The most famous and attractive part of signing a publishing deal is getting an advance then buying cake, shoes and a new house for your Mum. However, a publishing deal means far more than just the advance. Allow us to explain.
Your songs legally become yours the moment you record them to any device or write them down, essentially the moment there is proof that the song came out of your brain (or brains) first. This is how easy it is to copyright your songs. And if more than one person wrote the song then the copyright is split between everyone who was involved in the writing, and it’s up to those involved to agree what the split should be.
There are two different copyrights when recording songs – writing and recording. If you are lucky enough to sign a publishing deal this will look after the writing copyright, with record deals not surprisingly looking after the recording copyright.
Publishing agreements vary but the essential characteristic is that the publisher represents the songwriter and their songs. In return the publishing company takes a percentage of the income earned from the songs, 25% for example, although the amount is generally negotiable. If you receive an advance this will be recouped by the publishing company through your share of the income. So, the advance is like a loan but you only pay it back if you are generating income from the songs you have written.
What the publisher does for that money is gather royalties on your behalf from what are known as ‘Collecting Societies’. There are two main types of royalties – ‘Mechanical Royalties’ which are earned every time a song you have written is sold, for example on CD, downloaded digitally or listened to on a streaming website such as Spotify; and ‘Performance Royalties’ which are due basically every time a song you’ve written is publicly performed. This could be in the background at a bar, on the radio or at a gig you are doing. The more people that hear your songs, the more royalties you earn.
Publishers will also try and get your songs picked up for other commercial uses – for example TV and film productions, marketing and advertising campaigns, computer games, toys, you name it. This is called ‘Synchronisation’ and you should always make sure you agree with the publisher representing your songs what the ground rules are so you don’t have to worry about your song appearing on the advert for ‘The Evil Cat Haters Extra Painful Kitten Traps’. Approval rights over what your songs are synchronised with are common but negotiated on a case-by-case basis.
A publisher may also have people whose job it is to pitch music to producers and agencies who need music and may also be able to hook you up with other songwriters and introduce you to recording artists looking for people to write with, contacts which you may never have made without a publisher. If you are lucky enough to have an offer from a publisher, asks question about each of these areas to get a feel for how they will work with you and how effective they will be.
A publishing deal isn’t compulsory. You could decide to self-publish – in other words register with the collecting societies yourself and pitch your songs to advertising agencies, record labels and other people who may want to use your music. There are a lot of collecting societies, more than one in pretty much every country in the world, and a good publishing company will have a network for receiving money due from all of them. You may be able to rely on your chosen collection society having reciprocal agreements with other societies so that royalties from other countries still find their way to you, but you should check this point with the society before becoming a member.
Ultimately it’s up to every songwriter to decide what works best for them. A publishing deal is a great step in any artist’s career, but they do take a fee. In any event, always always consider your options carefully before making any decisions. A publishing deal is a legally binding contract that may assign rights in your music to a publisher for your lifetime and beyond. With that in mind, make sure you seek independent legal advice before signing anything.