Experts explain how music publishing and licensing work

Illustration: George Wylesol

We dove head-first into music publishing to learn its inner workings and it turns out, it’s quite complex.

But we do our best to break it down for you below.

In a recent article on the basics of sync licensing, three industry-leading music supervisors agreed that if artists are interested in getting their music licensed, their best bet is to hire representation who are aligned with their values, interests, and goals.

That left us wanting to know what exactly it means to find representation. So we reached out to publishers, administrators, licensing professionals, and sync agents to learn about what they do and what trends they’re seeing.

What is music publishing?

Starting with the basics, Keith D’Arcy, Senior Vice President of Creative Synch at Kobalt Music, shares that there are three basic types of publishing deals:

  1. Full publishing: A song copyright is owned 100% by the publisher.
  2. Co-publishing: A song copyright is co-owned by the publisher and the songwriter (usually 50/50).
  3. Administration: 100% of the song copyright is owned by the songwriter and the publisher provides a set of specific services for an agreed upon period of time (probably the most common deal today).

Deals typically include a delivery commitment outlining how many songs are required to be written during the term of the agreement, as well as a retention period defining how long those song copyrights will remain with the publisher after they’re written and released.

Sometimes a publishing deal will come with a monetary advance, which is essentially a loan from the publisher that’ll usually be earned back from revenue generated by the songs in the deal. After the loan is paid back, songwriters will keep a percentage of revenues earned.

Publishers offer many services. The most prominent is A&R, which stands for Artists & Repertoire. This typically involves a publisher setting up co-writing opportunities with other successful songwriters with complementary skill sets, shopping song demos to artists looking for repertoire for upcoming releases, and offering critical feedback to help make songs more marketable (to radio, on streaming services, in synchronization, etc.). They’ll also negotiate percentage splits for various songwriters involved in a project when needed.

It’s worth noting that full publishing deals are rare in the pop, rock, and rhythmic music markets today. They were common in the 1950s and 1960s, but don’t fit as well into the modern landscape as they once did, with the exception of some country music deals in Nashville.

The history of music publishing

Taking a quick trip through history, the music publishing industry started in the 1800s when classical musicians began offering their sheet music to venues for in-house artists to play. Music publishers were literally selling sheet music, operating much like how a book publisher did. Needless to say, while the greater system has evolved, the publishing industry found new roles to fill.

Today, publishers do many things the general public may not be aware of. They collect revenue generated from various uses of a song from around the globe as thoroughly as possible. Revenue sources include public performances (when songs are played on the radio or in a venue like a club or restaurant), the streaming or purchasing of songs, and their use in film, television, video games, online content, interactive products, apps, etc.

Publishers often provide legal support for settling any disputes, claims, or conflicts related to your songs. They’ll negotiate with other publishers to make sure each writer gets a fair percentage of co-written compositions.

They also pitch songs they control to music supervisors across film, television, advertising, branding, film trailers, and TV promos. These opportunities can be a significant source of revenue for songwriters, and can also expand their audience significantly.

The differences between a publisher, administrator, and sync agent

A publisher fills some or all of the roles outlined above and can take long-term ownership of the rights to your musical compositions. However, it’s uncommon for publishers to take full ownership of your composition today.

Many modern publishers (like Kobalt) offer administration deals where they don’t contract for ownership of your song copyrights. Deals can be structured a variety of ways, but they often take an agreed-upon percentage of the various revenue streams generated by your song copyrights.

Some full-service publishers and sync agents with A&R functions work with songwriters on creating new material to be licensed. Most of the folks we spoke with are working primarily with catalogs of written material.

A sync agent who’s not offering full publishing services pitches your music to be used in media: TV, films, advertisements, video games, podcasts, etc. In most cases, a sync agent traditionally won’t try to purchase your rights. Rather, they’ll represent your compositions and/or master recordings for sync placements, typically earning a percentage of each licensing deal.

There are sync agents who do a whole lot more than pitching. For example, Rachel Komar, Founder of HyperExtension, prefers to offer her clients a more holistic approach. She explains to her clients how the business works, helps them find a team, and ensures their music is ready for pitching. That involves making sure it’s properly registered and of the highest quality production. This includes having all the stems, files, and instrumental versions on hand, and all the rights and percentage splits of their works sorted ahead of time.

