An Introduction to Music Publishing


Let’s be honest- if most musicians had their way, they would never have to think about music publishing. File it under “not the reason they became a musician” along with marketing and self-promotion. But these days, a successful musician has to wear a lot of different hats. Or at least, be more familiar with the different aspects of the music business. More and more musicians manage themselves these days. If they score a record deal at all, it’s usually only after self-managing to the point that they have built up a following.

So what is music publishing? It’s a broad concept that covers a lot of different things, but basically it refers to who owns the rights to your music and who gets the royalties. There are a lot of ways that a song can earn money, and music publishing determines who gets what.

Why is Music Publishing Important?

Since music is a creative pursuit, copyright law actually gets really interesting when you look at the weird cases. Did you know that Warner/Chappell claimed that they owned the copyright to the classic “Happy Birthday To You” until 2015? This is the reason that restaurants used to make up their own Happy Birthday songs- otherwise, they would have had to pay a $700 royalty each time their employees sang the song! But a law professor suspected the claim was bogus, and went on a crusade. Thanks to him, “Happy Birthday To You” was finally declared public domain in 2015.

And there are more cases. The Rolling Stones gave The Verve permission to use part of their melody in “Bittersweet Symphony” but then decided The Verve had used too much, and The Verve ended up losing all of their royalties. Or how about the time that a judge ruled Pharrell had copied Marvin Gaye with “Blurred Lines”- but he didn’t copy the melody, or the chords, or the lyrics, he copied the vibe!

So, obviously music copyright and publishing can be a really contentious topic. When a song is in demand, it’s good to know who owns what.

How Publishing Works

As a songwriter, your basic choices are to sign a publishing deal, or to self-publish your music. If you self-publish, you can keep 100% of the royalties, while most publishing deals involve a 50-50 split with your publisher. But the trade-off is that the publisher actually does a lot of legwork to find buyers for your music. They have connections, a network of potential buyers, that the average songwriter doesn’t have.

Realistically, most publishers are not interested in signing a deal with a songwriter unless they are fairly established anyway. So you are likely better off self-publishing when you start out.

How do Songs Earn Money?

Like I mentioned, there are many ways that music can earn money. Music publishing has a different way of handling each aspect.

First of all, every song has two parts. The composition, which is like the abstract part- the melody, chords, lyrics. It’s what you’d see on the sheet music. And the master, which refers to the officially-released recording.

Royalties refer to payments that you earn when your music is played. There are two types, mechanical and performance royalties.

Mechanical royalties have kind of an odd name, but they refer to any time that your music is reproduced. So, record and album sales, downloads, streaming royalties, and any time a cover of your song is recorded.

Meanwhile, performance royalties are collected any time your song is performed. For example, if it is covered live by another artist, or played on the radio, on TV, or over the PA in a business like a bar, gym, or cafe. In fact, if you are playing your own song live, you are also creating a performance royalty. Interestingly, streaming platforms generate both performance and mechanical royalties every time your song is streamed.

As if that’s not enough information, performance royalties actually have two subcategories, non-interactive and interactive. Interactive basically means the listener sought out the song- like a live performance, or streaming on spotify. Non-interactive means you didn’t actively choose the music- radio, satellite radio, or some streaming platforms like Pandora where you have less control over what plays next.

Beside mechanical and performance royalties, there are two other types of royalties, but you’re less likely to encounter them. Print royalties are collected on sheet music of a song you own. And sync licenses are usually a one-time payment that you get when your song is used in a TV show, movie, trailer, or something similar.

Performance Rights Organizations (PROs)

Perhaps you have heard of BMI or ASCAP? These are Performance Rights Organizations, or PROs. They are organizations that keep track of interactive performance royalties, from all their potential sources. They make sure the people who own the copyrights get the royalties they are owed. Publishers work with PROs, or you can register with them directly as an independent songwriter if you want to self-publish.

PROs don’t handle mechanical royalties. Those are handled by Harry Fox (HFA) in the USA. As an individual songwriter, you can’t register with HFA- you have to register with a publishing administration for that. They also don’t handle non-interactive performance royalties- that’s handled by SoundExchange in the US.

Keep in mind, PROs and publishers are not the same thing. If we use books as a metaphor, the publisher is the company that prints copies of the book and sends them to bookstores. The PRO acts like the cash register in the bookstore, ensuring the transactions are all accounted for.

In the USA, there are three PROs: BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC.

Game Plan for Independent Musicians

Basically, as an independent musician releasing music, you have to register your music with a handful of different organizations to collect all the royalties you are owed. Publish your music through a distributor like TuneCore or Distrokid to collect mechanical royalties, through a PRO like BMI or ASCAP to collect interactive performance royalties, and with SoundExchange to get non-interactive performance royalties. If you don’t do all three, you might miss out on royalties you are owed

How to Self-Publish with PROs

First off, you have to make sure you are not accidentally in a publishing deal. This sounds silly, but it’s more possible than you might think. If you have signed up to digitally distribute your music through a service like TuneCore or CDBaby, you may have opted-in to their exclusive publishing deal.

If your music is already covered by a publishing deal with one of these services, you will not be able to register that music with a PRO. You may be able to end the deal with the service, or you may just need to move on and register your next song with the PRO once you release it.

Then, you need to choose an organization to register with. BMI and ASCAP are the two most popular choices, and are functionally interchangeable these days. The choice between the two was a bigger decision in the past, but now there is little difference. You can join either through their respective websites, and start registering your music. You will have a choice to register as a songwriter or a publisher. As a self-publishing musician, you should sign up for both, because you are entitled to all the royalties of your own songs!

It’s the same kind of deal on SoundExchange. When you register, sign up as both an artist and a label to receive all possible royalties.

How Does Youtube Figure In?

Youtube is an interesting wrinkle in the music industry. When you think of music streaming, your mind probably jumps to Spotify or iTunes. But did you know that YouTube is by far the biggest music streaming platform? A full 47% of music streamed globally is through YouTube.

If you upload your original songs on Youtube and choose to monetize them, you can give yourself an additional source of income. Monetized videos include ads, and you will collect a portion of the ad revenue. But when people listen to your music on YouTube, they will also be creating interactive performance and mechanical royalties. By being registered with YouTube, a distributor, and a PRO, you will collect from all three sources.

Furthermore, YouTube has an extensive automatic system that detects any time a video on a different account is using a song you own. When this happens, if you are registered with a distributor and a PRO, you will automatically collect these royalties.


So, there are lots of reasons for any musician to understand the basics of publishing, whether you are just starting out or are well-established. Even green musicians risk losing out on a share of royalties if they don’t register their songs, and the bigger you get, the more important it is to understand who owns what. So get out there and write some great music!

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