This story is over 5 years old.

The THUMP Guide to Music Publishing

Go from getting played to getting paid.

So you've made a piece of music. A jam, if you will, or better yet—a few jams. Rad! These days, anyone with the drive and a hard drive can acquire the tools to produce, mix, and even master songs. If you're an independent artist, it's important that you know how to handle your business. THUMP's Guide to Music Publishing is a brief intro to a small but important facet of the journey from aspiring producer to superstar.


Just as music production has become more accessible, the music business has become somewhat more complicated. In many ways, the laws that govern recorded music have struggled to keep up with the ways that music is distributed—especially online. Therefore, these guidelines aren't always cut and dry. The music business is a business and it's chief aim is to ensure all parties—songwriter, producer, label, DJ, manager, agent, publisher, etc—profit from every aspect of a song. From digital sales, streaming, live performances, music video, radio airplay, even straggling physical sales all leading up to Pitbull hitting you up for a sample, every component of your music can make you money… if you play it right.

What is music publishing? 
To put it simply, publishing governs the rights and permissions to pieces of music on behalf of its songwriters. Copyright is an umbrella of laws and rights that protects intellectual property like a song. Copyright law as it applies to recorded music divides a song into parts, most commonly:

1. The composition: the song itself, including lyrics and instrumentation.

2. The master: the physical embodiment of the recording of that song, such as vinyl records, CDs, and MP3s (or other digital formats).

The label that paid for and distributed the music typically owns what is called the "master rights" to a recording. That's why label permission is usually required when recordings are reproduced and distributed as when they're used on compilations.


While a label can retain the rights to a recording, the composition is considered a separate entity. "Composition rights" are considered royalties due to the songwriter every time a master recording that embodies that song (the composition) is manufactured, sold, distributed, or performed publicly.

The best way to understand the difference between a composition and a master is to think of how a song is made. A particular songwriter or group of songwriters create a composition, but anybody who records a version of that song has created a new master.

Here's a fun fact: Publisher Warner/Chappell, who own the rights to "Happy Birthday To You," earns an average of two million dollars each year from public performances and recordings of the classic birthday sing-along. Warner/Chappell's ownership is currently being challenged, however, with a lawsuit seeking to declare the century old hit public domain.

So what is a publisher?
Publishers are rights-holders appointed by the artist to grant licenses outside of the traditional record release. When your song is used in any other way outside of the original release context (such as public performances or music videos), its rights are governed by the publisher.

Just like record labels, there are major and independent publishers. These publishers tend to focus on scale and type of music, in order to have a solid library of songs that could fit any given project, typically on short notice. Because laws vary around the world, publishing companies tend to look after artists just within their country.


Some indie publishers we like include Defend Music Publishing (USA), Alter K(FR), Think Sync Music (UK), Kobalt Music (Global); Majors include Universal Music Publishing Group, Sony/ATV. Many labels also have publishing arms: Domino Music Publishing, Warp Publishing, Ghostly Songs, OWSLA Publishing. 

What exactly is publishable?
As an artist, both the Copyright-protected master and composition rights are essential to just about everything you might do with your music. Any physical or digital reproduction and distribution of a recording involves the master rights. Most synchronizations (i.e. licensing a song to TV shows, movies and commercials) also involve the use of the master recording.

To create the master, the two main parts of a song that are considered publishable are:

1. Composition: the notes and arrangement.

2. Lyrics: the words and phrases.

Additionally, these bits and pieces of a song are also publishable:

Remixes: Even when there is extreme manipulation of the original material, remixes are considered an "alternate version" of the original song, in the same way an accapella, dub, or instrumental version would be. Therefore, they are considered a distinct composition and something you can publish.

Covers: If someone covers your track, they're using your composition and lyrics. Your publisher can collect royalties for public performances and recordings made of these covers.

Samples: Original music from one song that is put into a new composition (even if it's just in the background) is publishable.


Relying heavily on samples in a song can complicate things. For instance, a breakaway hit like Baauer's "Harlem Shake" can put you in a pickle with publishers. Even if you land a huge deal for the record itself, the composition and lyrical rights (and therefore royalties) will be divided amongst rights-holders, including whoever wrote and produced the original piece of music that was sampled. If your sample isn't pre-approved, you're in even bigger trouble. UK The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony," for example, used an uncleared sample of The Rolling Stones' "The Last Time." The new record became a hit, a lawsuit followed, and now 100% of composition royalties go to Mick Jagger and co. 

When should you seek out a publisher? 
A publisher chooses to represent you just like a booking agent chooses to sign you as a client—they're only going to do it if they feel you have a viable catalog and career that can make them (and you) some money. If you've just started producing and only have a few plays on SoundCloud, focus on making more music and signing it to a like-minded label first. But if you've racked up a few label-backed releases under your belt, ask your label manager for an introduction to publishers.

As with any business relationship, you want to choose a publisher that is enthusiastic about your work, and transparent about what they're offering you. Find out what publishers people in your community have been using, and do your research carefully. As with record labels, contracts and agreements with your publisher can define which rights you will have with your music forever (in perpetuity). Always have a music lawyer review any contract you draft with a publisher. In the days of overnight sensations like Martin Garrix and licensing opportunities for everyone from Zedd to TJR, the sky's the limit—so you want to make sure this agreement is rock-solid.


How do I actually get paid? 
There are two ways to make some coin from your publishing rights:

1. Accounting/Collections: Whether or not you have a publisher, you should register your music with a performance rights organization (PRO) such as ASCAP or BMI. (ASCAP can be slightly cheaper, but their website is a bit of an eyesore.) Almost all PROs have "how to" sections to help you understand how this works.

Once you're signed up with a PRO, every time your music is played on the radio, streamed on the internet, or played live, there will be a royalty paid to you. If you sign with a publisher, they will collect the remaining royalties—including mechanical royalties (royalty per unit sold or downloaded).

2.Sync (Synchronisation) Licensing: When your music is used in a form other than the original release—such as in films, TV, advertisements, sonic branding, and online campaigns—whoever uses it must ask permission and pay to use it.

If accounting/collections are the bread and butter of music publishing, sync licensing is hitting the jackpot. Sync fees can range from the hundreds to thousands of dollars, and that means it is a competitive field. If a music supervisor isn't looking for a recognizable hit, they usually want something very specific to the media in which it will exist. These opportunities are why having the right publisher selling your catalogue and navigating that world greatly increases the chances of your music being synced. In most instances, this is where self-publishing would limit your opportunities, unless you know everyone ever

Now what?
We hope you now have a better grasp of the basics of music publishing. By no means have we covered every nitty gritty detail. For those thirsty for more information, Donald Passman's book Everything You Need To Know About The Music Business is a great read (and much more entertaining than the Digital Millenium Copyright Act).

If you have questions, put them in the comments and we'll try to address anything we've missed or something you're still dying to know.

Rachel co-founded Passé Publishing. (@RachelPasse)
Joel makes music, has a label and is the Channel Manager of THUMP. (@freemagic)