Seven Steps to Starting Your Own Music Publishing Company

As you might expect, here at Songtrust we spend a lot of time exploring questions around music publishing. The biggest one by far centers around the question of whether or not creators even need traditional publishing deals anymore. If you can set up your own company and own all your publishing rights, why would you do it any other way?

It’s a fair question. And we want to be up front: We’re an independent publishing company, and we earn our living by representing creators and businesses just like you. That means we have a financial stake in whether or not you decide to register with us.

Because many—if not most—of us are creators ourselves, we’ve faced these questions too. (That’s why we created Songtrust in the first place!) So believe us when we say: It is completely within your capabilities to set up your own publishing company.

That said, while there are certainly benefits to going the independent route, we want to explore the question of whether or not self-publishing is a realistic pursuit, given the setup and maintenance it requires. For many of us, the ease of having an administrator taking care of all the details is well worth the “lost” income that goes instead to fees.

Tough to choose? Let’s begin with a step-by-step walkthrough of how to go about setting up your own publishing company. It’s important to note that the following information is US-centric. Non-US information and steps will likely vary depending on territory.

Are you eligible to become a publisher?

The very first step is making sure you’re eligible to have a collection society such as BMI, ASCAP or SESAC (note: these named are US-centric performing rights organizations) process your application to become a music publisher. In order to be eligible, you need to have an official release or broadcast of a song you represent (your own or someone else’s). The song might be part of a recording such as a record, CD or digital release; contained in the soundtrack of a motion picture; or included in a television or radio broadcast. 

Step 2: Create a name

Every publishing company must have a unique name, so you'll want to be thoughtful in picking one that suits your goals. The name of this company will be your calling card when you’re pitching music to potential opportunities like radio play and TV or film placements. Is it descriptive, appropriate and memorable?

Step 3: Register as a business with your local government

When you open a business under a name other than your own, you need to register that “doing business as” or “DBA” name with your Secretary of State (or Office of the Secretary in Washington, D.C.). This will enable you to open a business banking account and be assigned 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 sole proprietorship, partnership, or corporation. We’ll sidestep the question of which one best suits your needs, but we strongly urge you to do your homework and address this question in advance. 

Step 4: Open up a business banking 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 taxes properly—as well as making sure you're receiving all the earnings you’re entitled to—you’ll want to have an account dedicated just to your publishing business.

Step 5: Choose a PRO and submit your application as a publisher

You'll need to join one of the collection societies as a music publisher; if you’re already affiliated with a collection society as a songwriter, you’ll want to choose the same one. If you’re not yet affiliated, take some time to familiarize yourself with your options. ASCAP and BMI are the major PROs in the United States; SESAC is only open by invitation. 

Step 6: Register your company's songs with the Copyright Office (optional)

It’s not strictly necessary to register with the copyright office, but if someone infringes upon your work you’ll have better legal protection. You’ll need to contact the US Copyright Office to register; this can also 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 the Harry Fox Agency

The final step is to contact the Harry Fox Agency (HFA) and register as a publisher. This is done in addition to registering with a collection society. The difference is that HFA issues and collects royalties from mechanical licenses—used on CDs, records, tapes and streaming—as opposed to performance royalties.

To Sign or Go It Alone? What Comes Next

Once you've established your publishing company, the actual work begins. Taking on the responsibilities of both the artist and the publisher can include those that publishers, labels, and managers would do such as:

  • Songwriting
  • Creating demos of your songs
  • Pitching your songs for syncs in film, broadcast, games and other outlets
  • Building and maintaining a strong network in order to find the best opportunities for your music
  • Search out licensing opportunities with record labels
  • Explore foreign sub-publishing agreements
  • Solicit print deals

Whether or not you’ll enjoy doing this work yourself depends a great deal upon your personal preferences. 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 and attention to detail, and a whole lot of legwork. One other word of caution: Even if as your own publisher you’re entitled to 100% of your royalties, there are costs associated with this route.

Ultimately, of course, whether you start your own publishing company, sign a traditional publishing deal, or hire a publishing administrator such as Songtrust, is 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.

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