Do You Need a Publisher as a Songwriter?

Man playing guitar writing music in living room
••• Hero Images/Getty Images

If you're a songwriter, a music publisher functions much like a record label does for a band or performer. A good one can do wonders for your career, while a bad one can actually stand in the way of progress.

Just like signing a record deal, there are plenty of things to consider before you decide to sign with a music publisher. If you're a songwriter thinking about music publishing, there are a few things to consider.

Understand How a Publisher Works

In terms of the basic work of publishing—licensing songs and collecting fees—all publishing companies do the same thing. However, different publishing companies accomplish these goals in different ways. Some music publishers are very hands-on with the songwriters on their rosters.

At one end of the publishing spectrum are companies that are very aggressive when it comes to generating opportunities for their songwriters. Instead of waiting for a label to call looking for a song for one of their artists, the publishing company itself will call labels and others who may be in need of songs to place their songwriters' work.

These publishers usually have a creative team whose job it is to work directly with the songwriters to help develop their craft. They may do everything from providing feedback on compositions to offering songwriting seminars/workshops.

Some might pair up songwriters that they think will work well together for collaborations.

At the other end of the spectrum are publishing companies that essentially function as accounting firms. Though they certainly want the songwriters signed to their company to excel in their craft, they don't get very involved in the creative process.

Instead, they check out songs and make a projection of the earning potential of a track. They then "buy-in" for a share of any earnings. Further, they are not very proactive when it comes to pushing songs to labels.

They do provide all of the song accounting services a writer needs, but they react to requests instead of soliciting them.

In between these two polar opposites are publishers that vary in their methods.

If it is early in your songwriting career, you could benefit greatly from having a publishing company that offers you support and actively promotes your work. Ultimately, you should opt for the company that feels like the best fit.

The Size of the Music Publisher Can Matter

Up-and-coming songwriters face some risks when signing with a large publishing company. You may not be a priority for them as they focus on their current big-ticket writers. You might consider asking questions to determine whether a publisher is going to put an effort to sell your work.

Before you sign, be sure someone within the company is enthusiastic about your music and that you have a contact there who will be responsive to your questions and concerns.

Smaller publishers may have more focus on you and your writing. Find out how each company plans to use you before signing on.

A Publisher Can Be Affiliated or Independent

Major companies are associated with a specific major label; some independent publishing companies allow the major publishers to handle their administration.

Indie publishing companies (not to be confused with independent publishers) handle all of their own administration work. You'll have to decide which type of publisher is a better fit for you: Small and personalized, or big, with lots of connections and marketing power?

You May Not Need a Music Publisher

As a songwriter, you might not even need a publishing deal. Music publishing can be very complex, and the work of licensing and royalty management is time-consuming.

If you understand the aspects of publishing and have an avenue to do so, you may not need anyone to help—you will have to consider the amount of time and effort required to publish your own songs.

Much comes down to your style of music. Some genres tend to be "busier" in terms of publishing than others. If your publishing workload is generally light, you may be able to manage your own song administration.

Closing Thoughts

Music publishers can help you tap into some very lucrative income streams and help you manage some difficult jobs. Although you as a songwriter can certainly handle your own publishing, and thereby keep all of the revenues, a good publishing company can potentially take your career to the next level.

Publishing deals can indeed be a very good thing, but make sure you understand what to expect from the company. Understand also that they bring a much larger marketing machine to the table, which can possibly accelerate your success.