So often as songwriters we hold the publishing deal out there as some kind of holy grail. I understand the mindset, as so much of our work is solitary and the kind of industry acknowledgement that a publishing deal represents can be a very tempting proposition. In fact, signing with a publisher is a business arrangement, and, as with any business deal, it deserves the kind of heightened scrutiny that songwriters may not be giving it. Giving up half or all of your publishing is a serious decision, and one that is often overlooked because of the cache a publishing deal provides in the eyes of our peers, and, often, the music industry as well. So that we’re clear, a brief description of services a publisher provides would include copyright administration, financial investment in the songwriter (in the form of a draw as well as funding the recording of demos), writer mentoring, a song plugger (or pluggers) to shop the catalog of songs, and, of course, a network of industry contacts, including performing rights organizations like BMI.
All this to say, starting your own publishing company isn’t something to be undertaken lightly either. Consider the following points if you’re looking into starting your own publishing company. If they apply to you, then I’d highly recommend doing it yourself because full ownership of your copyrights is a very valuable thing. If, however, you don’t meet or feel comfortable with the criteria below, you know what they say, “One hundred percent of nothing…”
1. Have confidence in your material
First and foremost, if you’re going to start your own publishing company, you have to believe in your songs. There are several reasons for this. One, if you don’t believe in your material, it will be very difficult to get up every day and look for opportunities to exploit it. Two, confidence is contagious. If you feel good about your songs, there will be an infinite number of subtle cues that let people know your material is strong and should be given the appropriate attention. The key here is to have a firm idea that your songs are marketable to someone – particular artists, your fans, the industry or even some special niche that has the potential to catch on. You need to take a very thorough and brutally honest look at your own material. If you’re at a point in your songwriting where you’re still looking for feedback and guidance and the overall reception to your material is that it still needs some work, you might not be ready to be your own publisher. It’s also important to note here, that if this is the case, it’s important to step back before you make an impression that may later hurt your efforts when you’re ready to start shopping your own material.
Unfortunately, people have a tendency to remember first impressions, so if you can’t find an industry mentor who believes in you and can help you strengthen your work while you maintain ownership of your publishing, it may be hard to build the relationships you’ll need to publish yourself.
2. Get comfortable networking (whatever that means to you)
Networking is an essential part of finding outlets for your music and if you’re unwilling or unable to do it that will make things infinitely more difficult, if not impossible. Although networking doesn’t have to have the negative connotation that a lot of us introverted creative types give it, you do need to make a positive impression that shows you’re someone people will want to meet with again in a mutually beneficial relationship, not just someone who’s using them as a stepping stone. That means making an effort to identify and being personable enough to get to know the decision-makers in our industry and then doing your best to build lasting relationships with them. To help you make contacts, there are several organizations that act as go-betweens, allowing songwriters outside of the major music cities to still pitch their material through them. Still, making trips to music centers like L.A., New York and Nashville to develop these relationships is an important part of having your own publishing company. A few shorthand suggestions on ways to network with other writers, as well as aspiring artists, would also include going to writers’ nights, working with co-writers (you immediately double your contacts that way), joining a local or national songwriting organization like the Songwriters Guild (SGA) or Nashville Songwriters Association (NSAI) and attending music conferences – especially if you don’t live in a major music city.
3. Remember, it’s a business
So, here’s the thing. If you’re going to consider starting your own publishing company, it’s not enough to be a talented songwriter. Running a publishing company, especially if it’s just you, means you have to pay attention to the business side of things and wear several hats. This means making sure your songs are properly demoed, catalogued and easy to access, keeping track of pitches you’ve made of your material and any one of a hundred things that have nothing to do with making up songs out of your own head. If you’re still in the early stages of developing your industry contacts, you might consider hiring an independent song plugger. This is a way of supplementing your own song pitching work, but I would warn against assuming you don’t need to do your own pitch work as well. Also, if you’re not afraid of the work but you’re concerned that you don’t know the ins and outs of licensing and some of the more esoteric parts of tracking your royalties, there is a compromise. You can always hire a copyright administrator. These companies are essentially publishers but their sole purpose is to “mind the store” when it comes to your songs, which are out in the world generating income. Instead of giving up half or all of your publishing, you’ll give up a small percentage for this valuable and anxiety-reducing service, but as with anything you hire someone to do, you should have a good idea of what they need to provide.
Being your own publisher has many advantages even beyond owning your own copyrights. You’ll have the ability to negotiate on your own behalf and make decisions that are right for you and your songs. That being said, it’s not for everyone. It requires a good deal of work and effort to earn the above rewards. If by the end of this article, you feel like you’re not ready to be your own publisher, then know that over time you can certainly get to that point by continuing to work on your material, networking and business skills. In the end, owning your own publishing is a goal worthy of setting.
Cliff Goldmacher is a songwriter, producer, session musician, engineer, author and owner of recording studios in Nashville, TN and Sonoma, CA. Cliff’s site, www.EducatedSongwriter.com, is full of resources for the aspiring songwriter including monthly online webinars. Go to www.educatedsongwriter.com/webinar/ for the latest schedule.
Cliff’s company, www.NashvilleStudioLive.com, provides songwriters outside of Nashville with virtual access to Nashville’s best session musicians and singers for their songwriting demos.
You can download a FREE sample of Cliff’s eBook “The Songwriter’s Guide To Recording Professional Demos” by going to www.EducatedSongwriter.com/ebook.