What is Music Publishing & How Does It Work?

What is Music Publishing & How Does It Work?

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Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Your songs are written and recorded, then mixed and mastered (with the help of The SoundLAB). So how do you start making money? One way is to understand the world of music publishing, the difference between the master recordings you’ve created and the underlying musical composition, and how to leverage both for income. It’s particularly easy for artists to be taken advantage of if they don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to music publishing, so be sure to take the time to educate yourself and get the most from your music. Read on for tips on how to get started.

What is music publishing?

In short, music publishing is the business of making sure that music makers get money for the music they create. The business began well over a century ago, when printed sheet music was a huge market in the music industry, hence the term “publishing.”

Today, music publishers help artists license their music for all sorts of usage. Publishers can help make sure any musical work is properly registered and royalties are properly collected. They can advocate on behalf of their songwriter clients if there are conflicts or issues, and they can even try to find great opportunities for their songwriters’ works (getting a song you write recorded by a major artist, for example).

Remember that music publishers aren’t record labels, though some of their practices can certainly overlap. Before signing up with any music publishing company (or record label, for that matter), make sure you understand clearly what they will and will not do on your behalf.

Also, remember that music publishing isn’t just for major acts. Independent artists of all genres can gain income, visibility, and opportunities from working with music publishers.

The basics of copyright in music

Once you make great music, it’s important to protect it, and that means copyrighting it. Knowing how to copyright your song is an important part of music publishing. Rest assured that as soon as you create music in any fixed format, it officially and legally belongs to you. However, properly registering your music with the United States Copyright Office is important in case you need to prove that you are indeed the owner of the musical work.

There are two different types of music copyright you need to keep in mind: Sound Recordings (SR) and Performing Arts (PA). Check out the below, via Disc Makers’ Basics of Music Copyrights and Royalties guide, for more detail:

If you’re copyrighting Sound Recordings, you’ll fill out the SR form. This encompasses the protection of all recorded sounds (the actual audio of a smooth melody or your vocalist hitting those high notes). On the other hand, when you’re copyrighting the written composition of your music (split sheets, lyrics, chords, etc.), you’ll be filling out the PA form. If you write and perform your own music, you only need to fill out the SR form. You can easily go this route as long as you are in fact the owner of both copyrights.

Be sure to read the copyright law guide in full for more info on protecting your music. Also, remember to get started early, since it can take months for your copyright application to be processed.

Registering your music for copyright may seem tedious, but it’s for an important purpose: to make sure that your work is truly, legally, and inarguably recognized as yours.

The value of physical media in the digital age

Even as you investigate publishing, don’t forget to keep physical media in mind. When nearly any song in the world is a click or a tap away, it’s easy to think that CDs and vinyl are obsolete. Nothing could be further from the truth, though. Millions of people around the world enjoy music on CD and record players, and sales of both remain resilient amidst the rapidly changing digital landscape for the music industry.

Fans also love having a physical keepsake from concerts they love. CDs and records are objects that they can hold, show off to friends and family, and use to remember the amazing show at which they bought them. Using Disc Makers’ design and production expertise, you can also create short-run and custom CDs and records, so your fans can have special, collectible keepsakes to connect with you through.

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Royalties, licensing, and making money

Once you have your music fully produced, replicated, distributed, copyrighted, and published, it’s time to get yourself aligned when it comes to royalties. Here are a few of the different types of music royalties music makers encounter:

  • Mechanical royalties. When your music is streamed, downloaded, or otherwise purchased, you as the songwriter get paid.
  • Performance royalties. When your music is streamed online (but not via on-demand services), the music copyright holders receive performance royalties. Similarly, your music can earn you money if songs you write are performed in live venues.
  • Synchronization royalties. When your music is played on TV shows or movies, ads or video games, royalties go to the copyright holder of the composition.

Working with performing rights organizations (PROs)

A big part of getting paid as a music creator or recording artist is making sure that you’re associated with a PRO that’s working on your behalf to collect the royalties you deserve. There are three big ones in North America: ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. All three work hard to make sure that you get paid for public performances of your songs.

Each PRO works slightly differently when it comes to tracking performances of your music, and each has a different signup process. We’ve got you covered on the differences between ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC with tips on which PRO to register with, and how to get the most out of the affiliation.

Music licensing services

When it comes to publishing your music, make sure you’re working with reputable folks who are looking out for your best interest, not just trying to make a buck off of your work. It’s easy to fall into the trap of too-good-to-be-true deals in the music industry.

How do you make sure the licensing and/or copyrighting service you’re working with is legit? Follow these pointers:

  • Check in with professional music organizations like unions, PROs like ASCAP and BMI, and The Recording Academy to see what they know.
  • Ask around in your music community to see which services folks have used, and if they’d recommend them.
  • Be wary of just finding a service through a search engine and relying on online reviews, as those can be manipulated.
  • Remember that if a company promises you something that sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • If you still need help, reach out to CD Baby for assistance.

Preparing your music for publishing

Your songs are written, recorded, and mixed — but how do you get them ready for publication? Follow these vital steps to set yourself up for success:

  • Master your music for digital distribution, CD, and vinyl. Regardless of whether you’re releasing your music via digital or physical media (or ideally, both!), getting your tracks professionally mastered is a key step. Professional engineers will help make sure that your tracks are at industry-level volume levels, and that the right frequencies are highlighted for record players and streaming services alike.
  • Design your album art for online distribution — and CD and vinyl packaging. Great graphics can help your music get attention regardless of what format your listeners are experiencing it in. Just keep in mind that what looks great on a big record sleeve might not work so well as a tiny digital thumbnail, and vice versa, so you may need to customize your art for each format. Don’t know where to start? The Design Studio is here to help.
  • Get your music out there. It’s not hard to get your music distributed to streaming platforms all around the world. Disc Makers will help you access global distribution services that can help.
  • Keep up with legal and contractual considerations. When it comes to publishing and distribution, it’s always best to have everything legal clearly in writing, so everyone’s on the same page when it comes to matters of ownership, rights, and money. Make sure to read over all terms and conditions before you sign anything. In particular, look for details about:
    • Who owns both the rights to the song and recording
    • Who controls what happens to the song and recording
    • How income gets collected, documented, and split
    • How long the agreement lasts
    • If the agreement is exclusive or non-exclusive

There’s never any shame in getting a lawyer’s advice if you feel in over your head. Contact your local chapter of The Recording Academy, local musicians’ unions, or Volunteer Lawyers For The Arts if you need help finding a good lawyer who won’t break the bank.

Build your music publishing strategy with Disc Makers

The world of music distribution and publishing can seem confusing and scary — but Disc Makers’ experts are here to help. Lean on us to get your tracks distributed around the world, and to help you get paid everything you deserve. And don’t forget to pair your digital efforts with physical products as well. By combining physical production and publishing services, you’re giving yourself a varied and powerful toolkit to help you reach your listeners (and make money doing it).

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Michael Gallant

About Michael Gallant

Michael Gallant is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur living in New York City. His debut album for the Steinway & Sons label, Rock Rewind, features solo piano reinventions of Pearl Jam, U2, Halestorm, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and more. Read his recent article for the National Endowment for the Arts and follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant and Facebook.com/GallantMusic.

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