And what can they do for you?
A lot of people know about record labels. Chances are big if you ask a random person on the street they’ll be able to name at least one label. The same goes for artists, they can often give you a whole list of their favorite labels and the artists on them. But when publishers are brought up it gets a little murkier with those same people. “They do something with syncs, right?” is often the first thought that springs to an artist’s mind. While this is factually correct, they actually do a whole lot more and have a very important place within the music industry infrastructure. They also represent a potentially very lucrative source of revenue for songwriters.
Essentially, publishers deal in songs. Perhaps some of you are wondering what the difference with a label is then, since they also deal with songs. Labels deal with master recordings and the exploitation of these recordings. Publishers deal with copyrights, basically song compositions and lyrics. So publishers deal with the creative idea of a song while a label just deals with one particular recording. Back before everything was digital this was literally a master tape, hence the term master recording. This is why for example it’s beneficial for a publisher if a song is covered (played by other artists) many times but for a label it does not make a difference money-wise. (The exposure is nice of course but as we all know you can’t pay the bills with exposure.)
And let’s get one thing clear: if you write a song, you own the copyright. If you write a song with someone else you both own the copyright for 50% etc. Of course if you write with someone else you can deviate from this percentage however much you like if it is agreed to with the other person but these are the guidelines in general.
Now that’s out of the way we can take a look at the publishers’ tasks. We can easily divide their work into 3 separate categories.
- Administering copyright
- Exploiting songwriters
- Sync placements
Now especially number 2 sounds quite harsh, but it’s actually one of the most positive aspects of publishers. Before we dive in we should briefly clarify the different deals with publishers so the rest is a little easier to follow. We’ll elaborate on these deals in a different blog post but for now you just need a framework. The different deals with publishers are as follows:
As an introduction, there are three general deals you should know about. Of course there are a couple of more deals but these are the most frequently occurring and for the sake of understanding the rest of this blog this will suffice for now.
This is when a songwriter signs wholly and completely to a publisher. All the songs they produce also belong to the publisher (how much etc. depends on the deal you sign) and this is often a more long-term collaboration. Sometimes the back catalogue is included, sometimes it isn’t.
This is quite a ‘dry’ deal. The publisher just makes sure that all money earned worldwide comes back to the songwriter (and some of it to the publisher, of course). It’s a purely administrational deal (hence the term admin). These deals are only really interesting to publishers if there’s enough money involved, so small time players typically don’t get these deals.
Single song deals
Sometimes you only want to sign away a certain part of your catalogue, for example, an EP that you think would do really well in commercials. It is then possible to only sign away a certain set of songs, or even just one song, to a publisher. They will still exploit the copyright but of course have much less incentive. These are often short-term collaborations, although they can always be extended when successful. And if there is success you can bet the publisher will want to continue the collaboration.
So now that you know what kind of deals can be made, it’s time to zoom in on the activities.
Every time your song is played, as a songwriter, you should earn some money from that. Being played could mean someone performing a cover of your song live, you playing your song live, the radio playing your song or your song being played on TV. These are all moments when you are owed a compensation as a creator. If it’s a small bar show with three people and a dog, of course the payout is going to be lower than if your song is played at a full Wembley Stadium, but either way you are owed money.
Part of a publishers’ job is to go after that money and to make sure that every penny you’re owed goes into your pocket. Of course this is also in their best interest, since for every penny you earn they also earn money. But hey, money can be a great motivator at times. Within your home territory it shouldn’t be too hard to track and you’ll often know yourself when and where your compositions are played, but once the success starts gearing up and bigger artists are playing your songs, international radio or TV stations start playing your songs or you are performing abroad more often yourself, it’s going to get a lot more complicated to pick up that money. Of course a good publisher with a solid worldwide network (or sub-publishers in all relevant territories) can jump in here and take care of business and really prove their value.
Exploiting always leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths, but at the end of the day it’s simply making money off of something. If you sign as a songwriter with a publisher they want to make money off of you. If you’re a smart songwriter you encourage this because that means you’re also making money.
Publishers are in the business of compositions and songwriters. As such every song that their songwriter creates adds more value to the company and increases possible collaborations. That’s why it’s in their best interest to match their songwriters with other writers and to provide the best creative atmosphere.
Simply put, they want to make sure all conditions are optimal for their writers. Some publishers have an in-house studio you can use for free (or at a lower price) but more often they will want to set up writing sessions and camps for you. This means they pair you with other suitable writers and the result will hopefully be the next hit single.
Next to pairing you with other writers and setting up writing sessions, publishers will also get pitches from other performing artists. These artists will be looking for a song with a specific vibe or mood and then it’s up to you as a writer to deliver. Good publishers will also go out of their way to pitch your material that’s already been written to bigger performing artists as well.
Setting up vocalists with DJs for toplines (vocal melodies + hooks on dance tracks) is also part of this work, although it’s a whole different ball game. For starters it helps if you are able to sing, of course, but it’s also very different work creatively. You are working within the confines of an existing song. For some people this is great, while others despise it. You’ll have to make up your own mind on this one. The word on the street is that it’s a gig that’s not for everyone. Having said that, if it is your kind of gig it can be a very dependable source of income.
One of the hottest trends of the past years has been syncing. Many a performing artists’ career has been launched through a sync (SYML, The Dandy Warhols, Black Keys).
Basically what it boils down to is that the publisher arranges for your song to be placed under a commercial, movie, tv-show or video game, for a fee. Of course they also negotiate the fee for this and take care of the coordination and production (more about how the fee is split and negotiated later). Sometimes the song needs to be altered slightly (this is why sending instrumentals to your publisher is always a good idea!) and sometimes the song works as is. The sync world is an amazingly fast-moving world with deadlines sometimes being less than 48 hours. This means a publisher needs to know when a track can be used or not as soon as possible, which is why they often work with waivers so they don’t need to check every small detail with a songwriter.
“I have 100 songs ready, let’s go ahead and sell them to the first and best publisher!”
Of course whenever I tell this story all artists are enthusiastic. Almost all of them write songs and they all believe they write the best songs. But songwriting alone isn’t enough. You need to be determined, handle a lot of rejection and keep on writing. Every single day, preferably.
If you are still excited to enter the songwriting world after reading this, check out this article to see which publisher fits you best and what the differences are between them.
Secretly publishers also have a fourth role, but it’s not one they always push. Just like record companies, publishers sometimes give out advances. They base this on how your music has done so far and how fast they think you’ll be recouping (earning back your advance). Now in my experience this can either be used as an incentive for the publishing company to work harder for you, but it can also mean you get stuck to a contract that you’d rather not be stuck to, so choose wisely and always have an entertainment lawyer look everything through.
So there you have it, a quick little overview of publishers and what they do. Of course for each separate section we can take a more in-depth look (and we will do so in the coming weeks) but for now this is a good starting point.
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