Technically you are your song’s publisher once you’ve written a song. While there are undoubted advantages to allying yourself with an established music publishing company to maximize the potential for your song’s being placed with an artist, in a film or TV show, etc., there are also advantages to establishing your own music publishing company.
The most immediate advantage to controlling your own copyrights is, of course, the potential for earning more money from their use; it’s somewhat akin to selling your self-created paintings or jewelry without needing to pay commissions to agents or other middlemen. Success will still be dependent on your ability to represent yourself and your songs to the right people at the right time; as with all other aspects of the business, keeping your ears and eyes open to potential opportunities is key.
To set up your own publishing company, you will first need to affiliate your company with one of the three performing rights societies in the U.S., like BMI. (There is usually a nominal fee involved.) An important note: the societies will only agree to affiliate with you if a record is being released containing a performance of your song(s); or a motion picture, television program, or radio program is being released or broadcast using the song(s).
You will need to provide the society with three potential names for your company; the name can be as simple as your own name (e.g. “John Doe Music”), though if you’re not an established songwriter, the name may not mean anything to potential purchasers of your songs down the line.
Most insiders suggest you come up with something catchy that may be indicative of the types of songs you write. The society will then clear your company’s name; this means they will make sure your company’s name is not the same (or too similar to) an existing company. This will ensure that the monies for the use of your song will go to you and not accidentally to the similarly named company.
Assuming that you have already affiliated yourself with a performing rights society as a songwriter, you will need to affiliate with the same society as a publisher, as the societies mandate that a song’s publisher must be affiliated with the same society as the song’s writer.
If you plan on publishing other people’s songs as well as your own, you should affiliate with each of the three societies, with a different company name registered with each one. (Songwriters can only affiliate with one society at a time.) Approval from each society can take up to six weeks or more.
Once the name(s) have been cleared, you should go to your local city or town hall and obtain the forms to register a fictitious name certificate, also known as a d/b/a (which stands for “doing business as…”). You then should open an account at your bank under the new business’ name. Questions about the required d/b/a forms can usually be found at the website of the Secretary of State’s office in your state.
The next step is to register the songs you’re representing with the Copyright Office in the name of your publishing company. If you have already copyrighted the songs in your name, you will need to file the appropriate forms to transfer the copyright(s) to your publishing company.
For songs being released on recordings, or for songs that will be or have been performed in a motion picture, television program or radio program (whether or not the song is included on a standalone recording), you need to fill out both the writer’s and publisher’s clearance forms from the performing rights society involved. The forms break down what percentage to pay the songwriter and publisher, as well as where to send payments.
As with nearly anything, you should keep a copy of every form you fill out.