Music Publishing 101

January 11, 2019

What is Music Publishing?

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 exist. Take for example music publishing. Have you ever heard of it? Do you know how to manage your royalties from publishing, and how these earnings differ from your sound recording royalties? While music publishing is a complicated subject, it can be broken down into the basics, and understanding the basics can go a long way. 

Music publishing is all about managing the royalties earned from the music you write. When written music is used commercially (whether sold, licensed, or publicly performed), the songwriter/copyright owner (this may be the same person) is owed royalties. After reading this guide, you will have an understanding of your assets, what kinds of royalties there are, writer’s share vs. publisher’s share, what a PRO is, how these organizations are a necessary part of the publishing picture, and how a publishing administrator can help you achieve your goals of collecting 100% of your revenue. 

Compositions vs. Sound Recordings

Each song you write and record exists in two forms: the composition (underlying melody, lyrics, and music) and the sound recording (also known as a ‘master’, this is the recorded version of the composition). Each of these assets has corresponding rights and generates different royalties. For example, if Artist B records a ‘cover’ of Artist A’s composition, Artist B only owns the rights to that recording – not to the composition.  Artist A maintains ownership of the composition, because they wrote it, as well as any recordings they originally created. The exploitation of compositions is the way revenue is generated within the scope of music publishing. This means tracking and reporting royalties when a song is streamed, downloaded, performed live, sheet music is printed and sold, when it is used in visual media such as TV shows, movies & gaming, used in videos on TikTok and Youtube, and much more. 

Performance vs. Mechanical Royalties

Performance royalties are generated any time a composition is “performed” publicly. This doesn’t just mean when you play your song live in concert. Public performance extends to any time a song is played via a streaming service, on the radio, on apps like TikTok and Instagram, and even in public places like restaurants or gyms. Mechanical royalties are also 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. When people want to listen to your music, your composition will generate performance and mechanical royalties, often in tandem with each other. 

Writer’s Share vs. Publisher’s Share

Each composition is collected via two avenues: the writer’s share and the publisher’s share. The writer’s share is the portion or royalties attributed to the songwriter/composer. This is collected and paid directly to you when you sign up with your PRO (performance rights organization). The publisher’s share refers to the share of revenue for which administrative rights can be attributed to a music publishing administrator such as TuneCore Publishing. As a songwriter, you own both the writer and publisher shares, but can transfer representative rights of the publisher share through a deal or agreement with a publisher. Then, the publisher of the composition is authorized to issue licenses and collect royalties for the works subject to the terms of the agreement. In a Publishing Administration agreement, no ownership is transferred, simply the right to administer the songs. 

What’s a PRO?

Performance Rights Organizations (PROs for short) help songwriters, composers, and artists collect performance royalties. There are hundreds of these and other collection societies all over the world. PROs are designed to pay local performance royalties to songwriters wherever they are.

Performance royalties are 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. PROs are not responsible for collecting the mechanical royalties that are generated when a song is purchased, downloaded or streamed. In the US, the MLC (Mechanical Licensing Collective) is a source that collects your mechanical royalties. This is separate and apart from your PRO. Signing up with a PRO is a necessary piece of the revenue puzzle. Affiliating with a PRO as a songwriter allows you to collect your writer’s share of your performance royalties. 

Having a publishing administrator register your compositions with your PRO is also a great idea. A publishing administrator collects the publisher’s share of your performance royalties, which you cannot entirely collect directly from your PRO. A publishing administrator works together with your PRO to register your works on your behalf, helping to ensure you collect 100% of what you earn. This Survival Guide will help break down why you need more than just a PRO to collect all of your royalties.


Why Work with a Music Publisher?

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, and ensuring that the songwriter is paid accordingly. This process is known in the music industry as “publishing administration”. 

A music publishing company can offer several services for songwriters and take the guesswork out of properly registering your songs. As a publishing administrator, TuneCore administers your copyright. This means protecting the use of your songs as well as collecting royalties owed from commercial use and paying them through to you. 

With TuneCore, you keep 100% ownership of the songs you write. Most deals with larger music publishers only give songwriters 50% of all royalties the publisher helps generate, and sometimes less. 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, and working with an administrator can help you maximize efficiency.