Music Business

Songwriters: How To Get A Publishing Deal

by Clay Mills
Sep 7, 2021

One of the first things an artist or songwriter learns when contemplating career is music, is that a good music publisher can often be the difference in succeeding or not suceeding in the business. But how to get a publishing deal is often shrouded in mystery. After all, there is no college degree that you obtain that gets you a job as a writer for Warner Chappell or any other top publisher. No, musicians are often left to their own devices to figure it all out. And it can often feel like someone is handing you a chisel and saying go carve Mount Rushmore. I mean where do you start, right?

Getting my first publishing deal was a real turning point for me. It opened doors to major artists having hits with songs I had written and it afforded me a life I had always dreamed of. But it took me most of my twenties to figure out how to get a deal and it was by trial and error for sure. So, I want to offer you a bit of a cheat sheet for how to be ready for and how to get a publishing deal. 

What is a staff writing deal?

We want go heavy into the biz side of things in this article since this is more about how to get a deal but to summarize:

  • A staff writer writes exclusively for one publisher. 
  • The writer usually receives a monthly “draw” or advance on royalties ranging from zero to Several hundred thousand dollars a year. 
  • Your contract will typically require a quota of songs per year that must be written and accepted. 
  • The publisher also will often cover demo costs and other writing expenses upfront but will recoup half of it later.
  • The publisher does all the admin for the songs.
  • The publisher pitches the songs and often acts as a writer manager, hooking up the writer/artist to write with other successful people in the business.

What does the publisher get out of the deal? 

Let’s say you write a big hit that earns $800,000 in royalties. Well, the writer share is $400,000 and the publishing share is $400,000. So a publisher is investing in you in hopes of a big payday down the road. As you achieve more success you can start negotiating for a piece of the publisher’s share. But usually a new writer won’t receive any publishing share in their first deal. 

How To Get A Publishing Deal

Write Great Songs

There’s no easier way to get a staff writing deal. If you write hit songs, you’re not going to have to beg for a deal. This is the absolute ground zero for success. If you are not consistently writing great songs you want find and keep your publishing deal. So be honest with yourself. Are your songs radio ready? Getting feedback from pro writers at places like SongTown will give you a good gauge of where you stand and what you need to work on.

I recommend you don’t start looking for a deal until you have ten really strong songs in your catalog. Five songs to play and impress publishers and five in reserve when they ask you to hear more. The worst thing is to impress them on first impression and when they ask for more, you let them down! You rarely get a second shot and a first impression. If it takes you writing a hundred songs to get that ten, that’s okay. You’re goal is to get the deal and not burn bridges.

Co-write, Co-write, Co-write

Publisher Rusty Gaston of Sony Music told me once that almost every writer or artist that he has signed to a publishing deal, he discovered because they started writing with one of his already signed writers. He would hear his writers talking about a new writer that they love and Rusty would hear their talent on the songs they co-wrote with his writers. Being a co-writing Ninja will open major doors in the music business. Mastering Co-writing is a great book if you are new to co-writing or want to level-up.

Find up and coming artists to work with… before they are famous! 

Writing with unknown artists can pay off big time. I can’t tell you how many writers, myself included, that got our start writing with unknown artists. If you believe in an artist and write with then when no one else believed in them, you form a bond that can last forever. Once they get a record deal then all of a sudden you have songs on an album coming out and publishers knocking on your door. This works in reverse for artist. If you are an artist, you need a strong writing team around you so you can show record companies and publishers that you can deliver and have a creative team in place.

Do Your Homework

Know what a publisher does BEFORE you submit songs to them. If they are a country publisher, playing them a K Pop tune probably isn’t going to get you a deal. If they are a pop publisher, they aren’t going to be interested in your latest polka creations. 

One key to getting a deal is to give a publisher something VERY commercial that they don’t already have in their stable of writers. You might find out in your research that a certain publisher has 3 female writers and one male that lean more traditional in their style of writing. If you are a male writer that is on the cutting edge tip, that potentially gives you a little edge. They may need more male progressive songs.

