Anatomy of the Industry: Publishing

Please note…I’m not an expert, but I’m someone who’s semi-immersed in the industry.  This kind of post is meant to get you thinking, but if you are serious about pursuing any of the routes I suggest in Anatomy of the Industry posts I highly recommend you do your own independent research.  It’s to put ideas on your radar!

If you’re a songwriter you don’t really need to read on.  Just know this: publishing is how you’re likely to make all your money.  All of it!  If you want to be in the music industry and are not a songwriter, here’s all you need to know: learn the ins and outs of the publishing business, make some songwriter friends, and you may find yourself making money out the wah-zoo!

PUBLISHING?  THAT’S FOR BOOKS!

Keen eye, my friend!  Who ‘publishes’ songs?!  Well…back in the day they did!  Before ‘spinning music discs’ you purchased a sheet of paper with weird marks on it.  Songwriters realized that if they wrote songs and published them they could get a cut from the company that printed…or published…the ‘sheet music.’  You even had million sellers…this was the FIRST million selling song ever:

Keep in mind…it’s not that ‘recording’ but the song itself.   We’re talking about the other half of the musician money-making machine.  When you record something, that recording is a ‘master’ and that makes you (or more likely…your label) money.  But what about the song itself?  Can’t the song make money separate from the recording?

HOW IT WORKS:

When you write a song you can sign a deal with a publishing company.  You know those horror stories about labels or companies owning a whole song and you don’t make ANY money off it?  That can’t happen, because (at least in the US and Canada) you will always own 50% of the song. Always. You cannot sell that part.  I suppose you can give the money away…but the money will come to you first.

Ole: One of many cool publishing companies in Canada

The ‘other’ half can be divided in many ways depending on your contract with the publishing company…but if you’re smart, you can create your OWN publishing company, sign a deal, and get 50% of the publishing too! (remember…you already get half of the money the song makes…the publishing company, in essence, get’s the other half)  If you get half of the ‘publishing’ that means you’re getting 75% of all the money made on the song!

A publisher has several jobs to do…the biggest of which is to make money of course!  If you make money, they make money, so they are supposed to ‘exploit‘ the song as best they can.  Before you get upset…exploit is a good word.  It means that they’re trying to find other musicians to cover your song (you get paid!), or movies or tv shows to use your song (you get paid!), or even a compilation CD that it might fit in (you get paid!)

WHAT’S THE CATCH?

Other than the fact that they get a cut?  Well…it’s always going to be contract to contract (there’s no standard, ALWAYS read contacts carefully and if you don’t understand them find someone who does!)  You like writing songs, right?  Well…you’ll likely be asked to write a certain number of songs a year, say…ten.  That’s fair.  They need to have something to work with! If you just write ‘one’ song you can’t expect them to do much with it, right?

Also…they might say that they want ten ‘good’ songs.  It won’t be worded that way, but they have to protect themselves as well, and writing five craptastic songs about butterflies to fulfill your contract won’t cut it.  It’s art…but it’s also a job…so you’re expected to not half ass it.

WHY ARE YOU SAYING THIS IS WHERE THE MONEY’S AT?

Think about it…a song is intangible unless it’s recorded.  It’s something that’s essentially floating through the air into people’s ears.  But…you can make money with ‘your’ song even if it’s being recorded by someone else.  Also…the work is done!  The song is written!  So…if a movie uses your song, or a big star covers it, you get cheques…in the mail…while you’re sitting on your butt doing nothing.

Essentially, publishing allows a songwriter to be compensated for their creative work in all it’s uses, and the publishing company, along with some helpers (SOCAN in Canada, ASCAP in the US, and many other performing rights organizations around the world) make sure you get fairly compensated for that work.  It’s a major piece of the puzzle and one that is often overlooked by a songwriter or band. It’s easy to be swept up by the excitement and not to take the time and think through how the business works.

Do you feel you’re someone who could benefit from songwriting?  Are you going to look more into it?  Or are you a publisher or someone who’s dealt with publishers who’d like to shed some light on the conversation here?  Please comment below!

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