Music Publishing: Unlocking Music Revenue for Artists

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Discover the power of music publishing and learn how you can monetise your music. Explore licensing, royalties and copyright protection in our full guide.

Understanding the intricacies of music publishing can be daunting for many artists, but getting to grips with how it works will allow you to protect the intellectual property of your creative work, maximize your earnings, and help reach a wider audience through sync licensing for TV, film and advertising, as well as by tapping in to global music distribution and promotional networks.

Taking care of music publishing is an often missed step, but it's essential if you're going to learn how to release music sucessfully. In this guide, we’ll explore all the facets of music publishing, enabling you to navigate this area of the music industry with confidence.

What is music publishing?

There are a number of ways music publishing works, each through the exploitation of a song’s compositional copyright. There are two types of music copyright – composition copyright and sound recording copyright, the distinction between which we’ll go into a little more depth in the next section. Ownership of a copyright entitles an artist to collect royalties from:

  • Performance royalties
  • Mechanical royalties
  • Streaming royalties
  • Sync licensing fees
  • Sheet music (or ‘print’ royalties)

Collecting royalties is a complex and admin-heavy task, so most artists have a deal with a music publisher to ensure that proper licenses are obtained, royalties are collected and an artist’s rights are upheld. From securing copyright registrations to negotiating licensing agreements to promoting the music to potential users, having an agreement with a good publisher can be hugely beneficial, especially as an early-career artist, as you won’t have the network to exploit your compositions’ potential to the extent a publishing company does.

This is particularly apparent when it comes to the commercial use of music in recordings (e.g. radio), films, TV, ads, video games, and other media. Moreover, publishers work particularly closely with performing rights organizations (PROs) to track public plays of music and collect these performance royalties. Remember, it is a publisher's job to push your music on potential users – at the end of the day, it’s how they make their living!

Music Copyright

The Composition (Publishing Rights)

Composition copyright protects the musical composition itself, including the melody, lyrics (if any), and arrangement of a piece of music. Think of the song as intellectual property in an abstract sense.

When you write an original piece of music, you automatically hold the composition copyright as the creator. If you write collaboratively, such as in a band of 4 members, it can be a little more complicated to divide up the copyright, but important to have that conversation to agree on who has been responsible for writing which aspects of the music. Often the copyright will be split between authorship (lyrics) and composition (music). A full breakdown of a song’s ownership between writers and composers should be outlined in a legal document known as a song split sheet.

If making music collaboratively, the discussion of rights ownership should happen before you even reach your local recording studios to avoid conflict later on.

The Sound Recording (Master Rights)

Sound recording copyright, on the other hand, pertains to the specific recorded version of a composition, encompassing the performance and production elements captured in the recording. This is also known as the master recording copyright or ‘phonographic’ copyright, denoted by a ℗ rather than a ©. Check out the bottom of a Spotify album or a record sleeve where both will normally appear. This division means that different recordings of the same composition can have separate sound recording copyrights – such as if someone recorded a covers album. If your band does a cover of a Beatles album, you can be entitled to the master rights, but not the publishing rights.

Compositions are usually owned by songwriters and/or publishers, whereas sound recordings are usually owned by artists or labels. To illustrate, this is the way the copyright would be divided up in the case of a major label pop star who has ghostwriters working for them to create hit tracks: royalties from the sound recording copyright would go to the artist via the label, while the songwriters would likely collect royalties via their publisher.

In other cases, artists can own both the composition and sound recording copyright, which is particularly common with self-published independent artists and singer-songwriters. Take someone like Nick Cave, who is the composer, lyricist and performer, releasing music through his own label Bad Seed Ltd, meaning he holds the exclusive rights to control how his compositions are reproduced, distributed, performed, displayed, and adapted. Taylor Swift’s new recordings of her old albums are also an example of this – once the sound recording copyright period expired on the earlier iterations of her albums, she regained these in addition to the composition copyright. Hence, the new ‘Taylor’s Versions’ of her old albums demonstrate her having regained sole control over the creative aspects and the commercial exploitation of her songs.

Getting Paid From Music Publishing Rights

Collecting publishing royalties through various revenue streams is somewhat different to collecting sound recording royalties, which typically will get dropped into your account via your label or distributor. For example, in the US, mechanical royalties are only payable to publishers via a company like Harry Fox, a provider of rights management and a collector and distributor of mechanical license fees. You could do this independently if you self-publish, but it would be difficult and time consuming, as you’ll soon see why. So let's take a look at the primary ways you’d typically collect publishing royalties.

