Music Publisher

  • Music Publisher

Until the early 20th century, music publishing referred exclusively to the printing and sale of sheet music. In the contemporary business model, music publishers secure rights to original material and exploit those rights by licensing the material for recording, airplay, inclusion in films and television, and a myriad of other commercial uses.


Working as an independent owner or employee of a larger company, a music publisher’s primary responsibilities include securing publishing contracts with composers and songwriters, and actively seeking means to exploit the rights obtained. The publisher attends songwriter showcases, visits clubs, and accepts solicited demos in order to screen for new talent, as well as courting established artists. When he or she has identified a composer or songwriter with the potential to become a commercially viable artist, the publisher will enter negotiations with that individual and his or her management to have the publishing rights of current and/or future compositions assigned to the publishing company. The exact terms of the contracts can vary, but typically result in a fifty-fifty ownership.

The music publisher will be responsible for submitting necessary copyright documentation and will provide a number of services to the songwriter or composer, in exchange for the agreed percentage of ownership. Those services include collecting and distributing appropriate royalties on behalf of the artist, in addition to proactively pushing the client’s material. There are a number of ways a music publisher and artist can monetize original material. Mechanical royalties are paid by the record company to the publisher for the right to produce CDs or downloadable content. It is the job of the music publisher to seek recording artists to include selections from the publisher’s catalogue on an album. Synchronization royalties are collected when a publisher successfully plugs a song in a film or television soundtrack. Performance royalties, collected from radio stations and other broadcasters, are handled by performing rights organizations. Other duties of the music publisher will include clearing material to ensure there is no copyright infringement pertaining to the catalogue, as well as having compositions transcribed to print.

Skills & Education

A college degree in music business or music merchandising is recommended for this career, though equivalent professional experience within the industry is also applicable. The music publisher must have a firm grasp of copyright law and the procedures of licensing creative properties. A law degree is not required, but it is useful. This person should be comfortable with the negotiation of contracts and the preparation of related documents. Courses in music theory, music history, and similar areas are also beneficial, as the publisher should be a well versed in numerous genres, with a healthy appreciation for all musical styles. Most importantly, the individual in this position must be motivated and tenacious in the pursuit of avenues to monetize the company’s catalogue and diligent in the tracking and collection of royalties.

What to Expect

Working with copyright, licensing, and royalties is a tricky business; the labyrinth of laws and regulations make hazardous pitfalls for those who enter without the prerequisite education and experience. As the music industry struggles to keep up with technology and begrudgingly adjust its business model, music publishers must stay on top of emerging innovations and regulatory revisions in order to remain financially viable. At the core of the job is the ability to strike a deal and build relationships. Those who can maintain positive relationships with artists, record companies, and music supervisors will ensure a sustainable career. Creativity in the development of new business strategies can fortify one’s longevity in a highly competitive environment. Of course, the music publisher must know talent when it is presented and be an advocate of that talent. To start a path to this career, consider seeking entry-level employment within a music publishing company or within related businesses like a performing rights organization or record company. Internships are commonly available within such companies and can lead to permanent employment. 


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