If you create original music, it’s always helpful to understand your rights and revenue sources.

The guide below will provide a high-level view of music publishing, and spotlight the most relevant points for songwriters.

What is music publishing?

Music publishing is the business of songs.

It’s the work of promoting and earning money from composition copyrights. NOT from recordings, but rather the song that underlies any recording. In fact, the term “publishing” comes from the days before recorded music existed, back when the owners of songs published sheet music and songbooks. 

Of course today a recording is often the thing that delivers a song to the marketplace, and to our ears. Streams, downloads, usage in social video, radio plays, placements on TV and film, game soundtracks, and even physical formats like vinyl and CD — they’re all means of transmitting a recording. Which, in turn, contains the song. So there is often a relationship between recorded tracks and the underlying songwriting when it comes to generating revenue. 

But music publishing specifically deals with the song side of that revenue equation. 

What is a “song?”

That might sound like a silly question, but the answer is crucial to the monetization of compositions:

From the perspective of music copyright, a song consists of the melody and lyrics. If it’s an instrumental composition, it’s just the melody. 

Chord progression? Nope. 

Groove, tempo, or key? Nope. 

Synth pads and drum patterns? Definitely not. 

Chord progressions are considered a basic building-block of music, similar to colors for a painter, or materials for an architect. So you can’t copyright chord sequences, only the melody and lyrics that tie those chords together. 

Groove, tempo, and key are foundational aspects of an arrangement, but a “song” can be arranged in numerous ways. So arrangements aren’t songs. 

Particular instruments like synth or drums? Effects and EQ? Nope. Those are production and arrangement choices, which can exist separately from the song. 

It’s sometimes difficult to illustrate this point because so much music in the 21st century has blurred the lines between production and songwriting. For some artists, those two processes are the same creative act. 

However, you could take any new chart-topping song and play it with an acoustic guitar around a campfire, or arrange it for an a cappela group, and the foundational elements are what remain — melody and lyrics. That’s the song.

Or imagine there’s no such thing as recorded music, and your music only exists as sheet music. The notes on the score, the words on the page. That’s the song. 

As discussed in our guide to music copyright, there are two main forms of intellectual property rights that apply to musicians:

  1. The composition copyright — These are rights related to the song. They are owned and controlled by the songwriter(s), unless those writers have a relationship with a music publisher to help them monetize the song and collect royalties. 
  2. The sound recording (or “master recording”) copyright — These are rights related to the ownership of a specific recording. Recordings are usually owned by labels, or the artists and producers who made the track. 

If you’re an artist who records and writes your own music, you own BOTH rights listed above, as long as you haven’t signed away any rights or ownership to a label or publisher. If you record cover songs, you own the master recording but not the composition. 

And again, music publishing is the business of making money from the composition copyright. 

The 3 main kinds of music publishing royalties 

Music publishing is a complicated business, so I’ll try to keep it simple. 

There are — generally — three kinds of music publishing royalties you can earn from your composition copyright:

1. Mechanical Royalties

The name comes from a time when songs were mechanically reproduced in a physical format. And the publisher was paid a royalty for each of the units pressed. That’s still true for vinyl, CD, cassette, etc. 

But mechanicals are also generated in the digital age, via streaming. And you can collect these royalties through certain rights societies or a collective such as the MLC

In the world of music publishing, it’s deemed a digital reproduction of the song whenever a listener actively chooses to stream a certain song. “Choose” is perhaps loosely defined, since playlist listening can generate mechanicals. But it’s worth pointing out that non-interactive streams through digital radio services such as Pandora do NOT generate mechanical royalties. 

Instead, they generate…

2. Performance Royalties

These royalties are paid for “public performances” of your song, including:

  • Radio play
  • Broadcast in public places such as a restaurant 
  • Streams
  • Live performances at venues

As you can probably tell, “public performances” is an imprecise term, since you’re not expected to perform the song live in order to generate royalties (although live performances ARE included).

