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November 10, 2022 | EntertainmentFrom the blog

What Songwriters Should Ask Before Working With a Music Publisher

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Marc D. Ostrow

Of Counsel

Olivia Loftin

Associate Attorney

There are many types of songwriters in the music industry.  Like Taylor Swift, some songwriters write songs for themselves to perform.  Others, like Meghan Trainor and Chris Stapleton, began their careers writing songs for other artists.  For example, Trainor has written several hits for groups like Rascal Flatts and Fifth Harmony, while also writing most of her own music to perform.  Meanwhile, songwriters like Max Martin tend to stay behind the scenes by writing number one hits for artists like Kelly Clarkson and the Backstreet Boys, but not performing himself.

Songwriters earn royalties from their songs by either doing the “administration” work themselves or working with a music publisher, either independently or less commonly as a staff writer for publisher.  A music publisher is a company that promotes, licenses, distributes and otherwise exploits musical compositions.  Though some songwriters may be skeptical about working with a publisher, it can have many benefits.  Here are some questions a songwriter should ask to determine whether a publishing deal makes sense:

  1. How good are your songs?

Just as a record label won’t sign a band that doesn’t already have a following and several self-released singles (if not an entire self-produced album), music publishers also need to see that you are worth the investment of their resources.  As a songwriter, you should have several songs that are polished and marketable, i.e., ready to be published.  Make sure you have vetted your songs with as many people as you can and if possible, by people in the industry, before you present them to music publishers.  You should have demos recorded that are basically ready for airplay, even if the arrangements are simple.  This shows that you are serious about your career and willing to work at it.

  1. Who is performing your music?

If only you or your group are performing the songs you write, there may not be a need for a publisher intermediary.  There are various entities, such Kobalt Music, TuneCore and CD Baby, who can “administer” your songs and collect your music royalties from your own performances and recordings.  However, if you are writing songs for other people to perform, or want your songs covered by other artists, you may want assistance from a music publisher to promote and find artists to perform and record your work.

  1. Will a publisher promote my music?

Publishers have long-established relationships with record companies, managers and artists, as well as with music supervisors and film and TV companies.  Depending on your negotiated deal, your publisher should be promoting your work and finding the best artist to record your song.  They should also be shopping your songs for sync usage in film, TV, videogames and other audiovisual uses.  That said, some publishers do a better job than others.  Therefore, it is important to find the best publisher for your needs and one that handles music in the genres you write in. 

  1. Do I really want to handle the administration of being a songwriter?

Songwriter administration tasks include negotiating commissions and license agreements, managing expenses and being your own publicist.  Some songwriters are good at this and enjoy this work.  Depending on your success, however, the administrative side of the business can take away from the amount of time you can be writing songs.In short, if you are a songwriter who mostly writes works for niche artists – and particularly if the works are for yourself or your own music group – you may do well self-publishing and working with companies who will license and collect royalties on your behalf while you continue to own the copyrights to your songs.

However, a publishing deal may be something to consider if you want to write works for chart-topping artists; have an existing catalog that is generating some income; and are receiving commissions to write music for film, TV, videogames or even orchestras.  But note that publishers sign few songwriters and hire even fewer staff writers.

What Should I Ask if a Publisher Is Interested in Me?

Five basic questions to ask an interested music publisher are:

  • Will they pay an acquisition fee for my “back catalog” of pre-existing works?
  • Will they pay an advance on royalties for works written during the term of the contract?
  • Will I retain ownership of any portion of the copyrights to my works or will the publisher own them outright? In other words, am I being offered a publishing, co-publishing, administration or distribution deal (or some combination of them)?
  • What are the royalty splits for various income types, including public performances, mechanicals and syncs?
  • How will they promote my works, such as seeking sync uses and cover recordings, including increasing my income and getting commissions for me?

These are just the preliminary questions.  A typical publishing contract has many other terms that need to be understood and often negotiated.  Entering into a publishing agreement can be the most important career decision a songwriter can make.  Any songwriter contemplating signing up with a publisher should consult with a knowledgeable attorney.  A good music lawyer can also suggest and negotiate possible alternatives to a pure publishing or pure DIY relationship, such as hiring a publicist, administrator or music distributor.  Contact a member of our team for next steps.

Photo by Soundtrap on Unsplash
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