Should Musicians Self-Publish?

kurt_dahlArticles, Lawyer News54 Comments

As a songwriter, you have likely heard talk of self-publishing your compositions. You’ve likely noticed, while perusing the fine print in the liner notes of your favorite albums, that nearly all major artists have created their own publishing company.

This means that they’ve incorporated a publishing company, through which the publisher’s share of income flows.

The other half of publishing revenue, known as the writer’s share, flows directly to the individual writers, and cannot be assigned or transferred to a publisher.

So: why do major artists self-publish and should you do the same?

Publishing company

The “why” is fairly straightforward: for tax and liability reasons. When your songs are earning enough revenue, it makes sense to incorporate to allow the publisher’s share of revenue to flow through a company rather than you individually, and thereby be taxed at a much lower corporate rate. From a liability perspective, god forbid you are ever sued for plagiarism, the party suing can only go after the corporation’s assets, not your house and car.

The “when” is not so clear. I say “when” rather than “if”, as all songwriters incorporate a publishing company at some stage. When is the right time for you? If your songs are earning under a few thousand dollars a year, it doesn’t likely justify the costs of incorporation and maintenance of the company. As long as you’re registered as a writer with SOCAN in Canada and ASCAP/BMI in the USA, you will receive 100% of the publishing revenue, as an individual.

Publishing company

There are few scenarios that might indicate that the time is right. If you find yourself licensing music internationally, entering a sub-publishing deal with a foreign publisher, or being offered a co-publishing deal from a third party publisher, the time is right to incorporate your own publishing entity. This entity would then be the contracting party to the above agreements.

Another scenario is if you want to act as a publisher yourself and sign other writers to your company. This involves administering the rights of these writers, including issuing licenses, collecting revenues and distributing royalties.

Once you establish that you’d like to self publish, call your performing rights organization (PRO). They will perform a name search, and let you know if you have the green light to register the business name with the government. You will likely need to be creative in selecting your company name because any name that is identical or too similar to an existing music publishing company will be rejected in order to avoid confusion and the potential of payments being issued to the wrong company.

Once you’ve successfully incorporated and have a business bank account set up and confirmed with your PRO, you complete an application with the PRO, sign a publishing agreement (consult with an entertainment lawyer), and you are in the business of publishing.

Remember, being self published and being a successful publisher are two different things, so you may still want to partner with a publishing company when the right opportunity arises. For more on this topic, email me.

Publishing company

54 Comments on “Should Musicians Self-Publish?”

  1. My question is if i made the music and produced a record with an artist would i copyright the complete song or just my music?

    1. Most smaller artists are self published. Some big names are as well, where they create their own pub company and might get the assistance of a bigger pub house like Warner Chappell etc.

      Thanks

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

      1. Confused of course with music business lol. I am about to perform on several songs with a band. The band leader is taking half of the publishing and giving the other musicians the other 50% which is fine but should I start my own publishing company to receive money if the songs are played on radio, tv, etc. Thank you!

        1. Not needed until you’re earning over $50-60K I would suggest. Mostly tax benefits. So just be self-published (i.e. in your name) for now.

          Kurt Dahl
          Entertainment Lawyer

  2. Thank you so much for the info! I’ve been looking everywhere for this easy explanation! I am going to self-publish my EP when registering it on BMI. If the money starts flowing in big-time, I’ll start my own publishing company. Thanks for this write-up!

  3. Hello, name is AYIE BIIE . i’m the one who emailed you yesterday. ok so i had a few questions. im just skeptical about a publishing company that i was signed to for 3 years. so basically i had a 3 year pub contract , with a producer who started has the pub company Smash Coast. with in those years nothing was placed, mainly due to not enough consistent work. (thats what the pub founder said was the reason why).

    so my #1 questions is should i be signed with a publishing company that is owned by another producer. i just see this being a conflict with getting my tracks to big placement. wouldn’t he want to get his own tracks in there first?

