Music Publishing deals and Publishing contracts

Updated: Feb 18, 2021

What is music publishing? And what does a publisher do?

These are questions that pop up in our heads when we hear about music publishing for the first time.

Music publishing is one of the earliest aspects of music business, it originates from the early days where music was distributed and sold on format of music sheets, previously to the existence of vinyl, tape, compact disc, mp3, pcm and digital. Music publishing was similar to the book publishing “per se”.

Etymology: Publishing - from Latin "publicationem". In the mid 15th century " act of announcing, declaring or issuing copies of a book to the public".

Today music publishers deal with administration and rights of songs (lyrics, composition, arrangements, music sheets) and royalties. They will help the songwriter or a co-writer to register will the relevant collection societies (PRS, PPL and MCPS), help with the administration work, exploit as possible the rights of the songs and collect the royalties due and pay the songwriter or co-writers their correspondent share. They give the author the opportunity of having they music licensed, used on a great variety of ways (covers, synch, radio, streaming, toys) and used on many other ways and in many other countries specially if the genre is mainstream.

Music: In music the first 3 seconds are crucial to generate interest, engagement and a recognisable print in the audience limbic brain (responsible for managing emotions and memory). Music phrases, extructure, patterns, cicles, colours, depths, picks, hooks, scales, modes and etc, are part of the composition building blocks. These are expressions for the music and vocal construct that will help define, identify, quantify and rearrange in detail specific musical parts.

From a legal point of view, music is a combination of lyrics (words) and Melody (the accompaniment sound). Changes on words or melody by a third person (songwriter, producer or a friend) may entitle them a share of the royalties 1/3.

Lyrics are music, song writing it is musical, but also it is guidance and narrative to navigate a history-telling, express emotions and feelings, express ideals and believes or maybe to create and share interesting (love) or controversial (political) musical experience or other.

Genre: Mainstream music genre is easy to find places for distribution and reach the audience almost everywhere, if the genre is limited to" niche" (Jazz, Country, Salsa) it will be hard to place on the mainstream media. When composing or writing a song we must consider the power and the influence of publishing, consider that the music is not only to express feelings, not only for pleasure, not only for the audience, not only for the radio, not only for TV, and this will help the song writing to have much more depth, much more use and to be atemporal.

Arrangements: The way the music is structured (intro, outro, verse, chorus, drop, lift, break, depression, compression, explosion, etc) and the way instruments correlate and interact with each other (call, answer, question, response, following up, echoing, cacophony, etc) and mould and shape the finished desired product, the music.

The publisher will register, licence and exploit the music and the song writing rights commercially and in many ways as possible in order to extend its use. He can collect funds world-wide with the help of co-publishers who are representing legally the artist or the original publisher. They will have the songs used by other artists (covers), tv films, movies, adverts, games (synch), radio shows, streaming and etc.

There is a great book that I recommend every musician to read “Music - The business” by Ann Harrison. The 7th edition of this book has actualised music business development on synchronisation and music streaming. 379 pages with essential information and tips on music law, record deals and much more.

Publishing is the act of leveraging and exploiting commercially the music of composers and songwriters. The publisher will create the appropriate registers and copyrights, have the songs used on creative/commercials ways and get all the royalties generated. Their task is laborious mostly based on paper work administration and entangle connections with a widespread of music business personalities and professionals.

Publishing contracts:

Music Publishing it is an highly administrative work that requires focus, passion for paper work, organisation, planing and basic knowledge on music law. This work can be overwhelming and daunting for musicians with no experience on the field. Thankfully we can get full support from organisations like the MU (The Musicians Union) who can help review the review the contract terms for all affiliated musicians.

Acts of parliament or legislations are subject to constant changes and these should be revised on a periodic basis. A lawyer would always be actualised on these terms and give the correct advices and contact you back with the latest changes when these are affecting, prices, performances and new legal requirements and guide lines.

There are mainly 3 important variables that will constitute a publishing contract; the ownership (who owns the rights and/or what % of it), the extent (who has what rights to - collect money, issue licenses, for what length of time) and the money (advances, costs, fees, royalties, splits, etc.)

Ownership: Agreements must clearly state what is the been agreed upon, the range or extension of that agreement indicating the limitations and boundaries, what music pieces are involved, what are the rights traded and the contractual duties/delivery of the writer. The writer interest is to sign for no more than 3 years, and keeping control of the moral rights.

The extent - This is regarding the term, territory, period of ownership and how wide trust or permissions to trade are defined or given considering the self-interest of publisher and writer independently. Defining the extension of each of these points it is extremely important because it can derive royalties from your recipient.

Rights: Music publishers want to control, own or license the rights of the songs for a long period as possible. They deal with registration and administration of rights and royalties on a limited or vast territory and for a long term if possible. Broader the territory and longer the term more they will benefit of the rights they control. They may want to negotiate also with the autor moral rights for commercial purposes.

Other important aspects of a publishing contract:

Territory: Publisher and artist must define the territory for the synch deal. This will determine the territory and the market extension limits to apply. The artist may not want is music to be used on certain countries maybe because the genre is not popular or maybe want to exploit that country differently if he is not subject to an exclusive contact. The Publisher would want to control the maximum of the territory as possible (world-wide) in order to make more profitable the license, and get sub-publishers on board covering as much of the territory as possible.

