Publishing is pretty misunderstood; it took me aaaaages to get my head round the concept, let alone all the crazy niche clauses, structures and interdependence with record labels. We’ve got to where we are now thanks to some cheeky orchestras, the French (merci), and weird creepy malls… no one said it was a straight forward journey!
There’s a more macro overview of the industry here if you need some extra bedtime reading before we dig in.
Publishers want to exploit all of the rights contained within a song copyright (the right to record the song, to perform the song, to replicate the song, etc.). They want to maximise the revenue a song copyright earns through use of these rights, and make sure that the revenue is collected properly.
Publishing was the original music industry – before there was even the technology to make a recording. Publishers deal with only songs/music/lyrics/composition copyrights and these were all that existed before recordings. The only ways a song actually existed was through live performance or by physically writing out the lyrics and musical notation.
For a cut of sales income (which is the definition of royalties), a songwriter would license the ownership of the copyright to a book publisher who had the facility to replicate, market and sell the sheet music (hence music ‘publishing’). This is exactly how it works today, except now there are specific music publishers and only a relatively small part of their income is actually from selling printed (or digital) sheet music.
You could happily put on a concert of your own music and take the ticket sales, but what was to stop another orchestra/band from playing your song without having to pay you a penny once they’d bought the sheet music?
The French solved the problem in 1851 with the creation of a performing rights organisation (PRO). Songwriters and publishers (whoever holds le copyright) sign the ‘right to perform’ over to PROs, who license it on to venues. PROs gather up all the venue fees and pay the copyright holders of the songs that have been performed. You cannot legally play live music (or recorded music) in a public place without a license from a PRO. Voila. Vive La France.
PRS (the Performing Rights Society) is the UK PRO. Confusingly in the US there’s 3- SESAC, BMI and ASCAP. As a venue/public place playing music in the US you need licenses with all three as each represents a different catalogue of songs. As a songwriter you must pick one to place your catalogue with, you can’t affiliate with more than one. The PROs use a mixture of sampling, official charts and venues/radio stations reporting to work out whose songs have been played the most and distribute earnings accordingly.
Now we can add in recorded music! Hoorah.
Some of the earliest forms of music reproduction were mechanical player pianos – those annoying ghostly things you get at weird old fairs and in creepy shopping malls that play themselves. A mechanical roll is made per song for the pianos to play; copyright holders complained that this was a form of public performance and demanded a royalty from the manufacturers. Publishers would grant a ‘mechanical license’, for which the manufacturers of the piano rolls would pay a royalty (slice of their sales income, remember?). It’s a payment for the right to mechanically reproduce the song. As recording technology developed this system grew to cover all types of mechanical reproduction – vinyl, tapes, CDs and now even covers digital reproductions and some streaming services.
Mechanical licenses and royalties are quite a complex area so deserve a whole blog to themselves. A mechanical royalty is paid by a record label (the recording maker) to the publisher (song owner) for the right to record the song. It is a publishing income and a record label cost (if you act as both you literally get to pay yourself…like a lonely Christmas with no relatives or friends).
Music publishing is crazy complicated but again the simple thing to remember is it’s earning money from the song being used. Anyway you can think of a song being used is covered by publishing. Publishers exist to get their songs used – performed, recorded, printed – and to collect all the cool millions that people pay for the rights to perform, record and print a song.
As a note: in most territories (including US and UK) song copyright lasts for 70 years beyond the last surviving writer’s death. After this time it goes into the public domain (owned by the public rather than any specific person or company) where anyone can use the copyright – record it, perform it etc. – without requiring a license or paying anyone.