She even helps them book shows and showcases, getting them in front of key decision makers. These services are all included in her commission. She adds, “It’s important to me that artists and songwriters are educated about the business of music, so I try my best to guide them along their overall musical journeys.” This lays a lot of the groundwork for the songwriters and artists she works with. Not all sync agents go to that extent, so keep that in mind as you look for one.

What is a performing rights organization (PRO)?

Performing rights organizations (PROs) collect royalties on behalf of the copyright holder from parties who wish to use copyrighted works publicly. According to a guide from Songtrust, “While PROs collect royalties for songwriters when their works are performed publicly, such as played on television and AM/FM airwaves, through internet radio services like Pandora, at a club, inside a restaurant, or at a concert, most organizations don’t stop there. Many tackle other issues impacting their members, such as fighting music piracy and keeping up with changes to the industry that have resulted from the advent of digital music.”

Often, a publisher will collect royalties from PROs on behalf of an artist. The largest PROs in the United States—ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC—play such a significant role in protecting the rights of artists and collecting royalties on their behalf, they warrant their own article in the future. In the meantime, you can find some info on the various streams PROs collect from in this article.

Why engage representation?

Although it’s possible to manage all of this yourself, there are quite a few notable reasons to bring on help.

1. Their networks and connections to supervisors

In the previous article mentioned above, we learned that when working on a project, music supervisors Chris Swanson, Tiffany Anders, and Jonathan Hecht either dig into their libraries or work directly with sync agents and publishers to find music – they don’t have time to sort through artist submissions.

If you’re interested in licensing your music, it’s best to have an experienced and connected professional sharing your music with supervisors. These reps are on various “search lists” used by music supervisors and directors to share briefs and calls for submissions.

Matt Pincus, founder of SONGS Publishing (acquired by Kobalt) and MUSIC (an investor of Splice) says, “Most artists want a sounding board who’s specialized in a particular area. It’s helpful to have professionals who know the marketplace and can make connections. Plugging into a system via someone you can trust and knowing they hear you are crucial. It’s less about trying to change the melody of a song and more about knowing what the artist is trying to accomplish and who might be the best person to help them get there.”

2. A fresh perspective based on expertise

Representatives offer a fresh perspective as well. D’Arcy says he listens to every song his Kobalt songwriters and artists have written to generate creative ways to market those songs as individual sync offerings. With a deep knowledge of what advertisers are looking for, he can listen through the lens of opportunities an artist may never be aware of.

3. Exposure

Sometimes a sync can break an indie artist. Komar says she’s seen artists capture the attention of labels and publishers with syncs. “Sync agents and music supervisors are often early to ‘discover’ an artist. They can take a chance on someone who doesn’t have a proven track record, whereas booking agents or labels might need to wait until an artist has more of a following or greater recognition.” A sync portfolio gives artists credibility and leverage when talking to potential team members.

Komar added, “The exposure alone, especially for those not touring, can be huge. You can have so many ears on your song, maybe even more than you would on an entire U.S. tour, if you’re on a show like Grey’s Anatomy, for example. A show like that has the potential of reaching millions of people who may then Shazam your song and become a supporter.”

Sometimes a sync placement can put an artist on the charts. D’Arcy gave the example of “Renegades” by X Ambassadors, which was used in a Jeep commercial and subsequently became a hit.

4. Greater royalties

When speaking about lesser-known indie artists, Komar said, “By the time they do get synced in something, it could make a big difference on this indie level. Money plays a key role in them deciding to quit or to go further in their musical careers.”

Greg Vegas, founder of Declared Goods and International Rescue Artists Development added that many smaller “lower middle class” indie artists can’t get publishers because their pennies collected won’t generate enough income for these companies. But a third party like a sync agent could have a big impact for these artists. Landing a song on a Netflix show could generate a couple of thousand of dollars in revenue, which is more than thousands of online streams. A sync opportunity can raise their profile too so for his artists, it often starts with someone like a sync agent, then they get a label, then a publisher involved.

5. Paperwork

There are a lot of moving parts and much paperwork involved with each aspect of publishing and licensing. It’s a lot to manage and a detail falling through the cracks can make or break a deal. To focus on creating your art, it’s best to have someone managing this stuff for you.

