Should You Sign a Music Publishing Deal?

If you write your own songs, at some point in your career you will want to consider whether signing with a music publishing company makes sense.

Music publishers are sort of like record labels, but for your compositions rather than your master recordings which embody your compositions.

The right music publisher can take your career (and your earnings) to the next level. The wrong publisher can do the opposite. As with choosing a record label, choosing a music publisher is one of the most important decisions of your career, and should be treated as such.

Here are some things to consider when looking at signing with a music publishing company:

Is it the Right Fit?

In essence, all music publishing companies do the same thing: they license your songs and collect your music publishing revenue. However, every music publishing company does this differently. Some publishers work very closely with their writers, arranging co-writes, providing feedback on compositions, and generally guiding the direction and growth of their writers’ careers. This sort of “proactive” publisher often has a creative team that works directly with the writer, and actively pitches their songs to music supervisors, corporate clients, and labels.

On the other end of the music publishing spectrum are more “reactive” companies, that focus more exclusively on administration. These publishers are happy to approve a placement that lands on their desk, but won’t actively pursue it. This music publishing entity is essentially an accounting firm that assesses the value of a potential client’s catalog and earning potential, and buys a piece of it for a price. This “price” is known as a publishing advance, and can be quite sizeable. Seven figure music publishing advances still exist in 2017. Indeed, music publishing is one area of the music industry that continues to have serious value, despite the downturn in music sales.

When is the Right Time?

For most songwriters, signing a music publishing deal is a question of “when” rather than “if”. So: when is the right time? The answer is different for every songwriter, but something I have learned over my years as an entertainment lawyer is this: you will know when the time is right.

Sometimes a deal comes in the first year, sometimes it takes a few decades and a thousand songs. Last year I negotiated a million-dollar music publishing deal for a client who at the time had only written and released seven songs. The hype and excitement around this particular writer was exceptional and of course atypical, but it was quite clear based on the offers being tabled that the time was right to strike a deal.

Most of us aren’t so fortunate, so it’s really a matter of doing your thing until the right offer is presented. It might take one year; it might take twenty.

Do You Want a Major or an Indie?

Many of the largest publishing companies are directly tied to major record labels. Warner Chappell and Warner Music; Universal and Universal Music Group; eOne Publishing and eOne Recording; Nettwerk Music Group and Nettwerk Publishing.

Many indie companies contract a major to administer their catalog. Then there are the “fully indie” companies that do it all themselves.

As with the record label discussion, it’s really up to you to determine what size of publisher is best for you.

While the smaller publishers might be more personalized and focused on you as an artist, they might lack the connections of the big time players.

And while the majors have the connections and the resources to take you to the top, you might get lost in the shuffle of the other clients on their roster, when your songs are competing against those by Beyoncé, Coldplay, Adele, etc.

Why Do They Want You?

As mentioned earlier, all music publishing companies essentially do the same thing. One question I always pose to my clients: why does this particular publisher want to sign you? You’re giving up 25% to 50% of all your publishing revenue streams, so they better be worth it. Why are they excited about your songs? What do they plan to do with them? What placements or endorsement deals do they think fit your brand and artistic vision?

Before you sign away a significant chunk of your music publishing revenues, make sure someone at the publishing company is excited about your music and has a plan for it going forward. You also want to make sure that this person will be available and responsive to your questions and concerns after the deal is signed.

Do You Need a Publisher at All?

Many songwriters self-publish, and avoid signing with a third party publisher at all. Songwriters who retain their publishing rights and earn 100% of the publishing income generated by their songs. In addition to earning twice the revenue, self-publishing ensures that you control all creative and business decisions regarding your songs.

The major drawback to self-publishing is similar to that of self-releasing your music: you miss out on the benefit of the connections and clout brought by a publisher (or record label).

In other words, as a self-published artist, you will have to secure placements and generate income yourself, while handling the accounting and administration. Some artists are good at it; many are not. Ask yourself whether you have the knowledge and time to be an effective publisher, and what sort of demand your catalog is generating.

Signing with a music publisher can take your career to the next level, but be sure you do your research, pick the right one, and know what to expect going forward. As always, send me questions along the way.

