Many musicians have heard about people getting publishing deals and wondered, what exactly is a publishing deal?
For a long time I really had no idea what getting a publishing deal entailed. I knew people who had these elusive contracts and seemed to live pretty cool lives, but I didn’t know what they meant.
Recently, my music brought me from Canada down to Nashville, where it seems that every second person in line for coffee has a publishing deal. There, I visited publishing houses, talked to people with publishing deals, and even wrote with them.
Basically, if you have a publishing deal, you are a professional songwriter. Sounds pretty good, right? Well, it certainly can be!
There are a few different kinds of publishing deals, which we will cover throughout this article.
Typically, if you have a traditional publishing deal, you are receiving a salary (or draw) to write songs. Then, you and your publishing company shop your songs around to artists and labels, hoping that one of your songs will be recorded by an artist.
For many songwriters who are just starting out, this isn’t enough money to write full-time. Some of the songwriters I know with these deals also do engineering work, sideman gigs, or work a serving job at night.
Many of these songwriters work at songwriting like the “average Joe” works at a job. They write every day at 10 AM – either by themselves or co-writing with other artists and writers. Then, they spend a great deal of time demoing their songs.
All this sounds great, but what are the drawbacks?
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Cons of Publishing Deals
Believe it or not, there are cons to what otherwise sounds like a pretty great deal. Let's take a look.
Your Salary & Budget Are Loans
By far the biggest drawback to a standard publishing deal is the fact that your “salary” and budget for recording demos are essentially loans.
If one of your songs gets “cut” (recorded by another artist), and starts generating income, 100% of that income goes towards paying the publishing company back for your salary and budget. And it doesn’t end there.
Unlike a bank loan, the company will continue to take a portion of all profits from your songs, often until you die.
Worse, your contract may not give you the right to collect royalties on certain things you would otherwise collect royalties for, because the publishing company owns the master.
You May Never Get A “Cut” Because You’re Too Small
Often, these big publishing companies have “star songwriters”, songwriters that have churned out a few hits, made the company a lot of money, and have lots of connections. These songwriters are usually the priority – not you.
For every opportunity that a song “plugger” has to pitch your song, they have literally thousands of songs to choose from. It’s not easy to get your song recorded.
Pros Of Publishing Deals
Now you're aware of some of the downsides of publishing deals. Fortunately, there are some benefits too, and we're about to explore them.
Having Time To Write
How many times have you been frustrated by the number of working hours in a day? Or come home from work too exhausted to write or practice?
A publishing deal allows you to work a part-time job instead of a full-time job. It allows you to cut back on the cover gigs and focus on your writing. Basically, it buys you time.
Because you’re being paid, it forces you and gives you the opportunity to sit down and write every day.
The publishing company also deals with all the “business stuff” that takes up far too much of our days. They’ll even organize your co-writes and chase after songwriting opportunities for you. Most importantly, they’ll be pitching your songs for you.
Signing a publishing deal gives you a certain amount of credibility.
This credibility can open doors that would otherwise be closed to an independent songwriter.
Beyond that, the people you’re working for know a lot of people that matter. They can get your songs heard, or even just introduce you to them in the hallway.
You will be invited to networking events, and these events can be tremendously important. Just like signing to a great label, a publishing deal can help you meet people that will propel your career forward.
Common Types of Publishing Deals
Let's have a look at the different types of publishing deals that are available.
If your songs are already being cut and earning you some income, you will have no problem securing yourself an administrative deal. Basically, you give up 15 – 25% of the copyright in return for the publishing company plugging the songs and dealing with the business end of things.
They will not pay you. But ultimately, you could end up making more money, because you own more of the song.
Exclusive Songwriter Deal
With this type of deal, you give up the ownership of your song in return for a monthly or weekly paycheck. Obviously, this can be frustrating if your song is getting played a lot and you’re not seeing that reflected on your bottom line.
In this deal, you salary is paid back to the company before you make any money, and then your money is split with the publishing company after that.
It may seem like a tough deal, but for many songwriters, this is a great way to make consistent income doing what they love to do.
Many more established songwriters have co-publishing deals with their publishing companies. Basically, they own their own publishing company and split the publishing rights with the real publishing company and you get to keep all of the songwriting credits.
That’s why you’ll often see publishing company names in the liner notes of music releases – the songwriter has a co-publishing deal. These deals allow the songwriter to keep more of their money while still giving the publishing company incentive to work the song.
Individual Song Or Work For Hire
Basically, if you work independently, you'll relinquish the rights to your song for a period of time. The publishing company will give you an agreed upon portion of what they earn.
These agreements are often struck when a song is being used on TV or in film. The best part about these deals is that they are non-exclusive, allowing you to have many songs signed with many companies. From there, you can decide which relationships work the best.
Publishing deals are not easy to obtain. You have to be very talented, know the right people, and be wiling to grind it out for a few years. Once obtained, they can be a great way to make music work for the rest of your life.