Music Publishing: Professional Songwriter Basics

Music Publishing

Building up a catalog of songs and protecting it is the first step in professional songwriting. Further down the rabbit hole of this business is something called “publishing.” Being a professional songwriter means knowing exactly how your songs are lined up to pay out in the event of a royalty jack-pot. Here are a few basic ideas about music publishing that may help prepare you for conversations and contracts should the need or opportunity arise.

What is Music Publishing?

Publishing is the business pie of any given composition and/or catalog of songs. It is an oddly shaped pie, more like two pies as we shall discuss, but generally, it was long ago established that anytime songwriters secure proof of having invented a song, a certain portion of the business for that song will go directly to those songwriters involved. If you have written a song, and established a copyright for yourself, you and any partners are guaranteed to be paid for profits on the same. This is the simplest way of thinking about music publishing–if you own a copyright, you own a good share.

The Business Share

So here is the concept of the two pies. If an entity, such as a music publishing company, your manager, or your controlling spouse takes on the business side of your songwriting, you are agreeing to give up a certain share of song revenues to that party. Whether this is a good idea or not will be discussed even further on, but for every song registered with BMI, ASCAP, or SESAC (performing rights organizations in charge of distributing monies for music), a share is set aside for whomever is in charge of the business registration and exploitation of the composition. While we typically think of the word “exploitation” disparagingly, in this case we simply mean the act of trying to find opportunities to render profit by way of a composition. This is where the question of possessing your own publishing rights comes in.

Should You Keep Your Publishing Share?

Many amateur songwriters believe that protecting every possibility for profit on a song is the way to go. Why wouldn’t it be?

Signed musicians have also been known to retain their publishing rights. Two famous examples are Rick Ocasek (songwriter for The Cars), and Soundgarden. If you look at the liner notes on Soundgarden’s first few albums, you’ll find that for every combination of songwriters within the band (singer writing alone, singer plus the drummer, bassist writing alone, etc), a different (and often quite amusingly named) publishing company was put in place. This made sure that the only people who would be paid for the sale and use of those songs were the creative parties directly involved.

Here’s the thing: 100% of zero is zero. If you are on the cutting edge of a break, and absolutely sure you are going to render the kind of air-play, movie and TV show usage over the next couple of decades, so that owning your publishing would mean twice and three times the millions you would have seen otherwise, then by all means, start a publishing business (it amounts to a small investment of time and money), and protect those rights.

If, on the other hand, you are not sure of the direction of your career, other than knowing you write songs and are looking for opportunities to make money off of them, it might be worth simply protecting your rights as a songwriter, and here is why: music publishers are specialized in finding revenue for songs. Some of them will be highly motivated to seek revenue out, while the songwriters themselves do what they presumably know best.


The conversation goes on, to where it is perhaps off-topic in a beginning songwriter’s career. It might not matter all that much in the long run whether or not you own the publishing to your music, if you start to get real attention. Big music publishing entities are capable of paying large sums of monies to acquire a catalog, at which time the songwriter and management team will look into the pros and cons of such a deal.

The bottom line is that in keeping one’s publishing rights, you are also keeping sole responsibility and motivation for exploiting your music. When considering a music publishing contract, it is definitely worth scrutinizing the company’s reason for wanting your catalog. Are they just putting a little something on the roulette table of your career (in which case your songs could end up among many others, on the music publisher’s shelf), or does this business actually hear something in your creative work they believe in enough to aggressively seek out placement?

For questions about songwriting and the business that comes with it, feel free to contact us!

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