Crash Course on Music Publishing - Part 1

Carlos Alvarez's picture
In my years as a music publisher I’ve had the honor of working with hit-songwriters to beginning songwriters, singer-songwriters and musician-songwriters.  Many of them have shared with me their journey and stories of dealing with music publishers, recording artists, record label executives, and their statements of mis-information and even worse. . . stories of unpaid royalties. This 3-part article is to give everyone out there from the non-experienced to the experienced a foundation on what my title states. . .  A crash course on music publishing.

Your Rights

Yes, your original idea (song), by law has rights (I’ll explain further along what these are).  This is better known as copyright.

Singer Songwriter

A frequent issue that I come across with the singer (artist)-songwriter is that they cannot see that they are doing two different jobs!  Yes, I repeat. . . your doing two different JOBS!!
  • singer (artist): your role is that of a performer/recording artist
  • songwriter: your role is that of a writer of a song
These two roles are important to the singer-songwriter’s career since they are the ones writing and performing their own material. Why is this important?  Well, think of it this way: Imagine if your job paid you for doing two different roles.  I’m sure you’d like to be informed better on how (and how much) you get paid for each role!  Additionally, these payments are issued by differently parties.  Even more so, is it important to understand how this operates.  So, our music world begins and operates by what the law states and that area of the law is copyright.


For this discussion, I’m referring only to songwriters (input legal disclaimer here), but this also applies in many aspects to other creative individuals.  Federal law has granted songwriters limited protection (certain rights) to their creation and have decreed how these rights are to be administered and compensated for, better known as copyright. These RIGHTS are:
  • Reproduction
    • Reproducing the song (CDs, Mp3, WAV, Vinyl, Cassette, DVD).
  • Distribution
    • Distributing the song publicly.
  • Performance
    • This one is tricky. . .  Performing the song publicly & broadcast (transmission) of the song are included.
  • Public Display
    • For music, we primary refer to SYNCHRONIZATION (the synching of music in FILM / TV).
    • Print (or reprint of the song...), sheet music, lyric reprints.
  • Derivative Work (making changes to the original work)
    • language translation
    • sampling
Two items must occur for COPYRIGHT to exist on your song:
  1. It must be an original idea
  2. It must be in a tangible medium (physical product-->CD, lyrics on papers, etc,etc...)
**please remember...once these two items happen, COPYRIGHT automatically exists on your songs**


Now, registering your copyright with the Library of Congress is vital because it makes a public record to the world (and more importantly to the government) that you are the writer/owner of that song.  I highly recommend that your register your song (or several songs jointly) with the Library of Congress before you begin to promote them to other artists to record or record them yourself. These rights do not last forever. . .
  • 1 writer,  70 years after the death of the writer
  • 2 or more writers, 70 years after the death of the last surviving writer
You should open an online account (no fee) with the U.S. Copyright Office, and do your registration thru their ECO system.  its really easy to setup and the process to register is much more better to grasp than the traditional way of physically mailing a copy.  Yes, there is a fee to register your songs,  currently, $35 per registration.  You can do a per song registration or bundle several songs in one registration.
**the site has several presentations that give you a step by step process of how to register**

Music Publishing

Music publishing is the acquisition and exploitation of the SONG  (stay focused, were still talking about the songwriter’s creation).  The music publisher is the administrator of the song. . . more specifically, he/she administers the rights of the song (copyright).  The music publisher is “married” to the songwriter.  As the songwriter is the creative factor in the relationship, the music publisher is the administrative factor.  It is a contractual relationship and each have responsibilities to each other.  Most commonly, music publisher will sign up songs for writers on per song basis, unless the writers show great potential and various songs are signed up at one time. Traditionally, a music publisher was the promoter of the song.  Working to get the song “plugged” (getting the song recorded by an artist and then collecting any potential royalties it may have generated).  However, today the music publisher has turned into more of a administrative role. . . with songwriters having to take on more of the role of promoting their material to an artist.  That doesn’t mean that all music publishers no longer promote songs. . . just that their role in that aspect has changed drastically. Music publishers perform several duties including:
  • acquiring product (songs)
  • marketing that product (getting songs recorded)
  • managing that product (licensing songs)
  • overseeing the business
The right song placement married to the right music publisher can mean everything when it comes to receiving correct royalty payments.