by Jason Blume
There are widespread misconceptions about what it means to have a song published. Among them are the notions that publishing a song will make the composer rich; that it involves the printing of sheet music; and that it is synonymous with the song being recorded and/or played on the radio. While it is possible that these events might occur as a result of a song being published, it is not typically the case.
Any income a song derives can be conceptualized as being divided into two approximately equal components: the writer's share and the publisher's share. Music publishing can best be defined as the act of assigning particular legal rights, and a percentage of any income a song or musical composition might generate, to an individual or a company, for a specified period of time.
By signing a contract granting a company or individual the right to publish a song, a writer is typically giving away half of any money the song might earn, as well as many of his or her rights. Why would a songwriter willingly do such a thing? The simple answer is that fifty percent of what might amount to a substantial amount of money (and the credibility and opportunities that come along with success) is better than one hundred percent of nothing.
The expectation is that a publisher will use his or her expertise and connections to cause the songs he or she represents to generate income. This is often referred to as exploiting the copyright. While the term "exploitation" tends to have a negative connotation, in this context, it's quite desirable. Exploiting the copyright means developing and utilizing a song to its fullest potential; in other words, getting the composition recorded and released by an artist (or on your own album, if you are a recording artist as well as a songwriter), generating print fees (for sales of, or Internet access to, sheet music, as well as licensing for inclusion in books and magazines) or having it licensed for inclusion in a film, television show, commercial, or other medium that will produce income. Unless this occurs (and it does not for the majority of published songs), the song, its writer, and publisher earn nothing. So, while for many aspiring songwriters publishing a song seems synonymous with success, it is in actuality only the first step in the journey.
One of the primary creative aspects of a publisher's job is the acquisition of songs for their catalog (the total collection of songs published by any given publisher). Songs are acquired either one at a time or by signing songwriters to exclusive songwriting agreements, typically referred to as staff-writing deals.
"Having the right connections is crucial in the music business, and a substantial part of a successful publisher's job is the development and nurturing of close business relationships with music producers, recording artists, artists' managers, and others."
In many instances, publishers advance their writers' careers by setting up collaborations, both with other songwriters, and with recording artists who co-write their songs. Collaborations, especially those with successful artists, often result in garnering more recordings than those generated as a result of a publisher pitching songs to record label executives and music producers.
In addition to acquiring and pitching songs, publishers sometimes sign aspiring recording artists who are songwriters as well. In these instances, publishers contribute to the development of the artist's songs, musical identity, and image; set up collaborations; finance and produce demos; and use their contacts and connections to try and secure a recording contract. They might also help the artist select a production and management team.
In the event that a publisher secures a recording contract for its writer/artist, the publishing company will likely reap the benefit of publishing many, if not all, of the songs included on the artist's album. Macy Gray, Melissa Etheridge, and Country stars Buddy Jewell and Gretchen Wilson are among the many writer/artists who were signed and developed by publishers as they pursued recording contracts.
Another important responsibility is the pitching of songs from the publisher's catalog to recording artists and their managers, and producers, as well as to record label executives, and to those in charge of selecting songs for inclusion in television shows, films, and commercials. In this aspect, publishers act essentially as a songwriter's agent. They decide which songs from their company's catalog they believe are the most appropriate for a given project.
Having the right connections is crucial in the music business, and a substantial part of a successful publisher's job is the development and nurturing of close business relationships with music producers, recording artists, artists' managers, and others. Established publishers are likely to have direct access to one or more of the decision-makers at every major record label, as well as to the majority of producers.
In order to pitch their catalogs successfully, publishers need to be aware of which artists are seeking material at any given time. Therefore, at each music publishing company, one or more publishers typically compile this information by contacting record label executives, artists' managers, and producers at least once each month. They may also glean information from publications such as RowFax, SongQuarters, SongLink International, and New on the Charts, which are available for purchase. This information is assembled into a pitch sheet that is shared with their staff and writers. The pitch sheet, sometimes referred to as a tip sheet or casting list, provides essential information including which artists and film projects are currently seeking songs; the kinds of songs they are looking for; the name of the producer; the A&R person primarily responsible for the project; and the date the artist is scheduled to record. Large publishing houses typically hire one or more individuals who focus their song pitching efforts primarily toward film and television projects.