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So What’s the Deal with Music Publishing? Part 1: A History

By August 14, 2014August 26th, 2022Blog

There’s all this talk of copyright and publishing but what does it all mean? There are so many stories where an artist signed his or her life away to a contract and never saw a dime for all the work. But when I click to buy on iTunes, where do my 99¢ go? And if my favorite musician isn’t getting paid, then who is, and why? The answers to all these questions come down to matters of copyright and publishing. Here’s a little bit about what happens behind the scenes.

When thinking about music publishing, the details can make everything seem a little confusing, and it helps to think about where the role of publishing originated. While music publishing and copyright law today is fraught with exceptions, rules, conditions, and clauses, the business was actually fairly simple back in the day.

Years ago- before microphones, before sound could be reproduced- there was the songwriter, and people passed music along through sheet music. Instead of buying a CD or downloading an mp3, people would go to the store, buy sheet music, take it home, and play it on the piano – that was the extent of music reproduction. As a songwriter, it was difficult to personally go about printing and distributing sheet music, so he or she would ask the local printing press to print and sell the sheet music in stationery stores. For a share of the royalties  (money), the owner of the printing press would reproduce the songwriter’s song and sell it to the public. And thus the music publisher was born! The owner of the printing press was the first music publisher.

While it can get confusing to think about details such as who owns the copyright, it is easiest to think about publishers as what they were from the very beginning: distributors of music (they try to sell your music for you and split the profits). As time and technology have advanced, the medium, form, and process of this distribution of music have changed, but at its core, music publishing serves the same purpose of working with the songwriter to have his or her music distributed.

Today, music publishers still handle the distribution of the songwriter’s composition, but instead of physical copies, this is now done through licensing copyrights. For a cost, which is defined in the contract that is signed by the songwriter and the publisher, publishing companies will distribute licenses for the use of the songwriter’s composition and collect royalties for each use. The level of involvement of a publishing company can vary, and with it, the fee. For instance, a publishing company may do all the distribution and marketing for a songwriter’s composition (not the recording) and charge a hefty cost, which could include copyright ownership and/or high royalties. Or, an artist can handle all the licensing and distribution alone and never have to pay a publisher a dime.

So yes, publishing can seem like a complicated and confusing process, and certainly there can be lots of exceptions and terms of negotiation once you, as an artist, get into the trenches find yourself in these situations. But for the basic understanding of what publishing is, try not to overthink things too much and remember the owner of the printing press who sold sheet music in his stationary shop.

Of course, that was in the era before music was recorded, so the only way to make money was to sell sheet music. Ever since people began to sell recorded sound in the 1920’s, the entire industry has moved to a very different setup. Read on in Part 2 to find out more about how the music scene has changed into what we know today!

Written by Jin Park

Works Cited

“The Invention of Vinyl Records – Where It Began.” The Invention of Vinyl Records – Where It Began. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2014.

Collins, Wallace. “What Is A Publishing Deal? And Do I Really Need One?!” Songwriters Guild, 2004. Web. 23 July 2014.

Garon, Jon M. “Copyright Basics for Musicians – Music Copyright Law.”Copyright Basics for Musicians – Music Copyright Law. Gallagher, Callahan, & Gartrell, Mar. 2009. Web. 23 July 2014.

“Music Publishing 101.” NMPA. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 July 2014.

Poe, Randy. The New Songwriter’s Guide to Music Publishing. Ohio: F+W Publications, 2006.


Figures 1 and 2 – public domain

Figure 3 – Pixabay