Music Publishing

Tom Jones and Beyonce Knowles
This is based on a piece written back in 2005 – a year before the launch of YouTube. The music business has changed a huge amount since then: the DIY sector has tripled in size and generous publishing deals are few and far between. But that makes it all the more important today not to blindly grasp at the first one you’re offered.

Contrary to popular belief the real money from being a songwriter of any kind comes from your publishing, not from any record deal. Record companies can be very good at exploiting your work and putting it in front of the public – but that’s because they make far more money from it than you do.

In my own last 15 years as a recording artist, I’d say no more than 5% of my income was paid to me by my record company. Money from publishing, PRS for Music, tour income, merchandise, TV commissions, CD sales at gigs and by mail order – yes. Record royalties from record companies ? Forget it.

You may or may not become successful. If you don’t, there’s no money for anyone anyway. If you do, your publishing becomes The Crown Jewels. Don’t under any circumstances give it away lightly or to the first person who comes along. Be suspicious of a publisher – or anyone else – who comes along offering what seem like a large advance. It not only means you’re probably worth more, but also that they’ll be offering you a less advantageous deal in the rest of the contract.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, or free money from music publishers. Effectively what they’re advancing you is YOUR money – money they consider you’re fairly certain to earn anyway – and like any banker they’ll charge you heavily for the privilege. Remember these people are not looking to do you a personal favour by signing you. If you’re any good, they need you more than you need them.

If you don’t believe you’re any good, you shouldn’t be even looking in the first place – go away and work on your stuff until you KNOW what you do is first rate and excellent. A good acid test is play it live to strangers in lots of different places. If they pick their noses and head for the bar you’re not there yet. If they stop talking and start listening, you’re onto a winner. Or put your best tune on YouTube and spread the word. If the plays quickly rack up into the tens of thousands, again you’re onto a winner. If they don’t, accept the lesson and head back to the writing room.

The key thing in a publishing deal is reversion of copyright. This is so important I’m going to say it again louder in case you missed it first time. The key thing in a publishing deal is REVERSION OF COPYRIGHT. That means that after a certain period of time, you get to own your songs again, outright.

If any publisher in the world offers you a contract, they will normally want to sign your songs up “for life of copyright” – ie forever. However, if they want you enough, most publishers will agree to let you LEASE them the publishing copyright for a fixed time period. That way the rights in your songs come back to you in 10, 15 or 20 years’ time. Ten is best, 15 reasonable – only settle for 20 if you absolutely can’t get anything better anywhere else.

If a publisher won’t give you reversion of copyright, they don’t want you enough. In which case, hold off signing a deal until you find somebody else who does. Right now 10 years may seem like a lifetime away, but it comes around faster than you think. My original 1978 contract was a 10 year lease and the songs have since come back to me twice – each time you get to make a whole new publishing deal afresh.

The percentages, accounting details, PRS split, how overseas income is allocated… your lawyer will advise you on all these points when drawing up a deal. But my advice is that reversion of copyright must be non-negotiable. Your publishing is your pension. Your publishing copyrights are what you leave to your grandchildren. Or (if you’re thinking short-term) what you leave to your parents after you die of a drug overdose aged 27. Either way, hang onto your copyrights and don’t give em away lightly.

If you don’t achieve commercial success none of this matters. But the reason you’re reading this – and why I’m bothering to write it – is that we both very much hope you are going to make it. Otherwise we’re both wasting our time. So for a moment let’s think big. Suppose five years from now you write an OMFG classic earworm tune that Beyonce or Tom Jones ends up covering. A song that crashes into the charts worldwide and stays there for months.

If your publishing deal is for Life Of Copyright you’ve just handed your publisher a huge asset – a steady income stream for the next fifty years. Whereas if you’ve insisted on reversion of copyright, that asset will be 100% yours in just five years time. Even if you had to agree to relatively modest terms in order to get reversion, once that contract ends contract you’ll own your entire catalogue outright: ten yearsworth of songs, including at least one massive hit.

You can now look a new publisher in the eye and hold out for a six figure advance and the most advantageous royalty rates known to lawyerkind. A whole different bag of bananas. And that, my friends, is why the key thing in a publishing deal is REVERSION OF COPYRIGHT.

Tom Robinson

London-based broadcaster & songwriter, born 1950. His best known songs are 2-4-6-8 Motorway, Glad To Be Gay and War Baby; he has also co-written songs with Peter Gabriel, Elton John, Dan Hartman and Manu Katché. Read More...


  1. Jak

    Once again, brilliant information Tom! Thank you

  2. Excellent piece Tom.

    Very useful reminder for people like myself who as an artist own all the rights to my songs,cheers.

  3. Adam*

    Invaluable (you & the advice, Tom). Nice one.

  4. Good info! Cheers,

    Turtuga Blanku

    *Solar Power Music*

  5. Wonderful sound advice from Tom.

    Just about 3 years ago – the idea of starting a music publishing company for the average person would have been unthinkable – but now the rapid advance of digital has zeroed out overheads – so that anyone I would think with a reliable computer and internet connection can be up and running a music publishing company (and a digital label in a few days). You’ll find hundreds, nay thousands of licensing opportunities around the world. – Midem 2013 will attest to that. Your strength is in your catalogue. Build your songs and keep them together! Make it your business to understand the licensing system – you’ll never regret it! Don’t wait for your ship to come in – swim out to it!

  6. Great article Tom. With Writing instrumentals looking at publishing companies is something I ‘ve found myself doing more often, than at labels. I don’t always get film or tv gigs so tunes that I’ve written and that I feel are good enough need to work and so publishing companies are a way forward. Your article was very helpful, as is the entire site. I’ve made some amazing music discoveries and friends via Fresh On The Net.
    Is there any thing better than good music and good friends? No there isn’t.

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