Nor are all performances or broadcasts “public,” since some people are streaming music with headphones on. Instead of “performance,” I tend to think about broadcast or projection of a song into a listening space. 

You can collect Performance Royalties from a P.R.O. (performance rights organization) such as ASCAP, BMI, PRS, GEMA, etc.

3. Sync Licensing Fees

When tracks are licensed for placement in film, TV, games, and commercials, there are actually two rights at play, and two fees being negotiated:

The recording (owned by the artist or label), and the song (owned by the songwriter or publisher). 

The fact that these are separate rights may illustrate why there are so many cover songs on TV shows. Because licensing the most famous version of a tune can be expensive. 

If a music supervisor wants a Rolling Stones song, but doesn’t have the budget for the composition AND the original recording, well maybe they have the budget for the composition and an indie artist’s rendition.

Now, if you wrote and recorded your own song entirely, you obviously lose the advantage of being… the Rolling Stones. You don’t have a composition in high-demand. But you have a different kind of advantage: Speed!

Because you own the rights to both the track and the song, you’re able to quickly grant permissions and all negotiations are streamlined. That’s why so much independent music ends up in modern media, not just because it conserves the production’s budget, but because productions move fast and music supervisors don’t want to wait around and have 10 different meetings, calls, or email threads going just to clear one song. 

One last interesting note about sync licensing and music publishing, when you DO get an  original song placed, you’ll receive an upfront fee. But certain usages such as TV broadcast will ALSO generate the performance royalties discussed above. 

What kind of publishing arrangement is best?

Like many aspects of the music business, there’s a stratification of services around songwriter rights. From basic royalty collection for unknown indies, all the way up to powerhouse publishers leveraging the catalogs of chart-topping legends. 

The level of publishing assistance you need depends upon your songs, of course. How much revenue are they already generating? What potential there is for future earnings? 

Basic publishing support for new songwriters

When you’re first starting out, you’ll want to build a publishing rights foundation. This would include:

  • Affiliating with a Performance Rights Organization
  • Registering your songs with that PRO
  • Affiliating with the MLC or a similar organization to collect mechanical royalties (in some cases this may be your existing PRO. Though in the USA, organizations like ASCAP and BMI do NOT collect mechanicals.)
  • Exploring sync licensing opportunities, either on your own or by including your music in a pre-cleared licensing catalog

Publishing administration for emerging songwriters

Once your music starts to gain traction, it may be time to professionalize your songwriter rights in a more focused way. 

A publishing administration service is able to act on your behalf to collect your publishing royalties and possibly seek new opportunities for your songs. They do not claim ownership of your songs, but are empowered on a shorter-term basis to act as your publisher.

However, be aware that the administration service will take an additional cut of your publishing royalties beyond what the PROs and mechanical collection societies keep. 

An actual publishing deal

When your songs show enough potential, doors will open to explore a publishing deal. 

These deals can be structured in various ways, but the simple explanation is that you give up some (or all) of your rights in exchange for more revenue opportunity. When a music publisher has shared or total ownership of your song, they’re incentivized to work harder for that song’s success. 

To be clear, just because you’ve reached the level where a publishing deal is realistic, doesn’t mean you NEED a traditional publishing deal. All careers are built different. There are good deals and bad deals. And if you’ve already found success for your songwriting without a publisher, it’s possible to sustain that momentum without outside help. 

However, if a great publisher is interested in your songs, it’s possible they could add fuel to the fire — so whatever ownership you sacrifice might be worth it for greater revenue, more exposure, and possible advances.

Like with all things, just understand the tradeoffs before you ink any deals!


Well there it is: A bird’s-eye view of music publishing.

(Plus a few moments where we zoomed in close for detail.)

Hopefully this article gives you a greater sense of your rights and revenue opportunities when it comes to original songwriting. 

If you want to learn more about your music rights that extends beyond the composition, check out our practical guide to music copyright

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