The Top Ten FAQs On The Business Of Songwriting #7

by Mary Dawson

QUESTION 7: What exactly is a music publisher and how necessary is it for a songwriter to have one?

There is a fable in the Music Industry that goes something like this:

There once was a blind rabbit who by chance met a blind snake in the forest. They got to chatting with each other and the rabbit said: "You know, I've never been able to see my reflection in the lake and I really have no idea what kind of animal I am. Would you mind just feeling of me and let me know what you think I might be?"

The snake was happy to help and after feeling the rabbit for a few seconds, he said: "Well, you are soft and furry. You have a cute little puffy tail and long floppy ears. You are most certainly a bunny!"

Then, the snake asked the rabbit to reciprocate. "I've never seen myself either," said the snake. "Please feel of me and tell me what kind of animal you think I am."

So the rabbit began to feel the snake. After a few seconds he concluded: "You are kind of slithery and low to the ground. You are definitely cold-blooded and you have absolutely no ears! You MUST be a music publisher."

Those of us who have been in the Music Industry for a while may find this tale a little bit "too close to the truth" to actually be funny. But -- whatever you may feel about them -- music publishers are most certainly an integral part of the Business of Music. Every serious songwriter owes it to themselves to become knowledgeable about the role of the music publisher and how a publisher can further the success of songs.

Music publishing started as far back as the printing press. Entrepreneurs who owned printing presses would create all kinds of printed merchandise -- stationery, calendars, magazines, posters and books -- to be sold by traveling salesman who would carry the merchandise to smaller towns and cities. Often a local songwriter would make a deal with the printer to print copies of his latest composition to sell with the other items. The printer and the songwriter would then split the profits. That arrangement became the "rough draft" of the publisher-writer relationship that still exists today.

Basically, a music publisher is the "real estate agent" for your song. Much like a realtor contracts with a homeowner to sell a house for a percentage of the sale price, so a music publisher contracts with a songwriter to exploit the earning potential of a song for a percentage of those earnings. Neither the real estate agent nor the music publisher is absolutely necessary! Homeowners can sell their own houses and songwriters can promote their own songs. The advantage to having a realtor or a publisher is that these professionals bring all kinds of expertise and many contacts into the equation -- hopefully expanding the potential for larger profits for everyone.

Before we examine the various options available to the songwriter for music publishing, it is necessary to understand exactly what happens when a songwriter enters into an agreement with a music publisher. When the last note and word of your song have been "fixated" on paper or on a recording of any kind, the song is automatically protected by US Copyright Law. You as the writer own the whole song. But, if and when you sign a songwriting agreement with a music publisher, you basically surrender the ownership of the entire copyright (or song) to the publisher with the understanding that the publisher will share any profits from the song with you, the writer, on a 50-50 basis. There is usually no money involved in the signing of this agreement. As a new writer, you will probably not receive anything from the publisher in the way of advances against your future royalties, and you certainly should NOT be expected to pay the publisher anything upfront. The songwriting agreement is a contract based on the belief that there will be future revenues generated from the song. It is at this point that much confusion arises in the minds of most aspiring songwriters as to what they can actually expect from the publisher and from the agreement they have signed.

Consider the case of Suzie Songwriter. She has written two songs now and she is convinced that she is the next Irving Berlin (after all, her mom and grandma said so)! Suzie's cousin, Frank, has a brother-in-law who had a neighbor who once drove the bus for Reba McIntyre, so he gets Suzie the address of a music publisher in Nashville and Suzie sends in her song. Much to her delight, the publisher -- John Q. Mogul, president of Mogul Music Publishing -- likes the song and sends Suzie a songwriting agreement! Without really understanding what she is signing, Suzie eagerly enters into the agreement, tells all her friends that she is now a published songwriter, and sits back in her recliner waiting for the checks to roll in!

What Suzie did not realize was that the songwriting agreement she signed did not mean her song was now published. It simply gave Mogul Music ownership of her song and the right to try to get it published. According to the Copyright Act, a song is not published until there has been a "distribution of copies of phonorecords of a work to the public by sale..." or there has been an "offering to distribute copies or phonorecords to a group of persons for purposes of further distribution, public performance or public display." John Q. Mogul will hopefully use all his contacts in the Music Business to promote and publish Suzie's song, but until the song is recorded and distributed for sale -- or until there has been an offering to distribute it, the song will belong to Mogul Music and will not make either John Q. Mogul or Suzie any money.

This brings us to the question of how to choose a music publisher. It is my firm conviction that aspiring songwriters should not sign any contract they are offered unless they understand and have carefully weighed the pros and cons of the options available to them. There are many kinds of publishers -- from small independents to very large publishing companies owned by record labels. Let's take a brief look at some points to be considered.

