Years ago, during a music publishing seminar at which I was a presenter, a songwriter asked, “Why do I even need a music publisher? Couldn’t I just do what a music publisher does, myself?” My simple response was “will you?” It is generally true that of all the players in the music industry, the role of music publisher has one of the lowest thresholds to entry. Indeed, a financially successful music publisher’s stock in trade can sometimes be contained in a single desk drawer. However, that does not mean the job is easy or inexpensive, it just means that there are relatively few required steps for a company (or individual) to accurately call itself a "music publisher." If you are a beginning songwriter with one original song in your catalog and have not assigned any of your rights in that song to someone else, then congratulations, you are technically your own music publisher.
Songwriters frequently receive advice -- solicited or otherwise -- from “concerned” individuals (including fellow writers, family members, friends, rabbis, etc.) that they should never, under any circumstances, “give” their copyrights to anyone. And, because the vast majority of publishing deals involve the assignment of copyright to the publisher, some consider music publishing inherently evil. Of course, it is never a good idea to enter into an agreement with just any publisher who is willing to sign you, simply so you can brag to your family and friends that you signed a publishing deal.
An experienced music publisher should bring to the table at least four attributes that many songwriters lack: (1) an understanding of the music publishing business, including both the publisher’s traditional and developing roles in the larger music industry; (2) a set of established business practices and procedures to effectively manage a catalog and explore exploitation opportunities; (3) existing relationships in the industry; and (4) a relentless drive to both create a successful music publishing business and advance the careers of its signed writers. Notice that the last item does not say “a relentless drive to write great songs” -- that's the songwriter’s job. Writers who do not feel the same level of excitement about building a publishing business as they do about songwriting usually are better served by finding an effective publisher to fill that role.
OK, I know what you’re thinking: “I thought the whole point of this article was to help musicians who decide to ‘do it themselves.’ Why are you telling me I need to have a music publisher?” Well, I’m not telling you that you absolutely have to find a music publisher to achieve success as a songwriter, nor am I trying to discourage you from developing your own music publishing company. However, I do encourage those entrepreneurial writers who make the decision to take on the role of music publisher to learn as much about the business as possible and to seek help when necessary.
We all know the cliché, “knowledge is power,” and It definitely rings true in the music publishing world. Many great books on the subject are available, including Making Music Make Money: An Insider’s Guide to Becoming Your Own Music Publisher by Eric Beall and The Plain & Simple Guide to Music Publishing by Randal Wixen. Also, do not overlook Don Passman’s great, plain-English discussion of music publishing in his authoritative book, All You Need To Know About The Music Business, or Jeff and Todd Brabec’s detailed coverage in their book, Music Money and Success: The Insider’s Guide to Making Money in the Music Business. All of these books are available through most bookstores and online (be sure to confirm that you are purchasing the most recent edition).
As a parting thought, one of the traits that distinguishes successful entrepreneurs in any industry is the ability to recognize one’s own strengths and weaknesses. Most successful entrepreneurs humbly admit that, as mere mortals, they cannot possibly do everything themselves. Delegation of certain tasks to others who are better skilled in particular areas is a reality of the business world. Even seasoned music publishers sometimes enter into administration agreements with other publishing companies that are better able to perform administrative functions, leaving the non-administrative publisher free to concentrate on creative development and seeking exploitation. Finally, although entrepreneurial songwriters certainly can acquire knowledge of the publishing business, established music publishers are already in the game, and they can sometimes open doors that might otherwise remain closed to a songwriter just getting started as a publisher.
Regardless of the path you choose, you owe it to yourself and your music to make an informed decision.
L. Kevin Levine is the founder of L. Kevin Levine, PLLC (go figure), a boutique entertainment, copyright, trademark, and business law firm in Nashville, Tennessee. A lifelong musician who grew up in his family's music store, it was inevitable that Kevin would build his legal career in entertainment and business.