I think what confuses most people is the blurry difference between publishing a record (a CD, MP3 or perhaps a “stream”) and publishing music itself. Now, this blurry difference comes down to what one has the right to control: a record company controls the recording of a performance of a piece of music, while the music publisher controls the use of music and lyrics. A music publisher licenses the use of their music, collects the licence fees, defends their rights against unauthorised usages, pays out the songwriter their share, and promotes their catalogue as best they can. 

The authorisation that a publisher gives to make the recording of their music is called a Mechanical Right in industry jargon and is often passed on to an organisation commonly referred to as a Mechanical Rights society. In South Africa, the society that administers Mechanical Rights is called the Composers, Authors and Publishers Association (CAPASSO). SAMRO on the other hand administers Performing Rights (music is either performed in public or broadcast on mediums such as TV or radio)

One of the things that music publishers do really well is taking care of administration and ensuring that they, firstly, have the rights to the music by signing a deal with a songwriter. Often this includes taking ownership of the music but it’s not uncommon that a songwriter licenses, exclusively, their music to a publisher. This however may mean the publisher pays less attention to music they don’t own outright or the deal is limited to administration only. Next, all the details for the music publishers’ new songs are now checked and this information is relayed to the collective societies mentioned above. 

The difference between start-up music publishing companies and established ones is the amount of business contacts and opportunities that each may receive for the music they represent. Unlike record companies that actively look at getting new recordings and performing artists on the web, on radio and on the stage, music publishers will look at getting musical works into new recordings, films, theatre and other uses. Music publishers are often not concerned with how well a performing artist is doing, beside the fact that the success of an artist may fuel the popularity for a piece of music – which will often lead to other artists recording and performing the song. So, it is often the case that music publishers will spend much of their time fielding enquiries about the use of more popular works than making a work popular. Make sense?

Many new singers who also happen to be songwriters sometimes don’t understand this difference in business model when looking for a “publishing deal” for their music. In many ways, a new artist will want to get their recordings popular before finding a suitable music publisher. Many music publishers simply look to ‘play the lotto’ with music, signing every song that comes their way in the hopes that one of these songs will strike it lucky. There is nothing wrong with that, except that new songwriters may be looking to be made famous by a music publisher and be disappointed in the process (side note: many recording artists are similarly disappointed in their record deals!). 

Since SAMRO and CAPASSO take care of reproduction and Performing Rights, the publisher is left to license deals for uses outside these two organisations, namely what the industry refers to as “synchronisation deals”. These deals give authorisation, for a fee, to individuals but more often businesses that may wish to use the music, such as using a song in a film or documentary.

Now I mentioned that the publisher was good at admin and this would also include tracking the usage of the work and holding SAMRO or CAPASSO accountable for the correct amounts paid. They are also concerned with the unauthorised use of the music, or infringing of the owner’s copyright in the music, and would institute legal proceedings as a result. This policing is often challenging for smaller publishers and songwriters.

The best way to find a publisher is by reputation. Ask any expert in the field to list some good ones and also, if you see music you like in feature films and adverts, check the end credits for the publisher of those songs. Next, make sure your deal is fair.

Jonathan G Shaw is a music business consultant, lecturer at Wits University and author of the textbook “The South African Music Business”. His other personality is a successful recording studio owner, recording engineer and producer. Visit www.shawmusicstudios.co.za and www.ibilion.com


Newsletter Edition: 
Beat Bulletin October 2015
Sub title: 

When I started my journey into the music industry, music publishing and what a music publisher did – was somewhat of a dark, mystical art to me.