What Is Music Publishing And How Does It Work?

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Ditto music offer an insight into the world of music publishing, laying out what artists absolutely need to know.

Music publishing can often seem like a whole other world. An alternate universe beyond the 4 pillars that makes you really question what you actually know about the music industry.

Understanding the ins and outs of music publishing can take artists and industry experts years to truly comprehend, so for today, we’re going to cover the very basic things you really need to understand about music publishing and how it works for artists.

What is a music publisher?

Strap in tight. We’re about to break it down.

The crux of music publishing centres around songwriters and music copyright, and more specifically - the cases in which songwriters and/or music copyright owners are owed money in the form of publishing royalties when their music is used in a variety of different ways.

The job of a music publishing company then, is to;

  1. Administer copyright i.e. protect a song from being misused without the copyright owner’s authorization, and;

  2. Oversee the collection of royalties on behalf of the songwriter or artist (which is the one we’re really interested in for today).

More than that, music publishers might also utilise their industry connections and knowledge to pitch songs for sync licensing deals, which basically translates to song placements in AV media - such as movies, television shows, advertisements and video games.

Ditto Music Publishing are leading experts in pitching music for big music licensing deals to gain new artists the exposure they need. More than that, Ditto works closely with global royalty societies to ensure artists claim ALL the royalties they are owed for their music.

But now we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

If you really want to understand how music publishing works, you need to have a general grasp of the music copyright(s) involved.

How does music copyright work?

The first thing you need to be aware of when it comes to music copyright, is that despite the labelling, it’s not just as simple as one, singular copyright.

In fact, there’s actually 2 different kinds of copyrights that make up one single song.

The first is known as the ‘compositional copyright’, which basically refers to the rights to underlying music, melody and lyrics.

The second is known as the ‘master copyright’, which refers to the sound recording of the song.

Each copyright has its own rights and properties that dictate who gets paid for what and when. But the one we’re interested in for the purpose of understanding how music publishing works, is the first one - the compositional copyright.

Music publishing royalties

From the compositional copyright, songwriters and copyright owners are entitled to earn money from 3 different kinds of royalties. Which are as follows:

1. Mechanical royalties

Every time an original composition is copied, whether that be in physical (CDs, vinyl, cassettes) or digital formats (streaming and downloads), the artist or copyright owner is entitled to this type of royalty.

This also applies to any cover versions made by an artist(s) who doesn't hold the copyright to the original composition.

2. Performance royalties

When a song is performed live, songwriters are also entitled to receive royalty payments. Performance royalties are garnered anytime a song is played live at a public venue (such as a bar, restaurant or stadium), publicly broadcast (i.e. on the radio or on a public loudspeaker), or digitally streamed via a music platform or online store.

The royalty rate for performance royalties varies, based on things like the size of a venue and/or the size of a radio station.

3. Sync royalties

An artist can earn sync royalties anytime their music is licensed for use in films, television, video games or even advertisements. Every time the song is broadcast, aired or streamed within a sync placement, the artist or copyright owner by default racks up money in the form of sync royalties.

Because of the nature of how music sync deals are set up, this means that songwriters who land a sync deal will also receive an upfront fee on top of the sync royalties.

How are music publishing royalties collected & paid?

Now you know how music publishing royalties are generated, next we need to understand the process by which they actually make their way to artists in the form of money.

First of all, it should be noted that it is the role of the music publisher to oversee and ensure that all the royalties an artist is owed are properly accounted for and credited back to them without them really lifting a finger (or knowing how to).

But in saying that, it’s still good to have a bit of background knowledge as to how the royalty payment process works, in case an artist ever wants to query or keep track of their royalty payments.

What is a music collection society?

A music collection society is an organisation that collects performance royalties (as discussed above) on behalf of artists and songwriters from venues, radio stations and licence holders.

These collection societies are more officially known as ‘Performing Rights Organisations’ or PROs.

There are multiple music collection societies all over the world that cover specific geographic areas and regions. For example, in the UK the most popular society is the PRS for Music, whilst in the US, popular PROs include ASCAP, BMI or SESAC.

In order to actually obtain the royalties they’re owed anytime their music is played or performed publicly, artists need to sign up with the correct PRO in their area, (or have their music publisher do so on their behalf).

Mechanical royalties however, i.e. royalties generated from online streaming, are not collected by PROs. Instead, these royalties are collected by a different kind of designated collection society, known as ‘Mechanical Rights Organisations.’

As with PROs, each country usually has its own mechanical rights society which covers the royalty collection for that specific country or community.

In order to claim these royalties, an artist must sign up with the corresponding mechanical rights society to get all the money they are owed for streams and digital downloads of their music.

However - this is a tricky process and usually requires the help of a publishing expert to make sure artists aren’t missing out on any of the royalties owed to them, which is why many artists do opt to work with a music publishing company.

So what about sync?

Sync royalty payments are handled a little differently.

As sync placements are most often secured by working with a music publisher who pitches an artist’s music for a licensing deal, sync royalties are administered and transferred to the artist or songwriter directly via the music publisher - no middle man or collection society involved.

Sync deals are proving one of the most lucrative, fast-growing music revenue streams for independent artists in the modern industry, due to the potential for recurring royalty payments every time the sync placement is broadcast, aired or streamed.

And that’s music publishing in a nutshell - and when I say nutshell, I really do mean nutshell.

Like we said at the beginning, you could do a really deep dive into the world of publishing and copyright if that’s something that sparks your interest.

But for artists who plainly and simply want to understand how music publishing royalties work and make sure they’re cashing in on ALL the money they’re owed for their music, we hope this article has provided you with the knowledge you needed to know to go and claim more money for your music.


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