When you write a song and it plays on TV or the radio, you get paid performance royalties.
If you self-publish that song, you get paid double because you receive the writer's share and the publisher's share.
So we should all self-publish, right?
Well, maybe not.
This post will walk you through the pros and cons of self-publishing music and how to get started if you decide self-publishing is the right call for you.
A Quick Reminder
Music publishing is the commercial exploitation of a composition.
It is different from the commercial exploitation of a sound recording which is traditionally handled by a record label.
Here's a post I wrote to clarify the difference between a composition and a sound recording. If you're not clear on the difference, I suggest you read it BEFORE you learn more about self-publishing music.
A music publisher's role includes:
1- Making sure songwriters gets paid when their composition is used
2- Promoting existing compositions to recording artists, film and television, i.e. finding licensing opportunities
Now why would you want to take on the role of the music publisher for your own music?
The 6 Minute Video Version
The 6 Minute Written Version
Same thing but with written words and links! 🙂
The Pros of Self-Publishing Music
Assuming you write a song yourself, without any co-writers….
If you self-publish, you own 100% of the song's rights.
It follows that you're entitled to 100% of the revenue generated by those rights.
As I alluded to in the intro, when you self-publish music, you get to keep all the money from performance royalties when your song plays on the radio or TV.
You also get to keep more money from mechanical royalties and ALL the money related to licensing commissions (when someone else performs your song) and sync fees (when someone wants to use your song in an audiovisual project).
All those revenues streams can really add up.
What about people who own 200% of a song's rights?
Sometimes people refer to owning 200% of a song's rights. (That's how BMI think of writers and publishers' shares for example)
That's because they see it as owning 100% of the writer's share and 100% of the publisher's share, i.e. 200% in total.
In effect, they are self-publishing and will keep 100% of the revenue generated by the writer's and publisher's rights.
By self-publishing your music, you stay in control of where your music goes, what projects it's associated with.
YOU decide who can use your music in their projects.
You don't have to trust a third-party music publisher to make the right call for your music career.
You keep more control over your brand basically.
You're not tied down to a deal.
Music publishing deals are usually exclusive and, when you sign, you usually sign up for a significant amount of time, let's say 5 years (it can be more, it's rarely less).
By "significant" I mean enough time that,
If nothing happens during the term of your music publishing agreement, you're in trouble.
There's nothing you can do to commercially exploit those songs.
You're stuck in no man's land.
That can be incredibly damaging to your music career, especially if you're not a very prolific songwriter.
When you're self-publishing music, you're free to commercially exploit your music catalogue how you see fit (more control) AND….
You don't have to rely on a third-party music publisher who may or may not put in the work they promised they would.
The Cons of Self-Publishing
Now, that's not to say that self-publishing is the only way to go.
Self-publishing music is definitely not all rosy and, if you decide to go down that road, you WILL face some challenges.
More Work Prospecting
One thing that serious music publishers have that you don't is an expertise and a network.
Part of a music publisher's job is to promote their writers' compositions to licensing opportunities with recording artists, film and television.
If you decide to publish your own music, you will have to find the time and energy to do all the prospecting and find customers yourself.
More Work Selling
On top of developing a strong network of potential customers, you'll have to learn how to sell and actually close those deals.
Sales is not something most musician I know are comfortable with. So you'll have to develop those skills.
More Admin Work
When it does work out, you'll have to take care of all the admin side of things.
You'll have registered your songs with a PRO prior to making them public.
You'll also have to draft license agreements for recording artists or synchronization opportunities, collect upfront payments from customers, track cue sheets and make sure the PRO pays you as well.
Pro's and Con's Summary
Time you spend on publishing admin and business is time away from the music making BUT….
When you're first starting out, the risk of signing a bad deal with a music publisher who over-promises and under-delivers is pretty high.
Because there are a lot of them, they're often very good at telling us what we want to hear and our newbie eyes can make them hard to spot.
If you sign a deal with a music publisher that doesn't deliver, it can really set your music career back for YEARS.
When you're first starting out, I recommend self-publishing music and learning the ropes at your own rhythm.
When the time comes to negotiate with a music publisher, you'll be much better equipped to identify the qualities and flaws of the deal on offer and make the right call.
For what it's worth, here are some questions I ask myself when vetting a music licensing company. You can apply many of those tips to vetting a music publisher.
How To Get Started Self-Publishing Music
You could go all-in and setup a music publishing company.
Or you could keep it simple and focus on the essentials to get started.
1- Make Sure You Haven't Signed With A Publisher By Mistake
Yes, it can happen.
If you use a music distributor like CD Baby or TuneCore for example, it's very easy to opt-in to their exclusive publishing deal without really realizing what it entails.
Here's a great video from TAXI Independent A&R explaining how it can happen and what it means for your music.
If you're in that situation where you already have a music publisher but they haven't really found a lot of work for you licensing your music, you've got a couple of options:
1- Get in touch with your music publisher to get out of the deal at the earliest possible date; and/or
2- Write new songs, self-publish those and see if you can do better on your own.
2- Register as a Publisher with a Performance Rights Organization
If you're already with BMI, good news. You're all set. You don't have anything to do. Yey!
Let me explain.
When a BMI song is played on the radio or TV and there are no publishers attached to that song, BMI pays 100% of the performance royalties to the writers.
If you're with a PRO other than BMI, you will usually have to set up a publisher's account with your PRO and update your song registrations to include your publisher's share.
That's the case if you're a writer with ASCAP and want to self-publish for example.
Some PROs make it easier than others.
Your best course of action is to reach out to your PRO and enquire what you need to do to collect the publisher's share of your performance royalties.
3- Start Looking for Licensing Opportunities
Decide what your priority is: recording artists or synchronization?
Start networking. Make it a habit to hang out with potential customers (instead of your competition).