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Songwriting 301 – The Publisher

 

In our first installment of Songwriting 101, we examined the logistics and demographics of the business of songwriting.  In the second and third installments of the series, 201 and 202 we took a look at the profile of a successful songwriter, Ashley Gorley then surveyed some of his writing techniques in the subsequent article.  In this installment, we’ll look at the aspect of songwriting that involves publishing.

 

Obviously, you don’t have to have a publishing deal to write songs.  However, to really exploit your songs in terms of pitching, demonstration, and even administration of royalties, there is no substitute for a publisher.  Let’s take a look at the ways writers become involved with publishing companies.  Of course, publishing is all about the song.  Publishing companies make money through the exploitation of copyrights.  Here’s how they exploit songs and copyrights:

 

1.     They sign exclusive rights to license and exploit songs – Publishers will either sign a single song agreement with a writer or establish an exclusive agreement in which they have rights to any song a writer creates while under contract.  

2.     In exclusive agreements, writers receive a consistent advance drawn against their projected royalties from songwriting.  Obviously, proven writers can draw larger advances based on their previous royalties.

3.     Publishers pitch their licensed songs to artists who are recording for consideration.  They maintain relationships with artists and record companies.  Artists and producers solicit material from publishers directly.  In Nashville, there is a popular service called the Row Fax wherein artists and producer will list upcoming recording projects, describe the type of song they're looking for and provide pitching contacts.  Writers and publishers use the Row Fax to determine where they might pitch certain material as well as even types of songs to write.  For many years, this pitch sheet was faxed on a weekly basis to all subscribed publishers and writers around music row - thus the name "row fax".  As well, publishers also pitch their licensed songs to film and TV companies for inclusion in their products.  Movie soundtracks and even commercial placement can be extremely lucrative for publishers as well as writers.  For example, Bob Seger was said to have received royalties of one million dollars per year for the ten years Chevrolet licensed "Like A Rock" along with a new truck each year.  Not a bad deal for a Michigan boy whose dad work in the auto plants.

4.     Publishers cooperate with agencies like ASCAP, BMI and SESAC to collect airplay royalties for their writers.  They also cooperate with record companies to receive and administrate mechanical royalties in lieu of units sold.  The publishing company pictured at the beginning of this article, Sony ATV recently has threatened to sever ties with ASCAP and BMI over internet streaming royalties.  Both ASCAP and BMI have dropped the ball in the arena of adequate royalties for streamed songs.  Although this type of jockeying is demonstrative of Sony looking out for Sony, they do represent the writers in the process.

5.     Publishers finance the cost of recording demos of songs in their catalog.  They often provide in house recording facilities.  With an average cost of anywhere from $500 to $1,500 for a competitive demo, this amounts to a siginificant resource for prolific writers.  Obviously, competition is enormous.  Often producers and artists want to hear a demo that sounds like a master - they don't want to have to imagine what the song can sound like.  It would be surprising how often signature licks and arrangements from a good demo end up on the master.

6.     Publishers help to schedule and liaise with other writers and their representatives to facilitate co-writing opportunities for their staff writers.  This is a circumstance where having the clout and prestige of an established publishing deal gets you in doors that sometimes just your personal reputation might not.

7.     Publishers often provide facilities for their writing staff to write within and collaborate with other writers.  Most companies will have writers rooms that may contain instrumentation and even basic recording equipment to record a rough demo of works.

8.     In exchange for all of this administrative activity and representation, publishers will take anywhere from 15 to 50% of royalties collected on songs.  Contracts vary from agreement to agreement.   Songs will usually remain under the license and control of the publishing company even after the specific contract term expires.  Obviously, the publisher has financed the creation, demonstration and exploitation of the material and therefore has a claim to the licensing.  However, there are circumstances where writers may negotiate the release of their songs upon completion of the terms of a contract

9.     Publishers also maintain a database of their copyrights from which they can continue to pitch and exploit for the duration of a writing contract (if applicable).  In Songwriting 201, Ashely Gorley spoke of interning in the "tape room", in those days the hub of the database of the song catalog.  Now the songs are stored on hard drives with a database application to track and administrate.

 

In Songwriting 101, I described the types of royalties and applicable rates.  For a signed writer, these royalties are all administered by the corresponding publishing company.  It’s important to acknowledge that any payouts to writers are offset by the applicable percentage and will not occur until your income from royalties has caught up with your draw.

 

All of this sounds like an aspiring songwriter’s dreams are coming true.  Trust me, the competition for those staff writer slots is very fierce.  For a company to belly up to the table and write a monthly check for an individual, there must be strong indication of potential to generate income to offset the expense.  Publishers are gambling that their signed staff with write songs that get recorded and actually demonstrate the are worth the investment.  In the same way that most pro writers put in the time daily, most publishers are working day in and day out and to promote their writers.  It is certainly designed to be a reciprocal arrangement between writer and publisher.

 

You might be saying, “OK, now that I know the advantages of having a publisher, how do I transition into being a published songwriter? Most of the bigger mainstream publishers make this task even more difficult in that they refuse to receive outside non-signed material.  They won’t even open up your sharp looking demo packet that is filled with publishing gems.  It makes sense that in a litigious western culture that we live in, it’s not worth the risk of appearing to have stolen a song from someone else.  This is not to say that you’ll be turned away to live in your station wagon by everybody in town.  Yet, when publishers are paying a draw against future earnings to their writers, it would be imprudent to not honor their investment.

 

The absolute best method for an aspiring songwriter to get due consideration by publishing companies for his or her writing is through relationships.  Develop a relationship with a signed writer either through co-writes or cooperative workshops and writer’s nights.  Often a publishing company will sign a single song agreement in a co-writing situation.  If you co-write a hit, then you have credibility to be considered for your own exclusive deal.  As well, you may exploit a relationship with an artist looking for material who ends up getting a publishing deal in the process.  Take the time to connect directly and in person with publishing company liaisons either by personal visit or participation in writer’s workshops, etc.

 

The essential element of developing any relationship that might mature into a writing deal is preparation.  Write as often as you can, document and demo your material, and be prepared to push your boundaries to be the best writer you can be.  Keep legible records of your material and have something to put in someone’s hand whenever you can.

 

One other resource for the unsigned writer is the administrating company.  These companies keep up with all of the royalty paperwork and disbursement.  They’ll also often assist in affiliation with some of the big royalty companies like ASCAP and BMI.

 

In closing, just like we established first thing, the business of songwriting begins and ends with a song.  You may or may not have a chance to land a publishing deal and a sweet advance on a regular basis.  But, if you are not writing songs, you failing to create the very thing that these companies are interested in exploiting.  It’s all about the song!  So, write wisely, my friends!

 

 

Chris Marion is an American musician best known as a member of Little River Band and for his contribution to the gospel and country music industries. Although graduating college with a B.A. in Psychology, he is a classically trained pianist and has worked in the music industry professionally for over 35 years. As a resident of Nashville, he is involved in the recording industry working in the genres of Gospel, Country and Rock.  Since 2004, he has toured globally with the classic rock act Little River Band as a keyboardist and vocalist.  For more useless trivia and minutiae concerning Chris or to contact him directly, feel free to visit his personal website www.chrismarionmusic.com.
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