Smaller, independent publishers can offer aspiring songwriters more individual time and attention. A good publisher (who may also be a songwriter himself) can be an invaluable asset as a coach and mentor to a new, "diamond-in-the-rough songwriter" who may be very gifted but who still needs some polishing on the fine points of the craft. I am eternally grateful to a wonderful publisher from a small company who took an early interest in my music and literally pushed me out beyond my comfort zone to make me a better writer than I ever dreamed I could be. However, there are also disadvantages to the small publisher. Not always -- but usually -- smaller publishers have fewer major label contacts and therefore, fewer opportunities to "pitch" your song to major artists. If you are approached by a small publisher who is interested in your song(s), think carefully about your career. If you are a novice songwriter, you may be very wise to accept a contract from a smaller, more approachable publisher who really believes in you and your music and will help to coach you to greatness. And only takes one big hit to make both you and your small publisher "stars."

Large publishers, of course, have high prestige and many contacts. For example, back in the early 1960's a songwriter named Roger Miller wrote his only really big hit -- a song called King of the Road. Since Roger Miller was a Sony recording artist, the song was signed to Sony Music Publishing, one of the largest publishing houses in the country. Today, over forty years from the year it was written, King of the Road is still making money for Sony and for Roger Miller's heirs -- all because of the aggressive activity of Sony Publishing on behalf of that song. Through Sony's contacts with major corporations and artists, King of the Road has been used in Burger King commercials, in advertisements for Ford trucks and has been recorded or "covered" by countless other artists besides Roger Miller -- including Randy Travis, Boxcar Willie, Ray Coniff, REM and even the Chipmunks! And every time you hear it...kaching!

After hearing a success story like Roger Miller's, you may decide you want to hold out for a contract from a major publisher. But, of course, there are also disadvantages with major companies as well. If you are a new and relatively unproven songwriter who has just signed your song with a large company, you and your song may end up at the bottom of a huge catalog. While the publishing company has many contacts and lots of clout that theoretically could promote your song, they may give it little or no priority because they are so busy with the more established and proven writers. In addition, personnel in the music industry have a very high turnover rate. What that means to you is simply that the person who originally got excited about your song, believed in you as a writer and signed your song to the large company, will probably not even be at the company six months from now. He/she will go on to another publisher and will be replaced by another person who has never heard of you or your song and has no personal commitment to it. So even though you have a contract from a major company, your song may "never see the light of day."

Having weighed both the above options, you may even decide to do-It-yourself and become your own music publisher rather than to forfeit 50% of the earnings of the song. While it is not difficult to start your own company, you will inevitably run into the same challenges that the small, independent publisher will face (see above). But you will definitely learn a lot about the industry and will have a very personal stake in every song in your catalog -- because they have all been written by your favorite writer -- YOU!

Whichever option you choose as far as music publishing is concerned, remember that you as the writer must continue to accept responsibility for your song(s). If you haven't heard from your publisher in several weeks, call or write to them to find out the status of your song -- where the publisher has "pitched" it and what response it has had. Make sure your publisher knows you exist by staying in touch and being persistent. Position yourself just a few degrees away from "obnoxious" in your persistent follow-up. As they say, it's the squeaky wheel that always gets the grease!

And whatever you do...remember -- as you are walking through the forest and you run into something slithery, low to the ground and cold-blooded with absolutely NO might not be a snake after all!

**From her earliest childhood years writing simple songs and poems with her father, through her twelve years as an overseas missionary, to her present, multi-faceted career as an author, lyricist/songwriter and conference speaker, Mary has always been adept at using words to communicate her heart to others. She is the President of CQK Records & Music of Dallas, Texas, a company which creates and produces songs in a panorama of musical styles for a variety of audiences, She is also the host of "I Write the Songs," a nationally syndicated radio talk show, especially created to inspire and instruct the more than 25 million aspiring songwriters in the U.S. "I Write the Songs" is broadcast over the Internet. Mary is a frequent public speaker and seminar lecturer on songwriting. She is a regular columnist for Independent Songwriter Web Magazine. Mary's commitment to discovering and mentoring talented new songwriters has given her extensive experience in song analysis through adjudicating songwriting competitions and conducting songwriting workshops across the country and around the world. Because of her role as president of an independent music company, she is also well qualified to instruct aspiring songwriters on the various business aspects of the music industry. She is married and a mother of four. She resides in the Dallas area.

More from Writers Write

  • Prince Harry Easily Tops Bestseller Lists With Spare

  • Stephen King Compares Elon Musk to Tom Sawyer

  • U.S. Postal Service Honors Shel Silverstein With Forever Stamp

  • Twitter Reveals Edit Button Under Development

  • Oprah Named 2022 PEN/Faulkner Literary Champion

  • Writing Contests
    upcoming contests
    Write Jobs
    find a job
    Writing Memes
    funny writing-related memes
    Stephen King Quotes
    quotes from the master
    Grammar Tips
    improve your writing
    Writing Prompts
    spark your creativity