What is Music Sub-Publishing?

It’s easy to assume that your Performing Rights Organization (aka PRO) has you covered whenever a song you’ve written is played anywhere in the world - and that’s mostly right. Whether your song hits the airwaves in Seattle or Hong Kong, you can expect that eventually royalties will be paid to you. But when your song is stored on a server, downloaded, or used as a ringtone somewhere far away, your PRO may not have a deal with the reproduction rights collective in that jurisdiction. 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 the 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, usually an amount between 10 and 20 percent. Most sub-publishers sign a deal for no less than three years.

What Do They Do?

While a sub-publisher may seem to be a simple go-between, for some musical works and performers, their efforts can make a big difference in breaking them internationally. The sub-publisher 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 to record or plug songs to radio, TV/film, 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, and you may be surprised to find that mechanical societies are sometimes owned and operated by the government. It's the job of each sub-publisher or local publisher to file a claim with the mechanicals society explaining what percentage of a particular song it represents, and whatever money 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, CD-ROMS and other forms of multimedia. 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. As with 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 the size of the advance. Do keep in mind that currency exchange rates can have a sizable impact on the advance - for example, a strong US dollar will mean a lower US dollar advance.

For songwriters without a proven track record, the advance is unlikely, however. 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 -- which could turn out to be 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, plus 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 does become a monster international hit, there’s a chance that territories around the world will want to release a version with lyrics in the language of their country. 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, sometimes the songwriter and their local publisher are responsible for this percentage, while 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 to translator or local lyricist could get paid on the original language version -- which would mean money meant for you would be misdirected.

Do You Need a Sub-Publisher?

While an artist signed with a music publisher will probably not be concerned with hiring a sub-publisher as their publisher will have those relationships in place already, indie artists should 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), released-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 a company like Songtrust to take care of all sub-publishing needs.

If you have any questions about sub-publishing or music publishing in general, reach out to our team at contact@songtrust.com and we can help you make the best decision for your career. 

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