Music Publishing Explained

Music Publishing. A lengthy and complicated but important topic for artists at all stages of their career. We’ve teamed up with Ditto Music Publishing to give you a basic understanding of this area and how to get started. 

Over to Ditto! 

Music Publishing Explained

To put it in simple terms: music publishing is the monetization & promotion of a musical work. 

Monetization-wise, it’s how songwriters and musicians receive money for their musical compositions as royalties.

To understand how music publishing works, you first have to look at music copyright law (which I promise you, isn’t as heavy as it sounds.. sometimes).

So how does music copyright work? 

Music copyright law is wide and far reaching – and there’s a lot to unpack. For the purpose of this blog post, we’ll just discuss an overview of some of the absolute need-to-knows.

The main thing you should be aware of is that music copyright (that being the legal rights to a piece of music) is split into two separate copyrights: 

  1. The underlying composition copyright

In terms of music, this refers to the written musical work or composition. So that’s anything from the musical notation on a piece of manuscript to the lyrics or words written down. 

  1. The master recording copyright

You’ve probably heard musicians talking about “owning their masters”. If you have, this is the ‘masters’ they’re referring to. 

The master recording or the sound recording is the audio reproduction of the original composition. So basically any track you stream or listen to online. 

More often than not, independent artists will legally own both of these two copyrights, so they’ll be both the songwriter and the recording artist. 

But this isn’t always the case. 

If the song is written by one person and sung by another (such as with a cover version), then the two copyrights will need to be divvied up accordingly. 

What are music publishing royalties?

Now you understand music copyright, you should know that music publishing deals exclusively with the composition copyright

And in fact there are three types of music publishing royalties that the composition rightsholder (or songwriter) can claim:

  1. Performance royalties

What are they?

These are the royalties that are paid to compensate for any public performance or display of a musical work.

This simply means that anytime a composition is publicly performed, the songwriter should get paid. So that could be things like:

  • A live show, cover or busking performance

  • A radio play

  • As background music in a cafe or restaurant (think ‘cosy coffee shop playlist’)

How are they paid?

Performance royalties are managed by what’s known as a royalty collection organization

There’s a few different kinds of these organizations, but the one that we’re concerned about for public performance royalties is any kind of performing rights organization (PRO for short).

Most countries have their own designated PRO, such as PRS in the UK or ASCAP, BMI and SESAC in the USA.

Anytime someone uses the composition in a public performance or display, they will alert the correct PRO. The PRO then calculates and collects the royalties on behalf of the music rights owner. 

  1. Mechanical royalties

What are they?

These are royalties which are paid in exchange for the reproduction of a composition, paid by third parties who want to record, manufacture or distribute an artist’s musical work.

Back in the heyday of the industry, that meant distribution in any physical format, so CDs, Vinyl, Cassettes – you name it. 

While that remains the same today, online music distribution is now the main provider of these kinds of royalties. So that’s any music that is released to & consequently streamed on a digital streaming platform (DSP) such as Spotify, Apple Music or SoundCloud. 

How are they paid?

These royalties are paid directly by the music platform or DSP to what’s known as a mechanical rights organization. Basically like a PRO but dealing exclusively with mechanical royalties. 

Again most countries will have their own designated mechanical rights organization, such as MCPS in the UK and MLC or Harry Fox in the USA.

  1. Synchronization royalties

What are they?

The royalties made from sync license fees are paid to the composition rights owner, every time their song is featured in some sort of big media. Usually a film, ad or radio show, on television or in a video game. 

How are they paid?

Sync royalties differ somewhat to both mechanical & public performance royalties. The rate of sync royalties are calculated on a case-by-case basis, based on the cost of the licencing fee or flat fee. The fee is often negotiated between the music rights owner (and their label if they have one) and the person using the music (such as the music supervisor or production company). 


Music publishers also take what is known as a “publishing share”. The standard industry split is 50/50 – 50% to the music rights holder and 50% to their publisher.

And that’s part 1! A huge thank you to Ditto Music for putting together this publishing crash course. The guys have been nice enough to give our lucky readers an exclusive discount of 50% off publishing or distribution subscriptions with the code ACCESS50! Head to Ditto’s website to use the code and find out more about monetising your music. 

If you’re interested in our music courses, you can find out more right here! 

Stay tuned for more from Ditto next week!