Music Business

Do Songwriters & Artists Need A Publisher?

by Marty Dodson
Oct 14, 2021

Do songwriters need a publisher? This is a question that I get all the time. Like most things in life, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer to the question. In general, I explain it to people this way.  It’s very similar to the way I would answer the question “Do I really need a mechanic to fix my car?”  The answer is, “It depends.” If you have all of the tools you need to fix your own car, you have access to the parts required for the job, and you have been trained in fixing cars like yours, then probably you don’t need a mechanic. You’ll invest your own time into fixing it, but there’s no need to pay a mechanic for something you know how to do yourself. The problem is that most of us don’t have all the tools required.  Neither do we have access to parts. And, we don’t have training.  Therefore, we take our car to a mechanic.

Do you have all the tools you need?

It works in that same general way with songwriters and publishers. If a songwriter has all of the tools they need to publish and do the administration for their song catalogs, they have access to all of the things they need to register songs, collect money and license their music, and they have been trained in how to make sure all of those things are done correctly, then they surely don’t NEED a publisher.  They might decide that it’s not worth their time to do all of this paperwork, but they probably COULD if they wanted to.

On the other hand, most of us don’t know how to license songs, negotiate sync fees, register songs with PROs, payout for demo splits, or collect money – especially from foreign sources.  So, we need either a publisher or an admin company to do those things for us.

Admin vs. publisher.

Admin companies typically charge 15-20% of the money they collect to provide all of those services.  Publishers, if they do a “full pub” deal are taking 50% of the song. The big difference is that admin companies don’t own any of the song. They are just getting paid from income that comes through while they are doing the admin. Publishers actually OWN 50% of the song, and they own the controlling interest of the song. In exchange for that higher ownership interest, the publisher has a lot more incentive to get your song recorded.  So, publishers (good ones at least) provide song pitching services and writer “management” type services. That would include developing their writers and setting them up with opportunities.

As a songwriter advances in their career with some success, they are usually able to progress to a co-pub deal in which the writer only gives up half of the publishing or 25% of the song.  If you have a good publisher and they are working hard for you, then a writer with a co-pub deal is really only giving up around 5% more income than they would with an admin company.

Seldom is it smart to jump on the first offer…

This is why it’s so important to ask “do songwriters need a publisher.” A bad mechanic is WAY worse than no mechanic and can cost you more in the long run than starting with a good one. The same goes for publishers. Don’t jump on the first offer you get from a publisher without checking them out thoroughly and without getting a lawyer to review your contract.

There is no one-size-fits-all answering the question “do songwriters need a publisher”, but here are some guidelines I use with writers I mentor:

You may need a publisher if you:

  1. Have 10 or more songs that are broad pitches and commercially competitive.  By commercially competitive, I mean that a publisher would have no hesitation playing them for anyone because they stand up to anything on the radio in your genre.  Broad pitches are songs that could be pitched to many different artists.
  2. Already have some song activity at an independent level and want to try to move up to the big leagues.
  3. Are an artist looking for a record deal?  A good publisher can often help an artist get a record deal, but you should do a LOT of homework to make sure you are signing with a reputable publisher.

You probably don’t need a publisher if:

  1. Your catalog only has a couple of commercially competitive songs. Publishers need to see more volume than that.
  2. You already have a connection that helps you get songs recorded.
  3. You aren’t really interested in getting songs recorded commercially.
  4. Hanging on to all of your publishing is your desire. Publishers are going to demand 50-100% of the publishing on all of your songs. For new writers, it’s almost always 100%.  If you aren’t willing to give that up, there’s no need to meet with a publisher.  (Note: The Songwriter always keeps the writer’s share of a song. We are talking about the publisher’s share only here.)

SongTown members can always ask more specific publishing questions in the SongTown Forum “Ask Clay And Marty”. I hope you are a little more clear now when asking yourself “do songwriters need a publisher.”

Write on! ~MD

Marty Dodson

Marty Dodson

Marty Dodson is a multi-hit songwriter, co-founder of SongTown, and co-author of  The Songwriter’s Guide To Mastering Cowriting and Song Building: Mastering Lyric Writing

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