Posts Tagged ‘catalog’

What Independent Artists Should Know About Publishing, Pt. I

May 6, 2010

In the music industry, publishing is one of the most important yet least understood areas of the business.

Many independent artists cruise around either completely naïve as to what publishing is or how it works; then there are those who think they know, but are simply prematurely jaded and cynical, based in part on the reportedly diabolical nature of the music industry and based in part on a lack of any real substantial knowledge. You may find an independent artist who refuses to even talk to a publisher because some well-meaning friend told them holding onto 100% of their publishing would allow them to collect more revenue that way (the fallacy here is that 50% of something is always greater than 100% of nothing). On the flipside, you may find an artist who jumps into a bad deal with a reprehensibly long term simply because they do not understand what they are getting into.

In this day and age, the savvy artist will learn as much about the business end of their art as they can. This does not in any way negate hiring a manager, publisher or agent, or trying to court a label deal; in fact, the more you know about your industry, the easier it will be to make wise decisions regarding working with certain managers, publishers, agents and labels.

To belabor an obvious point, the bulk of the money to be made in the music industry is not made through record sales. Most record labels don’t want to admit this, and cling to this archaic concept that they need gold and platinum records, but the truth is, the industry has reverted to a singles business like it was back in the ‘50s. Users are more likely to purchase a single song online than waste money on an entire album.

As such, the bulk of the revenue generated in music comes from one of three sources: touring and live performance, merchandising, and publishing.

What It Is
Publishing is a term that usually refers to the print and literary industries, in which a writer’s efforts are published in a book, magazine or online publication. But when put into the context of music, the meaning of “publishing” becomes unclear and obfuscated.

To put it in the simplest terms, publishing is essentially about owning and exploiting musical copyrights. Each song is considered a “property,” and a collection of “properties” is referred to as a catalog. When you create a piece of music, or “property,” then that property only needs to be made once, but can be exploited over and over again to make money. This is called licensing. You can exploit your property by licensing it to films, TV shows, video games, ad campaigns, or even various sundry uses such as ringtone distributors and karaoke companies.

A publisher is an entity who helps the artist exploit their property to its fullest. A good publisher has relationships with the music supervisors who select music for film and TV. A good publisher also has relationships with advertising agencies, game developers, producers, engineers, songwriters, etc. and understands how to negotiate with each of these people.

A Brief History
A little known fact, publishers predate record labels. For example, Frank Sinatra did not have a label that produced his records and distributed his songs. Rather, he and his manager would meet with a publisher. The publisher would show them a catalog of songs written by a stable of hired songwriters, and Frank and his manager would then decide which songs the singer would perform and which songs could be passed on to another singer (or, more likely, simply go die in obscurity).

Music publishing has roots that predate the actual music industry itself. In fact, the start of music publishing lies in print publishing. Back in those crazy colonial times, when there was no radio or internet and travel was generally limited to how far you could get via foot or beast of burden, general stores were popular. They were popular because they generally sold everything one might need, be it food, blankets or stationary; and that stationary often included songs, printed on parchment. Traveling salesmen would come through and offer to take some of the general store’s goods with them and sell them. As such, many travelling salesmen would learn the songs, and perform them in front of people and try to get them to buy the notation and lyrics, neatly printed on parchment. Pretty soon, the transcontinental railroad came along, and the Vaudeville era began, with performers travelling across country, performing songs, and salesmen hounding them, trying to get these performers to buy their catalog and perform songs from their song books. The people who owned the printing presses would hire musicians to write new songs with the intent of printing them up in song books and selling them. Salesmen would pitch these songs to specific theater troupes, offering to license the song to those performers exclusively, printing the performer’s likeness in the songbooks. This is the start of publishing.

Copyright laws, which were close to nonexistent, began to evolve to include musical copyrights (previously copyright law only covered things such as works of literature and maps). In New York a street often referred to as “Tin Pan Alley” emerged, named such because it was a collection of multi-storied buildings, and in each room of each building were publishers and songwriters clanging away on pianos, trying to generate more musical property to sell. This era saw writers such as Cole Porter, George & Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Dorothy Fields and many others emerge and influence the landscape of American music.

Tin Pan Alley

The days of Tin Pan Alley evolved into the Brill Building era (named for the Brill Building in Manhattan, which to this day is still populated by songwriters and publishers) and launched the careers of songwriters such as Burt Bacharach, Neil Diamond, Paul Simon, Phil Spector, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Joel Hirschhorn and Al Kasha (the latter of whom I am proud to say served as a mentor and friend to me for seven months before his declining health made our collaborations impractical).

Brill Building

Then the Beatles came along and wrecked everything. Here was a group of musicians who wrote their own songs, and therefore, did not need songwriters or publishers. This of course influenced other artists, who started writing their own material, and for a while, the bread and butter of the publisher was in danger. Songwriters, such as my former mentor Al Kasha, no longer made their livings writing songs for performers. Rather, they began writing songs for music and television. As for the publishers, well, they were a little smarter and quicker to adapt to a changing industry than today’s monstrous and backward record labels are.
As such, they were able to redefine their functions to adapt to the changing trends in music. The publisher turned into an entity that not only matched songwriters with performers when applicable, but became a representative of the properties and catalog created by self-contained groups, like the aforementioned Beatles.

And that is a fairly general history, without going into too much detail.

Conclusion
The concept of publishing in music may seem complicated, and indeed, it can be, but it doesn’t have to be. As stated earlier, publishing is basically owning a musical copyright and finding many ways to exploit it for capital gain. It behooves the modern artist to understand as much as they can about this aspect of the business, as it is currently one of the three major sources of revenue in music.

There are many different types of publishing deals, and indeed, terms common to the industry that you should become familiar with. I will gladly delve into these in a follow up blog on publishing. But for now, I’ve one million things to write, most with pending deadlines. That’s right… exactly one million.

I hope this basic overview provides you with a solid foundation and understanding of what publishing is all about. Stay tuned for more on the world of music publishing, and if you have any questions in the interim, you may post them in a comment on this entry and I will do my best to get back to you with a helpful answer.

Thanks for reading.

NEXT TIME: types of publishing deals and common terminology