We spend a lot of time answering questions about music publishing here at Songtrust. The biggest one by far centers around whether or not creators even need traditional deals anymore. After all, if you can set up your own publishing company and retain all your rights and creative control, why would you want to do it any other way?
While there are certainly benefits to going the independent route, it requires a considerable amount of research and time. For many creators, having a publishing administrator handle every last detail — from licensing fees to potential royalty payouts — is well worth the one-time registration fee and modest commissions.
Still not sure what’s best for you? Let’s start with a step-by-step walkthrough of how to set up your own publishing company. It’s important to note that the following information is unique to the U.S. Other territories will vary in terms of the parties and paperwork involved.
Step 1: Establish your eligibility
The very first step is making sure a Performing Rights Organization (PRO) can process your application. In order to be eligible, you need to have an official release or broadcast of a song you represent (either your own or someone else’s). The song could be part of a proper record, CD, or digital release; the soundtrack of a motion picture; or a television/radio broadcast.
Step 2: Create a name
Every publishing company must have a unique name. Be sure to pick one that will suit your goals and be your calling card when you’re pitching music to potential radio plays and TV or film placements. Ask yourself a simple question: Is it descriptive, appropriate, and memorable?
Step 3: Register as a business
When you open a business under a name other than your own, you need to register that DBA (“Doing Business As”) name with your Secretary of State or the Office of the Secretary in Washington, D.C. This will enable you to open a business banking account and request a Federal Tax ID number, among other things.
You’ll have several options as to which type of business you’re registering. Typical options include a sole proprietorship, partnership, or corporation. We strongly urge you to do your homework and address this question in advance so you’re able to find the business type that best suits your needs.
Step 4: Open a bank account
As a registered business, you’ll need to pay taxes on your income. In order to stay on top of your finances and account for your earnings properly — as well as making sure you receive everything you’re entitled to — you’ll want to dedicate a bank account to your publishing business.
Step 5: Choose a PRO and submit your application as a publisher
You'll need to join a collection society as a music publisher. If you’re already affiliated with one as a songwriter, you’ll want to apply it to your publishing company as well. If you’re not yet affiliated, take some time to familiarize yourself with all the options that are out there. ASCAP and BMI are the major PROs in the United States; SESAC is only open by invitation.
If you plan to have multiple songwriter clients of your publishing company, and not just yourself, you will need to set up publishing affiliations with all the U.S. PROs, because in order to publish works by a songwriter registered with one of the U.S. PROs, you must have a publishing company registered with that PRO. This restriction does not apply to songwriters outside of the U.S.: you can publish a songwriter affiliated with any global PRO using any of your U.S. PRO affiliations. I.e., If you’re affiliated with ASCAP, you cannot use that affiliation to register songs for a songwriter client who is affiliated with BMI, but you can use your ASCAP affiliation to register songs for a songwriter client who is affiliated with GEMA (Germany).
Step 6: Register your company's songs with the Copyright Office (optional)
Registering with the U.S. Copyright Office is not required, but if someone infringes upon your work you’ll have better legal protection. This can be done online and typically takes a few months to process. If you have already copyrighted songs in your own name, you’ll need to transfer those rights to your publishing company.
Step 7: Register with U.S. Mechanical Rights Organizations
The final step is to contact The MLC, The Harry Fox Agency, and Music Reports, and register as a publisher. This is done in addition to registering with a collection society. The difference is that these mechanical organizations issue and collect royalties from the mechanical licenses issued for streaming, downloads, and CDs and other physical music. They do not deal with performance royalties.
What Comes Next
The real work begins once you've established your publishing company. Taking on the responsibilities of both the artist and publisher can include:
- Creating demos
- Pitching your songs for syncs in such potential outlets as films, broadcasts, and games
- Building and maintaining a strong network in order to find the best opportunities for your music
- Searching for licensing opportunities with record labels
- Exploring foreign sub-publishing agreements
- Soliciting print deals
For some creators, the opportunity to forge their own path — and collect 100% of their royalties — is an opportunity too good to pass up. For others, it quickly becomes apparent that making headway in the music publishing business depends upon established networks and relationships, strong patience, attention to detail, and a whole lot of legwork.
One other word of caution: Retaining 100% of your royalties isn’t without its own unique built-in costs.
Whether you launch your own publishing company, sign a traditional publishing deal, or hire a publishing administrator like Songtrust, it’s all a very personal decision. We want you to know that we see both sides of the argument, and we support you either way. If you’d like to connect with someone at Songtrust for advice, clarification, or perspective, don’t hesitate to reach out.
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.