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.