully this article has given you some basic steps to start as your own publisher. There’s a lot more to it, of course, so I recommend you talk to as many publishers and industry folks as you can before starting. Perhaps even try to get some time in working at a publishing house so you can get a feel for what and how they do everything. If you have any questions or remarks reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can have a chat.