As more and more independent musicians find their footing in an increasingly competitive industry, traditional publishing deals — an advance and creative services in exchange for a controlling interest in your work — aren’t the only way of taking one’s career to the next level. Songwriters should ask themselves a variety of questions, starting with how much independence they’re willing to give up for publishing benefits.
The industry is often split between which deals they believe in most, but some facts can’t be disputed. First off, the moment you decide that the song you’ve poured your soul into is finally finished, you automatically own its copyright and 100% of the composition’s publishing. This is divided into two rights types, performance and mechanical; and performance royalties are further divided into two very important pieces: the publisher’s share (50%) and the writer’s share (50%).
These facts are important because some publishing agreements take a percentage of control from your publisher’s share. Understanding this is yours from the get-go is crucial when making decisions about your career.
Let’s walk through the three main types of music publishing deals you might come across.
In an administration deal, you — the songwriter — keep 100% ownership of your copyright (and writer's share) and give away 15% to 25% (more or less depending on the administrator’s terms) of your publisher’s share in the form of an administrative fee for a term of typically one-to-three years. Publishing administrators do not own or control any portion of your copyright during this agreement.
Administration agreements do not usually include creative services. They focus solely on duties such as properly registering your songs with global pay sources and collecting royalties on your behalf. Most administrators will also process the paperwork for any sync licenses you procure for a percentage of the sync royalty. This is called “passive” sync income.
In some instances, administration deals may also include an advance which must be recouped in the same way as a co-publishing deal; meaning that before you are sent any royalties, all of your advance must be paid back.
Publishing administrators have relationships with all kinds of performance and mechanical collection societies and pay sources around the world that make royalty collection much simpler than it would be for a songwriter to do on their own. This leaves you time to focus on writing and creative work.
At Songtrust, we’ve created a seamless publishing administration platform to help you register and collect all of your royalties worldwide while retaining 100% of your copyright ownership. If this type of music publishing deal appeals to you, please reach out to our team to learn more.
Traditional or Co-Publishing Agreements
Some aspects of traditional and co-publishing agreements are similar, but they have one distinguishing difference — the amount of control you keep. A traditional publishing deal generally means that you forfeit 100% of your publishing rights in return for the services your publisher provides. In a co-publishing agreement — one of the most common publishing deals for major songwriters — you typically give away 50% of your publisher’s share (“co-publishing”) when you sign.
This means you still keep 100% of your writer’s share, but only 50% of your publisher’s share: 75% of your total publishing royalties. During your term, which typically lasts 1-3 years with a renewal option, you have certain obligations that must be fulfilled. These can include writing a minimum number of commercial songs, and recording and releasing music on a legitimate label.
Because the publisher takes partial control of your work, they have more of an incentive to support your compositions and generate royalties. They’ll do this by pitching your songs to music supervisors, labels, and popular artists; by setting up co-writes with other songwriters; and by having you perform at industry showcases.
In addition to this creative work, your publisher will also be doing all of the necessary administrative duties. Keep in mind that maintaining part of your publishing does not mean keeping all of your administrative rights or external control over the song itself. This allows the publishing company to more easily seek out and agree to sync opportunities, but also means you may not be able to have a say in what those opportunities are.
Another enticing aspect of a co-publishing deal is a cash advance. Publishing companies will customarily offer you a variable sum of money upon signing the contract. This can be alluring for a songwriter because it offers a level of freedom and the chance to quit your day job and focus on writing.
However, it’s important to know that this advance must be recouped in full by the publisher before you are paid out any royalties from your compositions. This means the publishing company will collect your 75% of royalties until they’ve recouped their advance. The other 25% goes directly into their pocket. And while you retain 50% of the publisher’s share, you are often giving away 100% of control over the song itself, meaning you have little say in how it is used or pitched.
It’s important to know how difficult these deals can be to secure. You’ll generally need to have already had some success in the songwriting world and/or have relationships with music industry people who can get your work in front of a publisher.
Even then, your songs have to be good enough for the publisher to invest time and money in you. A co-publishing deal may be what’s right for you and your career, but make sure you know what the terms mean, fully read the agreement, engage an attorney, and take your time before signing so you’re prepared to make informed business decisions.
The Work-for-Hire Agreement
A work-for-hire agreement is pretty straightforward. Many companies (not necessarily publishers) and individual songwriters may approach other songwriters, producers, composers, etc to create unique composition(s) for their projects and offer them outright for a flat fee.
Be careful though. You may be signing away all of your master and publishing rights — including your writer’s share — with this kind of deal, depending on how it’s laid out. You also may not be listed as the composer of the song; the person who hired you will likely be listed as the songwriter instead.
If this type of agreement is the best option for your situation or how you normally handle your business decisions, just make sure you read the terms, get everything in writing, and try to work in ownership percentages so you have continuous revenue streams in the future.
You never know when or if a song is going to get a lot of traction; you don’t want to sign away that ownership too easily.
Making The Right Choice For You
While publishers may be passionate about your music and career, they’re ultimately out to make a profit. They would not stay in business if they didn’t format their deals in a way that generates large amounts of revenue in their favor. They are experts in making predictions and analyzing financial risks, and are experienced in making these deals. This can also work in your favor; they are taking a financial risk in the hopes of making you successful.
An upfront advance or flat fee may sound like an abundance of income all at once, but don’t forget that the team that helped make this deal happen needs to get paid as well. You’ll most likely have to subtract a manager’s 15-20% fee, a business manager’s 5% fee, and an additional 5% fee to a lawyer for negotiating the deal. (You definitely want a good lawyer.)
After all of this is deducted, you also need to pay taxes on what’s left. Remember that your advance needs to be recouped in full by your publishing company before you are truly in the green, too. If what you are earning at this point is enough for you to justify the cons of giving away a percentage of your copyright, then a traditional co-publishing deal may be right for you.
It’s also good to weigh your odds of how many syncs you’ll get through your publisher. If you already have a good amount of ad placement offers coming in, you may want to maintain your creative control. If you’re looking for more syncs, then a co-publishing deal may work for you.
There are vast opportunities to promote yourself as an independent artist and/or songwriter these days, and to generate real publishing royalties without a creative team behind you. Songtrust serves an increasing number of songwriter, manager, label, and publisher catalogs around the world.
Choose what’s right for you and set yourself up for success. Whatever you decide, we’re here for you.
Take control of your publishing. Maximize Songtrust for your songs and business.
We created this guide to answer a simple question: How do songwriters support themselves?
The answer is not as simple as we’d like, but our goal is to make it as clear, transparent and understandable as we possibly can.
Songtrust is more than just a rights management platform and publishing administrator - we’re a team of experts in the music community who strive to educate, support, and provide thought leadership to creators, representatives, and businesses across the music industry.
Our hope is that you’ll finish this guide with an better understanding of the business behind songwriting and have actionable resources to help you be successful.