Historically, a music publisher was the person who published (i.e. made available to the public) copies of a songwriter's works. Now this role has been largely taken over by record companies.
Even after the sheet music industry was superseded by the record industry as the maker of multiple copies of music, the publisher still played a major part in the music industry which recognised two separate talents: that of the artist and that of the songwriter.
Up to the 1960s it was unusual for an artist to be a songwriter or a songwriter to be an artist. Since the 1960s it has become more and more the normal for an artist or band to be a combined performing/song writing creative entity, so the continuing song writing/music publishing side to the music business is now largely based on historical practice.
Music publishers, nowadays, fulfil three basic roles:
The first role is the most questionable, though music publishers will stoutly defend their creativity in getting covers for songs, in getting TV commercial uses.
Administration plays a major part, as their corporate effort is geared towards copyright documentation, royalty collection and royalty distribution.
Bankers, they certainly are since most major publishing deals will be on the basis of a royalty advance paid by the publisher to the copyright owner in exchange for the right to administer/control the copyright owner's work for a period of time and for a certain percentage.
To a great extent it is the willingness of the music industry to pay advances that has guaranteed their continued existence.
Nowadays, the main bulk of royalties is administered by the copyright societies (MCPS & PRS) in this country and by their affiliates abroad) according to music industry-agreed rates and conditions. The front-line administrators, are the societies.
Music publishers are members of these societies and receive their royalties from them. But songwriters can/should become members and there is nothing to stop a songwriter dealing directly with societies and not having a music publisher. This is becoming more common.
Established songwriters will tend to create their own music publishing catalogue identity and work through that. If they have the necessary administrative expertise (or can call on a consultancy expertise) and if they do not need advances (which are recoupable in any case) they can hold all their rights and receive their royalties without having to pay a middle-man a percentage.
What is a publishing deal?
A publishing deal is made between a copyright owner (usually a songwriter) and a music publisher. The publisher will be entitled to receive royalties on these works and will not deduct a percentage before passing over the balance to the copyright owner.
In exchange, the copyright owner will benefit from an advance payment (possibly), the promotional power (possibly) of the publisher and the administrative expertise of the publishers.
Types of publishing deals
The administration deal
The sub publishing deal
The single song assignment
The exclusive publishing agreement
An Administration deal
Popular for songwriters who have a small but potentially lucrative catalogue, or for established composers or songwriters, or for small labels. It is a deal where one party manages the day-to-day running of another party's publishing catalogues. It is usually exclusive (and thus precludes appointment of other publishers for the term of agreement).
Typical deal 10-15% to the publisher with no advance for administering the songs and grants no rights of ownership.
The sub publishing deal
This is a mixture of administration deal and an exclusive publishing agreement. The owner of the copyrights sub licences some or all of these rights to a publisher. The original owner keeps copyright so it’s a licence not an assignment of rights. It appeals to songwriters who want to keep control of the copyright or smaller publishers who don’t have an established system overseas.
Typical deal 15-20% to the publisher of gross income with an advance
The single song assignment
The rights of a song go to the publisher. This could be for the life of copyright or it could be for a shorter RToghts or Retention period.
Typical deal 20-25% of the gross income to the publisher and a small advance.
Exclusive Publishing agreement
This is considered to be the holy grail for most pop songwriters.
Subject to the same restraints for trading as any exclusive agreements. The length of the term is limited and the publisher has to do something with the work or it reverts to the original copyright owner.
Typical deal 20-30% to the publisher with an advance.
Terms of contract
Normally shorter than a record contract.
Maybe an initial period of one year and then options in the music publishers’ favour for a further two or three option period. Or it may be a rolling term – this is fixing the period up front rather than options ie 3-5 years. The fixed period can be extended until you’ve fulfilled the minimum commitment as agreed.
The single song ASSIGNMENT is a transfer of ownership.
It is usually between a composer and a publisher and transfers ownership of the copyright to the publisher. It is usually on a specific song-by song basis. An assignment will often be the consequence of an Exclusive Songwriter Agreement (ESA) where the composer gives ownership of all written work during a specific period of contract (plus, usually all works written up to the date the contract started). An ESA is a composer/publisher arrangement.
An assignment must be signed by the composer and contain an element of valuable consideration on exchange for the assignment.
A LICENSE (or sub-publishing) agreement
It is usually a publisher/publisher deal. It grants ownership to rights but limited by time (e.g. three years) and by territory (e.g Europe) and sometimes by type (e.g. not including video or broadcast rights).