Every aspiring musician aiming to establish their presence in the industry will encounter the intricacies of music publishing.

This legal document governs the relationship between songwriters and publishers, paving the way for turning creative work into financial assets.

To navigate this complex terrain, artists should become well-versed in the essential clauses and terms outlined in the contract.

This article aims to clarify and simplify the crucial aspects of the music publishing agreement, empowering you to make informed career decisions.

Defining the Music Publishing Contract

A music publishing contract is a legally binding agreement between a songwriter or composer and a music publishing company.

This contract grants specific rights to the publisher, allowing them to commercially use the creator’s musical works in exchange for a range of services, creative support, and royalties.

Music publishers promote original compositions to various media outlets, including movies, TV shows, advertising agencies, and video games.

They also facilitate licensing agreements for cover versions by other recording artists and ensure that the songwriter receives appropriate compensation.

In essence, a publishing contract defines the terms of this mutually beneficial partnership.

This agreement has two primary parties involved:

The Songwriter

This individual is the author of original musical works and compositions.

The songwriter grants certain rights to their creations in exchange for the publisher’s services and resources.

The contract terms may vary depending on the songwriter’s level of recognition and bargaining power.

The Music Publisher

The music publisher acquires limited rights to exploit the songwriter’s works commercially.

Their objective is to promote the music across multiple lucrative avenues and collect royalties on behalf of the writer.

Both major publishing companies and smaller independent entities operate in this field.

Key Contract Terms and Clauses 

Let’s now delve into some of the crucial provisions found in publishing deals, explaining them more easily.

Term Length

This sets the duration of the contractual relationship, typically lasting from 1 to 5 years.

Publishers may prefer longer terms to benefit from later releases, while writers seek flexibility for new opportunities.


Publishers limit where they promote your works, specifying regions. This can affect your ability to license your tracks elsewhere.

While global rights are ideal, they may limit future options. So consider working with publishers from different countries.


Publishers might offer enticing advances as an upfront payment.

Remember that these advances essentially borrow from your future royalties, so weigh the implications carefully.

Royalty Rates

Royalty rates determine the writer’s revenue share from various sources like sales, streams, and syncs.

Negotiate for favorable rates to avoid settling for less while your publisher profits.

Accounting and Audit

To ensure transparency and secure audit rights. This allows you to review your publisher’s financial records and safeguard royalties.

Frequent requests for audits are essential to keep them in check.

Creative Control

Negotiate to retain control over how your works are used. Prevent publishers from associating your songs with unsuitable projects without your approval.

Covers and Samples

Establish clear terms for permission and compensation when others want to sample or cover your work.

Ensure you receive your fair share in these situations.

Sync Licensing

When your music is used in film or TV, aim for a fair split of the synchronization fee.

Don’t accept an unfairly low share just because your publisher handled the paperwork.

Online Rights

With the dominance of streaming, maximize earnings from online plays.

Don’t undervalue digital performance royalties due to the absence of physical sales.

Performance Rights

Register your works with performing rights organizations (PROs) like ASCAP and BMI to collect royalties from radio and public performances.

Ensure these royalties are properly managed.


Include an exit plan in case the relationship sours. Don’t let the contract become a lifelong commitment when things don’t work out.


Exclusivity clauses prevent songwriters from working with multiple publishers simultaneously for the same work.

While your publisher seeks loyalty, you may still have opportunities with unattached catalog works or expired contracts, but be cautious not to double-dip with currently signed works.

Types of Publishing Deals

Publishing deals can vary significantly regarding the rights and royalties songwriters retain versus those they grant to the publisher.

Here are some common types:

Admin Agreements

Under this arrangement, you maintain ownership of your rights while the publisher handles basic administrative tasks and takes a small percentage of the royalties, typically ranging from 5% to 20%.

It’s a low-commitment arrangement, akin to a brief partnership that ends amicably.


Moving from casual dating to a more serious commitment, co-publishing involves a 50/50 split or another negotiated rate of ownership of rights and royalties with the publisher.

