What is a Sub-Publisher?

It’s easy to assume that your Performing Rights Organization (aka PRO) has you covered whenever your song is played anywhere in the world. While in theory, that’s the case for performance royalties, it can still be difficult to rely on a PRO in one territory to effectively collect around the world for all uses.

And when your song is reproduced around the world, earning mechanical royalties, your PRO won’t collect at all. And reciprocal agreements for mechanicals can be few and far between, and ineffective where they do exist. That’s where sub-publishers come in.

What Is a Sub-Publisher?

A sub-publisher acts on behalf of the original publisher of a musical work, taking on the role of an agent in a particular territory to collect royalties, monitor copyrights, exploit usage for licensing, and promote the works represented. For that work, a sub-publisher takes a percentage of the money earned.

Most sub-publishers sign a deal for no less than three years.

What Do They Do?

While a sub-publisher may seem like a simple go-between solution, their efforts can make a big difference in breaking some musical works and performers internationally. It can function almost as a sub-manager, recommending agents for a tour, sub-publishing rights, and communicating with foreign branches of international labels. They can also pitch songs to other artists or films, TV/radio stations, and other users in their market.

Remember that most countries have a mechanical rights collection society. This society licenses all musical compositions used by all record companies in that country. You may be surprised to find that some mechanical societies are owned and operated by the government. 

Either way, it’s the job of each sub-publisher or local publisher to file a claim with the mechanical society explaining what percentage of a particular song it represents. Whatever money is collected is part of their cut.

The Need For Sub-Publishers

Music publishing has been around since the 1800s, mostly focusing on print music for venues to play for their patrons. By the 20th century, publishers expanded that focus to include the licensing of music on records, radio, television, films, concerts, tapes, CDs, satellite and cable distribution, karaoke, video games, computer software, and other multimedia formats. But as music has proven itself to have influence in countries all around the world, sub-publishing has emerged in the 21st century as an important part of making songs and artists international stars.

Seeking out a sub-publisher isn’t usually a problem for songwriters, as their primary music publisher will either take on the role or hire a sub-publisher to represent their catalogue in international markets. 

Much like the deal you may have already struck with a local publisher, there can be an advance from a sub-publisher. The size of the sub-publisher’s local market usually dictates its size. Keep in mind that currency exchange rates can have a sizable impact on the advance; for example, a strong U.S. dollar will mean a lower U.S. dollar advance.

The advance is unlikely for songwriters without a proven track record, however. In those cases, the sub-publisher will probably limit duties to collecting royalties on behalf of the local publisher in what is known as a collection deal. The good news is that, without an advance in the deal, the sub-publisher will keep a lower percentage of the profits — a great deal if a songwriter scores an international hit.

The Pros of a Sub-Publisher

A good sub-publishing deal should lead to covers of your songs in that local market, placement of your songs on local television and radio, promotion of your releases in international territories, and tips on local projects that need material. Publicity and marketing for your company and catalog can also be part of the deal. A sub-publisher could be the reason your song hits the top of the charts in a foreign country.

If a song you’ve written becomes a monster hit internationally, there’s a chance that territories around the world will want to release a version with lyrics in their primary language. A translator or local lyricist will then receive a share of the royalties of that version, which will be paid by local societies. 

Depending on the deal, the songwriter and their local publisher are sometimes responsible for this percentage. In other cases, the sub-publisher pays for it. It’s important that this translated version of the song be registered separately. If not, there’s a chance the translator or local lyricist could get paid on the original language version, which would mean misdirected money for you. 

Do You Need a Sub-Publisher?

An artist already signed with a music publisher will probably not be concerned with hiring a sub-publisher. Their publisher will have those relationships in place already, but indie artists should still know what a sub-publisher can do and what those services cost. 

Decades ago, entire catalogs were handled by a foreign representative for the life of the copyright. Though the standard is now three years, this is one of many negotiable items in any sub-publishing agreement. Other variations include retention rights for cover recordings, the right to collect “pipeline” royalties (funds earned prior to the expiration of the sub-publishing agreement but not paid by the music user until after the end of term), album guarantees, extensions if advances have not been recouped, rules of local performing rights societies, and more. 

While handling these many complex issues would be a big job for most busy independent artists, they can consider hiring a local sync agent to focus on movies and television deals, or sign up with an administrator like Songtrust to take care of all their publishing needs.

If you have any questions about sub-publishing or music publishing in general, please reach out to our team. 

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