Lacey Swain, Director of Licensing at Sub Pop Records, added, “Artists put their heart and soul into their art. It can feel uncomfortable to put dollar amounts around it. It’s helpful to have some other person working on their behalf.”

We’ll cover this in further detail later, but be careful what type of deal you strike. In most cases, you shouldn’t be paying a representative before they deliver anything for you.

Publishing and licensing advice for artists

With the basics covered, let’s get down to business.

1. Know what music supervisors and advertisers are looking for

D’Arcy, Komar, and Swain all say lyrics are often the biggest consideration in finding a song to license for a picture, especially advertisements. When D’Arcy listens to tracks with a specific advertising brief in mind, he’s asking: “Does this song thematically, structurally, and lyrically line up with what’s needed?”

Komar echoes that the lyrics need to be relevant to the theme of a film or TV brief. Otherwise, they can compete with what’s happening in the scene. She said, “The actors in the scene are already telling a story, so let them tell it. Storytelling lyrics don’t typically work well for sync in film or television, but lyrics broadly about things like love, motivation, perseverance, etc. do. On the contrary, lyrics for advertising are often more ‘on-the-nose’ and should help tell the story.”

Swain adds that advertisers want something familiar. They’re looking to evoke a specific emotion. Even when they say they’re looking for something new, they’ll often go with the Imagine Dragons track (again) or the equivalent.

D’Arcy shares that on the flip side, if something is sonically amazing, a company might use it as inspiration and hire a commercial underscore company to create something like it rather than license the original to save money. He adds that in advertising, a creative team is trying to evoke an emotional response in the viewer in a relatively short amount of time and there are some general themes in ads that songs can be called upon to support. Here are the more common types of song opportunities he sees in advertising:

    1. Anthem: Projects the idea that an individual or group has great power and can affect real change in the world. “Renegades” by X Ambassadors is a great example, especially lyrically.
    2. Swagger: Projects a sense of supreme self-confidence and ego. These songs can exist in any genre, but often contain “retro” production elements (classic blues-rock like Led Zeppelin, glam-rock like T.Rex, old-school hip hop like LL Cool J, etc.). For example, “How You Like Me Now” by The Heavy has had a ton of big syncs.
    3. Sultry: Projects sexual tension, often used in ads where the product is shown as the object of desire. A classic example is Peggy Lee’s version of the song “Fever.” A contemporary example is Goapele’s 2011 single “Play.”
    4. Assurance: Creates a sense of safety, calm, and comfort, and says “I’ll be there for you,” “I’ll take care of you,” or “Things will get better.” Think of insurance company ads where something really bad has happened (a hurricane destroys your home or a tree falls on your car). Jess Glynne’s “I’ll Be There” is an example.
    5. Feel Good: The kinds of songs that soundtrack spots for retail brands like Target or Old Navy. They’re the kind of song you’d want playing at your most fabulous summer party. Sometimes they’re retro soul or funk, and sometimes they’re very danceable with elements of world music. Some good recent examples of this are “Feel It Still” by Portugal. The Man and “Makeba” by Jain.
    6. Futuristic: The kinds of tracks that soundtrack super tech-forward spots (the coolest new smartphone, personal digital assistant, or luxury car). They often have a specific build-and-release and a very modern production style that projects “the sound of tomorrow.” When used in sync, they act as a film score but exist in the context of a commercial pop song. A good example is the instrumental of “Midnight City” by M83.

Try browsing sites like iSpot.TV and TuneFind to get an idea of the type of music TV, films, and advertisers are using.

2. Create music that’s authentic

Pincus said, “Sync music changes over time in an adaptive kind of way, but it all seems to be up-mid tempo, relatively positive, lush, driving, building music, in general. Recently, a lot of that was EDM because that’s what was popular. Before that, it was indie rock.”

If that’s not your sound, don’t get discouraged. Swain pointed out that with so much content being created today, the chances are if you’ve made something, there’s a place for it to go. It might not pay what you hoped or look exactly like what you expected, but it’s out there. Vegas, for example, has had several artists featured as the background music in television shows. These opportunities are still a significant paycheck at times.

Although each rep has an idea of what their clients are looking for, they all urge artists to focus on creating music that’s authentic to them. It’s the licensing professional’s job to look for those themes within an artist’s catalog.

