Publishing has always been an important source of income for songwriters, but as the music industry has changed dramatically over the last decade it has become ever more so. There are still plenty of opportunities out there for people who write music to earn a living doing what they love, and publishing is a big part of that. Still, many writers are unaware of all the sources of revenue available to them beyond pressing up CDs and selling them out of a box. Not you, of course - otherwise you wouldn't be here reading this - but you're still going to need to get your music into the right places and then get paid.
It sounds quite simple when put like that but it's possible you might want a little help to unlock the value held in your music. This is where a publishing company comes in. Publishing companies don't help you sell CDs out of boxes, they help you make money from the copyright that exists in both the lyrics and music you write. It's potentially more lucrative, and due to its nature as a concept it's not nearly as heavy as a box of CDs.
Originally, when they first appeared 150 odd years ago, publishers did deal in physical product, selling printed sheet music, operating a similar model to book publishers. However, although licensing music for lyric sheets, guitar tab and sheet music is still part of the service publishers offer, it's only part of a much bigger job - creating and collecting royalties on behalf of songwriters.
The most commonly claimed income is performance royalty. This money is collected by PRS For Music in the UK and similar performance rights organisations in other territories, such as ASCAP and BMI in the US, and is due to a songwriter whenever a piece of music they wrote is played in a public space - this might be from a song being played on TV or radio, in a bar, or the songwriter themselves performing live. Many emerging artists don't realise they may be due some extra money on top of the few quid a promoter hands over every time they play live. Now you do. You may thank us later.
Another important, but less well known, income stream is the mechanical royalty, due when a so-called 'mechanical copy' of a piece of recorded music is made. For example, when a record label presses physical copies of an artist's album, if the music has been registered with the appropriate collection society (PRS For Music's MCPS division in the UK) a mechanical royalty fee must be paid for every copy made. This royalty is also due when a download is sold through an online music store, such as iTunes and Beatport. So, as you can see, this lesser known royalty stream is also an important source of revenue.
Royalties are also due from numerous other sources, including streaming services (such as Spotify), compilations, podcasts, ringtones, and more. There's a lot to stay on top of, which is one reason for signing a deal with a publishing company.
A music publisher will administer these accounts and ensure that a songwriter's music is registered with PRS For Music and collecting societies in other territories so that royalties due for performances and sales in the UK and internationally can be collected.
But, as I mentioned above, collecting the royalties is only one side to what a publisher does. In order to go out and collect royalties, they need to make sure that there are royalties out there to collect. There are more ways to make money from music than selling records (whether out of a box or otherwise), and they can be far more lucrative.
We're talking about synchronisation licensing. Or 'sync', to give it it's more common name (time is of the essence, people. We can't be doing with long words in this business). This is the placement of music in TV shows, adverts, films, videogames, online and more.
In the UK, PRS For Music has blanket licences set up with TV companies meaning they don't have to seek approval from publishers if they want to use a piece of music (which can be both a good and bad thing - just ask Sigur Ros and The xx), but elsewhere this is not the case. In the US particularly, a well-placed track in a hit TV show can change an artist's career over night. As an example, Imogen Heap was relatively unknown when The OC used her track Hide And Seek provided the soundtrack to the finale of its second season. The song immediately shot up the iTunes charts in the US and the UK and was the catalyst for her later successes. None of this could have happened without a publisher there to convince the show's music supervisor that this weird vocodered a cappella track would sound great over the climactic scene of a mainstream TV programme.
Obviously not everyone gets a break like that, but there are still thousands of opportunities for songwriters to have their music used on TV, in films, in trailers for films, in adverts, in videogames and more worldwide. Music is incredibly important to all of these things (even silent films have musical soundtracks!) and in order to use it their makers need to pay.
So, there you go, that's music publishing. Put simply, music publishers track and collect royalties, and find ways to generate more royalties. Put even more simply, they make money for songwriters so they can carry on making great music. And that's why they're so important.