Should You Start Your Own Publishing Company?

by Peter Spellman, Director, Music Business Solutions

Appeared originally in MUSIC BIZ INSIGHT #8

Besides the obvious profit potential, which is attractive to anyone seeking a good business to start, there are several situations that make setting up a publishing company a natural move:

  • Songwriters may want greater control over their own copyrights, as well as earn more money from their use.
  • New songwriters may want to short-circuit frustrations of trying to get publishers to accept their work.
  • Writers with a co-writer who does well as his own publisher and where you can negotiate a portion of the rights for your own company. (NOTE: If your co-writer is a staff writer with a major company, you may find this very difficult unless you also have great contacts and are aggressive about pitching your songs).
  • Record producers and recording artists may want to own some of the copyrights that they record.
  • Artists' managers, music business attorneys, or accountants may want to handle clients' songs.
  • Record labels should want to publish songs they release that aren't already signed to publishers.
  • People who have a great casting sense that lets them present the right song to the right artist at the right time.

The Nuts & Bolts Of Setting Up Your Own Publishing Company

1. You are eligible to have BMI, ASCAP, or SESAC process your application as a publisher if : (a) a record is being released containing a performance of the song; (b) a motion picture is being released that includes the song; (c) a television program will be or has been broadcast using the song; or (d) a radio program has been broadcast that played the song.

2. Come up with a name for your company (with three alternates) and clear the name with BMI, ASCAP or SESAC. You may use your own name but you should try to come up with something catchy that will make people want to open your envelopes with your demos inside. Unless you intend to publish the songs of other writers who may belong to other performing rights organizations, you need only set up a company with the one you're affiliated with as a writer.

There is a $50 annual fee for being a publisher-member of ASCAP. There is a one-time $100 application fee to be a BMI publisher, and no annual fee. There is no fee for SESAC publishers.

3. Once the name(s) have been cleared, go to your local city or town hall and obtain the forms to register a ficticious name certificate, also known as a d/b/a (doing business as...). Then go to your bank and open an account under your new business name. If you have any questions about the required business forms call the Secretary of State's office in your state.

4. Copyright all the songs you wish to have in your company on a PA form assigned to your company. If you have already obtained copyright registrations on your unpublished songs, you will now register them again as published works. Read this for a rather full discussion of copyright. See also Brad Templeton's "10 Big Myths About Copyright Explained."

5. For songs being released on records, or for songs that will be or have been performed in a motion picture, television program or radio program (regardless of whether the song is included on any record), fill out both the writer's and publisher's clearance forms from the performing rights organization involved (BMI, ASCAP or SESAC). These forms notify the organization that a specific song is being released on a specific album so that, when it's performed on the radio, TV, or elsewhere, the organization will know who to pay, what percentage to pay the writer and the publisher, and where to send the checks. Directions are included on the forms and in the publisher's manuals provided by the organizations. Keep a copy of everything you send out for your files.

6. Organize yourself to be able to keep track of your "song shopping." Check out the software from Working Solutionz, "SongTracker" and "SongTracker Pro 3.0", an award-winning set of integrated templates that turns FileMaker Pro 3.0 into a full-featured publishing/song shopping system for professional songwriters and active music publishers.

7. Learn as much as you can about music publishing. Tim Whitsett's, "Music Publishing: The Real Road to Music Business Success" is the first book you should master. Other good resources to help you understand music publishing are "Music, Money & Success" by Jeffrey & Todd Brabec (Schirmer Books) and "The Musician's Business & Legal Guide", ed. by Mark Halloran (Jerome Hedlands Press), especially pages 105-180.

by Peter Spellman

Director of Career Development at Berklee College of Music, Boston, and author of The Self-Promoting Musician: Do-it-Yourself Strategies for Independent Music Success (Berklee Press). You can find him at Music Business Solutions.

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