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When Do You Need a Traditional Publishing Deal?

Picture of Seth Lorinczi
3 minute read

Katie Jelen of Secret Road Music Services — a Nashville-based music publisher — once said she hears the words “I want a [publishing] deal!” more often than “we should grab coffee sometime.”

While scoring a traditional music publishing deal might seem like the pinnacle of success to a new songwriter, they’re not the only proven launching pad for a lucrative career. In recent years, self-publishing has become an increasingly viable way of retaining the rights to all your songs and collecting all kinds of royalties — domestic and international, mechanical and performance — without tying yourself down to a long-term contract. 

Here’s how things work with a publishing administrator like Songtrust.

Traditional Music Publishing Pros and Cons

A traditional publishing deal offers risks and rewards. A competent publisher will promote your songs, collect your royalties, arrange licensing agreements, and even front you an advance against future royalties in many cases.  

However, these services aren’t free. In return, you’ll generally sign away a hefty percentage of your royalties — somewhere between 25 and 50 percent. Furthermore, the publisher may retain the rights to all, or part, of the compositions that were created during your term, even after your deal is terminated.

There’s another important risk to consider: While the prospect of signing with a well-known publisher and collecting an advance before you build your career seems tempting, an advance is not free money, nor is it a salary. It’s a loan. You won’t receive any future royalties from your songs until the advance is fully recouped.

Traditional publishing deals aren’t all risks though; working with a traditional music publisher can also mean having access to a thorough network to exploit your work, build a bigger fan base, and open up new opportunities for additional revenue. Understanding the differences between deals and what you can expect from each will help you identify if and when a traditional publishing deal makes the most sense for your career.

The Administration Difference: You Make The Decisions

Instead of taking a lifetime interest in your copyright, publishing administrators charge a percentage of the total royalties they collect on your behalf - usually 15-25%. A publishing administrator will register your songs with essential entities such as Performing Rights Organizations (PROs), Mechanical Rights Organizations (MROs), and Collective Management Organizations (CMOs), as well as other pay sources around the world. They’ll also collect royalties from international, mechanical, and sync licenses that are often difficult to track. 

While a publishing administrator’s responsibilities often mirror those of a traditional publisher, you retain 100% ownership of your copyrights when you sign with one. They’ll also usually offer a term of a few years, rather than retaining lifetime rights.

As we alluded to earlier, a traditional publisher owns a percentage of all your songs — even the ones you haven’t written yet — for a set period of time. Sometimes this set period is in perpetuity. 

Additionally, whereas a traditional publisher will actively seek sync opportunities and placements on your behalf, many publishing administrators (including Songtrust) let you maintain 100% of your creative control. This means you oversee finding sync placements and get to decide where or how your song is used.

Publishing Administrators Offer More Frequent Payments and Flexible Terms

Working with a publishing administrator ensures you’re paid regularly and receive clear royalty statements. For instance, Songtrust pays songwriters on a quarterly basis. By comparison, traditional music publishers typically pay twice per year, making it that much harder to budget and plan ahead.

Signing with a traditional publishing company can mean a multi-year contract with a number of options for renewal. With each option, your publisher can evaluate how things are going and either exercise the option to renew your contract or drop you.

You may also be subject to a “minimum delivery commitment” — a certain number of commercially released songs — before you can get out of your deal. With Songtrust, you aren’t obligated to administer your entire catalog or even a minimum number of songs. You can send us a single track or 1000 — we’ll get them all registered and collecting for you.

Should I Sign a Traditional Publishing Deal? 

A traditional publishing deal may not be right for every songwriter at every stage in their career. Managing your own career with the help of a publishing administrator is a great way for songwriters to manage the business side of their careers while gaining the leverage and experience top music publishers like to see in potential clients. 

If you decide to go with a traditional publishing deal, we want to stress the importance of reading a contract line-by-line and looking into having a lawyer review all the terms with you. As with any agreement, there is always some risk involved, so ensuring you understand everything is important.

We fully support all of our clients, if and when they decide to move on to a traditional publishing deal. That’s why we offer such flexible terms. Until you're ready to sign with a traditional publishing deal, we’d love for you to learn more about Songtrust and how we can help you collect all the money you’re entitled to. Not to mention all the fundamentals of music publishing so you can make better-informed decisions about your career. 

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Thinking about signing a music publishing deal? Use this checklist first, to help you understand the complexities and questions you should be asking.

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