Music libraries have exploded in popularity since musicians and composers discovered synchronization ("sync") placements as an opportunity to make money and gain exposure in the music business. However, songwriters are often confused about the differences between music libraries and music publishers, especially because many libraries are trying to cross over into the publishing space. Here's what you need to know.
Music publishers have been around since the late 1700s in America, and they serve as the overall administrators of a songwriter’s compositions. Publishers perform many functions, including:
- managing a writer’s catalog
- promoting the compositions in the catalog
- getting recording artists to record songs by the writer
- working with a writer’s record label (if the writer is also a recording artist)
- pairing a writer with co-writers
- getting sync placements, etc.
Traditional music publishing contracts usually follow one of the following structures:
- Songwriter agreement: the writer transfers 100 percent of the copyright in his or her catalog of music (including what he or she writes while under contract with that publisher), and the publisher and the writer split the income from the compositions 50/50. (Note: These deals can vary slightly based on the circumstances. For instance, it's possible that a writer's back catalog is tied up from a previous publishing deal, and a new publisher will only get new compositions by the writer.)
- Co-publishing agreement: the writer transfers 50 percent of the copyright in his or her catalog to the publisher. The publisher takes 25 percent of the income from the compositions and the writer receives 75 percent.
- Administration agreement: the writer retains ownership of all copyrights in his or her catalog, and the publisher simply performs all publishing duties for an administration fee of 10 percent (leaving 90 percent of income for the writer).
Music publishing deals often come with an advance, which justifies the fact that a writer may have to transfer copyright ownership upon signing a new deal. Because publishing deals are exclusive and manage all aspects of the compositions, no retitling of compositions is required.
The first music library was formed in 1927 in the United Kingdom after movies gained the use of sound technology. The main purpose of that library, and those that followed, was to license music for film (and later TV). Licensing music for film and television is still the main purpose of music libraries today.
These deals can be exclusive or non-exclusive, require a transfer of copyright ownership or not, and may retitle the writer’s compositions (or not). Many libraries realized the value of owning the catalogs of music instead of just acting as a licensing agent and making money on licensing fees. Thus, many libraries decided to do their deals on an exclusive basis and require the writer to transfer to the library a copyright ownership share in the compositions, usually at least 50 percent. Typically, these deals have some sort of threshold where the writer has to earn a certain amount in licensing fees before the obligation to transfer copyright is triggered.
On a more frequent basis, I'm seeing library deals labeled as "co-publishing" deals. These deals provide for a 50 percent copyright ownership transfer, but only a 50/50 income split, which results in less money to the writer than under a traditional co-publishing deal with a music publisher. These deals offer no advance, and require a transfer of copyright ownership triggered by a low threshold of licensing fees. If a writer is close to the threshold but hasn’t met it yet, some companies will even pony up a few hundred bucks to meet the mark, which means the writers are selling out their copyrights for a very small chunk of change.
This scenario may be acceptable for a songwriter who makes his or her living from writing for film and TV and is churning out new songs every day. But in my opinion, these terms are unacceptable for career musicians who are marketing albums, playing gigs, etc. and are seeking placements for extra money and exposure.
The benefit to a library deal over a publishing deal is that a writer can give the library only certain compositions, while leaving others in his or her catalog open to a publishing deal or another opportunity. To be fair, libraries that are incorporating more publishing-like terms in their deals are also doing the work to manage and administer the compositions. However, with many of these companies it remains uncertain whether they have the connections to get other artists to record the writer’s compositions, pair the writer with substantial co-writers, etc. Anyone can act like a music publisher, but the difference lies with whether the longstanding business model and connections that publishers have are present.
For independent or new artists, it's easier to get a library deal than a publishing deal, but signing with a library and transferring copyrights may complicate or even prevent a writer from signing a publishing deal later.
That's not to say that a library deal can't be a great start for a new artist or writer – it can be a great way to earn extra income with songs that otherwise wouldn’t generate any. However, you need to look carefully at your career goals to see which path is really right for your intended career direction. It would be beneficial to consult with an experienced music attorney to discuss which type of deal is the right career choice for you.
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Disclaimer: This article is for educational and informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. The content contained in this article is not legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific matter or matters. This article does not constitute or create an attorney-client relationship between Erin M. Jacobson, Esq. and you or any other user. The law may vary based on the facts or particular circumstances or the law in your state. You should not rely on, act, or fail to act, upon this information without seeking the professional counsel of an attorney licensed in your state.
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Erin M. Jacobson is a practicing music attorney, experienced deal negotiator, and seasoned advisor of intellectual property rights. She protects clients ranging from Grammy and Emmy Award winners to independent artists, record labels, music publishers, and production companies. Ms. Jacobson also owns and oversees all operations for Indie Artist Resource, the independent musician’s resource for legal and business protection offering template contracts, consultations, and other services designed to meet the unique needs of independent musicians.