What is a music publisher?

publisherby Russel Hlongwane & Marlyn Ntsele

Somewhere within the music industry value chain is the role of a publisher. The publisher is probably one of the most integral of all the links that form this chain. You can refer to the publisher as the “Silent Engine” of the industry. The publishing company usually plays a HUGE role in creating a hit song. There is a lot of confusion around publishing, this article seeks to bring clarity to this confusion.

Publishers used to be the people that brought sheet music into the market. In the 50’s of the last decade this changed. Since then you can call a publisher more of a “broker of songs”. By now you are thinking of a guy in shiny suite who takes your music to the busy marketplace to make every penny out of the artist’s creative product. Well, yes, that his job. A publisher makes money from your copyrights and his job is to do anything to ensure the copyrights bring in more money. He tries to exploit your music for example by finding artists who want to record your songs or making sure your music gets used in movies and commercials. Good publishers will also find their artists assignments, like writing of jingles. Some publishers have good connections with the companies that play the background music in stores, this can bring in a substantial income. Besides exploitation of your music a publisher will also assist with the administration and registration of your songs. Since revenue from music sales has been going down, publishing has become more and more important.

The percentages
Publishers get a cut of your royalties from copyrights. Internationally it has been established that the author and composer never get less than 50% of the royalties. 

Without publisher:
50% author
50% composer

With publisher:
50% publisher
25% author
25% composer
In South Africa some large publishers only take 30% of the royalties.

You are not obliged to sign a publisher agreement. Be aware you give away a cut of your copyrights and this is only worth it if you get something in return. There are a lot of publisher who just try to get ownership over as many songs as possible and get some of the profit if you manage to get your song on radio. A publisher like that is useless. An active publisher is mainly independent from a record company and can be a small or large company. The crucial questions is: how much time does the publisher want to invest in you? Try to come to clear agreements about this.

The Contract
There are two most common forms of publishing contracts:
●    A music publishing agreement
●    An administration deal

The publishing agreement
In a publishing agreement you give the publishing company full power to exploit your song(s). This can be for a certain period of time in which you let the publisher exploit all the songs you write. Or you can sign a title contract (only for certain songs you agree on). In both cases you sign a new agreement for every song. You can negotiate the percentage split. Sometimes it is 50/50, but in a lot of cases it can be 70% for author and composer, 30% for the publisher.

The administration deal
The authors and composers will stay in full control of how their music is exploited. They just use the publisher for administration only.

Always ask for legal advice before signing a contract. Are you up to building yourself to fulfil the role of publisher?



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