Kim Temple

Kim Temple

If you’re writing songs, and getting somewhere with it, at some point you might consider the possibility of signing a deal with a music publisher. So it’s a good idea to understand what a publisher actually does for you.

“It’s important to remember that a publisher can be part of an artist’s team, along with having a manager and a booking agent and a label and a publicist,” says Kim Temple, President of High Priestess Publishing, a Toronto-based independent music publisher that represents Zaki Ibrahim and Witch Prophet, among others.

“The deal is, okay, I have a catalogue of songs that needs some kind of management. I don’t know if I’m collecting all the royalties I should be collecting. I don’t know if I’m registered properly all around the world for my copyrights, and I don’t really pitch for myself. I don’t have the know-how or connections to music supervisors to pitch for synch placements – maybe I need a partner in publishing who can manage that for me.”

That’s the business consideration. Temple says there’s also the creative aspect. “If they’re at a level where they’re ready to start looking for collaborators, and want to do some co-writing, or if they want to pitch their songs to other artists – that’s a good time to bring a publisher in,” she says. “Or maybe they want to do some songwriting development, and travel, and go to song camps.”

For Daniel Lafrance of Éditorial Avenue – winner of the Publisher of the Year SOCAN Award at the 2020 SOCAN Gala in Montréal, and author of the book Après la disruption. Innover en édition musicale – collaborations and co-writes are increasingly important. “It really helps artists to progress rapidly and expand their musical horizons to evolve in new directions,” he told us during a video interview to celebrate his 2020 SOCAN Gala Award. “A publisher’s role when it comes to this specific aspect of artist development is to find people with whom they’ll have a good connection, and usually, that leads to excellent results. I strongly believe in that. Artists are full of talent, but they also have weaknesses for which co-writes can easily make up.”

Prime negotiators

The notion to keep in mind is that publishers, first and foremost, are song exploiters: they strive to get the most monetary mileage out of a song, whether it’s through recording, live performance,  synchronization (or “synchs,” placement in commercials, TV shows, films, videogames, digital platforms, etc.), or through any other medium where music is being used for monetary gain.

David Quilico

David Quilico

The value that’s potentially generated by a song placement can be substantial – and if you’re a writer, being a novice negotiator can bite you in the butt, as Donovan Woods discovered all too well when he initially self-published under his own  Meant Well imprint.

“I was just writing songs on my own and I had very little understanding of anything,” says Woods, who recently signed with Concord Music Nashville, after spending three years at Warner Chappell Nashville. “I remember I licensed something to TSN to be used during the intro of a Grey Cup game for something like $104. I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no idea. I was sort of doing it on my own.”

Music publishers are able to negotiate fair market value for synch placements, and know what license fee a song should command in any given medium based on terms, use, and territory. They have institutional knowledge of synch licensing precedents.

David Quilico, the Vice-President of Creative at Sony Music Publishing Canada – the music publisher home to Pitt Tha Kid, Lights, Elise LeGrow and 49 other Canadians – similarly explains what a publisher does for the songwriter.

“Our songwriters’ come first,” says Quilico. “We’re here to support you [the songwriter] and pride ourselves on creating and bringing opportunities with expertise beyond those that already exist on a global level. There’s not really a hat that we don’t wear on any given day, whether it’s  helping them [the songwriters] align their team members, helping them find a label partner, being an objective sounding board for their songwriting, and songs, creative song pitching, arranging collaborations and next level admin services. It’s big-picture career development and support for our songwriters, all the time.”

Daniel Lafrance

Daniel Lafrance

For his part, Daniel Lafrance believes that even if the younger generation of music creators sometimes tend to believe that they can do without middlemen such as a publisher – because of their perfect mastery of the technological tools and multiple platforms at their disposal – they would still be depriving themselves of important expertise. “I truly believe artists who don’t surround themselves with a team will miss out on a lot of things,:” he says. “Artists can’t become specialists in publishing, social media, marketing, and everything else they need to master. They would lack the necessary insight, and be distracted from their main goal: making music. I think that’s what they need to focus on, while a team of trusted people takes care of the rest.”

 A working partnership

As much as both indie and major publishers are willing to go to the mat for their songwriters, it’s a two-way street: the onus is on the songwriter to do a great deal of the heavy lifting – i.e., writing the right songs – in order for publishers to be able to take them to the next level.

You can’t rest on your laurels in any publishing partnership: you have to be entrepreneurial and a go-getter. “I look for and appreciate extraordinary talent, and who they are as people,” says Quilico of the qualities he expects from his writers. “They show up and they bring their best. We take that to heart and do the same.”

Vince Degiorgio, president of indie publisher CYMBA Music, whose 26-member roster boasts Reeny Smith, Monowhales, and TallTale, says writers also need to be inquisitive when choosing a partner.

Vince Degiorgio

Vince Degiorgio

“You need to ask the right people either the right questions, or the wrong questions, to find out what your fit is,” says Degiorgio. “You need to know if you have the experience to work it. And the other side is, if you’re a songwriter, you have the opportunity to understand what your publisher is really trying to do for you.  Because when you get a publishing deal, that’s when your real work begins. There’s nothing automatic when you have a publisher.”

