Publishing vs. Distribution

It takes more than hit songs and a hot sound to turn music into a full-time career. Working with a distributor and publisher will help you manage the business side as well — not just the fun part. 

Below, we’ll break down the roles and responsibilities of your publishing and distribution partners, and how each team helps with everything from releasing music to collecting royalties.

Two Halves of a Song

How To Deliver Your Work To The Masses

While traditional distributors work primarily with record labels and handle both physical product and digital delivery, a number of artist-direct distributors supply digital music to such major platforms as Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, Amazon Music, and Tidal. 

Distributors earn money by charging a flat fee (e.g., Distrokid, Tunecore and Songtradr) and/or taking a percentage of an artist’s master recording royalties. The latter varies considerably from distributor to distributor. For instance, CD Baby charges a flat fee per single or album, while United Masters, on the other hand, is an invitation-only service that lets artists choose between a flat annual distribution fee or a percentage commission. 

You can check out a detailed side-by-side comparison of many different online distributors over at Ari’s Take.   

How Distribution Deals Work

Music distributors can’t guarantee anyone making any money. If the music doesn’t sell, neither the artist nor the distributor will get paid. 

This is why many distributors choose to charge an upfront fee — to cover their initial costs. As with any business arrangement, you’ll be asked to sign a contract permitting the distributor to sell your music and collect royalties on your behalf. 

If you are an independent artist, make sure your contract includes a termination clause; you’ll need it if you want to sign a label deal later. Most large, DIY-focused distributors will let you end an agreement early with 30 or 60 days notice. Smaller operations may ask for a fixed period — one to three years, for instance — to cover their investment in your music. 

Some distributors, like CD Baby, also give you the chance to opt into publishing administration when setting up the distribution of your songs. As with every deal, you’re signing a legal agreement, so take the time to read everything over carefully. Make sure you know what services they offer and which ones you want to take part in.

Collect Everything You’ve Earned

As a songwriter and recording artist, you earn money from both master recordings and underlying compositions. You are also the automatic owner of your composition’s copyright, which makes you a publisher by default. However, not all performing rights societies or collection management organizations recognize an individual songwriter as a publisher without a publishing entity.

If you don’t plan on creating a publishing entity (which generally requires additional fees) or have a traditional publishing deal, another option is using a publishing administrator like Songtrust. 

No Publishing Yet? No Problem.

A publishing administrator like Songtrust enables songwriters to manage their copyrights and access the income they already earned. They do this by making sure songs are properly registered and royalties are collected from such global pay sources as Performing Rights Organizations (BMI, ASCAP, SESAC), Collective Management Organizations (APRA, PRS, GEMA), and mechanical agencies (The Harry Fox Agency, Music Reports, The MLC). 

Songwriters pay a fee for a publishing administrator’s services, but they do not give up any copyright ownership in exchange for their services.

A distributor works hard to sell or stream your music, but their main focus is collecting royalties from your master recording. If they offer a publishing add-on, you should make sure you know what other royalty types they’ll collect for your compositions.

Being affiliated with a collection society does not guarantee you’re getting all the royalties your songs generate. Societies differ in the type of royalties they collect within that territory. For example, ASCAP doesn’t collect mechanical royalties in the U.S., but GEMA collects both performance and mechanical royalties in Germany.

If a songwriter is not registered with a society in a country where they earn money, royalties may be collected but held until the songwriter can be located. If they remain uncollected for several years, they may be deemed lost and declared unallocated royalties (aka “black box” royalties).

Songtrust works directly with agencies and societies to avoid this situation and distribute royalties to the songwriters that deserve them. 

Keep the Momentum Going

The work doesn’t stop as soon as your song is finished. Rather than wait for a traditional deal that may never arrive, you can find the right distributor to fit your needs today, and determine which publisher (or publishing administrator) has the right tools to help you rack up royalties every step of the way. 

If you have additional questions about the differences between distribution and publishing, or about setting up your publishing with Songtrust, please feel free to contact us. You can also keep all these moving parts organized by downloading our free Royalty Checklist.

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