Written by: Cliff Goldmacher
If you’re a songwriter in the early stages of your career, the idea of being hired as a staff songwriter for a publishing company is akin to winning the lottery. It’s the Holy Grail you dream of finding. It means industry recognition and validation of your talent, and it carries the promise of cuts, movie placements, and other exciting possibilities.
However exciting a deal may be, it’s important to keep in mind that entering into a relationship with a publisher is serious business. As with any business relationship, it’s essential that you, as the songwriter, understand what you’re giving up as well as what you stand to gain by signing over any of your copyrights to a music publisher.
What is a Publishing Deal?
In general terms, a typical publishing deal involves the assignment of some part of the ownership of your songs to a publishing company in exchange for a monthly payment, known as a draw. The publisher might also use their industry relationships to provide co-writing opportunities, or they might use members of the publishing company’s staff to pitch the music to their industry contacts.
(I’m aware that there are many variations on this arrangement, such as no draw in exchange for giving up less ownership of your copyrights to the publisher. But, for the sake of this article, I’m going to paint in broad strokes.)
As with any arrangement, there are potential benefits and potential drawbacks, which I’ll address here.
Advantages of a publishing deal include:
- A Draw – Committing to a full-time career in music is hard, especially if you don’t have money coming in to pay the bills. If you’re just getting started and don’t have money coming in, the monthly draw provided by a publisher can ease that burden. Some draws are large enough to allow you to write full time; most are more modest, which results in you splitting your time and income between songwriting and a part-time job.
- Demo Budget – Making high quality recordings of your songs is not cheap; having a publisher foot the bill for these recordings can help out quite a bit.
- Song Pluggers – These are employees of the publishing company whose only job is to find opportunities for your songs. Having a team of staffers dedicated to this task means you can focus on writing music.
- Clout and Connections – The credibility that comes from signing with established music publisher is a powerful thing. It can open doors to meetings, co-writes, and powerful industry connections. Moreover, the publishing companies rely on their relationships with record labels, producers, artists, and a variety of other music business decision-makers. Those relationships take time to build, and they can be key to landing placements. For a new songwriter who hasn’t had the opportunity to network much on his own, this can make a big difference.
- Validation – The validation that comes from a publishing deal is what most beginning songwriters long for. If you’re in the early stages of your career, you’re most likely writing songs behind the scenes and working in obscurity. You might not have received praise and recognition from anyone in the industry. In addition to being nice to hear, I’ve found that validation leads to an improved work ethic and, occasionally, inspiration.
This is where I’d recommend paying close attention. I know the idea of being able to write songs and have your publisher take care of all the details is an appealing thought, but the reality is a bit more complicated. This is a business, and it helps to remember that a publisher is giving you something in order to get something.
- Your draw & demo budget are essentially loans. The money that makes up your draw and your demo budget is money that the publisher will recoup from your share of the rights as soon as your songs start generating income. Additionally, even after you’ve paid back the money they invested in you, the publisher will continue to own the rights to your song (whatever percent you signed over) and make income from it. It’s also worth noting that the publisher usually owns the recording they paid for you to make; this means that there is no master fee payment for you, the songwriter, if that recording ends up placed in a film or on TV.
- Your songs still have competition. Even though the idea of a song plugger working to get your songs heard is comforting, the reality is that, in most publishing companies, there are many more signed writers than there are pluggers. In other words, while your songs are your top priority, they may be among the hundreds (or thousands, if you count the back catalogs of most publishing companies) that the overworked song pluggers have to consider for every pitch opportunity.
- Validation is NOT enough. As a songwriter, I understand how good it feels when someone in the industry tells you they love your songs. In and of itself, this is not enough of a reason to give away your publishing. As a writer, you should be working constantly on your craft, using resources like song critiques, songwriting organizations, and your peers for feedback; if you’re doing this, you’ll know when your songs are good, and you won’t need a publisher to tell you so.
My intention is to empower, not discourage, you by showing that a publishing deal isn’t the only (or best) answer to your songwriting prayers. Ultimately, the most sustainable career as a songwriter is built by learning to do things for yourself.
Here are some steps to get you there:
- Be your own publisher. You don’t need an established publisher to publish your songs. It’s a relatively simple proposition to start your own publishing company through one of the performing rights organizations (ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC). A simple phone call to one of these three organizations can get you started.
- Put yourself on a regular writing schedule. If you want to be a professional songwriter, act like one. Set aside regular times to write, and treat it like a job. Folks in the working world don’t skip work because they “don’t feel like it”; neither should you.
- Demo your songs. Develop a relationship with a professional recording studio. When you’re absolutely certain you’ve got a song that’s ready for prime time, spend the money to make a broadcast-quality version suitable for a variety of uses, from pitching to artists to placement in film and TV. And speaking of pitching…
- Pitch your songs. Actively look for opportunities for your songs. It’s one thing to write a good song and have a great demo, but if no one hears it, it can’t possibly generate any income for you. This isn’t the glamorous, romantic part of the business, but I promise you, the overwhelming majority of successful songwriters—even those with publishing deals and song pluggers—spend a lot of time pitching their own material. You need to do everything in your power to get your songs heard.Also, as I mentioned above, no one will make your songs a priority more than you will.
- Network. Another less-than-pleasant reality for the gifted, introverted songwriter is that there is no substitute for the relationships you make in the industry. Get out there and meet people. This doesn’t mean you have to be fake or stay up until 3 a.m. drinking every night (unless you like that kind of thing). It does mean that you have to find opportunities to interact with the decision-makers in the music industry. I recommend attending music conferences, songwriter festivals, and some of the events sponsored by organizations like the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) or the Songwriter’s Guild of America (SGA).
- Sign an admin deal. If you’re starting to get some cuts and placements for your songs and the subtleties of copyright law, royalty statements, and licensing feel like too much to keep track of or negotiate, you might consider signing with a publisher to administer your copyrights. In other words, instead of giving away ownership of 50%-100% of your copyright, give a copyright administrator 15%-25% to “mind the store” while you’re taking care of the other stuff. If you’re making money from your songs, you’ll have no trouble at all finding an experienced publisher to administer your copyrights.
Again, for the sake of simplicity, I’ve kept this article and the terms of a publishing deal very general. In reality, deals range from basic copyright administration all the way to full ownership of your publishing, and there are reasons for and against all of these arrangements. Music publishers provide a valuable service in our industry, but signing a publishing deal isn’t always your best option. If you’re considering a deal, be absolutely certain you understand what you stand to gain (beyond the simple validation of your talent) and what you’re giving up to get it.
In the world of professional songwriting, there is no one way to achieve success. Regardless of the path you take, the more you understand and can do on your own, the better off you’ll be.