Today, there is a rather wide variety of music publishers, small and large. In reality, everyone that writes songs is a de facto music publisher if they intend their music for the public and they do not have a publishing deal. That is, if someone wants to use the music, then, at least in theory, they would come to the songwriter for permission to use the song. This would be an example of a songwriter acting as a publisher in a reactive role as the user comes to the songwriter in this case. The primary role of a music publisher today is usually more proactive. Music publishers find users for original music and sometimes manage the usage of the music on behalf of the songwriter. Of course, songwriters can also be proactive in promoting their original work. Music publishers can be the songwriter or they can be someone who represents the songwriter in either a reactive or proactive role.
While there are many opportunities for songwriters to manage the business side of music, there are only so many hours in a day. Therefore, for some songwriters, it makes sense to find an advocate. This advocate is the music publisher who shares in the potential income for the original music in exchange for services.
Small music publishers are varied in their approach to the business. Some small music publishers are individuals who have only their personal songs. Some small music publishers may own a catalogue of music that is intended as a form of investment. This is usually music that has been recorded and continues to collect royalties. This type of music publisher wants to collect fees for their property much like a property owner collects rent for a rental property. Other small music publishers may have limited “catalogues” of music which have been assigned temporarily to them for the purpose of finding a customer willing to pay for each song. Again using the real estate analogy, this service would be like a fee based real estate leasing company.
The rights of songs are temporarily assigned to the publisher as the publisher seeks to find interested “buyers”. The primary function of the assignee or publisher is to find “customers” for the owner. For assignees or publishers, there are many secondary functions which may include managing the account for the owner and/or maximizing exposure for the owner.
I think it is important at this point to distinguish between two misunderstood terms related to ownership in the music business. In particular, I want to describe the differences between an owner and an assignee. When a song is written, it is automatically copyrighted under U.S. Copyright Law and it is the property of the songwriter or songwriters. The songwriter at this point is the owner. The copyright should also be registered, which is a statement of claim to the intellectual property which is the song. This is done with an application through the U.S. Copyright Office. This copyright may be assigned to a second party at the time of registration or it may be assigned after being registered in the name of the songwriter or it may not be assigned at all. If assigned, it may be assigned to a publisher for the purpose of finding interested artists, larger publishers, commercial sponsors or labels. Therefore, the publisher becomes the assignee but the songwriter remains the owner. This arrangement is typically based on a set period of time. That is, the assignment of rights will eventually revert back to the songwriter or owner. Some publishers will pay to own a song in which the songwriter generally receives a lump sum of money in exchange for the song. In this case, the songwriter is usually entitled to no additional compensation unless otherwise stipulated in a contract.
The smaller music publishers tend to take on specialized roles to provide needed services in niche markets. These roles are expanding with the changing music industry. Small publishers now take on a variety of responsibilities that may overlap with a variety of other music professionals. There is a good reason for this. The publisher has a stake in the success of an artist so they often take an active role in the artist’s development. Therefore, it is not unusual to see publishers acting as agents for the artist, for example. Agency is a service provided for the more specific purpose of maintaining a steady stream of business for a client. Good agents provide valuable services and should not necessarily be confused with a small publisher. The larger the potential income for an artist, the more specialized the roles become which is why you see big names in music with high powered agents. Agents typically maintain the amount of business and associated income of a big name artist because the big name artist doesn’t have the time to manage all elements of their career at this level of success. Big name artists also have publicists and managers, but for a new artist, many of these hats may be worn by a single interested individual.
The small publisher will often take the role of agent, publicist and manager in addition to the role of publisher. In some cases, a small publisher will perform as a fee collection agent for mechanical rights as they already receive a portion of the fees that are due for usage. While some small music publishers may provide a variety of services with only a handful of clients, there are also small publishers who specialize in more limited services. They may specialize in a particular classification of music, for example. These publishers tend to have more clients as they tend to have a more limited scope of overall responsibility. Their strength lies in understanding a particular segment of the market and knowing the right people.
Most small publishers are risk takers. They attempt to select unsigned artists with maximum potential, hoping for a “break out”. The reward for the small publisher is usually in the form of fees that are guaranteed by United States Copyright Law. Of course, a “break out” can also launch the career of a small publisher if there is a strong relationship with the artist founded on mutual trust. Small publishers may eventually get “squeezed out” by the more dominant players in the industry following the success of a signed artist. Contracts will eventually expire, so it is possible for a small publisher to receive their reward for the duration of work covered under the original contract, but to not receive further compensation for new material from a newly discovered artist who signs with another publisher. It is the nature of the business.
Small publishers maintain contacts with larger publishing companies, record companies, retail marketing executives, and are now using their skills to help promote independents. Some small publishers know when projects are coming up with a label, for example. They also know the type of music that interests various A&R professionals. Other small publishers may be better equipped to assist an independent artist with possible promotion opportunities through a retail store. In either case, an efficient small publisher will use contact management techniques and software to help them keep up with the necessary periodic calls. A good small publisher will follow up on every hold and make sure that a client is paid for all usage of a song.
Large music publishers may perform in the very same capacities as described above on a much larger scale. Catalogues owned by a large music publisher can be in the hundreds of thousands of songs. Large music publishers have the distinct advantage of size. They are well known among industry professionals and, as a result, have easy access to a lot of high powered folks. Large music publishers tend to also have a print media division that distributes printed materials such as sheet music. Large music publishers have other departments assigned to very specific responsibilities such as artist and repertoire or A&R personnel. Overall, the primary focus of the large music publisher is to maintain a positive bottom line through acquisitions and account management, thus it is much more of a corporate style of business.
Finally, there are many different types of music publishers, but the role continues to expand. With the emergence of independent artists and new online distribution models, the role of music publisher must change to meet new demands. It is very likely that the new small music publisher will have sufficient computer skills along with the more traditional understanding of music publishing, marketing, promotion, contact management, accounting, copyright law, negotiation, business etiquette, contract law, music business politics, and just plain old common sense.