In the music business, artists find few things more confusing than publishing. This is especially problematic because as a songwriter, nothing is more important to you and your songs than publishing. Although publishing and copyright are interrelated, they are very distinct procedures, which are often confused for one another. “Copyrighting” deals with the ownership and royalties for a particular recording of a song, while the publishing aspect deals with the owners and royalties for the original composition and writing of the song.
A simple example of this is the song “I Will Always Love You.” We may not all love it, but we all certainly know it. The song was written and performed by famed country singer Dolly Parton in the 1970s and she found great success with it. In 1992, singer Whitney Houston recorded a cover of the Dolly Parton song for The Bodyguard film soundtrack, and the song went on to spend 14 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100, in addition to shooting to the top of numerous other album and singles charts. On a more somber note, the song also became number one again after Whitney Houston’s death in February 2012. How is any of this relevant to publishing? While Whitney Houston– and later Whitney Houston’s estate– owned the copyright for her recording of that song, as the writer, Dolly Parton owned the publishing, and that’s how she continued to make money off of its success long after her rendition left the charts.
When a songwriter comes to terms with a publishing company, a contract is then signed by all of the involved parties. The terms of the contract will be contingent on the writer’s level of experience and success, but the publishing company will take some percentage of the royalties, for sure. For a songwriter establishing their career, this can be as much as 50%. As they gain credibility, these terms can be negotiated. In many cases (also depending on level of experience and success), advances on future earnings may be paid to the songwriter by the publisher at this time, the terms of which will also be negotiated. In many cases (also depending on level of experience and success), advances on future earnings may be paid to the songwriter by the publisher at this time, the terms of this will also be negotiated.
In return for whatever percentage the artist is paying, the publisher is committing to a big role. For songwriters who write as a career (i.e; are not performers as well as songwriters) the publisher will try to find successful performers who they feel will be a good fit for their songs. Additionally, the publisher will try to find film and television soundtracks to place their clients work in, as well as seeking out any commercials or film trailers that may be appropriate for a given songwriter’s material.
They also handle the collection of royalties. All types of royalties. Performance royalties, synchronization royalties, and mechanical royalties will all be tracked by the publishing company. (Performance royalties are mostly for radio airplay, synchronization royalties are from film and television soundtracks, and mechanical royalties are earned from album and single sales, both physical and digital.)
The two companies most commonly associated with publishing in the United States are ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) and BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) Even for those of us who have never written a song in our lives, we’ve undoubtedly seen these letters gracing the liner notes of our favorite albums, so obviously they both represent many well-established artists. What sets each of these companies apart from one another? They each have the same objectives; to track and monitor performances and distribute royalties to those they represent.
Each group also has the same admission policy; one of the works in your catalog has been commercially recorded, published and available for sale, performed in any electronic or audio visual media, etc.
Simply put, you have to have a song that has done something, somewhere. There are some differences between the two organizations, though:
ASCAP~ $35 Processing fee
Members sign one year contracts
Membership can be applied for entirely online (with the exception of posthumous memberships).
BMI~ $250 Processing fee
Writers sign two year contracts, publishers sign five year contracts
PDF Application forms can be downloaded online but forms cannot be submitted online
While both ASCAP and BMI are non-profit organizations and have elected boards; ASCAP’s leaders are all from within the organization itself, whereas BMI’s leaders are from outside of BMI. Once an artist is aligned with one organization, they tend to stay loyal to the end, so be sure to do research, ask around, and determine which may be the best fit for you and your needs.
Information about ASCAP can be found here http://www.ascap.com/about/
Information about BMI can be found here http://www.bmi.com/about/
Here at Think Like a Label, we have readers from all around the world. Here are a couple of options for you:
Few entities have been as successful in UK music as EMI.
A quick view of their home page shows an overview of their storied history:
-1,000 UK & US #1 songs in the last 85 years
-12 consecutive years EMI Music Publishing was named “Publisher of the Year” by Billboard Magazine
According to the EMI Publishing web site, they have a different process for admission than ASCAP and BMI.
From their FAQ:
“How can I get a publishing deal?
Your songs need to be heard by someone in the creative department. We will only listen to songs that are submitted via an attorney, manager, and/or at the recommendation of one of our existing artists. If the person in the creative department thinks that they can work with you and your material, they may offer you a publishing deal in order to get your songs placed on albums and to network you throughout the creative community (i.e., A&R people, other artists).”
EMI takes their work very seriously, but if you can be accepted by them, it speaks volumes about your talent, not only to you, but to others in the industry.
(*It may be noteworthy that EMI Publishing was recently bought out by Sony. It is my sincere hope that this doesn’t affect EMI’s decorated reputation.)
Information about EMI can be found here http://emimusicpub.com/about/index.php
Another, more global publishing option is the Universal Music Publishing Group. Many people are against the Universal hold on the music industry, but in the case of publishing, it may actually work to your benefit. The UMPG have their hand in seemingly every label, access to numerous artists (successful artists), partnerships with film studios, and all of this is on a global scale, which can only benefit you all the more where publishing and royalties are concerned.
What I found most interesting about UMPG were two things in particular:
-Over 61 offices worldwide
-Royalty collection in emerging market countries
Those are both rather amazing developments to have working in your favor.
Given the state of the modern music industry, any organization you choose to conduct business with is going to need to, essentially, be a full-service advertising/advocacy agency for you, and a publishing company is no different.
The best thing to do is research, figure out your options, and make an educated decision about what will best suit your long term needs.