Degiorgio, a writer himself, says it’s good to identify your needs upfront. “One of the things Dennis Ellsworth, one of our writers, said he wanted in a publisher was someone could help him do the things that he couldn’t do on his own.

“So if your goals are to achieve the key points of major synchronizations, or in the beginning, micro-synchronizations, it’s extremely important to have someone who can assist you, who  has also had the experience of growing in that world. Putting you together with writers that you want to write with. Those are kind of the key reasons, to me, to have a publisher.”

Like any human relationship, the one between an artist and their manager must be based on mutual trust. Additionally, the terms of that relationship must be clear, and negotiated in good faith and good will, for it to be successful. Idir Assani, manager of the band Ragers, of beatmakers Majosty & Alain, and label manager at Canicule Records, explains his vision of a healthy relationship between artist and management.

You try to hold me down so I became a soldier/ Built up all these walls and now I’m climbing over… Oh Lord! but I ain’t going back.

These intense lyrics from Québec singer-songwriter Jonathan Roy, in “Keeping Me Alive” — whose live acoustic video has earned more than 49 million views since it was released in September of 2019 — “fired me up,” he says of giving music another go.

“I think that’s what it’s doing for people,” says Roy. “There’s a lot of people writing me, people that are being abused, or have mental illness,  and it’s like an anthem. And that’s what it did to me when I wrote it. It picked me up off my ass and said,  ‘You know what, Joe, you’re going to do this for the rest of your life, so stop whining. You’re going to have hard days, just get through them and keep doing what you love.’”

The song – co-written with Brian Howes (Hedley, Hinder, Mother Mother) and Jason Van Poederooyen (Boys Like Girls, Hinder, Hedley) – shows an honesty, self-reflection, and vulnerability that some people wouldn’t be comfortable exposing. The kicker is in the resilient motivational words, Your fueling of the flames gonna show you what I’m made of.

The son of Patrick Roy, the legendary goalie of the Montréal Canadiens, Jonathan hasn’t had an easy climb in the recording industry. He started as a professional musician after he decided not to continue a career path on the ice with the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts, where he played in 2008-09. But his first love was always music. In his teens, he started putting his poetry to song, and released three albums independently — 2009’s What I’ve Become, 2010’s Found My Way, and the Francophone La Route in 2011 — before his dad introduced him to Corey Hart in 2012.

The “Sunglasses at Night” hit-maker took the younger Roy under his wing,  signing him to his Sienna record label, distributed by Warner Music Canada, and writing many of the songs. Among them were 2015’s peppy pop single, “Daniella Denmark,” and  2016’s reggae-lilting “You’re My Ace,” both found on Roy’s 2017 album Mr. Optimist Blues – but none bore the intensity, rawness, and soul that would come.

“Things with Corey and Warner were going not so well,” says Roy. “We weren’t on the same page. I wanted to go on a different route, musically. I’m someone that writes pop melodies and lyrics, but I’ve always felt like my voice and my true essence as an artist has always been more alternative, so that kind of scared a lot of people.

“Almost four years ago now, I bought a van, sold everything, and traveled. I just needed to take in some fresh air, so I was hiking, rock climbing, scuba diving,  just nature stuff, and getting away from the music. I was fuckin’ lost, completely lost. I went out to Arizona, Utah, L.A.  I was camping on the PCH [Pacific Coast Highway] in L.A. and met up with Brian Howes. Warner were the ones to connect us together.  Got in the studio, and ‘Keeping Me Alive’ was the first song we wrote.”

“I wanted to write a song about all these things that were holding me back”

Howes was in Malibu at the time, but is now back on Vancouver Island, where he and Roy continue to collaborate. “He connected with my story. He understood what I was going through,” says Roy. “He was also in bands and knows the business, knows how hard it is, knows how confusing it can get.”

The first line that came? “I think it was, ‘He tried to hold me down.’ That hit home right away,” remembers Roy. “I was writing about all the things that I felt held me back, from my dad telling me that I wasn’t going to succeed in music, that I should’ve focused on education, to me wanting to release more music and Warner not being happy with everything, or controlling what they wanted for me out of my music, or what Corey wanted. I wanted to write a song about all these things that were, in my mind, holding me back.

“The first few lines came out, and then the chorus was the big defining moment, ‘Breaking every chain that you put on me.’ It was getting control of my art and control of who I am. That process has been going on for a while now. And it’s still gonna go on. As I grow older,  I feel I’m more on my ‘X.’ And that’s probably because I’m in full control of what I’m doing.”

They recorded an alternative rock/pop version (it reached No. 1 in Quebec on Le Palmarès Radio Top 100), but Roy had this idea for a live acoustic version. It was made into a video – directed by Samuel Gauthier, starring dancer Jean Yannick Tangara and including the backing vocals of powerhouse Kim Richardson — but Roy never guessed it would connect with tens of millions the way it has.

“I remember we struggled to get to 10,000 [views],” says Roy. “It just started to get on people’s radar. The quality of the video is beautiful. I think people connected with it.  It’s just the combination of everything: good timing, a good song, good lyrics.”

Roy is back in Québec, working on new material, and just released an equally powerful song and video, “Lost.” He’ll be working with Howes again soon, with an EP due to drop in May of 2021.