11 Critical Questions to Ask Before Signing a Publishing Deal

Thinking of inking a publishing deal?  

The following important considerations come from Carina Westling of Imagem Production Music, one of the world’s largest production music companies.

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Critical Question #1: Is Your Career Even Ready for a Music Publisher?

First of all, do you need a music publisher at this point in time and if so, what do you need them for?  If you have had some commercial success already, your priorities are likely to be different to those of someone just starting out.  By analyzing your situation you can work out your priorities at this point in time, which will be an important guide when looking for a publisher.

Critical Question #2: What Would You Need a Publisher to Do, Exactly?

If you are not the sort of musician who is likely to sell a lot of your music, it is important that you find a publisher who is experienced in getting music synched. On the other hand, a rock band would probably benefit from working with a publisher who can help pay for the recording of demos and have a strong track record of securing record deals – A&R teams who have a reputation for being interested in fresh talent often have this profile.

Your priorities matter hugely when you consider who you might contact within the companies you are interested in. If you are a songwriter or a band, identify the person within the A&R team that looks like the best person to contact first, but if you are primarily making production music you need to contact the person who is responsible for that.

Critical Question #3: What Sized Publisher Will You Need?

Your priorities should also guide your choices when you consider what size publishing company you want to work with. Large multinationals often find it easier to get synchs and have more power to enforce copyright, but you will be one of perhaps hundreds of thousands other artists that they also represent.

With a smaller publisher, you may get more attention and more responsiveness. In the case of choosing a smaller publisher, you should look into how they monitor usage and collect royalties internationally.

Critical Question #4: Is Your Target Publisher Tuned Into Your Genre?

Naturally, it is really important that the publishers you shortlist work successfully with your genre. It is not difficult to find out which other artists they work with, so do your research.

Critical Question #5: Is This a Good Publisher to Work With?

If you can get background information about how it is to work with the publisher from any of the artists, so much the better.

Critical Question #6: Will You Be Properly Supported by This Publisher?

Once starting a dialogue with a publisher you should look after your anchoring within the company, and not rely on having one champion alone. You have better insurance against changes within the company (such as people moving on to another job) if you have more than one person who is enthusiastic about your work. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security and relinquish control of your career, even if you feel, and are, being looked after – staying involved pays off.

Critical Question #7: What Is the Best Way to Connect With a Good Publisher?

Try to first establish contact on the phone with the person you have decided to send your material to. They may be receiving a lot of proposals, and it can be hard to get noticed. By contacting the company, and the correct person, by phone first – even if this requires a bit of perseverance – you can introduce yourself and your work, and ensure that the material you send in gets the attention it deserves.

By doing this, you can also get absolutely current confirmation that the person you have settled on is still the right contact. Don’t forget to also ask what format they prefer, so you can prepare your material to meet and perhaps exceed their expectations. And no, an email usually does not work anywhere near as well as a phone call when you first contact a publisher.

The nitty gritty

Critical Question #8: How Should an Advance be Structured?

Before you go into negotiations, it is good to know what you want from a publishing deal, and to understand how you are likely to be earning your publishing income. You may want to consider taking a smaller advance in return for a better deal, as an advance is a speculative ‘withdrawal’ from future royalties.  The larger the advance, the longer it takes to start getting royalty cheques.

Critical Question #9: What Knowledge Level Do I Need Prior to Signing a Deal?

Needless to say, you should seek legal advice from an entertainment lawyer before signing a contract.  Although a good publisher will help a songwriter navigate the contractual landscape of publishing rights and revenue from airplay and use in productions of various kinds, you need to know a few things about the business.

It is good to be familiar with different types of rights that are critical to the monetization of your work, e.g. performance rights (the rights to perform your song), mechanical rights (for reproduction by electronic or ‘mechanical’ devises) and synch rights (e.g. for advertising). Without this awareness, it is easy to get embroiled in complicated situations further down the line. You also need to be very clear about how publishing income is to be split, if you are working together with other people (songwriting partners, band members, or other contributors).

By incorporating this information in the copyright registration and ensuring it is included in the contract with your publisher, you can save yourself costly and painful future legal battles. It is bit like a prenuptial agreement – no one likes thinking about it while romance is fresh, but a few years down the line it may actually help prevent conflict.

Critical Question #10: What Are My Alternatives?

Is worth bearing in mind that there are alternatives to a traditional publishing deal, like self-publishingadministration deals, or non-exclusive deals. The more you do yourself (e.g. if you are self-publishing), the more you need to know about the business.  The advantage is that you may not need to split the royalties with anyone, but you need to be very involved in all the aspects of your career that a publisher would otherwise cover, and going down this route without legal advice is unwise. In the next section we outline a little more about the basic types of deal you may be offered, along with their benefits and disadvantages:

The Administration Deal

These deals work well for busy songwriters, giving the publisher the right to licence or ‘administer’ any or all of young songs for recordings, film and TV, commercials and so forth. They’ll run the show on your behalf, basically, also collecting the royalties for you. It’s less lucrative than self-publishing by registering with the collecting societies, but far easier if you’re a busy working musician without the resources to do it all yourself. In return for its work, the music publisher takes generally 10-15% of gross income, paying you at an agreed period after usage.

