Anyone seriously trying to make a living as a professional songwriter is eventually going to run across a challenging breed of creature known as a music publisher. The courtship that hopefully ensues with one or more of them is a delicate dance and care must be taken to assure that you, the songwriter, do not end up with very bruised toes. Forget about protecting your ego. It will most definitely get bruised at some point. Expect this and hope that it is minimal. Read on to experience an inside tour of the minutiae involved in this difficult ritual.
Do Your Homework
Schedule an appointment with a rep at one of the performing rights organizations.
Okay, let's assume you have enough well-written songs under your belt, in the proper genre you are tackling, and feel ready to show some of them to a publisher. Where do you find those coveted names and numbers?
Not so long ago many a Nashville or Los Angeles hotel telephone book was missing a good chunk of the P pages. Most likely they were torn out and tucked into the vest of some eager tunesmith out pounding the pavement.
Actually the numbers of publishers in such a listing includes the legitimate and not so legitimate players in the genre.
“Any Tom, Dick, or Harry can call himself a publisher and the title means little without anything else to back it up.”
There are lots of small publishers who are highly effective and very legitimate but there are countless others who in reality have absolutely nothing to do with the actual music industry. Crooks and dreamers fill these ranks. Here's a better formula to get your foot in the door:
- Schedule an appointment with a rep at one of the performing rights organizations. It is their job to welcome such meetings but don't make a pest of yourself by asking for them too often. Play them a few tunes and let them advise you as to your readiness. If they are impressed enough, they may even make an appointment with somebody who owes them a favor! Large things seldom come from these meetings but it is a foot in the door.
- Stop by a songwriter's advocacy organization, such as the Nashville Songwriters Association and get some advice. They often have lists of the legitimate publishers in town as well of those to steer clear of. NEVER, under any circumstances pay a publisher to listen to your songs.
- Do some research and find out the names of the songpluggers at your target publishing companies. I cannot stress enough how differently you will be treated if you sound like you know what you are talking about as well as the names of the people you need to meet.
- “Is there somebody there who'll listen to my songs?” Such uninformed requests do not demand a lot of respect and are not going to cut it in this competitive marketplace. In Nashville, Music Row Magazine periodically puts out special editions with just such information. You will be looking for the Publishers Edition and can find it by dropping by their offices or by visiting their website and ordering this invaluable tool. It is not cheap but is well worth what it costs.
- Investigate the publishing companies of hit writers. By visiting the websites of target publishers, you can identify their stable of staff writers. Find out what songs they are known for. This will help you find a good potential fit for your own songs. Remember, though, publishers are most likely not looking for what they already have covered. Still, if a company has only hardcore country writers and you write alt/pop, they might not get what you do! If a company has a staff of six writers and they are all male, they may very well welcome a female writer.
- Peruse the publishing information in Billboard Magazine and on the J cards of CDs. It doesn't take long to see who publishes whom and is having success. That being said, smaller publishers will not be as visible here, but might well be easier places to land a listening meeting. Many a big writer is housed with a small publisher and prefers it that way.
The Coveted Meeting
With a little perseverance, your self-created luck has prevailed and you have a few meetings scheduled in your day planner. You got the names right and managed to sound less green than you really are. How do you prepare yourself?
- Burn a CD with four or five of your best songs. Limit your ballads to one and bring publishing open songs. Consider the sequence.
- Prepare a lyric sheet for each song, which the publisher may or may not use.
- Type a blank J card with your name, contact information, and titles.
- Keep it simple, no photos or yourself or colors other than black ink and white paper.
- Neither overdress nor underdress. It is a casual business.
- Arrive about ten minutes early but be prepared to wait and be occasionally stood up. Grrrrrr!
- Be just the right blend of confidence and humility. Don’t proclaim your songs to be hits or apologize for them. Too late for that!
- If you are asked to talk about yourself, give a brief background, but if you have no real successes to share, don’t talk about how you won a song contest!
- When your songs are played, don’t explain them or mention why you wrote them. They need to speak for themselves.
- Expect to have some or all of your songs turned off after 30 seconds or less. It’s not a good sign, but it’s not a terrible one either. If nothing excites your listener, they will be brief, sometimes seemingly rude.
- Listen to any advice you receive, but don’t consider it law unless it becomes a consensus. If everybody says your hooks are weak, they probably are. I have had some of my best songs insulted by one publisher only to be exalted by others. Remember, opinions are subjective.
- Be sensitive as to when you appointment is over. No when to thank the person and leave. If they want to encourage you to come back another time, they will. Better yet, they may ask to live with your songs awhile and get back to you.
- If you feel encouraged, make a note, and plan to request another meeting in a few weeks.
The Single Song Deal
If you have nothing going on and have made the rounds, I see nothing wrong with such contracts.
Sometimes, a publisher may like one of your songs enough to want to pitch it. They are not sold enough on you to sign you to an exclusive deal, but they love that one song. They may pull out a single song contract for you to consider. Usually this means they have the exclusive right to pitch that song for a certain amount of time and retain the publishing if they get it cut on a respectable label.
If you have nothing going on and have made the rounds, I see nothing wrong with such contracts. Get some legal advice and make sure there is a short reversion clause, preferably three months.
