For most songwriters in the early stages of their careers, the idea of being hired as a staff songwriter for a publishing company is close to the Holy Grail, but it’s essential that you understand what you’re giving up as well as what you stand to gain by signing over partial (or complete) ownership of your copyrights to a music publisher. This post highlights the pros and cons of these deals, and we thank the team at BMI for making it possible.
For most songwriters in the early stages of their careers, the idea of being hired as a staff songwriter for a publishing company is close to the Holy Grail. It represents that coveted prize of industry recognition and validation of your talent along with a gateway to cuts, movie placements and number of other exciting possibilities. However, keep in mind that wanting or entering into a relationship with a publisher in order to simply validate your talent is probably not the best approach. As with any business relationship, it’s essential that you, as the songwriter, understand what you’re giving up as well as what you stand to gain by signing over partial (or complete) ownership of your copyrights to a music publisher.
What is a Publishing Deal?
In general terms, a typical publishing deal involves the assignment of some part of the ownership of your songs to a publishing company in exchange for a share of the royalties received by the publisher for exploitation of the songs. The publisher can also provide co-writing opportunities based on industry relationships and pitching opportunities by members of the publishing company’s staff, known as song pluggers. I’m aware that there are many variations on this arrangement but, for the sake of this article, I’m going to paint in broad strokes.
Listing the advantages of a publishing deal is easy, as most songwriters have heard (or dreamed) of these.
- A Draw – For a songwriter getting started in the business, it’s extremely difficult to write full time without having money to live on. The monthly draw provided by a publisher can help ease that burden. The typical draw is considered an advance against the writer’s share of royalties payable under the agreement with the publisher. While some draws are enough to allow the writer to write full time, most are enough, at least, to make it so the writer only has to have a part-time job, leaving more time for songwriting.
- Demo Budget – Making high quality recordings of your songs is not cheap and having a publisher to put up the money for these recordings can help quite a bit.
- Song Pluggers – These are employees of the publishing company who are specifically charged with finding opportunities for your songs. They pitch your songs, relying on their relationships with record labels, producers and artists as well as a variety of other music business decision-makers.
- Networking/Connections – The credibility that comes from signing with an established music publisher is a powerful thing. It can open doors to meetings, co-writes and countless other relationships in the industry. Also, publishers have industry-wide relationships that can provide great opportunities for songwriters who haven’t had the opportunity to network much on their own.
- Validation – The validation that comes from a publishing deal is what most beginning songwriters long for. In the early stages of most songwriters’ careers, they’ve most likely written songs in obscurity and, with the exception of friends and family, they’ve never received praise and recognition from anyone. It can even act as a motivator to improve a writer’s work ethic and inspiration.
This is where I’d recommend paying close attention. I know the idea of being able to write songs and have your publisher take care of all the details is an appealing thought, but the reality is a bit less simple. Don’t kill the messenger here, but as a friend of mine once said, “They don’t call it the music ‘friend’ or the music ‘nice’. ” This is a business and it helps to remember that a publisher is giving you something in order to get something.
- Your draw & demo budget are essentially loans – The money that makes up your draw and your demo budget is money that the publisher will take back from your share as soon as your songs start generating income. More importantly, unlike a loan paid back to a bank, even after you’ve made back the money to pay the publisher for the money they’ve invested in you, they will continue to own the publishing on your song and make income from it. In most cases, this is an arrangement that lasts for the rest of your life and then some (a copyright lasts for 70 years beyond your death). Also, in most cases, that recording that the publisher split with you or loaned you money to make is entirely their property. This translates into no master fee payment for you, the songwriter, if that recording ends up in a film or on TV (other than royalty income that you are entitled to by your contract).
- You and your songs aren’t always the priority – Even though the idea of a song plugger getting your songs heard is comforting, the reality is that in most publishing companies, there are many more signed writers than there are pluggers. In other words, your songs are among the hundreds (thousands, if you count the back-catalogs of most publishing companies) that the overworked song pluggers have to consider for every pitch opportunity.
- Validation is NOT enough – As a songwriter, I understand how good it feels when someone in the industry tells you they love your songs. In and of itself, this is not enough of a reason to give away your publishing. As a writer, you should work every day until you’re confident your songs are good. Use resources like song critiques, songwriting organizations and your songwriting peers to get good, constructive feedback on your material. Don’t just sign with a publisher because they tell you you’re good.
My intention is not to discourage but rather to empower you. By not looking at a publishing deal as the only answer to your songwriting prayers, you’ll put yourself in a position to do for yourself, which, ultimately, will be the most consistent and rewarding way of having a sustainable career as a songwriter. In other words, you don’t have to have a publishing deal in order to act like you have a publishing deal every single day. Here’s what I mean:
- Be your own publisher – You don’t need an established publisher to publish your songs. It’s a relatively simple proposition to start your own publishing company through one of the performing rights organizations (BMI, ASCAP and SESAC). A simple phone call or visit to the website of one of these organizations can get you started.
- Put yourself on a regular writing schedule – If you want to be a professional songwriter, act like one. Set aside regular times to write and treat it like a job. Folks in the working world don’t skip work because they “don’t feel like it” and neither should you.
- Demo your songs – Develop a relationship with a professional recording studio and, when you’re absolutely certain you’ve got a song that’s ready for prime time, spend the money to make a broadcast-quality version suitable for a variety of uses, from pitching to artists to placement in film and TV. And speaking of pitching …
- Pitch your songs – Actively look for opportunities for your songs. It’s one thing to write a good song and have a great demo, but if no one hears it, then it can’t possibly generate any income for you. This isn’t the glamorous, romantic part of the business, but I promise you, the overwhelming majority of successful songwriters — even those with publishing deals and song pluggers — spend a lot of time pitching their own material. It’s tough out there and you need to do everything in your power to get your songs heard. Also, as I mentioned above, no one will make your songs a priority more than you will.
- Network – Another less-than-pleasant reality for the gifted, introverted songwriter is that there is no substitute for the relationships you make in the industry. Get out there and meet people. This doesn’t mean you have to be fake or stay up until 3 a.m. drinking every night (unless you like that kind of thing). It does mean, however, that you have to find opportunities to interact with the decision-makers in the music industry. A few suggestions of ways to do this might be attending music conferences, songwriter festivals and some of the events sponsored by organizations like the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) or the Songwriter’s Guild of America (SGA).
- Sign an admin deal – If you’re starting to get some cuts and placements for your songs and the subtleties of copyright law, royalty statements and licensing feel like too much to keep track of or negotiate, then consider signing with a publisher to administer your copyrights. In other words, instead of giving away ownership of 50%-100% of your copyright, give a copyright administrator 15%-25% to “mind the store” while you’re taking care of the other stuff. I promise you, if you’re making money from your songs, you’ll have no trouble at all finding an experienced publisher to administer your copyrights.
For the sake of simplicity, I’ve kept this article and the terms of a publishing deal very general. There are all manner of publishing deals, from copyright administration all the way to full ownership of your publishing, and there are reasons for and against all of these. Music publishers provide a valuable service in our industry but I think it’s important to realize that signing a publishing deal isn’t always your best option. Be absolutely certain you understand what you stand to gain (beyond the simple validation of your talent) and what you’re giving up to get it. In the world of professional songwriting, there is no one way to achieve success and, no matter what, the more you understand and can do on your own, the better off you’ll be.