Should you sign a music publishing deal? If you're a songwriter, a publisher is much like a record label for you. A good one can do wonders for your career, while a bad one can actually stand in the way of progress. Just like signing a record deal, there are plenty of things to consider before you decide to put you name on the dotted line on a publishing deal. If you're a songwriter thinking about music publishing, here's what you need to weigh up:
What Is the Style of the Music Publishing Company Offering the Deal?
In terms of the basic work of publishing - licensing songs and collecting fees - all publishing companies do the same thing. However, different publishing companies accomplish these goals in different ways. Some music publishers are very hands-on with the songwriters on their rosters. These publishers usually have a creative team whose job it is to work directly with the songwriters to help develop their craft. They may do everything from providing feedback on compositions to offering songwriting seminars/workshops and pairing up songwriters that they think will work well together for collaborations. These publishing companies are often also very aggressive when it comes to generating opportunities for their songwriters and the compositions they represent. Instead of, say, waiting for some label to call looking for a song for one of their artists, the publishing company itself will call labels and others who may be in need of songs to place their songwriters' work.
On the other end of the spectrum are publishing companies who essentially function as accounting firms. Though they certainly want the songwriters signed to their company to excel in their craft, they don't get very involved in the creative process. Instead, they check out songs, make a projection of the earning potential of a track and then "buy-in" for a share. Further, they are not very proactive when it comes to placing songs. They do provide all of the song accounting services a writer needs, but they react to requests instead of soliciting them.
As a songwriter, before you sign a publishing deal, you need to know how your publishing company operates. If it is early in your songwriting career, you could benefit greatly from having a publishing company that offers you support and actively promotes your work. On the other hand, the larger publishing companies that don't offer much in the way of promotion and support operate that way because they can - they ARE getting offers and they already have people interested in their rosters, so chances are that they have the connections in place to get your songs considered. Ultimately, you'll have to opt for the company that feels like the best fit, but be sure you understand what to expect from your publishing company.
How Large Is The Publishing Company?
Much like an up and coming musician signing a deal at a large record label, up and coming songwriters do face some risks when signing with a large publishing company. "Small fish in a big pond" syndrome is very real. How much of a priority are you going to be for the publishing company? Signing a publishing deal with a company that isn't all that interested in working your catalog is like building a business and never unlocking the doors. All of your product will be going to waste, and you won't be able to do a thing about it. That doesn't mean that large publishing companies are ALWAYS bad for an up and coming songwriter. It simply means that if you do sign with a large publisher, make sure someone there is enthusiastic about your music and that you have a contact there who will be responsive to your questions and concerns.
Is The Publishing Company Major or Independent?
Like labels, there are major publishing companies and independent publishing companies. Major companies are associated with a specific major label, plus there is another layer of technically independent publishing companies who allow the major publishers to handle their administration. Then there are the indie publishing companies, who handle all of their own administration work. The pros and cons of these signing with each of these kinds of publishing companies are like signing with these kinds of labels - the majors generally have more connections and money and the indies have more personal service.
Do You Need a Publisher At All?
This question is the biggie - as a songwriter, do you need a publishing deal? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. Music publishing can be very complex, and the work of licensing and royalty management is time consuming. For a songwriter, these factors can be obstacles. Do you have the knowledge to be effective as your own publisher - and if you do, do you have the time to really make it work?
Much comes down to your style of music. Some genres tend to be "busier" in terms of publishing than others. For instance, it is relatively uncommon for rap songs to be covered, so a publisher representing a rap writer may have less licensing work to do than, say, a publisher representing a folk song writer. If your publishing workload is generally light, than you may be able to manage your own song administration, either by yourself or by hiring someone to handle the paperwork for you - especially if you are a songwriter AND an artist.
That last point is an important one. If you are a songwriter AND a musician, and you write solely for your own purposes, then you are essentially removing another job of the publisher - placing your songs with artists to perform. If you write songs but do not perform them, a publisher can be much more important, since you may struggle to get access to managers, labels and so on that you need to sell your songs to musicians.
The bottom line? Music publishers can help you tap into some very lucrative income streams and help you manage some difficult jobs. Although a songwriter can certainly handle their own publishing - thereby keeping all of their own profits - a good publishing company can help them take their career to the next level. Publishing deals can indeed be a very good thing, but make sure you understand what to expect from the company and that they are bringing something new to the table that you can't create for yourself.