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What does a Music Publisher do?

Nicole Madison
Updated May 17, 2024
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A music publisher is a person or company who helps musicians, composers, and songwriters earn money for the music they record. Essentially, a music publisher manages, markets, and licenses his client's work for use, performance, or sale by another party. He also makes sure his clients receive royalties for their work. Sometimes music publishers also help promote their clients for performances and film work.

A music publisher receives monetary compensation for the work he performs, but he doesn’t usually earn a salary. Instead, he creates a contract and asks his potential clients to sign it. The contract requires his clients to pay a fee for his services, which is usually a percentage of the royalty payments the artist receives. A 50% split between the client and the publisher is often considered standard, but fees vary. Often, a well-known artist is charged less than a person who is just starting out or struggling to gain notice.

Music publishers work with musicians and artists who own the rights to their music. If an artist's sheet music is owned by a record label, for example, he cannot contract with a music publisher for the promotion and licensing of his music or songs. If that same artist has music that he owns the rights to and selling it won’t be a breach of his contract, he can still work with a music publisher for the music he does own. Music publishers also help their clients copyright their work.

Much of a music publisher’s work involves licensing his client’s music. For example, he may provide licenses to record companies, film companies, and even other musical artists and then collect royalties for his clients. Often, a music publisher collects mechanical royalties for his clients, which are paid whenever a musician’s, songwriter’s, or composer’s work is reproduced on CD, music greeting card, or any other type of device that allows the work to be sold in individual units.

A music publisher may also provide a variety of other licenses for his clients' work; in turn, the company or person receiving the license pays the client an agreed-upon sum. For example, a synchronization license allows another person or company to use his client’s work along with an image, such as in a television commercial, movie, or video. Print licenses, on the other hand, allow the licensee to print, use, and sell sheet music, paying the client royalties from the sale of his printed work. Transcription licenses allow a person or company to use a client’s work on the radio in exchange for royalty payments.

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Nicole Madison
By Nicole Madison , Writer
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a WiseGeek writer, where she focuses on topics like homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. Her passion for knowledge is evident in the well-researched and informative articles she authors. As a mother of four, Nicole balances work with quality family time activities such as reading, camping, and beach trips.

Discussion Comments

By lighth0se33 — On Apr 20, 2012

It seems that anyone with money to spend can become a music publisher. When I had enough songs to record my first album, my manager decided that he wanted to become registered as a publisher so that he could receive royalties, should I make it big.

I would have become my own publisher, but I did not have the money for the registration fee. It cost $200, and I was very broke at the time, so I let my manager become my publisher.

Well, he didn't have any connections, so nothing ever came of it. However, I am sad to know that I no longer have the authority to decide how my songs are used and where they can be performed. In hindsight, I wish I had saved up the money over time and become my own publisher.

By wavy58 — On Apr 20, 2012

I am a songwriter and a singer, and I am lucky enough to have a record deal. The record label does own the publishing rights to my songs, so I am not at liberty to tell anyone else they can use them or sell them to anyone.

I was recently approached by a music publisher who heard me perform and was interested in buying one of my songs. He thought it had great potential, and though I was flattered by his offer and his attention, I had to turn him down.

He was very persistent. He seemed to think we could get away with me selling him the song, in spite of the fact that the record label had ownership of it. It seemed very shady to me, and I finally had to just walk away from him.

By Perdido — On Apr 19, 2012

@OeKc05 – At first glance, it does sound like a lot. However, you have to consider what all the music publisher does for the artist.

He is the one who gets the artist's songs out there and gives them a chance to become popular. Without the publisher, the artist would likely be stuck singing in bars for a few bucks on the weekends.

I think it is fair that they should receive half of the money made. In my opinion, they do half the work. It is a partnership, and neither would be successful without the help of the other.

By OeKc05 — On Apr 19, 2012

Wow, 50% sounds like a lot to give a music publisher. Basically, the actual singer only gets half of what they actually make, and that is sad to me.

I understand that without the music publisher, the singer likely wouldn't be making a lot of money, but still, without the singer, there would be no product to promote. It seems to me that the singer should get to keep at least 75% of their own money.

Then again, I'm not in the music business, so I'm not familiar with how things normally work. I do know when something sounds like a raw deal, though, and I think singers should fight for more.

Nicole Madison

Nicole Madison


Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a WiseGeek writer, where she focuses on topics like...
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