What a Music Publishing Company Does

Musicians need to decide whether to fly solo or enlist a pro for help

Musician Writing Song Lyrics with Guitar
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If you are a songwriter with a publishing deal, music publishing companies will manage your songs and make sure all of the royalties to which you are entitled are being collected. In exchange, the music publisher gets a cut of income generated by your songs. 

Don't confuse a music publishing company with a record label. While both share many of the same goals for their songwriters, publishers provide a wider array of services.

A music publisher's role is to make deals with songwriters, promote the songs their songwriters compose to musicians and anyone else who may need a song for advertising, a movie, a promotional campaign, etc., issue licenses for the use of the songs they represent, and collect licensing fees. This work usually is referred to as the administration of a song.

Different Styles

Some publishing companies are hands-on and get involved in everything from the creative process to heavy promotion. For instance, many publishing companies have a person or department devoted to providing feedback to songwriters on their work, making suggestions for new directions, and matching songwriters for collaborative efforts they think may produce interesting results.

The companies that get deeply involved with the creative process also are the ones who tend to be significantly proactive when it comes to placing their songwriters' work and soliciting new opportunities for their rosters.

Other publishing companies are far less engaged with their clients. They tend to evaluate a composition, make a decision about its profitability potential, and then purchase a chunk of its royalties. These companies offer little, if any, creative support to their songwriters and are more reactive than proactive when it comes to seeking licensing opportunities. Although they will still handle the administration of the songs on their rosters, they tend to respond to offers rather than going out and trying to generate them.

Types of Companies

In addition to different styles of music publishing, there also are different types of publishing companies. These mirror the different types of record labels that exist, and many publishing companies are associated with or own record labels. Music publishing companies fall into four main categories:

  • Major: These are the big boys, associated with the Big Three labels: Sony BMG, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group.
  • Major affiliated: These are independent publishing companies that have deals with the majors to handle their licensing administration. Think of these like major distributed independent record labels.
  • Independent: These publishing companies handle their own administration in-house without the aid of one of the majors. They also are self-funded.
  • Writer-Publishers: It is not uncommon for songwriters to handle their own publishing. If the workload demands, they may hire someone to handle their song administration, but this person is an employee of the songwriter who gets paid for their work. They are not taking a direct cut of the income generated by a song.

How They Make Money

Music publishers earn money through licensing fees and royalties. In terms of song ownership, a publisher usually gets a 50% stake in a track. In other words, the original copyright owner (the songwriter) assigns a portion of the copyright for a song to the publisher.

A deal with a good publishing company can significantly increase a songwriter's earning potential. However, publishing deals can be complicated and signing the wrong deal can leave a songwriter burned for many years to come. Always seek legal advice before making a publishing deal.