    #2 concern so recently i spoked with him . He said that the company i was signed under he stopped working with. and went back to his original pub company. so basically when i signed with him i signed under a name Mechach Media, he stopped working with them so now technically im free from publishing. but he introduced signing to a 5 year contract with his original pub company. so my question is , is that legit. i dont want to find out later down the road im still signed to that other company. . also his contract with his company is still similar 50/50 sync. i own 100% master . but is 5 years too long to be with a pub company. that i may still never get placements.

    #3 this pub company is more so boutique as they say, not a major company. should i be dealing with a pub company that doesn’t offer advances.

    sorry if this seems jumbled lol, i have so many concerns. Im due to sign with him. just want to get some clarity if i should commence with that. i can send contract if need be. Thank you sooo much for your time!

    1. It does sound a bit sketchy. I would try to find reviews online and/or from other artists that have worked with this publisher, to see what their track record is like. Don’t sign anything until you’ve done your due diligence. And feel free to send me the deal they offered you, I’m happy to give my opinion.

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  4. Hey had one more question. could i have a publishing company and still sign with another publishing company.?

  5. Hi, Kurt! Great article!
    How about Songtrust? It administrates the royalties and affiliets an artist with PRO both as songwriter and publisher. The artist still owns 100% of copyright. In this case there is no need in creating your own publishi g company, right?

    1. Hi Mary

      I think there would still be a great benefit from a tax perspective, as all the pub money would flow through the pub co rather than the writer personally.

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  6. If I have a publishing admin set up (ie songtrust, sentric) is it worth it to still set up a self publishing entity for the long term?

  7. Hi! If I am with a publishing admin ie Sentric or Songtrust, should I still set up my own publishing entity for the long term?

    1. It would be worth it at some point Merilou, as you would pay a lower tax rate on those revenues. Every writer creates their own pub co at some point, so it’s really a question of when rather than if. And the “when” is when it makes sense financially.

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  8. Hi Kurt,
    Great article as usual. Thank you!
    Question: If I wait till down the road to start a publishing company and just sign-up with a P.R.O. as an artist, can I transfer ownership of my old songs to my Publishing company once I start one?

  9. If a major publisher commissions someone to orchestrate an existing big band piece, paying him $7,000 for a work for hire to produce a handwritten conductor’s score…then later…
    1.) Major publisher agrees to “Released [the arranger/orchestrator] from any and all contractual obligations.
    2.) Major publisher allows [the arranger/orchestrator] to “Retain the payment of $7,000 USD without further obligation to major publisher
    3.) Major publisher agrees that “if [orchestrator/arranger] receives an offer to make this arrangement available via third-party print publisher, [major publisher #1], as copyright holder of the original work, will enter into good faith negotiations with said publisher to approve a third-party print license to administer the arrangement.

    Then…
    Is the orchestrated piece no longer a Work for Hire?
    Is the orchestrated piece now a Derivative Work?
    Will the orchestrator own copy rights to the Derivative Work and be entitled to royalties going forward?

  10. Hey Kurt, fantastic article!

    I have a few questions regarding my 16 year old son who is a artist/songwriter, and is currently making music that’s soon to be released. I’d like to know what’s the best way to approach protecting him and his music, while maintaining 100% ownership of his works, since he’s still a minor? Should I set up a pub co? If so, what would be the best structure? Also, is it necessary to sign with other pro’s in addition to BMI or Ascap?

    This whole journey and process is all very new to me, therefore any advice you can give would be so greatly appreciated.

    Best,

    Jay

    1. Email me Jay and I can help. Sounds like your questions require fairly in depth answers. There are many ways to protect him and his music.

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  11. I’m a songwriter and I have registered my songs with BMI. I want to be completely protected. Do I need to copyright and do I need to get a publisher license? I also want to make sure that different types of royalties are paid to me?

    1. You don’t need to incorporate your own pub co to collect all the royalties. So long as you are registered with BMI, they should in theory be collecting everything for you.

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  12. Kurt this is great info. I will bookmark your site and your info.

    I recently was able to get a A+ level mixing engineer to work on my debut album for a heck of a deal.. and one of my old friends found out and wants to publish it. He hasn’t done that much music – he has done some but he’s been out of the loop a while.

