Still with me? Still want to be a rock musician? Actually, this won’t be so bad-remember a couple of columns back when I promised to talk about “publishing: a way for you to make money”? Well, I digressed and got all philosophical on you last month, but, finally, here it is.
You may have heard your grandparents talk about the days when the whole family would gather around the radio at night-which is strange enough in itself-but did you ever wonder what people did before that? They made music. That’s right, in the years leading up to the popularization of the phonograph in the 1890′s and the radio in the 1920′s, many people played instruments purely to have something to do-unless you were a concert violinist or played piano in a saloon or something, playing was considered to be more of a hobby than an artistic skill. Almost every city block had its own little string-and-jug band, everybody who could afford it had a piano in the parlor, and people would have little “music parties” where they’d get together to sing the popular songs of the day. The publishing business retains its name from these times: songwriters sold their tunes directly to music publishing companies, who sold sheet music to the public (and lots of it-30 million copies in 1910 alone).
With artists writing their own material and the sales of sheet music so low (do you even know anyone who reads music?), the publishing business works completely differently than it did 100, 50 or even 20 years ago. In a nutshell, what your band is doing when you sign a publishing deal is selling partial ownership of your songs to a company for a given amount of time. You receive an advance (once again, an advance is a loan that will be repaid by money you earn) and the publisher attempts to make money with your songs by licensing them for movies, commercials, TV shows , having them sold as sheet music and even getting them recorded by other artists. After your advance is recouped (paid back), you split the profits with the company, usually in a 50/50 deal. In addition to this, publishing moneys from record sales are called “mechanical royalties” and are also split 50/50 between you and your publishing company.
Pick up an album you like, and look at the songwriting credits. If it’s a Soundgarden record, you’ll notice that the songs are published by “You Make Me Sick I Make Music.” Sonic Youth’s albums say “Sonik Tooth,” Slayer’s say “Death’s Head” and Alice In Chains’ say “Buttnugget.” Okay, that’s pretty wacky, but what does it all mean?
I’ll use my own band as an example. On a White Zombie record it says “WB Music Corp./Psycho-head Music ASCAP.” This translates into “we’re signed to the Warner-Chappell publishing corporation, our own company is called ‘Psycho-head’ and our performance royalties are administered by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.” ASCAP, BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated) and some others are companies that collect royalties for you from radio and jukebox play. This is something else that goes back to the turn of the century: begun as a board of music publishers as a way of paying artists for performing songs live, ASCAP evolved into a company whose purpose is to make sure songwriters are paid for the public performance of their songs. When you sign your deal, you too will have to create your own company to administer the percentage of publishing that you own-a legal corporation recognized by the state. Don’t sweat it, get a lawyer and give your company a nutty name.
Unless your name is Paul McCartney, you’re not going to make a bundle from performance royalties, but I wouldn’t knock any situation where you make a profit from doing nothing. You are, however, very lucky to be making music now and not 50 years ago. It used to be that a publishing deal involved selling 100 percent ownership of your songs forever. Today, the system is much more musician-friendly: deals are usually for a 75 percent (you)/25 percent (them) ownership split, and only for a certain period of time. After that, you’re free to sell your publishing again. If you write a classic song that remains popular for years, this can be a very good thing as far as royalties go. Now figure in movies, commercials and TV. Get my drift?
Typically, bands sign a publishing deal at the same time they sign a record deal (once again, get a lawyer), or even before as songwriters. This is cool if you need the money, but as a new, unknown group (they call them “baby bands” in the industry) you probably won’t be getting a giant advance. If you possibly can, hold off on signing a deal. Then, if you have a successful record you can make more money, or sign a larger deal later.
Hopefully, that all made some kind of sense. Next month, I’ll go into how a merchandise deal works, and then we’ll stay away from the boring stuff for a while. If you want to learn more about the music business, I suggest you read Billboard magazine. There are also several very good books currently on the market that address all the complexities and pitfalls of the music industry. I recommend a book by Russell Sanjek called Pennies From Heaven: The American Popular Music Business in the Twentieth Century (Da Capo Press). It’ll tell you everything you need to know about the way this crazy business works. ‘Til next time, here are the next four bars of the “I Am Legend” (La Sexorcisto…) intro. See you soon.