When artists and songwriters hear “music publishing” for the first time, there’s usually a fair amount of confusion. When artists and songwriters begin to read more about “music publishing”, the confusion mounts even further. Not to fear – while music publishing is a complicated subject, it has a lot to do with how you make money from your music, and understanding the basics can go a long way.

In short, music publishing is really all about songwriters and copyrights. When music is used commercially (whether sold, licensed, or publicly performed), the songwriter and copyright owner is owed royalties. A music publishing company can offer multiple services for songwriters. As a ‘publishing administrator’, they administer the copyright – protecting the use of songs as well as collecting royalties owed from use. On the creative side, some music publishers focus on the use and exploitation of the copyrights they administer by securing opportunities in the form of ‘sync licenses’ for film, TV, ads, video games, etc. Additionally, these creative teams play an active role in setting up co-writes and pitching songs to artists and labels to be recorded for the first time.

Most deals with larger music publishers see copyright owners receiving 50% of all royalties the music publisher helps generate. At the end of the day, the songwriter still “owns” the song, but working out licensing, pitching to music supervisors, and collecting royalties is a lot of work.

Compositions vs. Sound Recordings

In short, songwriters should keep in mind that each song they write and record exists in two forms: the composition (underlying melody, lyrics, and music) and the sound recording (also known as a ‘master’, it is the recorded version of the composition). Each of these properties has rights – meaning those who own them have can decide who can use them and how.

If Artist B records a ‘cover’ of Artist A’s composition, Artist B only owns the rights to that recorded version of the composition. Artist A owns both the composition and their own sound recording of the composition.

A Brief History

The history of music publishing and its importance in today’s modern industry can be traced back to the late 1800s. In New York City, a small neighborhood that came to be known as Tin Pan Alley housed a collective of music publishers and songwriters, who connected to create and release popular music outside of the religious and classical genres. Granted this era was defined by different sales methods and formats (think: sheet music), its eventual impact on how music publishers and songwriters conducted business and the overall perception of copyright protection is undeniable.

When it comes to how artists and songwriters are paid from digital music consumption (streaming and downloading), music publishing concerns the various kinds of songwriter royalties a composition earns. While streaming revenue and download sales can be collected by your digital distributor, the songwriter royalties associated with each stream and download must be collected and administered by a publisher. For more info on the songwriter royalties your music can earn, click here for a deeper dive.

What’s a PRO?

Performance Rights Organizations (or as they’re commonly known in the industry, PROs) help songwriters, composers and artists collect performance royalties. They exist all over the world and are designed to pay local performance royalties to copyright owners wherever they are.

Performance royalties are paid to the copyright holder whenever a composition is performed publicly – recorded or live, on radio, television, digital outlets, concerts, and other music services. PROs are not responsible for collecting the mechanical royalties that are generated when a song is purchased, downloaded or streamed.

Think of registering your compositions with a PRO (in the United States, your options are ASCAP, BMI or SESAC) as your initial, ‘bare-minimum’ foray into covering your music publishing basics. This Survival Guide will help break down why you need more than just a PRO to collect all of your royalties.

Royalty Flows

However ‘in the weeds’ you choose to go when educating yourself on the subject of music publishing, at the end of the day it’s important to take a look at how these royalties are paid to copyright holders.

Who’s Collecting This?

Now that you have an understanding of how royalties are generated, you’re probably wondering who is making sure they’re all accounted for and paid out properly. The role of a publishing administrator is just that: ensure that compositions are earning royalties owed to them, being collected, and accounted for – then, ensuring that the songwriter is paid accordingly. This process is known in the music industry as “publishing administration”.

In the event that you choose TuneCore for publishing administration services, for example, TuneCore takes care of the registration, accounting and collection work on your behalf – you, the copyright owner, retain 85% of all public performance royalties collected by TuneCore. (If our creative team secures a sync license based on our direct pitching efforts, our commission is 20%.)

How Do I Get My Song on TV Shows, Ads, Films or Video Games?

The act of permitting the use of your composition and/or sound recording in a television show, a commercial, a movie, a video game, (or other audio/visual format) is known as synchronization licensing. A synchronization license (or ‘sync’ for short) is negotiated either by the copyright owner or publisher representing him/her – there is no ‘statutory rate’, rather, costs and payouts are determined by the perceived value of the composition, whether or not it is the original version being used, and what the budget of the requester is.

A good example might be a brand who interested in licensing “SONG A” for their latest commercial. The permission to use the composition copyright has been granted, and instead of using the master recorded version of “SONG A”, a creative team works on securing a version performed and recorded by another artist. In this instance, the need for a master license is unnecessary.

The “how” in all of this comes down to pitching your music. While it’s not impossible to land sync placements by pitching on your own behalf, music publishing companies specialize in exploiting the compositions they represent because of the strong industry relationships they hold and the overall understanding of what music supervisors, (those in charge of picking the music for TV shows, films, ads, etc.), are looking for.

For lesser known independent artists, while the value of the sync license may be lower, these kinds of placements are highly sought after and can prove to be a massive help in promotion/discovery. In fact, many music supervisors actively seek independent songwriters and artists for two reasons: 1.) costs are lower due to the perceived value of a lesser-known song, and 2.) the ‘buzz factor’ of using hip, new music by an up-and-comer.

There’s a bit more that goes into synchronization licenses and placements – you can do a deeper dive into that here.