When Do You Need a Traditional Publishing Deal?

A Nashville music publisher once said that she hears the words: “I want a publishing deal!” more often than “Let’s grab some coffee!”. While scoring a traditional music publishing deal might seem like the pinnacle of success to a new songwriter, they’re not the only path to forging a lucrative career as a music creator.

In fact, as publishing deals become harder and harder to score, many songwriters are asking whether they need one at all. Self-publishing is an increasingly viable way to manage the publishing side of songwriting. What’s more, their favorite clients bring them industry knowledge and experience along with great songs.

So, do you really need a publishing deal, or is an administrative partner, like Songtrust, sufficient to help you manage the nuts and bolts? The good news is that you don’t have to decide right away. New songwriters aiming for a music career can get their feet wet by working with a publishing administrator before seeking a traditional publishing deal. With a publishing administrator, it’s possible to manage your own career, keep all the rights to your songs, and collect your royalties from all sources—domestic and international, mechanical and performance—without giving away your copyright or tying yourself down to a long term contract early in your career. Here’s how it works.

Traditional Music Publishing Pros and Cons

A traditional publishing deal offers risks as well as rewards. A competent publisher will promote your songs, collect your royalties, arrange licensing agreements, and in most cases, even front you an advance against future royalties. However, those services aren’t free: In return, you’ll generally sign away a hefty percentage of your royalties, usually somewhere between 25 and 50 percent. Furthermore, the publisher could potentially retain this ownership share for the life of your copyright, even after your deal with them has terminated.

There’s another important risk to consider: While the idea of signing with a well-known publisher and collecting an advance to help with the rent or new equipment while 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 royalties from your song until the advance is fully recouped.

Traditional publishing deals aren’t all risks though -- working with a traditional music publisher can also mean that you then have 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 -- depending on the administrator, usually about 15 percent. A publishing administrator will register your songs with essential entities such as Performing Rights Organizations (PROs), Mechanical Rights Organizations (MROs), Collective Management Organizations (CMOs), as well as other pay sources around the world. They’ll also collect the generally difficult-to-track royalties from international, mechanical, and sync licenses.

Although the administrative responsibilities can mirror those of a traditional publisher, when you sign with a publishing administrator, you retain 100% ownership of your copyrights. Also, you can choose to register all your songs, a few of your songs, or just a single song. By comparison, when you sign with a traditional publisher, they own a percentage of all your songs—even the ones you haven’t written yet!—for a set period of time, and potentially in perpetuity. 

Additionally, whereas a traditional publisher will actively seek sync opportunities and placements on your behalf, with a publishing administrator, you maintain 100% of your creative control. This means you take ownership of finding sync placements and you 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 includes easy-to-understand royalty statements. Songtrust, for example, pays songwriters quarterly, or four times per year. By comparison, traditional music publishers typically only pay twice a year, making it that much harder to budget and plan.

Signing with a traditional publishing company can entail 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 what’s called a “minimum delivery commitment,” meaning that you must deliver a certain number of commercially released songs before you can get out of your deal. With a publishing administrator, you agree only to a set time limit with no strings attached as to renewal.

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 do decide to go with a traditional publishing deal, we want to stress the importance of reading the contract fully and looking into the option of having a lawyer review the agreement to ensure you fully understand all the terms. As with any agreement, there is always some risk involved, so making sure you understand everything is important.

We fully support any 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, as well as the fundamentals of music publishing so you can make better informed decisions about your career. 

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