Having a hit single in your home country is one thing — a revenue stream worth seizing if you already have a local PRO or CMO in place to help you collect royalties. But what if a record spreads like wildfire in a couple of territories and time zones away?
Don’t assume that money is going to hit your bank account without taking any action – and where your PRO or CMO, or publisher, doesn’t have direct relationships to collect on your behalf, that’s where a sub-publishing deal might come in. Before we get into what they are and how they work, it’s important to remember that music publishing isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s been around since the 1800s and back then, it mostly focused on the print music venues played for their patrons.
By the 20th century, publishers expanded that focus to include licensing music to such multimedia outlets and formats as physical records, films, TV shows, and radio stations. A century later, sub-publishing has become an essential part of making emerging songs and artists international stars.
What Is a Sub-Publisher?
A sub-publisher acts on behalf of the original publisher of a musical work, assuming the role of an agent in a particular territory. This means they monitor copyrights, collect royalties, exploit usage for licensing, and promote the works represented.
A sub-publisher takes a percentage of the money they’ve collected in exchange for their efforts. Most sign agreements that last no less than three years.
What Does a Sub-Publisher Do?
While a sub-publisher may seem like a simple interim solution, they can also function as a manager in faraway markets. They may recommend agents for a tour, communicate with foreign branches of global labels, and pitch songs to fellow artists, TV and radio stations, and films.
Not the worst situation considering international recorded music revenue increased by 9% in 2022, with some of the biggest gains coming from Asia (15.4%), Latin America (25.9%), and Sub-Saharan Africa (34.7%). Between those encouraging numbers and the steady growth of streaming platforms — they climbed 11.5%, accounting for 67% of the global market — it’s difficult to deny the importance of reaching listeners around the world.
Speaking of foreign countries, many have a mechanical rights collection society that licenses compositions used by domestic record companies. You may be surprised to find that some mechanical societies are owned and operated by the government. Sub-publishers file claims with mechanical societies explaining what percentage of a particular song it represents. Whatever money is collected is part of their cut.
The Pros and Cons of a Sub-Publisher
A good sub-publishing agreement 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 tops the charts in a foreign country, too. And if that happens, there’s a chance 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 royalties for you.
But, just like with every deal, there can be cons to working with a sub-publisher as well. Much like a deal with a local publisher, a sub-publisher may also offer you an advance – which can be a good thing, but if you aren’t fully aware of what strings come with one, then it might be less so. The size of the sub-publisher's local market usually dictates the size of the advance and will be recouped before you see any royalties hit your own pocket.
An 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, the sub-publisher will keep a lower percentage of the profits — a great deal if a songwriter lands a local hit.
When 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 deal. 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, and the rules of local performing rights societies.
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.