The artist also is interested on maximising is royalties exploring all venues and incoming streams. Not as least, the artist must t be conscientious that after lockdowns we will still need to deal with the issue of BREXIT regarding performances, touring, visas and new tax impositions that will require higher administration services and expenses.

If the territory for distribution and publishing is worldwide, the artist will have interest on asking for "royalties at source", this meaning, that the value of the negotiated percentage would be the same anywhere around the world, avoiding loss of royalties between the co-publisher's administration worldwide. (No reduction for oversea payments)

Term: The duration of a contract may vary from 1 year, up to the life span of the copyright, let's say, 70 years after the last member of the band have decease (very amorphous). And the artist or writer interest is to sign for a short period in order to keep control over the rights. These are extremely important considerations to review and negotiate before the signature of a contract.

The term can also be linked with a specific number of songs to be delivered, or a number of songs written exclusively by the writer (100%) where, any co written song would no be taken in to account.

The writer interest regarding the Term, is to make sure that "The Term" is defined as a calendar period in order to better manage this clause. when the term is completed a cascade of rights revision should start to take place.

Minimum commitment: This is agreed to ensure or secure engagement (release vs recuperation of investment) and avoid possible breaches of the contract at its early stage. An artist can contract a minimum service from a publisher, or manager, and vice versa, a publisher or manger can contract a minimum engagement with a songwriter where when this is not respected, a clause of the contract (Minimum commitment) would be used for legal peruse against the other party for breach of contract, forced termination and possibly for income loses.

Retention Period

On the contract usually, there is a starting date, a term date (end) but also is important to set the retention period, example: (1 year term + 3 years retention)

During the term, the publisher will be actively working with the author, songwriters, managers and find ways to exploit all the rights of the compositions, song writing, printed music and collect royalties.

He (the publisher), may find ways to make other artist to do covers of your song, find synchronisation opportunities on film, series, movies, internet content, and games. The publisher will try having sync deals with Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Disney and other emerging channels and social media platforms like YouTube, Tik-Tok or the most used by the youngsters.

In our current times, "due to lockdown" there is a substantial growth on movie streaming, gaming and increase on Latin music genre, but UK is at the head of music creation and distribution in Europe, meaning that publishing opportunities are vast.

It may happen, like in the case of the Film "Baby Driver" (2017), where the script was settled around a playlist and the music was the most important element in this case. This is an example of a publishing success. Just like "Treme" a New Orleans based drama or the mythical "Fame" (1980), music was the central focus of everything else.

Another example: A song placed on "Love island" (a popular show) can create a hit or Shazam interest and cascade on subsequent streaming and popularity.

Moral Rights: Everything can be negotiated and so Moral rights

Right of paternity or attribution allowing the author who is the original creator of the work piece to claim paternity and publish the work on his name, using a pseudo name or anonymously.

Right of false attribution meaning to be protected of false ownership and false attribution of a particular piece of art that could potentially damage the artist reputation and consequently cause economic loses.

Right of integrity, to protect the work piece from modification, transformation or deformation and avoid a misrepresentation and misuse out of its initial purposes.

Right of privacy, to safeguard from non-authorised eyes, maintain privacy or have it exploited by a specific person or company for a very specific purpose and not disclose.

All these rights can be negotiated, licensed or attributed but never to a 100% extent. The original author will always have his moral rights protected.

With the rise of innovation and technology, 5G satellites will be able to transmit music our of our planetary sphere towards the cosmos. Maybe new laws will fallow suit due to the possibility to transmit music to the space stations, satellites moon and other planets giving place to extraterrestrial rights. If our publishers are forward thinking they will have this done very soon.

Royalties: The publisher income streams are: Performing rights, mechanical income, synchronisation and print rights.

All royalties are negotiable.

Advances: A major publisher may offer an important royalty advance to the songwriter signing an exclusive agreement. The higher the advance (the dream of any songwriter), the longer the term of the contract and smaller the mechanical royalty the artist will perceive. The artist mechanical royalty may be 75/25%. When there are not advances, the artist's mechanical and performance's rights should be much higher.

Performance royalties.... 50/50%

Payable directly to writers unless contradicted by contract.

If your song is played in the net, on a gig, on the radio or tv, in retail units or to the public.

Venues like radio and clubs pay a Blanket License to PRS in order to play all songs.

Mechanical.................... 75% (80 to 95% if no advance)

Paid for the right to reproduce the author's work, per unit sold or streamed with a written song.

Played, streamed or download. (Collected by MCPS)

Covers.......................... 70-60%

Synchs......................... 70%

Higher rate if the publisher have secure these on the contract and litle less for the songwriter.

Prints........................... 10%

Others.......................... 75%

Digital and streaming royalties............. 80% from streaming usually goes to the master rights owner to be distributed by the record label or digital distributor. 20% is usually the publisher income and is split again into performance royalty and mechanical royalty. 30% goes to DSPs (Digital Streaming Platforms). And is usually 50/50 basis (10% remaining from MCPS and 10% PRS goes the artist). The artist, keeping control over the copyrights, will benefit him on the long term.