This partnership signifies a deeper commitment from both parties to exploit your work, much like a serious relationship.

Full Publishing

This is it – you’re signing your life away!

In a full publishing deal, you transfer complete ownership of your rights to the publisher in exchange for substantial advances, industry connections, and resources.

While you receive a significant upfront payment, you also surrender creative control.

It’s akin to settling down and getting married, so ensure you’re prepared to relinquish autonomy before committing.

Differences Between Publishing and Record Deals

Is a publishing deal a record deal? No, they are different.

DifferencesMusic Publishing DealsRecord Deals
FocusSongwriting, lyrics, and compositionRecorded version of the work
OwnershipPublishers own composition rightsRecord labels own master recordings
Income SourcesLicensing, syncs, public performances, mechanicalsSales and streams
Royalty SplitsSongwriters retain 50% or more after feesMore variation, generally lower artist royalties
Recouping AdvancesAdvances recoup from publishing royaltiesAdvances recoup from record royalties
Creative ControlSongwriters retain creative controlLabels influence recording process through producers
A quick overview of the differences between music publishing and recording contracts

Music publishing deals focus on the songwriting, lyrics, and composition itself.

On the other hand, record deals are concerned with the recorded version of the work. Here are some major differences:

Ownership – Publishers own the composition rights, while record labels own the master recordings.

Income Sources – Publishing generates royalties from licensing, syncs, public performances, and mechanicals. Record deals generate income from sales and streams.

Royalty Splits – Songwriters typically retain 50% or more of publishing revenues after administrator fees. Record deals have more variation but generally lower artist royalties.

Recouping Advances – Publishing advances recoup from publishing royalties specifically. Record advances recoup from record royalties.

Creative Control – Publishers manage business aspects, but songwriters retain creative control over compositions. Labels have more influence over the recording process through producers, etc.

Final Thoughts & Key Negotiating Points

Understanding the intricacies of music publishing contracts is essential for musicians at all levels.

You can make informed decisions about your creative career by grasping critical elements such as rights, royalties, deal structures, terms, and territories.

To succeed in music publishing, you should master these dynamics, find the right publisher for your needs, and elevate your music into the limelight.

Effective negotiation is fundamental to entering any business agreement, and music publishing is no exception.

Here are key points for writers to consider when negotiating deal terms:

  • Strive to retain maximum ownership of your copyrights.
  • Negotiate for higher royalty rates and expedited payment schedules.
  • Secure favorable sync licensing splits for TV and film use.
  • Demand transparency in accounting and liberal access for audits.
  • Advocate for flexibility in term length and territory restrictions.
  • Understand the implications of significant advances that recoup from future earnings.
  • Investigate the publisher’s reputation and industry connections before committing.
  • Lastly, enlist experienced legal counsel to safeguard your interests while navigating complex contract language.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do music publishers get paid?

Music publishers generate income by taking a percentage of the royalties earned from the commercial usage of the compositions they represent. This includes mechanical royalties from sales and streams, performance royalties from public plays, and synchronization fees from licensing music for movies, TV, ads, and other media.

How do you write a publishing contract?

A music publishing contract is written by clearly defining the terms, including rights being granted, royalty rates and payment schedules, territories, advance recoupment, accounting procedures, sync licensing terms, performance royalties, creative input, term length and renewal options, exclusivity clauses, and termination provisions that protect both the songwriter and publisher.

How much is a music publishing deal worth?

The monetary value of a music publishing deal depends on the songwriter’s notoriety, catalog size, royalty rates negotiated, the works’ commercial viability, and the publisher’s activity. Top songwriters can receive millions upfront with six-figure annual incomes, while lesser-known artists may get modest four-figure advances and minimum royalties.

How can I get a music publishing deal?

To get a music publishing deal, songwriters should hone their craft, build a strong portfolio of vocal and instrumental compositions in various genres, pitch to publishers and networking events, perform originals frequently, leverage connections with established artists who need songs, post online for exposure, and demonstrate sufficient skill and commercial potential to attract publisher interest.

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