Best-Kept Secret

Following the last column, this week we’ll be looking at our last option of what to do with your songs. This option applies to both performers and non-performers alike.

The best-kept secret in the music business is The Publisher.

Most of you have heard of the publisher. On every CD booklet, you’ll find something like “all songs published by ASCAP” or something similar. What exactly does the publisher do?

Many years ago, before the invention of recorded music, the Publisher printed songs, much like a book publisher does and made them available to the public. If, for example, Beethoven wanted an orchestra to play one of his symphonies, it had to be published first.

Nowadays, they essentially are responsible for making the songs public. What they are always looking for are songs. Salable songs. Their main business is buying songs and reselling them to recording “artists”. For example, if Celine Dion is looking for songs for a new album, she’ll go to a publisher and see what material is available.

Often, though, the artists won’t buy the songs, but borrow them. That costs nothing, yet the publisher is the one who collects all royalties. That is because the publisher owns the copyrights. Let’s backtrack a bit… You write a song, you own the copyrights. You want the song published by someone else, you sell it. Selling it means selling the copyrights.

Hence, you sold a song for $25,000 to a publisher. It became a huge hit and all the royalties amount to $750,000. The publisher makes a profit of $725,000.

Then why go to a publisher? Because he has access to more resources than you’ll ever have. These people have better relationships with folks in the industry than anybody else. They have to: they provide the songs.

In our example, if you hadn’t accepted the 25K, you might never have sold the song.

A publisher, especially early on in your career, can be a godsend. It doesn’t matter that you may lose profit if you sell your songs, in the end, you’ll still be making good money. You see, publishers tend to be logical people. If they like your songs and think that they can sell them, they need you to continue writing them. How can you write songs if you’re working eight hours a day? You still can, but not as many as if it were what you spent most of your time on.

If a publisher likes your songs enough to do business with you, he’ll make sure your bills are paid. Even if it takes five years, he’ll be paying all the bills and you’ll be writing songs full time.

Also, you don’t need to sell a publisher your songs. You can enter some sort of deal with them where they’ll take a percentage of the royalties. Everything is negotiable.

What is more difficult is finding these people. They don’t go around with signs on them saying who they are. And very few advertise.

The Internet is one place for looking. You may come up with a few. Other places are guidebooks. Most countries/states/provinces will have a sort of guidebook called, more or less, “Who Does What“. These should contain contact addresses for music publishers. Call first, some of them are not in the song business at all, but instead collect old material that’s now in the Public Domain.

As we’ve mentioned before on this site, presentation counts a lot. As for the recordings, with a publisher, always try to be as minimal as possible. If you can, a simple guitar and voice is perfect. They don’t care for your arrangements. They can take a country song and turn it into a dance song. So don’t try to impress them with arrangements… You won’t.

And don’t despair if a Publisher doesn’t like your songs, they’re not always right. Bach, when he started composing, tried to sell his music to publishers. He was ridiculed. He was told he had no talent. He never again tried to sell his music. After he died, his brother discovered the more than 3,000 pieces of music he had written. Not one published. And nobody had known that he composed… Today, only Beethoven outsells him. And not by much. To give you an idea, Beethoven would have to stop selling altogether and Celine Dion would have to double her sales, for over a hundred years, before she even came close to selling what he’s sold.