    Am I being cynical to think he’s trying to capitalize on future opportunity from my album? I am thinking I should just self publish. I don’t see a benefit of a publisher unless they have some serious marketing / biz pull.

    thank you much

  13. Pingback: Part 2: A Beginner's Guide To Hiring A Music Producer - KYLEDEVINE.COM

  14. I am not yet in a place to incorporate my own pub company. But I am in the midst of signing a label deal right now. If I am set up with my PRO am I good to go on the publishing side of things for now? What else do I need to do to ensure the pub money from my records makes it’s way to me?

  15. Thank you for the informative article! I’m getting ready to affiliate with BMI as a new writer. Since I’m already incorporated for my music teaching business, would it make sense to go ahead and create my own publishing company under my already existing corporation? Or does it still make sense to wait and do this after I start making money with my music?

    If I should start my own publishing co., is it then necessary to fill out a royalty assignment form to assign my publishing rights to my company? Am I understanding this correctly? Also, since you said there is no way to assign or transfer writer’s royalties to a publisher, would I then always have to collect those royalties directly and not be able to benefit tax-wise by running them through my corporation?

    My accountant advised me to receive all royalty payments via my corporation. However, he then said that he didn’t think I needed to set up a separate publishing company in order to do so (that I could just assign my corporation as the payee) Is that correct? This doesn’t seem right to me. Wouldn’t I still have to assign royalties in order to do so?

    As I’m sure you can tell, I’m a bit confused and really in need of some clarity. I ust want to make sure that I set things up correctly before I proceed! Thank you for your advice.

    1. I’d require more info to give a full opinion, and if you’re not in Canada I can’t really advise on the corporate law side of things, but generally speaking – I think your existing company can be used to flow pub revenue through. You might want to check with your local performing rights org (ASCAP or BMI in the USA) and see what their requirements are for registering a corp as a publishing company with them.

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  16. Thanks for the article! Regarding whether to copyright register a song under the arts/writer name vs. publisher name:

    In Donald Passman’s book “All You Need to Know About The Music Business,” after detailing how to start a publishing company, including filing a fictitious business name, he states something that is unclear to me:

    “Register the songs with the Copyright Office in the name of your publishing company. If the songs were previously copyrighted in your name, you need to file an assignment transferring them to the publisher’s name.”

    Why would these songs need to be registered in the name of the publishing company, as opposed to the writer? I understand this if the publisher and the writer were not the same person, but in my case, it’s all owned by me!

    1. Mostly it’s for tax benefits, i.e. your pub income flows through the company rather than to you personally. So you can have the publisher’s share flow through your pub co, and the writer’s share flows to you personally. Again, the main benefit is taxes, but also limited liability to a certain extent.

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  17. Yeah i got a question for you i resently had a song that was awarded a publishing deal but the thing is im just an independant artist wit a regular day job question is i just dont wanna record in my basement no more an want to do some major releases and get that out the way so i can focus on my next project
    But publishers an record advances are hard to get by an i dont wanna have hits records an have it shelf for no reason this is why i work close wit producer an artist any way. You never give me feed back this is like the fifth time im writin you

    Please
    Reply

    Ghett $

  18. Hi,
    I have a two part question:
    Most info out there says that as a songwriter/composer you’re only getting 50% of your money from PROs because 50% is supposed to go to the publisher, so it’s suggested to open one’s own publishing if one want’s to receive 100% of rights. I am confused because your article seems to say that a composer can register a song as self published to get 100% of royalties. Is there a serf-published option for songwriters, distinct from also registering as a publisher with a PRO? Or are they the same thing?
    And the 2nd part is: If I want to sell my own sheet music, do I need to open a publishing company or can I sell my sheet music with the self-published option you talk about, without actually having a publishing company?
    Appreciate the clarification and help,
    Mich

    1. Yes, registering as 100% writer is the same as self-publishing. If you want to create your own pub co, the benefit is that half of those revenues would be taxed at a lower rate through your corp. Hope this helps Jim.

