A Brief History of Music Publishing

Music publishing today is the business of creating, producing and distributing the written song compositions, ensuring that the songwriter, composer, and creators receive royalties when their songs are used or reproduced. However, the journey it’s taken to get here has been a long one. It’s developed significantly since the 1800s, when, during the industrial revolution, print music was introduced as an option for venues to use for their patrons. As the demand for music in venues and establishments increased, classical music took the lead by delivering sheet music to be used by the in-house musician to entertain guests.

Thus began the music publishing era - as different orchestras were able to play these compositions by composers solely by the distribution of the sheet, the demand only grew. But this new industry was not in favor of the musician or songwriter, and, in fact, it did nothing to support or promote music or writers. In response, organizations like the Music Publishers Association (MPA) in the UK and, later, the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) in the US were born. By the 1950’s, artists could sell their entire copyrights to labels for $250 (which was sort of a lot at the time - but less so in retrospect!) to earn money off their compositions, but by doing so, they gave away their publishing and writer’s shares (otherwise known as rights ownership) - giving the label 100% of the royalties from there on out. Basically, if a songwriter or composer wanted to make a penny off their work, they had to sell away the ownership of that work. Not a pretty picture, right? Pretty soon songwriters were becoming more assertive and fighting back for their shares. By the ‘70’s, the "standard" 50/50 co-publishing deal was created. This deal had two shares - the writer’s share and the publisher’s share. Over time, the deal shifted in favor of the songwriter more - giving the songwriter 100% of the writer’s share plus half of the publishing share, creating the 75/25 split on performance royalties that many publishers still use today.

Where Publishing Is Today (in most western countries)

Over the years, several initiatives have been born out of the music publishing industry, often in response to putting more power in the hands of songwriters and artists. As well, there is so much more music publishing provides today than the 75/25 standard split. A music publisher helps the songwriter or right owner collect royalties from a number of places including but not limited to:

  • Performance rights organizations/performing rights societies (AKA PROs/PRS) around the world
  • Streaming Mechanical rights: e.g. from Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, Pandora, Pandora Premium, Slacker, Napster (Formerly known as Rhapsody), and more
  • Mechanical rights for physical sales and digital downloads: either directly or via organizations like Harry Fox Agency's (HFA), which monitors and collects royalties from labels for some publishers who are affiliated
  • Mechanical rights for other products: People make singing stuffed animals, rides, and all sorts of physical players of music that require mechanical rights!
  • Synchronization rights: for when songs are used against a moving picture, e.g. a film, advertisements, video game, Youtube. etc.
  • Print / Lyrics / sheet music / Guitar tabs
  • Other Royalties: Karaoke and more 

Read more about where you can collect royalties from.

Their ultimate goal is to help songwriters receive the most amount of money possible from their collective works. The technical term is "exploiting" a catalog, which might sound negative but in this world it's technically a positive! Collecting royalties is now a global affair, meaning it’s opened a whole new arena for artists to collect money on a global scale. Songtrust specifically, collects royalties globally for all their clients by having established relationships with rights organizations in over 120+ territories. Along with the nitty-gritty, technical details of what a publisher’s main purpose is, lives different kinds of publishing deals that allow the songwriters to find the right fit for them. Songtrust, for example, offers a publishing administration deal meaning, the songwriter - that’s you - keeps 100% ownership of your copyright and give a small percentage from what we collect, in the form of an admin fee, for a set term, to your publisher (us!). These fees can vary by deal - Songtrust fees 15% for the term of one year - and, most importantly, doesn’t take any ownership or control of your copyright. Whether you choose a traditional publishing deal or a publishing administrative deal, the music publishing industry has grown to allow for more flexibility than it had when it was first born.

Looking Ahead

Publishing is constantly growing in favor of songwriters, but still has a long way to go as technology and the way consumers buy and listen to music constantly changes. Where at it’s start sheet music, or physically printed music, was what was used as a measure of success, today, digital streaming is a major part of what determines success. One of the most recent ways the publishing industry is seeing change is through the Music Modernization Act, a bill introduced by Representatives Doug Collins (R-GA) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY). As legislation that would change the rates and the process in which mechanical royalties are paid out to copyright owners, it will, and most importantly, help all artists, songwriters, and publishers rather than just the corporations that “make it big”. 

Around the world, especially in eastern countries or countries that do not have more evolved copyright law or established publishing businesses (e.g. China,India, the Middle East and in some African countries), publishing is still quite nascent. Over the coming years we expect for these countries to start coming online in a major way, starting with better laws that are more in line with international norms - labels (or in the case of India: Bollywood Studios) ceding historical power to writers and publishers. As the world starts to pay more attention to the music industry, artists and songwriters have every opportunity to rally behind legislations and new ideals being voiced in their communities. Setting themselves up for success and becoming leaders in their industry will surely continue to launch the music industry out of the past and into the future

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