This means the ownership of the publishing reverts to you after a certain amount of time with no 'action' on the song. There are things far worse than a great publisher running with your song for awhile!
I would never recommend 'giving' the publishing away permanently, however, no matter how high level the publisher may be. They have no investment in you and no real motivation to get the song cut.
There are various hybrids of these contracts. Perhaps only half of your publishing would be at stake. Perhaps the contract is more of a pitch-to-earn arrangement without any signatures involved. This is a more casual agreement, but unless you want to destroy your reputation in the industry, honor your promises even when they are not legally binding.
The Staff Deal
A writer may be nurtured with advice and eventually paired to co-write with another writer from that publishers' stable.
I will never forget being offered my first staff writing deal. It was my birthday and I had only lived in Nashville for a short while. The publisher and I had never met but he had encouraged me based on a dropped off submission. When I tracked him down at a later date, he was on the brink of starting his own company and asked me to mail my package to his home.
His wife listened first and grabbed him to come in and listen while he was mowing the lawn. He called me and offered me a staff deal that day without ever having met me! The other writers slated to be at the company were hugely successful and very intimidating! It was heady to say the least!
Usually, more of a courtship is involved. A first meeting is followed by subsequent meetings. A writer may be nurtured with advice and eventually paired to co-write with another writer from that publishers' stable.
If all goes well, an exclusive contract may be offered to the writer. Usually a small draw is offered, perhaps $200-$300 a week. This money is recoupable from certain monies that the songwriter's songs may earn. Some contracts recoup from both performance and mechanical royalties. Others only recoup from mechanicals.
Mechanicals are derived from the sale of listenable versions of the song. Performance royalties come from radio, play, concert performance, etc. A more veteran writer might be able to negotiate a co-publishing deal wherein he retains a percentage of the ownership of the catalog he writes during the duration of the contract. New writers seldom get this privilege.
The duration of a contract is typically one year with the publisher having the right to renew for two or three more years if they so desire. If a writer is fortunate enough to land a few cuts of some consequence, he will most likely be renewed with a contractual increase in draw. When his contract runs out, he can choose to leave or renegotiate a more beneficial contract. Most writers get a second year even with no recordings. Very few get off the ground that fast!
Another factor in a contract is that of demos. I know of writers who make their own excellent demos and they are simply not part of the contract. My demos were fully paid for by my publisher and fully recoupable. Something in between the two is possible too. Just be sure to get legal advice so you know what you are signing.
“Most successful publishers are not scoundrels but they still are looking out for themselves!”
All publishers I am aware of require a yearly quota of their staff songwriters. My requirement was to turn in one whole song per month, which would equal two co-written ones. Like most writers, I far exceeded this quota but I know of some writers who were dropped because they failed to meet the numbers.
Life in the Stable
Like every other business, the typical publishing office can be a very political place. There may be three songpluggers all of whom have their favorite writers. Since the job of a songplugger is to know the catalog of his company's writers and choose the best ones to pitch for various needs, it is nice to be one pof those favorites!
I was once in the position of being signed by a plugger who left the company shortly thereafter. I was in effect, nobody's baby. It was rough for awhile but I eventually earned the respect of the other two pluggers.
Certain writers may be granted carte blanche in regard to what they can demo, while others may have to sweat blood to get studio privileges. Having had carte blanche, I learned its drawbacks. I demoed a lot of mediocre material and drove my recoupable amount sky high. When money did come in, I had to pay back a lot before I got to keep any of it!
Co-writing is encouraged both within a company and between companies.
Sometimes a publisher or songplugger may be a frustrated writer at heart and will constantly badger you to write an idea they have come up with. They may try to 'fix' your songs when they really don't have the instincts. I know of one who demanded perfect rhymes. Near rhymes are just fine in my book and content always takes precedence over rhyme!
Often, a publisher will host a writers' night at a club and you, as one of his writers, will be asked to perform, even if that is not your forte. I usually had a friend who aced me on guitar join me. It was a real confidence builder to hear something other than my hacking ringing out in the amps!
Co-writing is encouraged both within a company and between companies. If the co-write is with an unsigned writer, your publisher may ask for that writers publishing in return for paying for his or her portion of the demo.
There may come a time when a writer feels his catalog is not being pitched enough. Obviously, songpluggers follow the money, and the more successful writers get more pitches. I highly recommend pitching your own catalog either way. It is a great way to get to know the A and R staffs of the record labels, manager, producers, and the like. Nobody knows your catalog like you do.
Of course, you are also partial, so again, be sensitive to a consensus of opinions. Usually the name of your publishing company is enough to get you at least a lower level meeting and in time, you will develop relationships of your own that even your publisher may not have.
Royalties can go on for many, many years.
Best case scenario, your first publishing deal will be with a wonderful publisher who truly gets what you do and turns that enthusiasm into lots of success for both of you. Number one songs mean parties and accolades, and co-writes on up the ladder to the top dogs.
Most staff writers are not that fortunate but if you have some success and make your living in this highly creative way for a portion of your life, count yourself lucky. For me it was one interesting ride.
Royalties can go on for many, many years and for something you wrote so very long ago. How amazing is that! If you've got what it takes…go for it!