+20 Basic Music Publishing Terms & Definitions You Should Know as a Songwriter

Music publishing terms aren't commonplace.

They're specific to an enigmatic industry with a high barrier to entry. We want to break that down so you can hold your own with experienced industry professionals.

Here are the 20 basic music publishing terms & definitions you should know as a songwriter & artist.

Music Publishing

Music publishing is the business of managing the rights and royalties of the songs you write a.k.a. compositions.

When you write a song, and it is fixed in a tangible medium, it is protected by copyright. When it's performed publicly or reproduced physically or digitally, you're owed royalties. That means your original composition generates revenue whenever it is streamed on Apple Music, uploaded in Tiktok videos, played over hotel PAs, or even played live by other musicians.

Music publishing is knowing:

What protections you are afforded by copyright
Where and how your compositions produce royalties
How to collect them

Royalties

Royalties are payments made to rights holders (aka songwriters and artists) for the use of a licensed work (aka compositions and sound recordings).

Compositions and sound recordings are two different assets that generate separate royalties. You collect your sound recording royalties through your distributor or record label, and collect composition royalties through your PRO and publishing administrator.

Performance Royalties

A performance royalty is due whenever a composition is performed publicly – this can mean played live in concert, in supermarkets, on terrestrial or satellite radio, digital streaming services, bars/restaurants, and several more.

If a DJ spins your song at a club or on the radio, that's a public performance.

If your song is streamed on Spotify, that’s also a public performance.

In both cases, performance royalties are generated.

Mechanical Royalties

Mechanical royalties are generated every time composition is reproduced digitally or physically. Think CD and vinyl sales, digital downloads on iTunes, and interactive streams on DSPs.

For example, when your song is selected on streaming platforms like Spotify or Apple Music, you can think of that stream as a digital copy, which earns a mechanical royalty. That also applies to TikTok videos, YouTube, and much more online.

Interactive vs Non-Interactive Streams

Streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music allow listeners to select the recordings they want to hear. This is an interactive stream.

Non-interactive streams occur when a recording is selected for a listener by the service they are utilizing, such as the “radio” function on a streaming platform, or Pandora.

Interactive streams generate both performance and mechanical royalties.
Non-interactive streams only generate performance royalties.

Copyright

A copyright is an agreement that gives the writer of a song exclusive rights over their intellectual property.

We cover copyright in detail throughout our Music Publishing 101 guide, which you can access here.

Performance Rights Organization (PRO)

Performance Rights Organizations, or PROs, collect performance royalties for songwriters and publishers when songs are publicly broadcast or performed.

They are also responsible for issuing blanket licenses to businesses that use songs within their establishments so their members get paid properly.

For example, in the US, we have ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, and GMR.

Composer vs. Lyricist

A composer is the author or co-author of a song, or musical composition. A lyricist is an author or co-author of a song’s lyrical components.

Whether you contribute to a song’s beat, guitar riff, lyrics, or melody - you are still a songwriter.

Songwriter

A songwriter is an individual who authors or co-authors any part of a song’s music or lyrics.

Whether you are a composer, songwriter, or lyricist, your work generates music publishing royalties when used in a commercial setting.

Music Catalog

A catalog is a collection of works owned or controlled by a songwriter and/or publisher.

Your catalog includes any songs you have written, or, of which you own at least a percentage.
Keeping track of the works in your catalog and how they are being used is vital to collecting all the royalties you’re owed.

Sound Recording/Master Recording

A sound recording, or master recording, is a recorded performance of a musical composition.

For example, Dolly Parton wrote the song "I Will Always Love You" in 1973. Whitney Houston, while signed to Arista Records, recorded and released a performance of Dolly Parton's composition in 1992. In this case, Arista Records and/or Whitney Houston only owns the sound recording, or master recording. Dolly Parton (and her publisher) continue to own the composition.

Publishing Administrator

A publishing administrator manages the registration and licensing of songs, while collecting royalties for songwriters.

TuneCore Publishing acts as a publishing administrator, meaning you, as a songwriter, hire us to look after your catalog and collect your publishing royalties.

Letter of Direction

A Letter of Direction, or LOD, is a formal notice sent to collection societies and other income sources to let them know your publishing administrator (like TuneCore) is managing your catalog/songs.
An LOD summarizes your administration agreement and authorizes your administrator to start collecting royalties on your behalf. We only need an LOD from you if you have your own publishing entity. Do not worry, an LOD does not grant TuneCore ownership of your compositions.

Split Sheet

A split sheet is a written agreement between co-writers of a composition stipulating who owns what percentage of the final song.

Split sheets help protect your share of the composition if it is ever questioned, so it’s always a good idea to have one in place before you release your music. It can safeguard your cash, and your relationships with your co-writers.

Work-for-Hire

A work-for-hire agreement outlines the employment of a songwriter for a project, company, or otherwise specified work.

If a composer is hired to write a song under a work-for-hire contract, they are typically paid a one-time fee for their work, and do not retain ownership of the copyright, or the song itself - the company who hired them does.

Always review any work-for-hire agreement with an attorney who understands the ins and outs of music publishing.

Composition

A composition is a song! It is the melody, lyrics, beats and other musical elements that make a song, well...a song.

There can be many different recordings of a single composition.

Cover

A cover is an artist’s performance of another songwriter’s composition.

Cover songs generate publishing royalties for the person who originally wrote the song (or the relevant rightsholder). If someone covers your song, you earn publishing royalties. If you cover someone else’s song, they earn publishing royalties.

Sample

A sample is the use of a portion of a previously recorded song within a brand new work.

Samples must be legally approved for use via a license agreement with the owner(s) of the original sound recording and composition.

Interpolation

An interpolation is the use of a portion of an original composition within a brand new work.

Unlike a sample, an interpolation does not use the original sound recording - only part of the compositional elements, which are re-recorded in a new way and incorporated into a new composition (with legal approval from the original writer and/or publisher).

Blanket License

In this context, blanket licenses are issued by representatives of songwriters and publishers (such as PROs like ASCAP and BMI), in order to allow for use of their entire catalog - hence: “blanket” license.
For example, BMI issues blanket licenses to DSPs like Spotify so that their members get paid performance royalties when their songs are streamed. They also issue blanket licenses to concert venues and other businesses like bars and restaurants, so that any time a song is played, royalties are collected appropriately.

Public Domain

The “public domain” refers to a group of songs for which copyright protections have expired. Songs within the public domain can be used by anyone, as they are not governed by copyright.

The duration of a copyright in the United States is the life of the author, plus 70 years after their death. Once this time has passed, the work falls into the public domain and is no longer protected by copyright.

Share

A share refers to how much of a particular composition you own and control.

For example, if you wrote a composition in its entirety then you own 100%. This means your share is 100%. If you co-wrote a song with someone else, and agreed to split things 50/50, your share is 50%.

Sync License

A sync license outlines the terms by which a song can be synchronized with a moving image (think TV, films, commercials, video games, and more).

The owners of both the sound recording and composition must grant permission for use of their work within the visual project, typically for a one-time fee. In some cases, when the visual project is broadcast or streamed, the song earns performance royalties collected by your PRO and publishing administrator.