Music Publishing and Royalties Simplified

At first glance music publishing can be a bit confusing, but it is actually the basis of your income as an artist. Basically, if you plan on making a living off of your music, you better understand the ins and outs of publishing. In order to fully grasp the concept of music publishing you need to start with the basics. I hope that by reading this article you will have a more firm grasp on the concept of music publishing.

Lets start by answering the question: What is music publishing? Music publishing is a very broad topic – from copyrights and licensing  to royalties and rights – music publishing  has everything to do with getting paid for your music.

When it comes to understanding music publishing there are some terms that you need to know. Lets start off with the copyright. Copyright is the law that protects the property rights of the creator of an original work. Basically it is  the right to reproduce or make copies. Those rights are called exclusive rights. Technically your work is copyrighted as soon as the lyrics are on paper or your song is recorded on CD. However in some cases this can be tricky so actually filing for copyright is your best bet because it is guaranteed to protect you. Before we get into your exclusive rights as a copyright owner, there are a few other terms that you need to be familiar with. These terms are the composition and the sound recording.

Understanding the difference between a composition (sometimes called the musical work or you know it as a SONG ) and a sound recording (sometimes called a master), is crucial to understanding your rights within the music industry. Simply put, the sound recording is your particular recording of the song. We can understand this a little better by talking about another important term – the cover. You might already know that a cover is the  recording of a song that you did not write and you do not own. So when you record a cover, you can file copyrights for your version (or your sound recording) of the song. The composition is known as the original version of the song.

EXAMPLE: You just loooove Michael Jackson so you decide to record your own version (or COVER) of his hit song ‘beat it’. Your recorded version of ‘beat it’ is your sound recording and by filing for copyright you own and have rights to that version of the song. But remember, the recording is a cover of the song. The song (composition) is owned by Michael Jackson, (or more likely his music publishing company).

So now remember we have two separate properties: the “composition” and the “sound recording” of the “composition.” Music copyright law recognizes a copyright in the song and a separate copyright in the sound recording. The copyright owner of the song and of the sound recording can be the same person, but it usually doesn’t work out that way since many songs have multiple writers and a lot of the time they are written for other artists to record and perform. The songwriter is typically the initial copyright owner of the song.

Now lets get back to mechanical rights. First we will start with the exclusive mechanical rights for a SONG and then we  will talk about the rights for a SOUND RECORDING. When you copyright your SONG, you have the sole right to make copies of the song, the right to distribute copies of the song, and the right to perform the song publicly (whether it be on the radio, on television, or in a nightclub etc). You also have the exclusive right to prepare a derivative work (or REMIX) to the song. The final exclusive right in your song is the right to display the song in public (meaning if you want to post the sheet music to your song online or in a book to be sold publicly).

The exclusive rights for a copyright owner of a SOUND RECORDING include the rights to make copies and distribute records containing the sound recording and the right to prepare derivative works (to record a REMIX) from your recording. The owner of a sound recording also has very limited public performance rights, which applies only to public performances that take place by digital audio transmission – which refers to the reproduction and transmission of sound stored in a digital format. Basically meaning you as copyright owner of a sound recording, you can get your sound recording played online and not on the radio or television.

Now lets dig a little deeper. Before you can record and make copies of someone else’s song, you need to get permission from the owner. This also pertains to producers that use samples in their beats. For those of you who do not know, sampling is the act of taking a portion, or sample, of one sound recording and reusing it as an instrument or a sound recording in a different song. In order to obtain permission to use someone else’s song you need to get a license – just like you get permission to drive by obtaining a driver’s license.

There are a few different kinds of licenses, most popular being the mechanical license, the synchronization or ‘sync’ license, and the blanket license. By getting a mechanical license from the songwriter (or from a music publishing company acting on behalf of the songwriter), you will then have permission to record, reproduce or make copies of the song. Now, let’s say you want to make a video of your cover song. you would need a synchronization license which  gives you the right to synchronize the “composition”  with visual images (in layman’s terms, it allows you to make a music video for your cover song). And of course, the synch license also gives you the right to make copies. Now a blanket license on the other hand, is used for radio and television stations, DJs, musicians, and public businesses and it makes it possible for them to play music without having to acquire rights each time they play a song.

