What’s A Music Publisher?

In today’s music industry, the music publisher (or music publishing company) is responsible for managing, protecting, and exploiting song copyrights, in an effort to generate maximum royalty revenue for each composition.   By way of a publishing contract,  a songwriter  “assigns” the copyright in and to their composition(s), to a publishing company.  In return, the publishing company finds royalty generating opportunities for the songs, negotiates and issues licenses for such uses world-wide, collects royalties from those uses, and distributes royalties to the songwriter.  It’s to the benefit of a professional songwriter to engage a music publisher to work on his behalf, unless the writer is confident he can do all of these duties himself.

Professional songwriters usually have a relationship with a publishing company defined by a publishing contract.  These contracts can cover a specific group of existing songs, songs that will be written by the songwriter going forward, or both.  With regard to songs that have not yet been written, most publishing contracts define a period of time in which a songwriter will be “exclusive” to the publisher.  This means that each and every song written by the songwriter during the term of the contract, will be published by the music publisher.  Songs signed under contract by a music publisher will generally be  published for the life of the copyright in each song, giving the publisher ongoing financial incentive to secure the type of uses that can generate significant long-term revenue for each song and increase song popularity, thus producing further uses down the road.  Publishers often provide the exclusive songwriter with substantial advances against future income, to encourage the songwriter to commit a majority of his time to writing songs, rather than to working other jobs.  In return for all of its responsibilities, the publishing company receives a percentage of the royalty income generated from the songs, which is typically 50%, but can vary for different kinds of royalties.

A common misconception today among the general public is that a music publisher’s job is simply to print music.  This is because the term “music publisher”, originated with publishers of sheet music, as printed music was the primary commercial use of musical compositions in the late 19th century.  Since that time however, a variety of commercial opportunities have emerged, generating dozens of income types for song copyrights – from the advent of recordings, radio, television, film/video, gaming and digital technology.  Therefore, today companies known as “music publishers” are primarily in the business of exploiting and licensing song copyrights to third parties who use the songs commercially.  They are usually no longer in the business of actually producing printed music themselves.  Instead, they license their songs to “print music publishers” who specialize in the business of creating sheet music, songbooks, band music, choral works, etc.

The copyrights owned and administered by publishing companies are one of the most important forms of intellectual property in the music industry, and can be quite lucrative simply because a single song may be recorded, printed, performed and used in many different ways, by many different artists, over many decades, generating royalties at every turn.  Publishing companies play a central role in managing this vital asset.

Types of Song Royalties:

There are several types of royalties for the use of song copyrights, some of which we’ve touched on in previous posts: mechanical royalties derive from the sale of recorded music, such as CDs or digital downloads. These royalties are paid to publishers by record companies (or through their agencies or administrators such as the Harry Fox Agency).  Performance royalties are collected by performing rights organizations such as SESAC, BMI, ASCAP or PRS and are paid by radio stations, television networks, hotels, bars and others who broadcast recorded music.  Synchronization royalties are required when a composition is used in timed-relation with visual images, such as television shows, videos or films.  In Christian music, songs used by churches or ministry organizations in various forms like recordings, printed music, power-point files, videos and more, are often collected by Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI).  Publishers negotiate contracts with specific licensing/collection agents or issue direct licenses for all of these types of uses.  They also negotiate contracts with international sub-publishers to license and collect royalties in countries outside of their immediate territory.   All of these royalties, except for possibly domestic performing rights royalties, typically pass through the hands of the music publisher before they reach the songwriter.

Publishers also work to link up new songs by songwriters with suitable recording artists to record them and they place writers’ songs in other media such as movie soundtracks, commercials and video games.  They “pitch” songs to print publishers and promote songs directly to churches for use in worship services.  Publishers also typically handle copyright registration and ownership matters for the composer.


Performing Rights Organizations

Performing Rights Organizations, often referred to as PROs, are helpful organizations for the songwriter. ASCAP, BMI and SESAC are the three performing rights organizations in the US.  These organizations act as agents for the purpose of licensing “performing rights” on behalf of songwriters and publishers.  One of the rights granted a copyright owner, under US copyright law, is the right to perform a song publicly.  This right covers not only live performances of a song, but playing a recorded version of a song publicly, as well.

The performing rights organizations issue licenses and collect fees from radio stations, television networks, hotels, nightclubs, concert venues, arenas, skating rinks, ball parks, restaurants, coffee houses, internet companies, airlines and other outlets where music is performed either live or recorded.

The PROs are voluntary associations, and songwriters and music publishers have no obligation to join.  However, it is to their advantage to do so and have their songs licensed by one of these three organizations.  It would be an extremely difficult task for the individual songwriter or publisher to negotiate licenses and collect royalties with the thousands of companies and venues that perform music regularly.  And it would be just as daunting a task for a single radio station, for example, to contact each individual publisher or songwriter to negotiate a license and pay royalties for airplay of their songs.  Having a central clearing house for hundreds of thousands of songs, is no doubt advantageous to everyone involved.

Songwriters can link here to learn more about ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, including how to join.