A Brief History of Music Publishing

Most people aren’t aware of it, but music publishing touches nearly every aspect of our lives these days. From that first song you can remember hearing on your parents’ scratchy turntable to the ones you hear piped over the PA at the supermarket or café, there is increasingly a soundtrack for every waking moment. And any time we hear music that’s been recorded and distributed for playback, each and every one of those songs that finds its way to you, passes through the vast system we call music publishing. 

So, how did we get here? Music publishing—the blanket term for the creation, production and distribution of musical compositions—as we know it is a few hundred years old, although it didn’t take its current shape until much more recently. What’s more, it’s nowhere near done evolving. As new technologies and distribution services continue to redraw the map and publishing law changes—sometimes more slowly than we’d like—the publishing landscape continues to evolve to keep up with the pace of independent songwriters in the industry. 

Some of the most recent (and most impactful) changes came about in 2018 with the passage of the Music Modernization Act (MMA), and it points to an even brighter future for music creators. But to understand where music publishing might be heading, it’s important to understand where it came from first.

The Beginnings of Music Publishing

The origin of printed, reproducible sheet music dates to 1476 and Roman printer Ulrich Han’s Missale Romanum, a volume containing sixteen plainsongs, or simple monophonic liturgical works. But the father of modern music printing is generally acknowledged to be Ottaviano Petrucci, a Venetian printer and publisher active in the early decades of the sixteenth century. Even from the very beginning, publishing was significantly driven in part by the profit motive: Petrucci held a 20-year monopoly on music printing in Venice.

After the invention of the mechanical method of reproducing sheet music, the next significant development in publishing was the creation of copyright law. With origins in England under the rule of King Henry VIII—who granted printers legal protections in the form of licenses—the language around copyright was further codified under the Statute of Anne, in 1710. 

Across the Channel, it was the French who would pave the way for our current understanding of performing rights. The Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques (SACD), founded in 1777, is still hard at work today collecting performance royalties for authors of theatrical and audiovisual works. And the Société des auteurs, compositeurs et éditeurs de musique (SACEM) was the first performance pay source (or collection society) when it was founded in 1851. SACEM was founded after a group of composers successfully sued for payment for public performance of their works at a performance space and café (a scenario still relevant to songwriters today).

We might call this the beginning of the “era of music publishing,” though it’s useful to note that, in the 1850s, there still wasn’t a way to play back prerecorded music. Instead, it was the intellectual property of the composition that formed the backbone of music publishing law as we understand it. 

As musical performances of existing works began to take on greater and greater importance in the music halls, dance clubs and theaters of Europe and the United States especially, the demand for sheet music of popular works only grew. By the first ten years of the 20th century, roughly 25,000 popular songs were being written and published in the form of sheet music a year. 

But by and large, the growing music publishing industry wasn’t set up to favor composers. 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. Here, the landmark Copyright Act of 1909 helped enshrine basic legal protections for composers, but the law was often conveniently overlooked or completely ignored by unscrupulous publishers.

For much of the 20th century, in fact, the situation for music creators was bleak. Though the law granted them writing and publishing rights for their original works, all too often the only way for them to earn money was to sell their ownership of both these rights away for a lump sum. By the 1970’s, the “50/50” co-publishing deal was more or less a standard, though it still gave publishers an edge in that they assumed some ownership of the writer's share. Over time, this shifted to favor the songwriter, giving them 100% of the writer’s share plus half of the publishing share. This is the genesis of the “75/25” split that many traditional publishers still use today. 

That said, finding a “traditional” publishing deal is far from a composer’s only option. And while scoring a publishing deal was once judged the greatest prize in a songwriter’s career, increasingly, it’s not the only option available anymore. Here’s why.

Where Publishing Is Today…And Where It’s Headed

The traditional publishing deal isn’t disappearing anytime soon, but several changes in the industry have altered the landscape dramatically, offering up-and-coming composers, songwriters, producers, and creators far more options when it comes to publishing, propagating, and—most importantly—collecting earned royalties from their music.

As we mentioned earlier, the passage of the MMA represented a huge leap forward, as did roughly concurrent legislation passed in the European Union (EU). In recognizing streaming and downloading as two of the primary ways music is played and shared today—and that composers and producers were being left out when it came to royalties—the MMA helped level the playing field in a major way.

But it’s not just the laws that have changed. As the digital revolution makes it easier and easier for music creators to self-record and self-release their work, it’s becoming more common for savvy, forward-thinking songwriters to take control of their publishing as well. If that describes you, be aware that Songtrust can help make the process easier. In fact, that describes Songtrust in a nutshell: A service by and for independent music creators to help manage the business side of making music. 

Geared specifically towards music creators who aren’t looking for or ready for a traditional publishing deal—or just want to get their feet wet in the world of self-publishing to see if it’s right for them—Songtrust helps you manage the business end of music, makes sure your compositions are properly registered worldwide, and does the nitty-gritty work of capturing publishing revenues from all over the world. Our team has decades of experience in traditional publishing that we draw on to help you handle registering, managing, and earning royalties from your music.

If this sounds like what you’re looking for in a partner, reach out.

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