What is Music Publishing? The Ultimate Guide for Musicians

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an illustration related to music publishing

When it comes to making money from your work, music publishing is an important topic.

Like other similar topics, however, it can often be a little tricky to understand.

So we’ve put together a guide to music publishing that will help you get a handle on the essentials. Most importantly, you’ll be better equipped to make money from the music you create.

Let’s jump right in.

Note: This article is for informational purposes only and is not to be taken as legal advice.

What is music publishing?

🧠 Hot tip

You might also hear the term "music licensing." This simply refers to the process that music publishers go through to grant and administer the permissions to use compositions.

Music publishing is the business of managing the copyright and royalties that are related to music compositions. Music publishers work with songwriters to ensure that any time one of their compositions is used, performed, or reproduced, the copyright is respected and the songwriter is paid accordingly.

Examples of music publishing companies include Sony Music Publishing and Kobalt.

The terms “music composition” and “songwriter” actually have specific and important meanings in this context, but we’ll explain that soon.

One thing to know right off the bat is that music publishing involves a lot of administrative work, professional experience, and industry relationships. 

Because of this, music publishers collect a commission on the royalty income that they secure for the songwriter. They also often partially own the rights to compositions.

So, depending on where you are in your music career, it may or may not be worthwhile for you to seek out a music publisher and accept the associated cost.

Before we go in depth about how music publishing works, let’s get some important definitions out of the way.

Music compositions vs. masters

There are two types of music copyright: the rights over music compositions and the rights over music masters.

music composition is made up of the core creative material that defines a piece of music — structure, melody, harmonies, rhythm, lyrics, etc.

Music compositions are credited to and owned by (or co-owned by) one or more songwriters.

The rights over a music composition are called composition rights or publishing rights, and these are the professional domain of music publishers. 

Royalties collected via these rights are sometimes called publishing royaltiescomposition royalties, or songwriter royalties.

music master, on the other hand, is the original recording (or production) of a music composition.

Music masters are credited to and owned by (or co-owned by) one or more recording artists.

🧠 Hot tip

Music publishers don’t deal with master recording rights or recording royalties — these are the domain of labels, distributors like LANDR, and other organizations.

The rights over music masters are often called master rights or recording rights, and the royalties are often called recording royalties

On a legal and administrative level, these two types of music copyright are treated as entirely separate things.

Even if a songwriter and recording artist are the same person, the management of their compositions and masters involve different processes and types of organizations.

Now that we’ve got the vocabulary down, let’s take a closer look at how music publishing deals work.

What is a music publishing deal?

A music publishing deal is an agreement between a music publisher and one or more songwriters. It outlines who will own what share of rights over music compositions and who gets what percentage of the collected royalties.

The two most common types of music publishing deals are co-publishing deals and admin deals.

In a co-publishing deal, the publisher and songwriter(s) co-own the rights to the compositions, and the publisher takes a larger cut of royalties in exchange for more services.

Examples of these services include more extensive creative strategy, getting you more lucrative opportunities as a songwriter, access to more industry connections, and more.

Co-publishing deals also often involve significant advance payments to songwriters at the beginning of the contract. 

These allow songwriters to support themselves as they work on their material. 

The advance has to be recouped over time with the songwriter’s royalties until the publisher is paid back, at which point the songwriter will begin to receive their share in full.

In an admin deal, the songwriter has full ownership over their compositions. 

The publisher only carries out the basic administrative function of managing copyright and collecting royalties. In this situation, the cut they take of royalties is smaller.

But of course, not all musicians have publishing deals, so it’s worth contemplating whether you need one at all.

Do I need a music publishing deal?

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Self-releasing through a distributor like LANDR is one of the best ways to get your music out there and build a following that can lead to songwriter royalties.

In a standard music industry deal, a well-established artist usually co-owns their compositions with a music publisher, while their label owns the recording masters.

However, it’s more common than ever for artists to write, produce, and release their music entirely on their own.

In these situations, artists can:

  • Release independently through a distributor
  • Retain full ownership of both their compositions and masters
  • Collect recording royalties from the distributor
  • Collect publishing royalties from royalty organizations

If you’re a beginner or early-career artist, it’s possible for you to collect certain publishing royalties yourself, which we’ll explain later.

Before you know whether or not that’s the best option for you, it’s a good idea to understand how music publishing royalties work.

Music publishing and royalties

When it comes to music compositions and music publishing, there are three main types of royalties: performance royaltiesmechanical royalties, and sync royalties.

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While mechanical royalties seem like they would fall under the domain of master recording rights, they in fact fall under the domain of publishing rights.

Performance royalties are collected for the live performance or playback of music in the context of concerts, festivals, radio stations, or public spaces. 

Mechanical royalties are collected for the production of physical and digital copies of music recordings — CDs, vinyl, tapes, digital downloads, and streaming.

Sync royalties are collected for the use of music in audiovisual media, most commonly in film, TV, and advertising. 

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Sync royalties are collected over time as the media content is aired or broadcast. This is often in addition to a one-time sync licensing fee that is paid to the publisher and songwriter upfront.

A subset of these are micro-sync royalties, which are specific to platforms like YouTube and TikTok, and are subject to their own specific factors.

