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MUSIC PUBLISHING 101: A Little Something About Publishing

MUSIC PUBLISHING 101: A Little Something About Publishing

It’s 3:13am on a Saturday night and I am sitting down to write a post. (Shouldn’t I be at a venue, or at a cigar bar indulging a Johnny Black on the rocks?)

The moment someone hears I’m a music publisher, I often find myself explaining basics, what publishing is and how it works. Though I am passionate about the topic and the law’s simple intricacies, it sometimes get a bit tiring repeating oneself over and over again. Tonight I write a reference I can now point folks to (so I can head to a show or have a drink instead?). So please read this, set me free, and later we can talk shop from a better starting point.

So…What is music publishing?

It is actually the business of making a composition (aka the written portion of a song, it be the lyrics and/or the composition) available for licensing through, self-publishing or a professional publisher without losing ownership and monetizing.

To better grasp the concept a little bit of history will help. The word comes from the days of sheet music, when print and performances were the only sources of income for writers and composers. The goal was to literally publish (print) your newly written song so performers (a singer, a pianist, a guitarist, etc…) could play your tune around town.

Copyright law gave birth to 2 sorts of licenses, Print and Performance licenses. In order for book distributors to have the right to sell sheet music or performers to play the song in a live setting they would have to license your song and pay you a royalty. The publisher’s job through contacts was to secure these licenses and exploit the copyright. — Why a royalty? — Because your written song allowed other people to get compensated, so it’s only fair they share the fruit. “They” in this case means the songbook distributor, the performer, the venue, café, etc… As time went by, the creation of a collection agency happened around 1914. ASCAP started collecting directly from the venues and paid out to writers and publishers while keeping a small %. There are 3 organizations in the US (ASCAP, BMI and SESAC) while there is only one in most other countries. Some countries are still not equipped for this, but hopefully they will be soon enough. In other words if a songwriter’s songs plays on the radio in Haiti or New Guinea (…) you probably won’t be collecting a dime.

Then the commercialization of the disc record started. This allowed performers to record your composition and sell physical copy of it. Again, your song allowed them to earn money through record sales, so to ensure the writer gets paid for this type of exploitation, the Copyright Office created something called Mechanical Licensing circa 1909. The performer (or distributor, aka record labels) must pay the writer(s) a royalty per record sold. Another collection agency was also created to facilitate the collection and pay out, the Harry Fox Agency. (e.g. you write a composition, be it lyrics or music that may fit Madonna’s next release. You record a demo. Your publisher’s job is to then send it to Madonna’s manager or A&R. Should he/she think it’s good enough for her to record, she/he passes it around. Should Madonna be connected/like the song, she then records it. Her label then can decide if the master is good enough to be released on the album — most of the time you won’t know until the album is about to release).

Then motion pictures come in to play which created Sync licenses. Synchronization simply means synchronizing music and visuals, as the music enhances the experience of the viewer and helps the company or person generate income. So, again, the writers must be compensated. This license is a 2 part compensation, a sync fee on the publishing side and another on the master side.

The biggest confusion in publishing is the distinguishment between the written composition and the actual recording. One composition could have, should have, multiple sound recordings. E.g “Sweet Dreams” written by Annie Lennox and David Stewart has been recorded and performed by the Eurythmics, and then Marilyn Manson came along and “covered” and made a new sound recording. Luckily for the writers they were both hits. You can find examples with zillions of covers and #1 hit. To fully understand it, think of every recorded version of a song (i.e. master) as a cover of the written composition, including the original recording.

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What does a publisher do today?

Help you create demo recordings of your written compositions, whether the writer is also a performer or simply a writer. If only a writer, the goal is to get the demo cut with the right arrangements and vocals to be pitched to other performing acts, and start exploiting the copyright (the song). It is more and more common today to have a publisher handle the development of a songwriter/performer.

Once past the demo or master step, the main goal is exploitation. Exploitation is the fun part, despite it’s awful name.

Whoever held the publishing rights for “Sweet Dreams” had to have been contacted by someone from the Marilyn Manson team, and issue them a mechanical license. It is, in fact, the job of the music publisher to help a writer get their song to work (earn dollars and gain notice) in many forms of licensing their music, while protecting against fraudulent usage, and tracing the money trail all the way. Various forms of exploitation include: song cutting (album cuts, and covers), sync licensing, reprints or music sheets, airplay, performances by the writer and/or others, etc.

And finally the beautiful concept of derivative works – The principle is simple in its form but could be very confusing. It’s basically creating a new work from an already registered copyright. An example from Urban music might clarify the whole thing for you. Let’s say a beatmaker produces a track and copyrights it. Now a rapper (or singer) wants to record over the instrumental. The smartest way the new song should be filed is as a derivative work of the original instrumental with the new author and a fresh set of splits. This concept also applies in sampling. Figuring out the splits is usually the hard part.

I hope this helps you understand more what publishing truly is (and frees me up to talk about the news and what’s going on with ISIS and wish for peace in the Middle East, or less shootings in America, or discuss how we could help my beloved country of origin, Haiti, get out of poverty).

I’m sure you still have one last question for me. Is it worth it to sign with a publisher? — It all depends on the company, as they will become a partner in the truest sense for your career, and what it is that you’re working on. But I live by this: for any project to grow, one needs a team and each person, hopefully with expertise, should be put in charge with what they’re formidable at. Then again, I’m a publisher so I cannot see it any other way. Publishing, in particular, is about law and negotiations and contacts. To have knowledgeable people who believe in your music enough to partner with you to get it out there can be powerful indeed.

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