Performance Royalties

Performance royalties are generated when a musical composition is performed or broadcast publicly. Publishers collect performance royalties on behalf of the songwriters and composers through performing rights organizations (PROs), such as ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC in the US, or PRS in the UK. Registering with PRS requires paying a one-off membership fee of £100 – this might sound steep to begin with but hopefully worth it in the long-term.

What is a performance rights organization (PRO)?

PROs monitor and track public performances of music. Whether it's on radio, TV, live performances, or online streaming platforms. They collect licensing fees from venues, broadcasters, and digital platforms, before distributing these royalties to publishers and songwriters. In most cases in the UK, it is a legal requirement for concert venues, festivals, local authorities, theaters and universities playing live music to register for TheMusicLicense, otherwise they risk being sued for infringing copyright. This is where the money comes from.

How do performance royalties work?

Performance royalties are collected by performance rights organizations (PROs). All PROs essentially work in the same way, through tracking plays via a multitude of methods: cue sheets (audiovisual placements), performance data (broadcasters like TV & Radio), digital monitoring (audio fingerprinting and content recognition used to to identify music – streaming services, websites, social media) and live performance reports from venues and festivals. Indeed, at big festivals there is often a PRS representative on each stage ensuring the tracks played are documented so royalties can be collected accurately. In the case of radio, there are two types – census and sampled. All the major radio stations (such as BBC Radio) are census stations, so every single track played on there is reported to the PRS.

How are performance royalties calculated?

This fluctuates a fair bit, as it is dependent on the usage of the music, the type of performance, and the applicable royalty rates based on territory. To give you an idea though, according to PRS:

‘you’d need roughly 200k streams on Spotify to generate the same amount of income from a single spot play on BBC Radio 2… if you’re on the A-list you’ll average around twenty-five plays per week, which for a four-minute track is just over £1k per week in gross performance royalties’

Mechanical Royalties

Mechanical royalties are earned when a composition is ‘reproduced’, a term dating back to 1909 Copyright Law.

How do mechanical royalties work?

Publishers collect mechanical royalties from record labels, streaming services, and other entities that manufacture or distribute physical copies (CDs, vinyl) or digital reproductions (meaning downloads and streams) of the music. Publishers typically have licensing agreements in place to ensure the proper collection and distribution of mechanical royalties to the copyright holders. These are not collected by PROs – in the UK it’s a body associated with PRS called the Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society (MCPS).

How are mechanical royalties calculated?

In some territories, mechanical royalty rates are set by law, while in others, they are determined through negotiated agreements.

‘For physical and downloads, the U.S. and Canada work on a “penny rate” mechanical royalty – meaning a fixed rate per unit (9.1 cents per copy). In Europe, the mechanical royalty is based on percentage of what is known as “PPD” or “published price to dealer” (the record company sales price to retailers). The effective rate currently is 8.712% of PPD’ –

Synchronization Royalties

Sync licensing fees are generated when a musical composition is ‘synchronized’ with visual media such as films, TV shows, commercials, or video games. In order to obtain the license, both the master and the publishing copyright needs to be cleared.

How do sync royalties work?

Publishers negotiate sync licenses on behalf of songwriters and composers, granting the right to use the music in visual productions. This normally comes with an upfront placement fee, as well as ongoing royalties owed each time the song is used.

Who collects sync royalties?

Publishers collect these licensing fees directly, which are then shared with the songwriters and composers, depending on your deal.

How are sync royalties calculated?

The fees for sync licenses can vary greatly depending on factors such as the prominence of the song, the duration of the usage, and the nature of the project. This can be silly money – a track reportedly earned over $1 million for a Super Bowl Placement. But it is generally a lot less, somewhere in the region of $200 to $5000. A friend of mine who ran a label with a track that ended up in GTA said he was surprised by how low the rate was considering the popularity of the game.

Streaming Royalties

Streaming royalties are a little simpler – on top of royalties owed for master recording rights, streaming royalties are collected by music publishers through their licensing agreements with digital service providers (DSPs), such as Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal and so on. These agreements allow publishers to digitally track song plays and hence collect the streaming royalties owed to the songwriters and copyright holders they represent.

The specific type of streaming royalty collected by publishers is often referred to as "digital performance royalties", which is in addition to mechanical royalties collected from streaming too. Digital performance, mechanical and master rights streaming royalties are all calculated in the same way, in that they are generated based on the number of streams a song receives, albeit at different rates.

Sheet music and samples

One final way you may be owed publishing royalties is through sheet music sales, though generally only if you are a classical composer, film scorer or write for musical theater. Publishers will have relationships with sheet music printers and retailers to try and secure a deal to make these available to musicians, and particularly for teachers and schools.