Study the charts in the genre you are pursuing. Know who is writing the current hits. Look and see who their publisher is and who they co-write with. Find out what producers like to record their songs. The more you know about who’s doing what, the more you will impress publishers and the more ready you will be to slip into professional situations.

If you get a chance to write with a successful writer and they say to you, “I really dig that new Maroon 5 song that so and so wrote,” if you don’t know who so and so is, you’re not going to come across as a person who is “in the know.” So do your homework and be in the know. 

Mix and Mingle!

If you live in a music city like Nashville, New York, or LA, take advantage of the local music scene. Find out when a publisher is having a writer’s night with their writers at a local venue, and introduce yourself. Offer to buy the publisher a beer. Forrest Whitehead (Producer: Kelsea Ballerini) landed his first deal by going to 4-5 writers nights over the course of the year that Black River Publishing hosted. He didn’t push a demo in their face. He just introduced himself and they got to know him by seeing him at all the shows. Eventually they asked him for a demo tape! 

If you don’t live in a major music city, go to events where publishers are speaking. Attend industry events. If you aren’t able to travel. You want to do all you can to learn how to get a publishing deal and meet industry pros. Check out groups like SongTown and attend their virtual meet-ups. 

SongTown Edge Groups are a chance to work with publishers online and attend monthly staff writer style meetings. You’ll find out what artists are recording and what they are looking for. You’ll get assignments to write for these artists and if you nail the assignment, you’ll have a chance to get your song signed and pitched to major artists. Writers like Sarah Davis (Big Machine Publishing), Gayle (Atlantic Records), Conner Sweet (Given Music), and many others have come up through SongTown Edge Groups and signed record and/or publishing deals. Think of it as a farm system for the music business and a chance to work closely with top publishers without burning bridges.

Performing Rights Organizations (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC)

The main function of a PRO is to elect money every time it’s played on radio, satellite, or streaming (Performance Royalties) and pay that out to songwriters and publishers. Although their official job doesn’t involve helping writers to get a publishing deal, unofficially they will open doors for you if they dig the music you are creating.

Early in my career Chris Dubois at ASCAP picked up the phone and recommending me to a dozen publishers. It was instrumental in my signing a good deal. 

I recommend you find out when your PRO is doing a workshop or conference and start making contacts with their reps. ASCAP does regular workshops and online virtual hangs for new writers to play and listen to each others music. BMI puts on workshops in NYC, LA, and Nashville. In Nashville the will listen to new music from new writers once a month. If you are not with a PRO, I would call and try to set up meetings with reps at BMI and ASCAP. The idea is to find a champion at one of these companies to add to your team.

Be Professional

In closing, just remember at all times to conduct yourself in a friendly and professional manner. Be respectful of other’s time by showing up promptly for meetings and don’t be a pest be following up after a meeting 5 times in a week asking if they’ve had time to check out the 5 songs you left them. Above all, NEVER get angry or defensive if someone doesn’t get your music or want to work with you.

I had a record exec early in my career pass on me as an artist. A dozen years later he signed me to a nice pub deal! I don’t think he remembers passing on me back in the day…But, if I had blown up and created a scene I would have blown my chances of that sweet deal later on.

I hope these tips shave some years off your journey and give you some key strategies for how to get a publishing deal. My wish for you is that you find all the success you dream of and continue to be creative.

Write on! ~Clay

Clay Mills

Clay Mills

Clay Mills is a 16-time ASCAP hit songwriter, producer, and performer. He is the co-founder of SongTown and has 2 Grammy nominations for “Beautiful Mess” by Diamond Rio and “Heaven Heartache” by Trisha Yearwood. Clay is also the co-author of Mastering Melody Writing and The Songwriter’s Guide To Mastering Co-writing.

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