If you write songs –on your own, with others, or in a band – one of the most important things you can do is develop a clear understanding of how music publishing works for performances.

Yet music publishing for performances can initially seem quite confusing, especially to young songwriters who are just starting out. It’s not unusual for me to receive a blank stare when I first start explaining music publishing to a songwriter. And that’s understandable; this stuff can be complex.

A good starting point is a diagram about publishing revenue from performances on radio, television, the internet, live concerts, etc., as paid by SOCAN.

Publishing Figure One

Typically, the publishing revenue from performances in a song is divided into the Publisher’s Share and the Writer’s share, in equal halves. The entire pie represents the total revenue generated from the music publishing for performances. If you never sign any form of publishing deal, you as songwriter get 100% of the publishing revenue and rights, meaning you receive the full pie above.

From here, signing a publishing agreement involves dividing up the red half of the pie on the left, the Publisher’s Share. SOCAN will pay out the Writer’s Share to the actual songwriter (or a corporation controlled by the songwriter, which is often the case for songwriters who want to funnel their publishing revenue through a corporation rather than through themselves personally, for tax purposes).

The three main types of publishing agreements for performances are:

1) Publishing/Administration Agreement: Often artists want to retain ownership in their publishing, but hire a third party to make the most of their catalogue of songs. This includes shopping the songs for film and/or TV placements, and making sure that the correct amount of publishing revenue is being collected for the catalogue for performances around the world. The Publisher/Administrator can be a useful ally in making sure your songs are generating the most revenue possible from performances around the globe.

In this scenario, the publisher/administrator doesn’t actually own the copyrights in the songs, but administers those copyrights for a percentage, ranging from 10 to 25 percent of the performance revenues from those copyrights. So you give up a percentage of your performance publishing revenue in the hope that the publishing administrator will help your catalogue generate more revenue to offset their fee. For example, in the diagram below, the Writer retains full ownership of both pie halves, but gives up 10 to 25 percent of the Publisher’s Share of performances. So in a 20 percent Pub Admin deal, the Writer gives up 20 percent of only the Publisher’s Share of the pie (that is, 20 percent of the 50 percent Publisher’s Share), which equals 10 percent of the overall publishing revenues being generated by performances of their catalogue. The Writer’s Share remains untouched. So the Writer is left with 90 percent of the overall publishing pie, as follows:

Publishing Figure Two
2) Co-Publishing Agreement:
The Co-Pub deal is the norm in the business today. The Publisher and the Writer co-own the copyrights in the songs, and the publisher administers the copyrights in them from performances. The standard Co-Pub deal involves half of the Publisher’s Share going to the Publisher, meaning we’re left with a 75/25 split of the total ownership pie in favor of the Writer (that is, 50 percent of the Publisher’s half of the pie is given away to him, or 25 percent overall). The overall split of publishing revenue from performances is 75/25 in favor of the Writer, so the Writer is left with the following:

Publishing Figure Three
3) Buy-Out Agreement: Buy Out deals are not as common today as they were in the past, and are typically seen when a significant advance is being offered for the Writer’s catalogue. The Publisher owns 100% of the copyrights in the musical works and has sole administration rights. The overall split of publishing revenue is 50/50, as the Writer is left only with the Writer’ Share of publishing revenues from performances.

Publishing Figure Four

What Does a Music Publisher Do?

Generally speaking, music publishers administrate, promote, exploit and protect your catalogue of songs throughout the world, for the life of the copyrights in those songs, or until they revert to the songwriter after a specified period of time. The two key earnings sources for music publishers are mechanical royalties (royalties from sales of records, compact discs, and digital downloads), and performance royalties (royalties earned from the public performance of songs), which include synchronization royalties from having songs included in a film, TV, or other screen production.

Until the 20th Century, a publisher’s main function was administrating printed music in all its forms. However, as 20th Century technology extended the use of music, so the responsibilities of publishers similarly widened to include the licensing of music on records, radio, television, films, concerts and, more recently, tapes, compact discs, satellite and cable distribution, karaoke, video games, computer software, CD-ROMs and other forms of multimedia, etc.

Publishers may also actively “pitch” your songs to artists to record, and your recorded songs to radio, TV, ad agencies, music supervisors (who decide what songs are included in a film or TV show), and other music users.

It’s very common in today’s marketplace for an artist or group to write their own material. Therefore, if a recording contract is signed, strong efforts are made to sign a publishing deal for rights to the songs at the same time. In this way, additional earnings from performing rights can supplement earnings from record sales. And the songs recorded by the artist are still available to be “covered” by other artists, earning even more income.

What is Sub-Publishing?

To maximize the earnings potential of copyrights when a domestic publisher looks to exploit a song catalogue internationally, the publisher generally turns to established publishers in foreign territories. Their agreement is known as a sub-publishing contract.

The advantages of sub-publishing are obvious: the foreign publisher, ideally, has the necessary contacts to expose works in that territory and the administrative skills to collect subsequent royalties. Securing covers is part of the job, but having a sub-publisher ensures proper registration, licensing and documentation of a catalogue. Also, a sub-publisher can, through membership in local mechanical and performing rights societies, collect and distribute income generated by an original recording. Of course, major publishers with offices in many territories don’t usually require sub publishers.

So, how do you choose a publisher? Fair question. The answer really depends on a number of factors, including the track record of the publisher involved, the current state of your career, the offer on the table, and so on.