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Music Publishing

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A brief and easy explanation of the digital music publishing landscape for the modern music industry.

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Music Publishing

  1. 1. The Digital Music Publishing Guide A brief and easy explanation of the digital music publishing landscape for the modern music industry.

  2. 2. What is music publishing? This booklet is intended to be an easy and concise guide to the basics of music publishing. It’s meant for artists, producers, songwriters, music entrepreneurs, and anyone else who might want to know more about this lesser-understood part of the music industry. If you work in the industry or make music and want to try to make a living doing it, music publishing is one of the most important aspects to learn and understand. Even the name itself can be misleading and confusing. Tom Petty famously said he thought ‘publishing’ referred only to sheet-music song books. Usually people hear the words ‘music publishing’ and tune out because they don’t know what it is or don’t think it’s important. This booklet is aiming to change that.
  3. 3. Music publishing has to do with the copyright associated with a musical composition. ‘Copyright’ is just a special term that means “the exclusive legal right” (control of and/or ownership). In music, there are two types of copyrights associated with every recorded song: 1) Sound Recording or Master copyright The copyright associated with the master recording of a song. This can be in the form of vinyl, CD, MP3, etc. This is the copyright for the song you actually hear. 2) Publishing or Musical Composition copyright The copyright associated with the underlying lyric, melody, music, and beat of a song. This is referred to as the musical composition. This is the copyright for the musical idea underlying the song. Record labels are in the business of owning, distributing, marketing, and monetizing Master Recordings. Songwriters and music publishers are in the business of creating, owning, and monetizing Musical Compositions.

  4. 4. Let’s jump into a practical example to put these two types of copyrights into perspective. In 1966, Frank Sinatra released a song titled “That’s Life.” Sinatra sang and recorded it, but the master recording of this song is owned by Sinatra’s parent label Warner Music Group, as is the case in traditional label deals. The song was written by Dean Kay and Kelly Gordon. They wrote the lyrics, melody, and music of the song which created in the world a new musical composition. In order for Frank Sinatra’s label to commercially release his famous version of the song (the song was originally recorded by Marion Montgomery in 1963), Sinatra’s label had to license the musical composition to be able to use it in Sinatra’s sound recording. A license is the legal process by which a copyright-owner allows for their copyright to be used in a new form. Dean Kay, Kelly Gordon, and their publishers are the copyright-owners of the musical composition in this case.
  5. 5. In 1967, the song was recorded again by Aretha Franklin and released by her label Atlantic Records. This created a new Sound Recording. Franklin’s label had to license the musical composition of the song in order to release a new master recording of it.
  6. 6. How is a musical composition copyright created? Who owns it? A musical composition copyright is created as soon as a musical idea (lyrics, melody, music, beat, etc.) is put into tangible form (sheet-music, analog recording, digital recording in a DAW, etc.). No need to register anything, once you’ve actualized a musical composition in tangible form, you’ve created a copyright and you own it. If the musical composition is created collaboratively, who owns what percentage is decided amongst the writers on a ‘split sheet.’ From our example above, the second Dean Kay and Kelly Gordon actualized their musical ideas of “That’s Life” onto paper or a demo recording, they’d created a new musical composition copyright. A ‘split sheet’ is documentation stating who owns what percentage of a musical composition.
  7. 7. This is one of the simplest but most important and powerful parts of music publishing: You made it, you own it. Your ownership of your musical composition(s) is called your Publishing Rights. As a songwriter, it’s your greatest and most valuable asset. What can you do with your musical compositions aka Publishing Rights? The short answer is: anything. You have the power because you created that musical composition so you can decide and control what happens with it or who uses it. Let’s say someone uses lyrics or a melody you wrote or a beat you made to make a song and it gets 100 million streams. You have the power to cease and desist that song which makes it illegal for it to be distributed or played publicly. You can issue a license for that song to use your musical composition legally. You can collect royalties on that and any
  8. 8. other sound recording using your musical composition. You have the option to sell your rights for any amount you’re offered by a willing buyer. You have the option to partner with a company to help you maximize your revenue. You’re in control and there are no right answers, just general guidelines to keep in mind. If you’re looking to earn money with your songwriting, you need to understand your rights and their sources of revenue. There are two different types of royalties you’re entitled to as a musical composition copyright-owner: Performance and Mechanical. Performance Royalties are owed when your song is played or performed in public. This could be at a concert, in a bar, on an elevator, or in any other public place imaginable. Performance Royalties are collected and paid by Performance Rights Organizations (PROs) such as ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. Mechanical Royalties are owed when your song is physically or digitally re-produced and distributed. This could be
  9. 9. physical album sales, digital downloads, or streams on digital platforms. Mechanical Royalties for physical album sales and digital downloads are paid by the record labels. Streaming Mechanical Royalties (mechanicals owed for streams on platforms such as Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Music, Deezer, SoundCloud, and YouTube) are collected and paid by music publishing and administration companies. How do you receive your royalties? Performance Royalties are collected through Performance Rights Organizations such as ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC. Mechanical Royalties are collected by music publishing and administration companies. There are two types of deals you can make with music publishing companies: 1) Co-Publishing deal or just referred to as a ‘Publishing Deal’ which is where you sign ownership of your Publishing Rights over to the company usually for an amount of money in the form of an advance. 2) Publishing Administration deal is where you give up a percentage of your royalties as a fee for the partner company to go collect revenue for you. Congratulations! You now know the basics of music publishing! I encourage you to use the knowledge and terminology you have just learned to go do more of your own research on this important and evolving aspect of the music industry!

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