How Publishing Works – Contracts and Rights Explained

Publishing can be a very tricky area of the music industry to understand. As if the concept of what publishing is wasn’t difficult enough, there are a huge number of acronyms and organisations to remember. Luckily we are here to help make sense of it all for you.

Music publishers are essentially the people who administer the rights for songwriters and composers on a piece of music. When a song is created there can often be songwriters consulted who are not members of the band or performing act. In order to make sure they receive royalties for their work, a song is split into two different parts when dealing with rights. Publishers deal with the rights for the composition of the song and the written work, whereas labels typically deal with the recording of the song as a different component (often known as the master).

When signing to a publisher in the UK, they will work together with the UK collection society called PRS (similar organisations exist in other countries under different names). The PRS is an organisation that represents songwriters, composers and publishers, collecting royalties on their behalf whenever their music is performed publicly. This can be when the song is played live, on TV, radio or in public places like retail shops.

As if the split between recording and composition wasn’t confusing enough, there are also a few types of income streams with publishing. These are:

  • Performing Rights.
  • Mechanical Income.
  • Synchronisation.
  • Print Rights.

Contracts

When singing a publishing deal there are a few different kinds of typical scenarios you can expect:

Single Song Assignment Also referred to as a specific agreement. This is where the publisher will only publish individual songs and the songwriter is not exclusively signed to them. They can enter into as many single song agreements as they wish. The agreement is also made for a specific period of time.

Exclusive Writer Contract – This type of deal is more serious and is worth seeking legal advice for before signing. The entire catalogue of the writer is covered by this agreement and could include a recoupable advance for the writer. Make sure to look at the length of the agreement, the territories involved and the royalty split when signing this agreement.

Administration – This is a different kind of contract where the writer does not sign any publishing rights away, and does not involve any creative endeavours such as sync opportunities. Instead this brings in a third party to handle the administrative work of publishing, such as collecting foreign income through sub-publishers in other territories. The administrator will take a percentage of the royalties for this work.

Sub-publishing Agreement – This is a deal that publishers make with other publishers and is generally done without the involving the writer. If a publisher feels that the writers work would be better represented in another territory by a different publisher, they will write a sub-publisher agreement to do this. For example, if a publisher in England would like to publish in America they may find an American publisher to work with.  The advantages of this are that that publisher could be an expert in their territory and have good contacts. Royalties would also flow quicker as that publisher can collect more easily for their territory. The disadvantages of this however is that there are more parties taking a cut of royalties before they reach the writer, and  when new developments occur for the writer it can take a long time to update each and every publisher about what is going on.

Synchronisation – This contract can be made to either a publisher or a specialised sync company. This deal solely covers trying to license music for sync and collecting money from that. Typically there is a 50/50 royalty split between the writer and sync company but this can vary. Specialised companies tend to have better contacts in TV and film companies, but it is worth looking at what successful placements they have done in the past.

Overall publishing can create a great source of income for artists aside from regular sales of music. It also means you are not missing out on royalties you are potentially owed and creates great exposure opportunities through sync placements. Hopefully this helps you to understand a little more about publishing and what its place is within the music world.

If you’re looking to get started, we might know someone who can help.

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