MUSIC INDUSTRY NOTES: A brief overview of Music Publishing (Part 1)

What exactly is music publishing? How do songwriters account for their songs? Who pays out royalties? This is part 1 of an overview of music publishing.

Published October 14th, 2020 | Kristina Didero

When a new song is released, it is usually accounted for by the artist or record company who recorded it. However, we often forget that without songwriters many of the songs that these artists produce would never come to fruition.

Songwriting is an independent talent that generates an intellectual property that must be protected, managed, and properly rewarded. The section of the music industry that handles the promotion, administration, and legal aspects of songwriting is known as music publishing. This article is the first of three that will provide an overview of how music publishing works.

Whether an individual is a lyricist and/or composer, they are considered a songwriter, someone who creates the composition of a song. The same way artists such as Mariah Carey or Queen have a talent agent, a songwriter has representation for their composition known as a publisher. If they do not have a publisher, they are identified as self-published because they will be the point person of administering licenses when someone wants to use their work.

Before a songwriter allows anyone benefit of their musical works, ideally, they should register them with the U.S. Copyright Office. Obtaining a copyright means that they are the legal owner of their intellectual property. At that point, they are protected should anyone infringe upon their copyright or steal any portion of their works.

It’s also important that a songwriter and publisher establish themselves with a performing rights organization, or PRO. PROs were formed as a way to manage the use of music in a public forum and ensure that artists and songwriters are paid when someone else benefits from playing their music. Examples of these public spaces are restaurants, clubs, and concert venues. There are three major PROs in the United States: Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI), American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP), and Society of European Stage Authors and Composers (SESAC). They each represent a unique repertoire of artists, songwriters, and publishers. Both a songwriter and associated publisher must individually register with the same PRO of their choosing because the PRO will pay each person directly. As members, a songwriter and publisher may only belong to one PRO at a time.

ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC

The publisher will register a song with the PRO, at which point, it becomes a part of that specific PRO’s catalog. When someone applies for a license to use music publicly, they are applying to be granted permission to play the songs from the catalog that the PRO has compiled. For example, if a song is registered with BMI, only people who have paid for a license with BMI can use that song. In the end, the license fees that are collected are returned to songwriters and publishers in royalties.

In the next article, we’ll go over the types of licenses involved in publishing

Normandie Records Industry Notes are intended to be an introductory resource for artists or young professionals who wish to learn more about the music industry.

Kristina Didero is based out of Los Angeles. She is a graduate of the University of California Santa Barbara. She loves to dance and read self-enrichment books. She’s happy to sit with you till the wee hours of the morning discussing and analyzing life. kristinadidero@yahoo.com