by Kamal Moo, Esq.

Imagine you're a prolific songwriter and you spend about 20 hours a day doing what you love: writing songs. Realistically, the precious free time you have will be spent eating, sleeping, and trying to fight off insanity due to lack of sleep. With that kind of schedule, you won't have much time to pitch your songs to artists, managers, record companies, etc. But, if you're talented or lucky, a music publisher will come to you and say: "Hey there, Mr. (or Ms.) Songwriter, you should let me take care of the business stuff for you so you can dedicate all your time to writing songs." Then, after you've signed the deal, your new music publisher will start pounding the pavement to try and make money with your songs.

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What Are the Types of Publishing Deals?

There are three main types of music publishing deals: 1) the traditional publishing deal, 2) the co-publishing deal, and 3) the administration deal. Here is a brief rundown of how each is structured: With a traditional deal, the songwriter assigns 100% ownership of his songs to the publisher who splits the income with the writer 50/50. With a co-publishing deal, the songwriter assigns 50% ownership to the publisher and the income is split 25/75 (25% to the publisher, 75% to the writer). With an administration deal, the songwriter retains 100% ownership of the songs and the publisher is usually paid between 10%-20% of the income. 

How Does A Music Publisher Make Money With Your Songs?

Short answer: licensing. When you create a song, the law automatically grants you certain rights, and companies have to pay for those rights if they want to use your song. For example, if a singer records your song and her label releases it for sale, then you will be paid "mechanical royalties" for each and every copy sold. If your song becomes a radio hit, you're entitled to collect "performance royalties" from the radio stations. If a movie or TV show licenses your song, you'll receive a "sync license" fee from the production company. These are some of the most common types of licenses and they can generate a lot of money, especially if a song is a runaway hit.

What Should You Look For In A Music Publisher?

When looking for a publisher, there are a few things you should consider. Some of the 800 lbs. gorillas, like EMI or Warner/Chappell, represent thousands of songwriters and have catalogues that contain hundreds of thousands of songs. These publishers have relationships with a wide variety of companies that they can pitch your songs to. However, some writers may feel more comfortable working with smaller publishers who can give them more personal attention and creative guidance. So, it all really depends on your personal preference. 

Additionally, most publishers will offer advance money to entice writers to sign with them. The size of an advance generally depends on the popularity of the writer. When I was in college, I interned with a major music publisher that signed a big name songwriter/producer and paid him a multi-million dollar advance. Publishing deals of that size are extremely rare, but it goes to show that they can be very lucrative.

Overall, a solid music publisher can help advance your career by opening doors and generating opportunities that you might not have gotten otherwise. But, like any business deal, be sure you feel comfortable with the terms they are offering and consider whether the deal makes sense for you. And, of course, it's always a good idea to consult a knowledgeable attorney before signing anything.

Note: Kamal Moo is a California licensed attorney. The information contained in this article is not legal advice. Reading this article does not create an attorney-client privilege. You should consult with an attorney if you need legal advice. 

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