The 3 Types of Music Publishing Agreements (and why they’re important)

Music Publishing

If you write your own songs, either with a band or on your own, or co-write with others, developing an understanding of music publishing is probably the most important thing you can do for your career.

That being said, music publishing is the most confusing aspect of the music business. The number of blank stares that return my gaze after I explain music publishing to a fellow musician is countless, and perhaps warranted. This stuff is complex.

I’ve put this blog together to help reduce the confusion.

Music Publishing Revenue

Pub 1

In every song, music publishing revenue and ownership is divided into two halves: the Publisher’s Share and the Writer’s Share, as per above. The circle as a whole represents the total music publishing ‘pie’ in a single song. The Writer’s Share always belongs to you, the writer, and it can never be assigned or sold. If you never sign a music publishing deal of any kind, you will retain 100% of the music publishing revenue and ownership in your songs, meaning you will own the full pie.

If you sign a music publishing agreement, you give up part of the Publisher’s Share, or the left half of the pie. Let’s look at how that might happen.

music publishing

The 3 main types of music publishing agreements are:

1) Publishing Administration Agreement

Often artists want to retain ownership in their music publishing, but hire a third party to exploit their catalogue of songs (through film/tv placements, etc.). A music publishing administrator also helps ensure that the correct amount of music publishing revenue from your catalog of songs is being paid and collected around the world. You’d be surprised how many commercials and films and video games use music and fail to pay the writers of the music. This is where an administrator can be your best friend, by ensuring your songs are generating the most music publishing revenue possible around the world.

If you sign a Pub Admin deal, the administrator does not acquire ownership in the copyrights in your songs, but administers them for a fee (ranging from 10-25%). You as writer give up a percentage of your music publishing revenue, with the hope that the administrator will help your songs generate more revenue to offset the fee. In the diagram below I’ve illustrated a 20% pub admin deal. The 20% only applies to the Publisher’s Share (the Writer’s Share is untouchable), so that’s 20% of 50%, or 10% of the overall publishing revenues generated by the Artist’s songs. The Artist retains full ownership of the full pie, but gives up 10% of the total music publishing revenue to the Pub Admin company.

Pub 2

2) Co-Publishing Agreement

The Co-Pub deal is the norm in the business today. The music publisher and the writer co-own the copyrights in the musical works and the music publisher administers the copyrights in the works. This is a deeper commitment than the Admin Deal, as the term is often longer…often equal to the life of the copyrights (which equals the life of the author plus 50 years!). In exchange for this deepened commitment, a music publishing advance for the Artist is normal. The standard Co-Pub deal involves half of the Publisher’s Share going to the Publisher, meaning we’re left with a 75/25 split in favor of the Artist (i.e. 50% of the Publisher’s Share half is given away, or 25% overall):

Pub 3

3) Buy-Out Agreement or a “Full” Publishing Agreement

Buy Out deals are not as common today as they were in the past, and are typically seen when a significant advance is being offered for the Writer’s catalogue. The Publisher owns 100% of the copyrights in the musical works and has sole administration rights. The overall split of music publishing revenue is 50/50, as the Writer is left only with the Writer’ Share of music publishing revenues from performances.

Pub 4

What Does a Music Publisher Do? 

Generally speaking, music publishers administer, promote, exploit and protect your catalogue of songs throughout the world. The two key revenue streams for music publishers are mechanical royalties (royalties from the ‘mechanical’ reproduction of the songs) and performance royalties (royalties earned from the public performance of the songs).

Any time you hear a song on the radio, at the grocery store, at a hockey game, or on a video game, music publishing revenue is being generated and collected (in theory) by a publisher on behalf of an artist.

Until the 20th Century, a music publisher’s main function was administrating printed music in all its forms. However, as 20th Century technology extended the use of music, so the responsibilities of publishers similarly widened to include the licensing of music on records, radio, television, films, concerts and, more recently, tapes, compact discs, satellite and cable distribution, karaoke, video games, computer software, CD-ROMs and other forms of multimedia, etc.

Publishers may also actively ‘pitch’ songs to other artists to record, or ‘plug’ songs to radio, tv/film, and other users.

What is Sub-Publishing?

Once you’ve signed with a music publisher, they will often hire other publishers in other countries to help exploit your songs and collect the revenues around the world. These other publishers are called Sub-Publishers. Often times your publisher will have pre-existing agreements with sub-pubs in every territory in the world.

The advantages of sub-publishing are obvious: the foreign publisher, ideally, has the necessary contacts to expose works in that territory and the administrative skills to collect subsequent royalties. Securing covers is part of the job, but having a sub-publisher ensures proper registration, licensing and documentation of a catalogue. Also, a sub-publisher can, through membership in local mechanical and performing rights societies, collect and distribute income generated by an original recording. Of course, major publishers with offices in many territories don’t usually require sub publishers.


The question remains: should you sign a music publishing deal? There is not a simple answer. I’ve seen more and more artists moving away from the confines of Pub and Co-Pub deals, and opting instead for the freedom of Pub Admin deals. The advances are often lower, but the flexibility and independence are appealing.

So the answer really depends on the reputation of the publisher involved, the current state of your career, the offer on the table, etc. Along with choosing a manager and record label, choosing a music publisher is one of the big three decisions you’ll make in your career. In other words: a decision not to be taken lightly! Call me with questions, and I’ll be happy to help. music publishing

12 thoughts on “The 3 Types of Music Publishing Agreements (and why they’re important)

  1. Great blog! This stuff is really helpful – I had a recording engineer ask for a portion of Publishing rights as a trade for lower recording costs. Glad I said No.

    Next time you’re in Regina, I own 2 Pub/Venues, The Lancaster Taphouse and The Capitol Jazz Club and Tapas Bar – come by and check them out!
    Thanks again!

    • Thanks Judd. Yes, you should never give up songwriting/publishings rights unless actual co-writing is occurring with the third party. If you ever have questions about anything music related, don’t hesitate to email me at

      And I appreciate the invite to Lancaster & the Capitol — I’ve heard great things about both, and will be in town soon for our show with Judas Priest! I look forward to meeting in person soon.

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer


  3. Good evening
    I am a gospel recording artist . I have been working with a producer. He has done the music component while I have done the lyrics. At the beginning of the project, he suggested a 50/50split on publishing and I said yes because is thought it was fair. However, after reading your blog I don’t know if I should have agreed to this. Please advice. I have not signed anything and the more knowledge I am obtaining I would like to review this matter. Thanks

  4. Kurt! Thanks for this. We’re in a state of purgatory with this, hoping we can figure out the answer. I personally can’t keep up with publishing, and so I know we need a publisher, but the one publisher I’ve talked to won’t sign anything but a full-publishing agreement.

    Grateful for this read, and for your blog altogether. Best of luck with OBS, and hopefully I’ll catch you guys again soon!

    • Thanks Dan. Sometimes full pub deals make sense, if the advance is substantial. Email and we can chat further, and I’m happy to help with the negotiations.

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  5. Hi Kurt

    I am an indie publisher and doing an admin deal with a writer. The writers name in ASCAP is John M. He is self published under John M Music.
    When I do the admin – who is it will John M self published as John m Music (Writer)
    Or just John M Music (Publisher)

    • You might want to check with ASCAP as to how they would like you to register things. In Canada, I believe the admin (you) would take 25% for example, then the remaining 25% of the publisher’s share would be John M Music, and the 50% writer’s share would be his personal name. But please check with ASCAP as things might be different in the US.


      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

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