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36 Responses

  1. Great read, our band the Black Eyed Creez need to get our original patented and taking care of legally, our first studio album will be out soon, this article help us see what lays a head for our band’s future.

    Danny Mirasty – Black Eyed Creez

  2. So if you sign a publishing Deal and you release music.. and it states in your contract all release are copyrighted to you when your contract is up do they still get a % of your royalties and or your statements..?

  3. In 2018, (in general) should a writer give up 100% of their publishing on a single song deal with no advance and no potential placement on the table?

    1. I would say no Lynn. I always push for an advance when you’re giving up so much on the pub side. Email me to chat further. Thanks

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  4. Hey Kurt,
    Great information for songwriters. Do you have any insight as to “how to find a music publisher”? I wrote my own lyrics and music. But I’m not sure which direction to go, in search of a good publisher. I’m sure I’m like most musicians, when I say, “I don’t want to be taken advantage of”.

    1. That’s a great question Spencer. Write great songs is the short answer. Make great connections is the second. Have a great lawyer is the third.

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  5. Im new. I have written several songs. Even recorded demos but i do not know where to go from that point. Where do i send my music. Who do i contact. LOST ON A NOTE………..

  6. How much advance should a new artist ask for when signing wth a reputable publish in a 50/50 deal for 10 songs?

    1. That’s a complex question that deserves a complex answer! So many factors to consider, but mostly it’s a matter of negotiation. I’ve negotiated million dollar advances for highly hyped artists, and also accepted a few thousand for not-so-hyped artists. So there is no rule, and you need to hire an entertainment lawyer you trust to make the most of it for you.

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  7. Rather than place songs with a music publishing company in the U.S – or wherever the songwriter is based – songwriters can put them all into their own publishing company – then look at the possibilities of sub publishing their songs with overseas for specific territories. There are some great German, French, British, Australian, Japanese publishers all over the commercial world. By having your own music publishing company – will raise the status of your music when approaching foreign companies. Songwriters can start off by just offering one or two songs, then, based on performance can offer more songs as they build a relationship. This is also a great way to get covers by offering songs to different producers in say Poland, France, Germany, England, who are looking for those “killer songs” to finish an album, etc. Lots of possibilities when marketing songs globally.

  8. I got a email from a known record label they told me to put down a 200$ deposit for them to fly me to santa Monica to the office for a publish deal to sign the contract and get my advance…Is that how it works or that’s a scam…

    1. Sounds like a scam to me Christopher! Any respectable label would not ask you for $$ to come see them. But feel free to send me their email.

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  9. I was offered a co pub deal with a boutique publisher and I decided to settle on a Admin deal to see how well they work the EP. In addition to that, they sent a master agreement and I understand if they want to partake in a percentage of the master for sync/licensing purposes, but to request 50% of the master ownership in perpetuity (worldwide) on all performance and sales/streaming seems a little steep, without offering an advance or at the very least “label services”. Is this considered “normal” for this day in age or is this just a bad deal?

    1. It really depends on the rest of the agreement. With no advance though, I would suggest a Licensing situation where you get all your master rights back at some point. Feel free to email it to me and we can go from there.

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  10. Thanks for the advice Kurt.

    Would you say that the same principles apply to signing a publishing deal (of sorts) with a production music library?

    (I’m a vocalist/songwriter/composer/producer who’s self-published with ASCAP,) who’s about to sign a composer agreement with a US library but they want me to give up 100% of the publisher’s share of the performance royalties and 50% of the composer’s share and they want to own the music & masters in perpetuity and pay an advance of $100 per cue/track – so my songs become ‘commissioned works.’)

    Would you say their publishing percentages & wanting to own the masters in perpetuity are standard practice for publishing deals with US libraries?

  11. Hi Kurt,
    a very interesting thread. In the UK I am a songwriter for a UK based band that I am a member of , but also write other material that I would like to also pursue as a sideline. There are so many Publisher options now whereby you do not have to be ‘recommended’ like the old days. I have had music played on UK and USA independent radio etc, but feel that I am missing opportunities here, what do you suggest an Artist/group ‘doing it themselves’ needs to look for in a publishing opportunity to take them further ?
    all the best,

    1. Hmmm…big question, which requires a big answer. I think the most important thing is that the publisher really believes in you and your catalog, and are willing to go and work it. Too many publishers sit on catalogs and wait for money to roll in. You want someone who is proactive rather than reactive.