Sync licensing royalties are typically collected directly by a music publisher, who will then take their commission before passing the remainder to the songwriter(s).

Performance and mechanical royalties, however, must be collected from intermediary organizations called collecting societies

Let’s find out more about these and how they work.

Music publishers and collecting societies

Collecting societies are organizations that register and maintain the rights of music compositions while collecting royalties for their members (songwriters and publishers).

The three types of collecting societies are performing rights organizations (PROs), collective management organizations (CROs), and mechanical rights agencies (MRAs).

PROs deal specifically with performance rights and performance royalties, and they’re specific to the United States and Canada. Examples include ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, and SOCAN.

CROs are the equivalent to PROs in most countries outside the US and Canada. Examples include GEMA in Germany, SACEM in France, and PRS for Music in the UK.

MRAs deal specifically with mechanical rights and mechanical royalties. Examples include Harry Fox Agency and Music Reports.

In addition to these, the US Copyright Office created the Mechanical Licensing Collective (MLC) in 2021. 

This can be seen as an MRA specializing in the collection of publishing royalties from streaming and digital downloads in the United States.

So, after all this talk about royalties, you’re probably wondering…

How are publishing royalties calculated?

We’re going to level with you on this one — royalty calculation is complicated and confusing business.

The exact royalty amounts that are calculated at the source depend on a huge number of factors, and those factors can vary depending on context.

Instead of getting lost in the nitty gritty details, let’s just establish the essential things you need to know.

Performance royalties are calculated by collecting societies, who each use their own formulas to do so. These formulas can be quite complex and involve a wide range of variables and modifiers depending on each situation.

Mechanical royalties are also calculated based on many factors, including:

  • The format of the music
  • The formula being used to make the calculation
  • The legal factors specific to the region 

Sync royalties will typically be calculated based on: 

  • The total runtime for which the song is used 
  • The perceived value of the song for the licensor
  • The perceived value of its placement for the songwriter
  • Other factors in the negotiated agreement

Naturally, you might be wondering what percentage of royalties you get and what percentage would go to a music publisher.

How are publishing royalties split?

All publishing royalties are divided 50/50 into two shares — the publisher share and the songwriter share.

For the sake of keeping things simple, let’s imagine that there’s just one credited songwriter involved.

By default, if the songwriter does not have a publishing deal, they are essentially considered to be self-published. This means that they can collect both shares.

If the songwriter does have a publishing deal, the commission will come out of the publisher share in different percentages depending on the agreement.

No matter what, the songwriter always gets the full songwriter share.

In a standard American co-publishing deal, for example, the songwriter and the publisher split the publishing share. 

🧠 Hot tip

Remember that if the songwriter was paid an advance at the start of the contract, they'll be paying back that advance from their portion of the royalties.

The songwriter is therefore getting 50% of royalties as a songwriter and another 25% as a co-publisher. 

In a standard American admin deal, on the other hand, the publisher would take less — often about 10-25% of the publisher share. This is essentially an administration fee. 

Of course, it’s not uncommon for there to be multiple songwriters involved with different levels of collaborative input. Royalties can be divided in many different ways depending on what agreements have been reached.

Now that we’ve gotten a lot of technical mumbo jumbo on the table, let’s help you draw a practical conclusion.

Is a music publishing deal worth it?

Ultimately, a music publishing deal is only worth the cost if your music has gained enough popularity to require professional royalty collection and copyright management.

In fact, it can often be difficult to get a lucrative music publishing deal if you’re not already well-established as a songwriter.

Before you get to that point, it’s likely more important to focus on creating the best music you can, self-releasing it through a distributor, and promoting it consistently to build your following.

For songwriters on this path, it’s often recommended to register your music with a PRO or CRO to collect your performance royalties.

Here are some examples by region:

Key takeaways about music publishing

So, now that we’ve survived our journey through the ins and outs of music publishing, let’s leave you with some nice, clean takeaways:

1. Music publishers help you get paid for the licensing of your music compositions, and they take a portion of the publisher’s share of your songwriting royalties.

2. Publishing royalties are different from the royalties you’re owed for the licensing of your masters, which is handled by labels, distributors like LANDR, and other organizations.

3. Music publishers get your royalties from collecting societies like PROs and MLAs, as well as from media companies who have your music in their audiovisual content.

4. There are several different types of publishing royalties, and they’re calculated in a wide range of often complex ways.

5. You can register with collecting societies yourself and collect your royalties directly for little to no cost.

6. A music publishing deal is worthwhile if there is more potential royalty income for you to collect than you can easily manage yourself.

7. If you’re early on in your career, it may be better to focus on perfecting your craft, self-releasing through a distributor, and building exposure for your music.

If you’ve read this entire article, we respect your dedication! Time to shake off all this business talk and work on some music.

Devon Hansen

Devon Hansen is a producer, DJ, and writer with 20 years of experience in electronic music production. Having worked under various names and in a wide range of styles, Devon has performed several editions of MUTEK Montreal and has released music with labels in North America, the UK, and Japan. When not working on creative projects or playing tunes on Montreal’s n10.as radio, Devon can be found watching movies, cooking, and reading too much about gear.

@Devon Hansen

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