Kenny Rogers Was Talking About Music Publishing

Kenny Rogers was talking about Music Publishing.

Ok, not really, but guess what. The lyrics apply to Music Publishing!

“You’ve got to know when to hold'em

Know when to fold ‘em

Know when to walk away

Know when to run”

The term “Music Publishing” has got to be the least understood term by most artists I meet who are pursuing a career in the music industry. I think the confusion comes from the word Publishing and how it is generally defined in non-music fields. So, first of all, we must change the way we think of the word “Publishing”. In music, “publishing” does not mean the same thing as it does in books, literature, papers and pamphlets. When you hear the word “publish” you associate that with “releasing” or “sharing” or “making available for sale” just like you would use the word for publishing a book. Please realize before you realize anything else that “Music Publishing” does not mean the same thing as “Making your music Public”. Not the same thing. Got it?

There is a commonly used word that does mean “making your music public” and that word is Distribution. Publishing is not the same thing as Distribution.

Distribution Companies are the middleman-guys that digitally distribute your music to all of the online platforms: iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, Deezer, etc. This guy Ari Herstand maintains the best, up to date comparison of all of the Distribution Companies so that you can make the best, most informed decision about what company to use to distribute.

These Distribution Companies are NOT the same thing as Publishing Companies, though they do offer Publishing Options or more properly termed, Admin Publishing Deals. More on that later.

So, what is Music Publishing then? I’m so confused!!!

When you write a song (let’s say it’s just you and only you that has written the song) you immediately own the whole song. Seems obvious. But the song is automatically split into two halves; The Songwriter Half and the Publishing Half. Think of it as a pie:

You are automatically the owner of both halves.

Both halves are valuable in the world of royalties owed and paid.

Both halves are yours to keep and yours to give up.

Let’s say you decide to invest some money into this song of yours because it is awesome. You hire a producer, and together, you work on perfecting the mix until it is absolutely perfect. In this example, you hired the producer as a “work for hire” without sharing any portion of your song-pie so you still own the whole pie completely.

Now, let’s say a music library is interested in including your song in their catalog for sync placements (film/TV licenses). They will undoubtedly ask for the publishing half of your pie.

Now comes the Kenny Rogers “Gambling” analogy.

Is it worth giving up half of your pie (which also means half of the potential money the song will make in certain royalties)? For most indie artists getting started, the answer is YES. Because getting half of something is better than all of nothing, right? Let’s say your song has become crazy popular on spotify because your song is so Bad-A and now EVERYONE wants it. Every music library, every publishing company, every Ad Agency wants to snag it for their client’s national ad campaign, etc. Now that it’s a hit song, you may have the bargaining power to hang on to some of that publishing. You could say, yeah, sure you can use it in your hit TV series but you can only have 25% of the publishing. See how this works?

A Publishing Company and a Music Library generally only offer publishing agreements to songs that they believe they can pitch with success. Think of it like a grocery store. There is only so much room on their shelves so they only want to fill their shelves with product they know they can move. Publishing companies want to make money, therefore, they will only offer you a publishing deal if they are pretty confident they can find good placements for your song.

Let’s get back to those Distribution Companies. There are many of these companies are now “offering” to collect all of your royalties for a portion of your publishing share. Now, here’s the thing with your publishing half. Just like a real life pie, if you give even just half of that publishing share of your pie away to your neighbor, it’s gone (at least until the end of the agreement which could be 1 year, 2 years or more). You can’t give it to your other neighbor, or to yourself. There are publishing companies that will sign a non-exclusive publishing agreement with you which means you magically can assign that publishing half to another publishing company and/or library. Yay for non-exclusive publishing deals!

You must understand that what you are giving them is valuable. Just like the bargaining chip at the gambling table; it’s yours to hold or to give away. What you have to consider is what you may get in return. These distribution companies are adding hundreds of thousands of songs into their publishing catalog where a music library might max out at 5,000 (adding and shedding music all the time) and a publisher might only have 100 songs. What makes you think these distribution companies are “working” your song at the same level? I guarantee, they are not. But, in most cases, you have given them the exclusive right to your song, keeping you from other opportunities that may be around the corner for sync deals.

When you read Ari’s blog about the comparison, he sees the Digital Distribution Companies admin publishing deals as a plus, where I don’t. What irks me is that they are definitely taking advantage of the millions of artists with a dream but no knowledge of what they are signing away when they sign up for those publishing deals. I think it’s sneaky and unethical. You can collect all of your songwriting and publishing royalties yourself, if you just know how (future blog post with all of the up to date info on that!) without giving half of your income away.

PS - I am NOT A MUSIC ATTORNEY so please take all of this as one person’s opinion and understanding of the workings of the music industry, not as legal advice! Thanks!