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  12. Hi Kurt,
    In your experience, when signing major publishing deal with a 6-digit advance, is it usually for already placed songs OR is it for both for (placed and unreleased (future placements))?
    I understand can be very different for every deal, but I was wondering what you usually see on these types of deals.


  13. Hi Kurt,
    In your experience, when signing a major publishing deal with a 6-digit advance, is it usually for already placed songs OR is it for both (placed and unreleased (future placements))?
    I understand that it can be very different for every deal, but I was wondering what do you usually see on these types of deals?


    1. Typically for past catalog and future catalog for X amount of years. Usually a delivery commitment of say 12 songs per year for 3 years, for example. But the terms change from deal to deal.

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  14. Good morning Kurt,
    My question is if I write, sing, record and mix my songs using royalty free samples and construction kits, is it legal for me to sell my “works” to a record label or a performing artist. Here is how the license agreement is stated:
    The samples contained herein are licensed, not sold to you, the individual end user. This non-exclusive, non-transferable license is granted only to the individual end user who has purchased an unopened, new and lawfully made copy of this product from a dealer or distributor authorized by ________. All samples remain the property of ________ and are licensed only for use in the creation of a live or recorded performance that includes the licensed samples as part of a derivative musical work created by the licensed end user. This license expressly forbids resale, rental, loan, gift or transfer of these samples in any format or via any medium, except as part of a
    derivative musical work. The samples may not be included, whether unmodified or as part of a derivative work, in any sample library product.

    I did purchase a legal copy of all samples and song kits. It is my understanding it is illegal to sell the individual samples and song kits, not my recorded songs. Also, can I legally state I am a 100% owner of my works when using the royalty free samples and kits as stated? Thanks so much for your response on this.

    1. I would have to see the entire agreement but it looks like it’s non-transferable (i.e. to a label etc) so I don’t think you can. Perhaps you could if you buy the exclusive licenses?

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  15. Hi Kurt, great words :). So I am a Music Producer and I am about to be offered a Publishing deal, if I say I would like to do a Co Publishing deal, is that always 100% of the writers share stays with me and we would go 50/50 on the Publishing share?

    Also can I ask to do a track by track publishing deal to keep my freedom? Or does it need to be all in?

    1. Correct Ross! RE song selection, depends on what they’re comfortable with, but often a publisher will want your whole catalog plus whatever you write during the term.

      Kurt Dahl
      Entertainment Lawyer

  16. Hi Kurt,

    So I am a singer-songwriter, and I just got offer an admin publishing deal. I am just starting my career. The publisher really loves the song that I wrote, and they want to be hands-on in my development. She says that I get to keep about 70%-85% of my royalties. I’m wondering if they are good to go with. It’s my first offer. I’m wondering if I can do a track by track than going all in?

  17. Hello Kurt, great feedback. I’m offered a indy deal here in Las Vegas on a song I wrote over 10 years ago. Indy is offering a publishing deal of 50 % with all exclusive rights to my music? Sounds like he’s asking for my soul if this song goes over . What are my options!

  18. Hi,
    I’ve been offered a publishing deal and after reading your article, I’ve got more questions (or concerns). I’ve had an attorney advise me on some negotiations pointers (to which the publisher declined both requests). I have a five-year offer with a three-year retention period and I wonder if this is a normal time period? I’m also aware that they will take 10% of all gross income for administration fees but the follow-up paragraph states,

    “In addition to the administrative fee above, our reasonable, actual, direct out-of-pocket administrative expenses shall be reimbursed to us from Gross Income received hereunder but we won’t incur expenses on your behalf that exceed One Hundred Pounds (£100) during any calendar year of the Term without your prior written consent in each instance. By way of illustration only, expenses may be for things like our travel out of town for meetings for your benefit, to promote your gig or tour, pay for travel and/or catering for you, or a video for you, etc.”

    Again, is this typical for a publishing agreement? Good/bad? More importantly, will I have to come out-of-pocket at any time to pay them?

    Best regards.

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