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Publishing: Taking the Next Step in Songwriting

Publishing: Taking the Next Step in Songwriting


First, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about what a music publisher does.

The term “publisher” can be confusing because it can refer to the owner of a song copyright as well as to a company that manufactures copies of music for sale—or both. For the purpose of this article, a publisher is a company that owns intellectual property that it wants to exploit.

When you compose an original song, you automatically own both the writer and the publisher “shares” of that property. If there is more than one writer, then the writer and publisher shares are allotted according to the percentage of contribution or by the agreement of the writers.

Songwriters often enter into a formal relationship with a music publisher whose responsibility is to exploit that composition. When a publisher “signs” a song, both the writer and publisher shares are conveyed to that publisher and the publisher agrees to compensate the writers with half of the income the song generates. The publisher usually keeps the other half of the income for its work.

The publisher often takes responsibility for creating a demonstration version of the song (a “demo”) so that it can be pitched to potentially interested parties. The publisher also works through its administration company (or administrates its own catalog) to make sure each copyright is filed with the Library of Congress and registered with the writer’s designated performance rights organization (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC) to monetize public performance income. The publisher/administrator also handles licensing and royalty collection for the mechanical and synchronized usages of the song as well as registers worship songs with Christian Copyright Licensing International.

Most importantly, the publisher must periodically report all income and compensate writers for revenue that was generated in the previous reporting period.

A successful publishing deal will create opportunity for the song and income for the songwriter. Budding songwriters often submit a few songs to a prospective publisher in hope that the publisher will sign the songs and consider signing the writer to a long-term contract.  Successful songwriters often start their own publishing companies or strike co-publishing agreements with established publishers to help them achieve their goals.

[For more information about how publishing deals work, check out the latest edition of  Donald Passman’s excellent guide, “All You Need to Know About the Music Business.”]

Many years ago, I learned some valuable (and sometimes difficult) lessons pitching my songs to publishers. These days, part of my job involves considering new and existing copyrights for our publishing company. Here are 10 things I’ve learned along the way that might help writers who submit their worship songs to publishers:

#1: Rejection always stings.
So don’t ask a publisher to listen to a song if you’re not prepared for the high probability they’ll pass on using it. Just because you love it doesn’t mean they will. Learning just one small lesson from each rejection will not only help you become a better songwriter, but a stronger person as well.

#2: Not every publisher needs your song.
Larger publishers, in particular, may already have dozens (or even hundreds) of songs with similar content or style as the song you’re pitching them. Likewise, they may specialize in placing songs for certain usages and may feel that your song doesn’t work for them.

#3: Your new song will compete with every worship song that’s ever been written.
According to CCLI, worship leaders now have their choice of more than 300,000 worship songs–with thousands available for instant download. Your new song may be very good, but there are tens of thousands of “good” songs out there.

#4: Lots of mediocre songs become popular and lots of great songs go unheard.
Believe me, this frustrates publishers as much as it frustrates songwriters.

So do what good publishers do: laugh about it and then get back to work. Whining about the status quo won’t make your songs better or more popular.

#5: Writing for the joy of it will make any profit all the more satisfying.
Most songs—even those signed to publishing deals—don’t make money. So don’t write to be popular; instead, write to be great. If popularity happens, then that’s fine, but if it doesn’t, then at least you’ve been a faithful steward of your time and talent.

#6: Music publishing is a challenging and expensive business.
Seismic shifts in the way music is marketed and monetized have decimated traditional income streams and replaced them with less lucrative outlets such as downloading and streaming. A publisher frequently invests $300 in a basic demo or up to $1000 to “cast” it for a specific artist—only to have it rejected after 30-60 seconds. It’s a risky business, so don’t take it personally if a publisher won’t “bet” on your song.

#7: The fact that your congregation loves your songs means something.
It may mean your music has significant commercial potential. Or it may mean that you have earned the love and respect of the people you serve and that your music flourishes in the context of that community. In eternal terms, which is worth more?

#8: You can’t talk a publisher into liking your song.
If they “get it,” you could have a champion who will take a personal interest in trying to make your song successful. But just because your publisher likes it, there’s no guarantee the song will find an audience. But if a publisher doesn’t “get it,” then you’re better off not having your song signed there.

#9: If a publisher wants to sign you or your song to an exclusive deal, make sure you fully understand the contract and have the opportunity to talk with a music business attorney.
I’m an attorney and appreciate how challenging it is to wrap your head around all the legalese. Ask all the questions you want until you’re satisfied that you understand what you’re signing.

#10: A publishing deal doesn’t validate your ministry; rather, it only monetizes it.
Be faithful with what you’ve been given. Faithful stewardship may involve a public stage and a royalty check. It may involve relative anonymity on earth and a “Well done, my child” in heaven. Or all of the above. But pursuing money at the expense of ministry is ultimately unprofitable in this world and the next.

Hope that helps!

With more than 35 years in the faith-based music business, Vince Wilcox is an attorney and general manager of Belden Street Music, a Nashville-based publisher that operates, an online subscription service for choir directors and music ministers. He may be contacted at [email protected].

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