Seven Things You Had Totally Wrong about Music Publishing

Music publishing is a complex, often confusing topic, even for those of us who work in the industry every day. The following article is a perfect starting point for making sense of it all: seven common misconceptions worth clearing up before you dive straight into the next stage of your career.   

Misconception No. 1: Publishing Royalties Only Matter If You Sell Thousands of Units

Understanding that your song is split into two halves — a master recording and an underlying composition, each of which earn distinct types of royalties — is essential to determining exactly what revenue you're owed. But it’s important to understand that any amount of physical sales or streaming usage earns publishing royalties that you can - and should! - collect.

Publishing royalties are attributed to the composition side of your song, and earned in various ways. Much of it comes from mechanical royalties, which are generated from sales of physical “units” (vinyl, CDs, cassette tapes) or digital downloads. Other ways of earning royalties from your composition include streaming services like Spotify, video platforms like YouTube, song lyric sites, live performances, and mobile apps.

Misconception No. 2: Mechanical Royalties Are Only Generated From Physical Sales

The term “mechanical” dates back to the days when music was literally played through mechanical means, like cranking up a Victrola at a (low-volume) house party. In the pre-streaming era, every sale of a physical product (including LPs, CDs, and cassettes) earned a mechanical royalty. Today, streaming has become the primary form of music consumption in many markets. Those streams also earn mechanical royalties, making physical sales account for only a small percentage of your revenue stream. 

Misconception No. 3: To Own the Copyright of a Song, You Have To Mail It To Yourself

While there are circumstances in which you should consider filing a formal copyright request for a song you write, you actually own its copyright from the moment your song is considered finished. Or to use a more technical term, “fixed in a tangible form which can be reproduced.” 

This might take the form of lyrics and chords written down on paper or a simple demo recording. Once you write it and have some physical representation of it, you own the copyright on that song and its publishing rights — something we help you handle as soon as you join Songtrust

Misconception No. 4: Your Home Collection Society Will Collect All of Your Publishing Royalties

If you are only signed up with your local collection society, you’re missing out on a big piece of your publishing income. Affiliating yourself with a Collective Management Organization (CMO) or Performing Rights Organization (PRO) is an essential step in music publishing, but it’s not the end of the process. It’s more like the beginning. 

For many songwriters, the royalties collected by their collection society represent around a third of their publishing royalties. None of the major U.S. PROs — including ASCAP and BMI — collect any mechanical royalties, whether from physical sales or streaming services, which is a significant, and growing, piece of the publishing revenue puzzle. 

While U.S. PROs may be collecting global performance revenue via reciprocal deals, they may not be covering all the markets where your music is being performed or consumed. And they are almost certainly not collecting your international mechanical royalties. 

If your home collection society is outside the U.S., they may be collecting your mechanicals already, but that doesn’t mean they are registering your song with other global performance and mechanical societies to ensure that you’re collecting in every territory. 

Misconception No. 5: Songwriters Don’t Earn Royalties From Broadcast Radio

Songwriters are typically paid performance royalties for broadcast radio play under a blanket license each radio station has with collection societies, and the royalties earned through AM/FM radio play can be significant, especially if you have a song that gets steady airplay on commercial stations. Songwriters also earn royalties from play on internet and satellite radio stations.

Misconception No. 6: A Co-Publishing Deal Is a Quick Way to Break Into Music Publishing

Not quite. In these deals, a songwriter assigns a portion of his or her publishing rights to another person or company in exchange for money — usually an advance on any royalties the song(s) earn in the future. While there’s nothing wrong with this arrangement, it demands a keen and clear-eyed focus on the future. Is your co-publisher well-connected and able to score you sync placements, performances of your songs by popular artists, and high-level collaboration opportunities? 

Even in the best of circumstances, a co-publishing deal is much like a high-interest loan advanced against future earnings. That’s one reason we advise seeking experienced legal counsel before entering into any publishing deal that involves giving away your rights as a songwriter or publisher. 

This leads us neatly into our final, and perhaps most important, point.  

Misconception No. 7: In Order To Collect Publishing Royalties, You Have To Give Up Copyright Ownership and Creative Control 

You don’t have to! While signing a co-publishing deal generally means signing away ownership to current and future songs written throughout the term of an agreement, there are alternatives. If you want to keep your ownership or aren’t ready for a traditional publishing deal, a publishing administration deal might be a better fit.  

When you sign up with a publishing administrator like Songtrust, you do not lose any ownership of your copyrights and are free to exploit your songs however you’d like, in any form you’d like. And by having your songs registered properly worldwide, you set yourself up to collect all future publishing royalties.

These are just a few of the misconceptions floating around about music publishing. As creators become more independent, the landscape of music publishing will certainly change and more misconceptions will come to light. 

If you’ve decided to make songwriting your career, make sure to learn everything you can about the music industry and, most importantly, music publishing, to ensure that you’re making better-informed decisions about your work. You’re not alone — check out our knowledge center to get started.

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