Sub Publishing Deals

For many songwriters, assigning full copyright is something they simply don’t want to do. In that case, a sub publishing deal makes for a good middle ground between an administrative deal and a fully exclusive deal. Signing one of these means the publisher will actively look for ways to earn you income via your music, with deals being made on a case by case basis. Unlike administrative deals, some advances – albeit small – can come out of this type of deal, which is a real plus.

Simple Song Assignment Deals

These simple deals involve assigning the rights to an individual song to a music publisher, who can then sell it for you in as many ways as they are able. As the musician, you can decide how much time you want to sign over the copyright for, whether it be for life or a specific rights period.  Again, small advances are not impossible, but payment genuinely comes at agreed intervals. This is useful simple publishing deal to get your songs out there earning for you.

Exclusive Publishing Deals

These are the kind of deals generally signed when an artist gets ‘snapped up’ by a major label. The artist assigns the rights to all compositions between a specific period of time to the publisher, receiving a guaranteed percentage share of the earned income as well as a monthly payment of some kind. These payments, the lifeblood of an artist in the creative process, are treated as an advance and are offset against future earnings from royalties. Increasingly rare these days, the exclusive deal is the most sought after dream for the up and coming musician, offering a modicum of financial stability in a genuinely unstable industry.

Critical Question #11 : Should I Really Self-Publish?

The internet age has changed the way music is both listened to and distributed. The hold of the major labels is waning, with tiny independents popping up like mushrooms, and many websites offering new opportunities for musicians to put their own work out there, bypassing labels and publishing houses altogether.

Create Space, a site owned by the Amazon group, is one way to do this, allowing just about anyone to tap into the enormous market share of Amazon for selling their CDs and Mp3s. Sign up here and set your list price, then choose from a selection of royalty plans for any digital downloads. Inventory and set-up fees are taken from cost of sales, making this virtually instant and a genuinely groundbreaking way to get your music out there. By uploading your music digitally, you can even have Amazon print and manufacture CDs for you, with well-produced cover art and full bleed covers. The promotion side will have to come from you, but this type of self-publishing makes distribution simple.

Kickstarter, the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects is another way you might want to go.  After appearing on reality TV, Jordis Unga, decided that to capitalize on the following she’d built up by going for album funding on Kickstarter. She asked for $33,000, but in less than a day her project raised $50,000. Quite an impressive way to get your first album made (and collect almost every last penny)!

8 Responses

  1. ja

    useless article, assumes

    A: everyone has access to a good publisher (not even close to being true)
    B: everyone is stupid

    slow news lately?

  2. Anonymous

    Wow, how can you write an article like this and not mention the only relevant platform at all?

    Who cares about Amazon? 🙂 Everything is about iTunes.

    The only question for artists today is whether they should chose CDBaby or TuneCore. And here’s the answer: Go with CDBaby if you just want some fun. Chose TuneCore if you’re selling records.

  3. Toughlittlewoman

    Or choose JTV Digital if you wanna spend less than you would at Tunecore or CD Baby and sell records!

  4. A Publisher

    Have to agree with earlier comments that this article isn’t appropriate to this site – it’s not news, it’s geared towards a newbie demographic which most likely doesn’t read this site and more importantly it’s not entire accurate. Main issues are in questions 10 and 11. A subpublishing deal is not a middle ground between an admin deal and a full on publishing deal. A subpub deal pertains to collection and potential generation of new income in countries that are outside the U.S. – in some ways it’s an ex-U.S. admin deal. But the article seems to imply it could be a domestic option for someone when it’s not. And if you’re going to address % in the admin option, they should be addressed in all the options. And lastly on question 10, a non-exclusive option is mentioned in the opening para. but never addressed again – all options listed are typically exclusive. Lastly for question 11, the two services listed pertain to distribution and fundraising respectively. They aren’t relevant to self-publishing (which in the context of the article means you handle all licensing and royalty collection yourself instead of going outside for help). If you’re going to cover publishing basics, let’s get them right!

  5. The dude

    Question 13 – Is the company I’m going to sign with about to be sold to BMG/Chrysalis?

  6. JayP

    Maybe the author mixed up sub-publishing with co-publishing? A co-pub deal is when a writer sells some of the rights of their ‘publishing share’ of their copyrights to a music publisher. A simple even split example, based on the 100% model, would be: Writer keeps 50% of the copyright (ALL of the writer share). The other 50% of the copyright (publisher share) is split between the writer’s publishing entity and the music publisher. The music publisher keeps 25% of the total copyright and therefore, yes, has more interest in pitching/monetizing this song over a 10-15% admin deal.