When you consider the work done by a music publishing company, the easiest way to look at it is to picture music publishing companies as record labels for songwriters. Although that is a bit of an oversimplification, as you'll see, publishing companies share many of the same goals for their songwriters that record labels have for the artists on their rosters.
So, what do music publishing companies actually do? Their basic functions are to make deals with songwriters, 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), 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.
Within these basic functions, you'll find that music publishing companies accomplish these goals in a number of different ways. Some publishing companies are extremely hands-on and get involved in everything from the creative process to heavy promotion. For instance, many publishing companies have a person/department devoted to providing feedback to songwriters on their work, making suggestions for new directions and matching songwriters up for collaborative efforts they think may produce interesting results. The companies that get intensely involved with the creative process are also the ones who tend to be significantly proactive when it comes to placing their songwriters' work and soliciting new opportunities for their rosters.
Other publishing companies are far less engaged with their clients. They tend to evaluate a composition, make a decision about its profitability potential and then "purchase" a chunk of its royalties. These companies offer little, if any, creative support to their songwriters and are more reactive than proactive when it comes to seeking licensing opportunities. Although they will still handle the administration of the songs on their rosters, they tend to respond to offers rather than going out there and trying to actively generate them.
Types of Publishing Companies
In addition to there being different "styles" of music publishing, there are also different types of publishing companies. These mirror the different types of record labels that exist, and in fact many publishing companies are associated with (or own) record labels. The types of music publishing companies are:
- Major - These are the big boys, associated with the Big Four labels. Warner-Chappell is probably the best known.
- Major Affiliated - These are the independent publishing companies that have deals with the majors to handle their licensing administration. Think of these like major distributed independent record labels.
- Independent - These publishing companies are the indie labels of the music publishing world. They handle their own administration in-house without the aid of one of the majors. They are also self-funded.
- Writer-Publishers - It is not uncommon for a songwriter to handle their own publishing. If the workload dictates it, they may hire someone to handle to handle their song administration for them, but this person is an employee of the songwriter who gets a salary/hourly rate/flat fee for their work - not a representative from a publishing company that takes a cut of the income generated by a song.
How Do Music Publishers Make Money?
For music publishers, earning money is all about licensing fees and royalties. Most publishers get a 50/50 split of profits generated by the songs they represent. In terms of royalties, there are several different royalty streams of which a publisher will get a cut, but some of these royalties are not exclusive to them. Depending on the circumstances, they may need to share a royalty with the master owner - and in fact, sometimes, someone seeking a license may need separate permission from the publisher and the master owner, who may not always see eye to eye one when to issue a license and when not to.
In terms of song "ownership," a publisher usually gets that 50% stake in a track. In other words, original copyright owner (the songwriter) assigns the publisher a portion of the copyright for a song to the publisher. At one time, publishers kept these rights for life, but it is more common now for the publisher to get a portion of the copyright for a set amount of time, after which the full rights return to the original copyright holder - who can choose to keep them, renew the publishing deal or seek a publishing contract.
Making a Music Publishing Deal
As a songwriter, a deal with a good publishing company can significantly increase your earning potential. However, publishing deals can be complicated and signing the wrong deal can leave you burned for many years to come. Always seek legal advice before making a publishing deal.