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  19. Hello Mr. Dahl, hope you and yours are well, staying safe and healthy especially during this time of pandemic. Firstly, thank you for your insight and for taking the time to provide useful information to those who seek clarity.

    I want to be sure I correctly understand the process in its proper chronological order. I believe it is very important to begin properly as our beginning has a great impact on that which proceeds afterwards.

    Once I have my songs professionally recorded, mastered and ready for release, one of the 1st tasks is to sign up with a PRO as a writer/artist. Do I sign up in my legal name or can I use my artist name?

    Then it would be beneficial to create my own publishing company for the 50% of the publisher’s share to be taxed at a lower corporate rate? (The 50% writer’s share comes directly to me and is taxed at the regular personal rate which is higher than the corporate rate?)

    Before registering desired publishing company’s name with the state, be sure the name is available through the PRO, if so create an LLC with the state?

    Once publishing company is successfully created, be sure to register/copyright all songs with copyright office in the name of the publishing company? Upon doing so the 50% publisher’s share of performance royalties will be paid by the PRO to my publishing company?

    If I have copyrighted songs in my name, transfer all of them to the publishing company? Is there a specific form that I must use in order to complete this transfer?

    Since I am an independent artist can my publishing company also be my label by which all my music will be released under? For sake of example lets say the name I select is XYZ so can it be XYZ Music & Publishing LLC which will serve as my own record label and publishing company in one?

    Once company is created, I could then sign up with a publishing administrator such as CD Baby Pro and they’ll collect all my global mechanical royalties?

    The main benefit of a pub. admin. is to relieve me from having to do the global paperwork of registering songs with multiple collection societies and relieving me from having to collect my own mechanical royalties from the various sources correct? Besides this, are there any other notable benefits?

    Starting my own publishing company for the sole purpose of my own music, I would be responsible for what specific tasks for myself as the artist from a publishing standpoint?

    Furthermore, is it the job of my publishing company or the publishing admin. (CD Baby) to issue licenses to those who want to cover my songs or use it in tv, radio, etc?

    Whether it is their job or that of my company, I don’t have to consent to issuing a license to anyone or entity that wants to use my music in anything I don’t approve of correct? If I don’t approve that would prohibit the individual or entity from using my music?

    If I already have my publishing company registered with the PRO, will CD Baby override that in which now all performance royalties for the publisher’s share from the PRO will go to CD Baby, they take their fee and then pay the rest to my publishing company or to me directly? (This is unclear to me.)

    At what point should I consider getting an entertainment attorney; at the beginning of my career? Should I have an attorney look over any contractual agreement between myself and publishing admin. before proceeding?

    Thank you in advance for taking the time to read my inquiries and provide clarity. Have a great day and I look to hear from you soon. ~Ms. Brown~

  20. Hi Kurt – I sent you an email with a short background info and quick question. Hope you got it – looking forward to your reply there! Thank you so much! – Girlie

  21. Thank you for a very informative and well-written article.

    I do have a question regarding the specific entity nature of a publishing company. If one operates a loan-out company as a musician, would it be permissible and/or advisable that this entity function as a publishing company as well, or should a new entity be created? My loan out enters into contracts for live performances, recordings, commissions, etc., and collects revenue from these activities; but it does not serve as a label (distribution is handled externally). Thank you very much for your assistance.

    1. I think you could create an arm of the loan-out company that could act as publisher, but a) I’d need to know more info and b) it depends on the jurisdiction you’re in. I can only advise on Canadian companies in this regard.

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  22. Hi great article , I had a question
    I was wonder if I already have a pro for my writers since 2006 and now I want to start a publishing company for my lofi hip hop I will be release on all platforms . Does the publishing company need to be the same name as my writers side ? I want to incorporate and I’m confused on this was using legal zoom for swiftness and before I pay I needed to know this .

    1. The Writer’s Share would continue to go to you personally, and 100% of the Pub’s Share would start to flow through your pub co.

