The world of music publishing can be an extremely confusing place, especially for newer artists. Built on many archaic terms that often date back hundreds of years, it can feel impenetrable at times (but it’s not!)
You can read more about publishing deals in general here, but in this piece, we’re decoding and demystifying some of the confusing jargon that is used in the publishing industry to help you feel more at ease and knowledgeable about the area as a whole.
A Guide to Music Publishing Terminology
PRO (Performing Rights Organisation)
The organisation (or ‘society’) responsible for collecting publishing royalties in a specific territory — e.g. PRS/PPL in the UK, SACEM in France, SIAE in Italy, ASCAP in America, APRA in Australia.
They generate money by issuing licenses to people who want to use music in specific ways in the public sphere. There are different kinds of licenses for using music on a TV show, on a radio station, online, in computer games, in nightclubs, at festivals and so on.
They then divide up the money they receive to their members — songwriters and performers — who usually pay a small one-time membership fee to get set up with them.
Each country has their own PRO, a quick Google search will bring up the organisation in your country. And in some countries like the USA, there are multiple PROs which offer slightly different models to their members.
Mechanical vs Performance Royalties
Each time a track is sold or streamed, the revenue generated for the rights-holders — the songwriter(s), performer(s) and entity releasing the track (label or artist) — is split into:
• Sales royalties (these make up the majority of the revenue), which are accounted to the owner or licensor of the sound recordings — which is either a record label, or the artist themself if the track is self-released.
If you’re a Spinnup artist reading this, the above applies to you as you self-release your music through our platform. You keep 100% of your rights, and 100% of these sales royalties, which are paid out in your monthly sales reports.
• Mechanical royalties (a smaller percentage of revenue)
• Performance royalties (a smaller percentage of revenue)
This comes from the concept of the ‘mechanical’ reproduction of sheet music (and before that, books), mechanical royalties are those which are due to the songwriter(s) whenever a recording is reproduced for consumption — either as a physical product (vinyl, CD, tape, sheet music etc) or as a digital download or stream. They are to reward the creation and replication of the composition of the song itself, i.e. the melody, chords and lyrics.
Performance royalties are those which are due to the people who have performed on that specific recording of the composition. It may be that one person wrote and performed the entire track themselves (with a computer, live instruments or both), or there may be multiple performers credited (in the same way that there can be multiple songwriters).
So here’s a little example:
If Artist A records a cover version of an Artist B song and releases it on Label X:
Label X receives sales royalties from the exploitation (this just means the use) of this specific recording, which it has licensed from Artist A to sell for a set period of time. It splits these revenues with Artist A according to their contract terms
Artist A also receives performance royalties for performing this version of the track, via their publisher or PRO
Artist B receives mechanical royalties for the use of their composition, via their publisher or PRO
This refers to the royalty earned from the public performance of a master recording — as opposed to when someone covers your song, which concerns the compositional rights (which these rights ‘neighbour’). These include the earning of royalties when music is played on TV, radio and in public spaces including clubs, restaurants, bars, hotels and shops.
This just means songs or tracks, basically. It’s the name given to a track once it has been ingested into a performing rights organisation. Your works can refer to any track you have a writing or performing credit on.
Rights period (or term) vs notice period vs collection period
When you sign an agreement with a publisher to represent the copyright of your works, the contract will contain a length of time — a rights period or term — that the agreement is for, during which you are giving the publisher the right to represent the works that you choose to publish with them.
If you want to terminate your publishing contract, you have to give them advance warning — a length of time before the next renewal date of your contract — known as a notice period. Most contracts will contain a clause that states that the agreement will renew on an ongoing ‘rolling’ basis unless notice is given to terminate them.
Once the contract has been successfully terminated and the rights period ends, the publisher will still be able to collect royalties on the published works for a length of time defined as the collection period. This is due to a combination of the length of time it takes royalties to filter through the collection system — which can be up to 18 months in some circumstances — and to recognise the work and effort (hopefully!) put into these published works by the publisher.
While this doesn’t sound like a great word given its everyday meaning, in publishing it basically means ‘use’. Signing an agreement with a publisher gives them the right to ‘exploit’ your tracks for your and their mutual gain for the term of the agreement. An ‘exploitation’ of a work is like a use case or a way of using it to make money, such as licensing it to a soundtrack.
Royalty / writer split
If you collaborate with another writer on a track, or sample their work, you will need to negotiate what percentage of the writers royalties you and they deserve for their contribution.
Most collaborations will be based on an even 50/50 split for the sake of ease (John Lennon and Paul McCartney famously split all of their Beatles compositions like this, despite them increasingly working alone in their later years in the group). However, there may be a case for one person getting more or less than half of the credit, or there may be multiple contributors.
If you license the use of a sample from an existing song, be ready to give up a sizable chunk of both the mechanical royalties to the owner of the master recording and of the publishing royalties to the copyright owner. Some publishers will even demand 100% of the publishing royalties if their writer’s work is used! We’re really strict about artists having the correct licenses to release any samples, or third party content (content they don’t own) – and this is why!
Sync / Synch / Synchronization
This refers to the licensing of music to films, TV, computer games, adverts, brand campaigns, and events — the term coming from the synchronization of audio and video. The people responsible for choosing music for these uses are called music supervisors, and have wjhat sounds like one of the coolest jobs in the world. If they choose your track for a ‘sync’, you could be due a very nice pay out. There are many sync deals that have helped to break artists by bringing their music to a huge audience.
There you have it, the key points when it comes to music publishing terminology. Hopefully, this will help give you more confidence when you enter your first publishing negotiation and give you a better understanding of the different ways your music can make money. It’s vital to know that you will not earn publishing royalties unless you either register with your local performing rights organisation and register all of your works with them, or you strike a deal with a publisher.