D’Arcy added, “The artists that make the most money are the ones that don’t try to address a specific market, but really try to speak from the heart. You can tell when a writer submits something they think will be a hot commodity in sync. It’s not always a true expression of an overarching emotion they need to express. It’s not something they needed to get off their chest. So although songs are best for sync if they fit into those categories, they shouldn’t be written with the intention of landing a sync.”

Gareth Smith, VP of publishing at Sub Pop, echoed this: “The artists most successful in sync are probably the ones not thinking about sync.” He added, “Spend your time writing songs because you want to write songs. Bob Dylan never wrote a song for a car commercial but his music has probably been in plenty of them.”

3. Patience is the name of the game

D’Arcy says that he and his team will find a song that feels perfect for sync, and it’ll often take over six months of pitching it to find the right opportunity.

Swain says that a big part of her job is to make sure supervisors are hearing what her artists are releasing. That sometimes means having lunch with them to learn what they’re working on. Everyone we spoke with mentioned how many pitches and songs supervisors receive. They simply can’t make it through them all so it’s important to be compelling and passionate upfront, and of course, to not give up.

Smith adds that much of the publishing and licensing industry is expectation management. He prefers to be realistic about the opportunities that exist for artists at various levels.

Vegas says that patience is also important when it comes to finding the right representative. “Everyone wants to be in the sync game, but like anything else, there’s a lot of shady companies out there. Even if you have a partner, it doesn’t mean a sync is going to happen. It’s important to know your rep is pitching your music, that at least they’re trying. If you’re on your own as an artist, it’s hard to figure out who to trust, but there are also a lot of good people out there. It really is about patience.”

4. Find a representative you align with

As a publisher, Smith is looking for authenticity. He wants to work with real “artists, artists” and to get the feeling that “this is what they were put on earth to do. Anything else is an aside to that, including success or making money. Having absolute intention is something I’m drawn towards.”

He added that although the Sub Pop name holds credibility, they like to work with artists they find interesting and who’ll feel the impact of their work. Who they can make a difference for. Some publishers sign as many bands as they can; Sub Pop is a bit more selective.

Ask your friends and artists who you admire who they work with. Or work better. If there’s a specific genre of media you’d like to get syncs in, do some internet snooping to work backwards and identify who worked on it. IMDb is good for this.

5. Pay attention to your contracts

It’s understandable to get excited about dollar amounts or promised opportunities. But Komar and Swain both advised artists to pay close attention to what you’re signing. Komar specifically advises against paying an agent before securing a sync and to not trust companies who are trying to own your rights without being a proper publisher.

Swain says to shop around for percentages; pay attention to what marketing expenses they’re taking out of their fees and what you have to pay back. She added, “just make sure you’re not giving your sync rep ½ and other people ½ and getting nothing.” The most solid advice is to have someone who knows contracts look at yours before signing anything.

Smith adds to ask questions if someone is offering you the world. Sometimes that means asking what songs a potential representative thinks are sync-worthy when they’re making claims.

6. Be active outside of sync

Vegas says that if you’re a smaller indie artist, your music needs to be online and discoverable. You need to be active and doing other things like releasing music and touring to build awareness. Syncs are so much about trends and often come from fandom. It’s important for your music to be discoverable.

What about selling out?

Every representative we spoke to mentioned that the concept of selling out isn’t much of a thing anymore, and that it has definitely evolved.

Swain said, “Everything has always been commercial. We’re buying and selling records. You’re selling your music. It’s already commercial; money has entered the scene. Now that everything is more in-the-open, people are more used to ads on YouTube or having Google following them around. People seem to have adopted an attitude of ‘there’s no escaping it’ and are coming around. I might as well get a piece of the pie. Now everyone asks, ‘Where’s my license?’”

D’Arcy and Komar both said that rather than saying no to opportunities outright, artists are more specific about what they will and won’t align with. It just depends on whether or not they feel comfortable attaching their art to something. But more and more artists today are willing to hear a pitch regardless of if it’s for an ad, film, TV, etc.

Have questions about music publishing and licensing? Leave them in the comments below and we’ll do our best to find you an answer.

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August 19, 2019

Shannon Byrne Shannon Lee Byrne is a freelance writer focused on the music industry, creativity, entrepreneurship, culture, and mental health. She's also a copywriter, marketing strategist, and podcaster.