Music Publishing 101: What is it & How it Works

As a songwriter, knowledge is power. The music industry as a whole can be difficult to navigate, and there may even be avenues you didn't know existed. Take for example music publishing.

TuneCore believes you should be empowered to collect every single royalty generated by the music you write, and that means knowing your publishing basics. We're here to show you the ropes.

This is Music Publishing 101: What it is and How it Works.

What Is Music Publishing?

If you're a TuneCore artist, you know that you earn royalties from the recordings you distribute through us. But did you know you also earn royalties from your written songs within those recordings, and that these are two separate things? When you write and record a song, you are creating two different assets which generate different royalties: the composition (written song) and the sound recording.

To grasp the fundamentals of music publishing, it's important to understand that it is completely separate from distribution. Distribution is all about getting your sound recordings out there for your fans to hear, and collecting the royalties that come from these recordings, also known as "masters". Music publishing is concerned with managing the compositions (a.k.a. the songs you write) that make up those recordings, and the royalties generated therein.

When you're done with this guide, you will have a better understanding of sound recordings vs. compositions, what kinds of royalties there are, writer's share vs. publisher's share, PROs and other organizations which are a necessary part of the publishing picture, and how a publishing administrator can help you achieve your financial goals so you can focus on your music.

Music Publishing: Concepts to Master

The most essential elements of music publishing to understand are:

  • Copyright Basics

  • Sound Recordings/Masters vs. Compositions

  • Royalty Types

  • PROs and other Collection Organizations

  • Publishing Administration

Wrap your head around these things - what they are and how they work - and you'll have a foundation to invest in your future as a songwriter.

Copyright Basics in Music

We cover copyright in more detail throughout our "How To Make Money with Music as your Primary Income Source" guide - it's free to read and chock full of actionable ways to generate more cash.

But let's re-summarize it here:

In the US, a song is copyrighted from the moment it is 'fixed in a tangible medium'. That means as soon as your song is written down, or recorded and stored as a file, for example, it is copyrighted. So what does that really mean? When you own a copyright, you are entitled to 6 protections:

The right to public performance
The right to create derivative works
The right to distribute (sell) the work
The right to public display
The right to digital transmission (i.e. streaming on Spotify, Apple Music, etc.)
The right to reproduce the work and make copies

Your music is your intellectual property - and knowing how copyright works is your number one way to protect that property.

Another key idea to understand and internalize is that, when you write and record a song, you are creating two separate assets protected by copyright:

These two assets generate different royalties for their owner(s). Let's go over royalty types next.

Royalty Types

A caveat: we're only covering royalties generated by compositions, not the recordings of compositions (more on those in a later guide).

There are multiple types of royalties a song can generate, including performance, mechanical, microsync, synchronization and print. Let's take a closer look at the first two:

  • Performance Royalties - royalties paid to the songwriter, or copyright holder, whenever a composition is performed publicly - recorded or live, on radio, television, digital outlets, concerts, and other music services.

  • Mechanical Royalties - royalties generated by the composition each time the song is "reproduced" either physically or digitally. This can refer to on-demand streams on interactive streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, digital downloads on iTunes or Amazon, and physical sales like CDs and vinyl.

Performance royalties and mechanical royalties are both generated by a composition. That can make distinguishing the difference between them confusing. We think it's helpful to remember that mechanical royalties were established because, historically, music was reproduced for sale, often by machines (hence mechanical royalties) .

It got printed onto music rolls for player pianos. It got manufactured onto CDs throughout the 80s and 90s (and still does!).

Streaming platforms are the latest modern form of mechanical reproduction and, accordingly, generate mechanical royalties. Cool, right?

Because these are all sorts of royalties, they're collected by all sorts of organizations. Let's discuss the ones you should know.

Performance Rights Organizations (PROs) and Other Collection Societies

Performance Rights Organizations - also known as PROs - collect performance royalties. You've probably heard of some of them. In the US, we have several such as BMI and ASCAP, but almost every country has at least one. Performance royalties are accounted for in two parts: your writer's share and your publisher's share (we'll break that down next).

PROs collect royalties for songwriters and composers by way of issuing blanket licenses to businesses that use music they represent. For example, the next time you're in a bar, see if it has an ASCAP or BMI sticker on its storefront. If it does, it means they're paying to use music in their establishment, and those funds help supply royalties to affiliated songwriters and publishers.

To recap: PROs collect performance royalties. But what about mechanical royalties? Enter The Mechanical Licensing Collective (The MLC), whose sole focus is paying songwriters and publishers US digital mechanical royalties. The MLC is responsible for collecting mechanical royalties from songs streamed digitally in the US, on platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube and more. The MLC makes sure the streaming services are paying songwriters according to the statutory rates set by the US copyright board. They then collect and pay those mechanical royalties to songwriters. The best part? They're a nonprofit, which means more $$ in songwriter's pockets.

What about CD's or vinyl? Physical sales also generate royalties! These come from the Harry Fox Agency (HFA) in the US. Any other royalty sources you ask? For sure. There are literally hundreds of collection societies all over the world who collect from DSP's, social media platforms like Tiktok and Reels, physical sales, print media, specialty licenses and more. It can be tough to manage all these revenue streams, which is why using a publishing administrator can be so helpful.

When you work with a publishing administrator like TuneCore, we work hand in hand with your PRO, The MLC and all those other collection organizations so you collect all your coin from every corner of the globe.

Writer's Share vs. Publisher's Share

When you sign up with a PRO, you collect your writer's share of your performance royalties, but what about your publisher's share? Let's go over the difference.

When your composition generates a performance royalty, your PRO splits it in two parts: the writer's share and the publisher's share. The writer's share is the portion or royalties attributed to the songwriter/composer. This portion of the royalty is collected and paid directly to you via your PRO.

If you do not have your own publishing company, or a publishing administrator, you do not collect the other portion of the royalty you are owed. A publishing administrator collects the publisher's share on your behalf, and pays it through to you on a schedule (TuneCore pays our songwriters quarterly).

Publishing Administration

At TuneCore Publishing, we work with songwriters as an administrator, meaning we agree to audit, collect, and distribute royalties on behalf of the songwriter without taking any ownership of your copyrights. This type of agreement is best if you want to have total control of your copyrights, ultimate flexibility, and are looking to keep things independent.

Administration agreements are a great solution for independent songwriters.

So what should you do? If you're an independent songwriter, you've got to collect your royalties as soon as possible - point blank period. Working with an administrator is easy and low commitment, allowing you to collect more revenue at the start of your career and beyond. As your career evolves, you may choose to make moves and work with a co-publisher, or even sell your whole catalog one day. It's vital to consider what publishing arrangement best serves your career at this time.

Start Collecting your Publishing Royalties the Right Way

You now understand the basics of music publishing.

You can tell the difference between a sound recording and a composition, performance and mechanical royalties, know that PRO isn't simply short for "professional," and understand your rights as a copyright owner.

If you've learned anything else from reading this guide (and we hope you've learned a lot), it's that there are more royalties out there than you think.

It's your right as a songwriter to collect the ones that belong to you.

At TuneCore, we want songwriters to feel empowered by their creative process and their business. - Understanding the fundamentals of music publishing can inform the shape and arc of your career.

Take your career to the next level. Start managing your publishing income effectively and ensure all your royalties reach you.