So you’re doing a great job at getting your music posted to online blogs, getting your songs played on online radio stations, and you have hopes to get your music on mainstream radio; but in order to make money from this you need to take a few necessary steps. The first one is getting your music properly copyrighted. The second thing you need to do is register with a PRO (Performing Rights Organization). In the United States there are three PRO’s which are BMI, ASCAP and SESAC. These companies negotiate and issue  licenses to the various venues, radio stations, television networks etc. A PRO’s function is collecting performing rights royalties on behalf of its members, composers and music publishers.

Music royalties is the  money earned from songs or music. There are a few different types of music royalties including artist royalties (paid by the label to the artist), mechanical royalties (paid by the label to the writer of the song), performance royalties (earnings are collected from public performances such a radio and television play and are paid to the songwriter) and synchronization royalties (paid to the songwriters and publishers of a song for use in movies, commercials or TV shows). As you can see,  the names of the royalties directly reflect the source of which the  income is coming from. Both publishing companies and individual songwriters use PRO’s but you cannot be a member of more than one unless you are a publishing company. Royalties are calculated by something called a statutory mechanical royalty rate. The current royalty rate that must be paid to the song owner or publisher is 9.1 cents ($.091) per copy. Meaning, when you record a cover song, every time that recording sells, you owe the songwriter or publisher 9.1 cents. I am not going to go into detail on this because THIS ARTICLE  does a great job at explaining how PRO’s calculate royalties.

So, what exactly is a music publisher/publishing company?  A music publisher owns and administers works written by songwriters. You as a songwriter can start your own publishing company if you want to own more rights to your music and therefore collect more royalties. Normally artists go after a publishing deal with a music publishing company. You will have a better understanding of what a publishing deal consists of by learning what a music publishing company does. A music publishing company handles everything related to copyrights, licenses and royalties for your music. Their basic functions are to discover songwriting talent, promote the songs their songwriters compose to musicians and anyone else who may need a song for whatever reason (advertising, a movie, a promotional campaign, etc) Publishing companies pitch their song catalog to music executives, recording artists, producers, managers and others to secure placement for the songs on appropriate commercial recordings. They also work with PRO’s to  issue licenses for the use of the songs they represent and collect licensing fees. This work is usually referred to as the administration of a song.

A music publishing deal is an agreement between the songwriter and the publishing company.

There are a few different types of publishing deals and they can be negotiated in numerous ways. An administration deal is an agreement between a songwriter/publisher and a publishing company (or administrator), in which the publishing company not only collects income, but promotes the songwriter’s catalog. The “standard” publishing deal is usually a complete “split” of all the income the songs generate – meaning 50% of royalties go to songwriter, and 50% go to the publisher. Sometimes the publishing company will give the songwriter an advance so the publisher will not pay the writer any money collected for any songwriter royalties until the advance has been recovered. There are also co-publishing deals, where the songwriter has his own publishing company, and makes a deal with a second publisher, and both publishers many times may co-own the copyright and publisher’s share of income. In this case, royalties are usually split 50% for the songwriter, 25% for the songwriter’s publishing company that he or she owns, and the remaining 25% for the publishing company he or she does the co-publishing deal with.  Over all it will be a 75%-25% split. If there is more than one songwriter, the songwriters will split their share, and the publishing companies split their share.

So there you have it, the basics of music publishing. You’re probably thinking “BASICS??? THAT WAS A WHOLE LOTTA INFO TO BE THE BASICS!” and you’re right, but there’s a lot more to learn about music publishing. By this time you are probably wondering how to go about starting your own publishing company, what PRO should you sign with, what are some of the other ways you can negotiate publishing contracts, and how about the all time question… do you really need a record deal if you have a publishing deal? I think I’ve already bombarded you with enough information so we can touch on those topics another time. =)

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