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  23. Hello, Kurt!
    This article is very encouraging! I created my LLC in 2019 and will be releasing my music for the first time soon. It’s been fun learning how to get ISRCs, creating proper metadata for my songs and registering music for digital and mechanical royalties. I am not technically minded by any means and at times I’ve felt like I could pull my hair out in frustration as I learn more to put myself out there! There are plenty of great resources and this article is one of them! Thank you for sharing this!

  24. One thing that confuses me is this idea that having your own publishing company will get you paid twice the money (publishing plus writer). From BMI’s website “In addition to earning twice the money, the other major benefit to self-publishing is that you control all creative and business decisions regarding your songs.”

    But you are saying this is not true. Having your own publishing company makes sense in terms of taxes (once you are making decent money) and for liability protection (they come for the company, LLC? not the writer).

    I got tired of maintaining my publishing company. tax forms every year. and other work I didn’t like. The cost and time spent made no sense since i was making no money.

    1. Correct. You don’t make twice the money. You make 100% of the money. If you sign a pub deal with a publisher, they get half. So in your case, it sounds like it’s not worth it to be self-published. You can simply have 100% of the revenues go to you personally.

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  25. Great stuff!

    For a band registered as a general partnership, are there alternative scenarios where it would make sense to register a publishing entity that all members assign their publishing rights to? For instance, I’d assume there can be benefits to keeping all of those rights under one roof. And in scenarios like that, how are they typically set up? Corporation? Another partnership?

    Thanks!
    Ryan

    1. Most bands incorporate at some point, for tax benefits and limited liability. The you could have a publishing arm of that corp for the publisher’s share of the band’s publishing revenue. And at some point, it will make sense for each individual member to create their own pub company as well, once the revenues are there.

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  26. Mr. Dahl,

    I have read your article and these comments with great interest. Thank you very much!

    I have been writing songs for over forty years. It is a passion of mine. In high school – in the 1980’s – I would try to pitch songs to country artists. One, who was a very major artist, who took several CMA’s the same year, listened to my tape and wrote me a very nice letter with critique and suggestions. It is a cherished experience. Many refused to accept material, and some accepted my envelope, but I never heard back. I was a gutsy teenager.

    Life happened and I never took the plunge, though I continued to dabble with writing and really started working on it quite diligently the last 6 years. I used to mess around with cassettes as a kid, and with the advent of digital technology, I started home recording in 2013, and continue to improve. Using MIDI to arrange various parts to supplement my guitar tracks has been a joy!

    I registered one song as an SR with the US Copyright Office (with credit for writing, performing, and producing) in 2014 and registered a collection of 5 songs as a single SR in 2015.

    Contacting publishers and artists these past few years has been fruitless. I have never sent material, as I am not the trusting soul that I was many years ago.

    I have spent considerable time these past few months learning about how easy it is to distribute a song. By easy, I mean, make an account with CD Baby, Distrokid, or whomever and put it out there. I don’t mean success is easy, but it is not like it used to be.

    Being quite the cautious sort, I was looking at forming an LLC for publishing, in the event of a law suit. I know the society we live in today, and I would be in no position to defend my personal assets without an LLC. I get that it probably isn’t an issue until a song makes money. I am writing new lyrics to melodies from the 1980’s.

    I did register as a songwriter with BMI, and registered with Sound Exchange. I have not released anything yet, and have been perusing the details of the various distributors. They all have pros and cons.

    I get the tax benefits for an LLC (I am in the US) and it really is not too expensive to form one in the state where I live; less than $200 and I have a few friends who have LLC’s for their businesses, which are not music related.

    My idea is to get my material out there, and I believe a good song is a good song. I don’t want to risk my home or other assets. I have never copied or sampled anybody’s work, but my career (of which I am now retired) taught me that you don’t have to be in the wrong to be sued, all that mattered was whether or not you could defend yourself. Attorneys and musicologists are not cheap.

    Here I am talking like I have a hit on my hands 🙂 It is just my nature, and I am wondering what your advice would be: 1. Sign with a distributor and publishing administrator and just go for it or 2. Form an LLC for my music production and publishing and then go to the distributor. (I didn’t specify, but I own my masters, and I am the sole contributor to all aspects of my music production).

    Thank you!

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