What does a music publisher do?

So as you can imagine, there is a lot that has to be in place in order for a publisher to collect royalties on a songwriter’s behalf. Given how difficult it is to do independently, it’s no wonder the vast majority of music copyright holders have deals with music publishers to do this work for them. Not only do they ensure the collection of any royalties due, but they are actively seeking new users to ‘sell’ your music to. So how would one go about finding a publishing deal and how do you know you’re getting a good one?

What is negotiable in a publishing deal?

  • Royalty split: this is at the very least on a 50/50 basis (more on types of publishing deals later), but some larger artists can leverage their profile to land a more favored deal for themselves.
  • Territory: many publishers will have worldwide rights, as when securing deals, such as sync deals, it can be extremely problematic if the publishing is split by region and one territory doesn’t approve a deal.
  • Deal Length: typically anything from 2-20 years, normally with an option to renew.
  • Creative Control & Reversion Rights: some artists build in a degree of say to all licensing and placement and decisions. In addition, a reversion right will allow you to back out of a deal under certain conditions for a certain period of time and regain full ownership.

How do music publishing contracts work, and what should you look for before signing one?

This one kind of depends on how precious you are about retaining creative control or whether you are willing to relinquish your rights to a company who could push your music down very commercial avenues. Most importantly, it's vital that you hire a lawyer who knows this field to work through and understand the implications and terms of the agreement before you sign on the dotted line.

Types Of Music Publishing Deals

Full Publishing Deals

Increasingly rare these days for more established artists, but still common among emerging talent, full-publishing deals involve the transfer of the songwriter or composer's entire catalog of compositions to the music publisher to exploit exclusively. Most often, these are done on a pure 50/50 split.

Administration deals

In this scenario, a songwriter retains the IP to their work but grants a publisher the right to administer and exploit their compositions on a non-exclusive basis. In this model, the songwriter is favored both in the sense that they still have full ownership of their music and a generally more generous deal of 75% or more – a publisher will exploit their compositions on a non-exclusive basis for the remainder as a fee.

Co-publishing agreements

A co-publishing agreement is where both parties share ownership and administration, allowing both the artist and the publisher to exploit and license the compositions. These are often between 50-50 or 75-25 split.


For an artist who really wants to retain creative control and complete ownership of their compositions, self-publishing could be a good option. It will mean full control over licensing and monetisation of the music, as well as keeping 100% of the revenue owned from any royalties once you have registered with a PRO. However, I would advise against self-publishing for several reasons. Firstly, if you have a limited network, resources and business/legal knowledge of the music publishing world, it's much better to leave this to someone else. Not only will they do a lot of the promotional efforts for you, they will generally have a better idea of potential users, how best to market the music and land good sync deals. The level of work and admin involved could seriously detract from your artistry!

Difference between a record label and a publishing company

As mentioned, a record label will generally hold the master rights whereas a publishing company holds the publishing right. Music labels are really concerned with the best approach regarding how to release music and get these recordings to reach an engaged audience, so is therefore more focused on the recording, production, marketing and distribution of music, while a publishing company will act to collect royalties owed through various revenue streams relating to the compositions as intellectual property. In some cases, a label will also own the publishing rights, or have an adjacent company – either their own as a separate entity or a publisher they work with regularly – to deal with rights and exploitation of the compositions.


What are publishing rights?

The rights held by the copyright owner of a musical composition and their exploitation. This originates with the songwriters and is generally granted to a publisher.

What is music licensing?

The process of granting permission to use music in various formats, such as TV, films, commercials and more in exchange for royalties or license fees.

Which are some of the best music publishing companies?

The largest and well known publishing companies are tied to the major labels – Universal, Warner and Sony/BMG Rights Management. There are many reputable independent ones too, such as Ditto Music Publishing, Kobalt, Sentric, Mute Song and Warp.

How do I protect my songs and ensure copyright ownership in music publishing?

You must register your compositions with the appropriate copyright authorities in your country to formally own them.

How do I find a reputable music publisher that suits my needs and goals?

Generally through your management. If you don’t have a manager, the best port of call is someone you know who works in the music industry, especially someone who works in publishing or may know someone who does.

Do music publishers own the copyright?

Typically not, instead they are granted the right to administer, license, and exploit the compositions on someone else's behalf.

What percentage does a music publisher take?

Anywhere from 15% to 50%, depending on the terms and type of publishing agreement.

Who pays the music publisher?

A mixture of PROs, streaming platforms, mechanical rights societies and agencies the publisher licenses the music too, such as for synchronizations.

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