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A brief and easy explanation of the digital music
publishing landscape for the modern music industry.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
physical album sales, digital downloads, or streams on digital
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
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
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!