How To Start A Music Publishing Company

How To Start A Music Publishing Company

The music business is wide open for independent music publishers. Far from the closed corporate buddy system of the 1970s and 1980s, today a focused music publisher can make big profits with a clear business plan for startup and growth. Hardware and software prices have dropped significantly, and with a minimum financial investment and some training on music software, anyone with the time and energy can operate a successful independent music publishing business. Some important questions need to be answered before writing a business plan.

Music and Catalog:

The most important question deals with the type of music your company will represent. Are you creating your company to represent your own music or the music of other composers, arrangers, and lyricists – or both? The music you market is called a catalog. Some companies specialize in a Classical catalog, others Rock or Jazz, while some large firms represent all types of music. Scan offerings of other companies to study their categories. You might be an expert musicologist and label your artists as High Life, but if the other companies market such music in the Alternative category, follow their lead. You can always cross-reference the music later or, as your catalog develops, add artists to fill out the High Life category into a larger offering.

If you limit your company’s offerings to your own works, you will need to be sure that you have a sufficient number of pieces to fill out a catalog. It is easiest for your catalog to focus on one type of music when your business opens. Marketing and identification of your audience will be limited to one musical category. As your business expands, it will be easy to add artists. Avoid a large catalog of various types of music with only one artist under each type of music. Potential buyers wanting to purchase Jazz pieces will not shop in any other category. Depth within the Jazz category will attract return customers. Attempt to list several pieces by one artist. If customers like the first piece they purchase or rent, they will return for other offerings. Your company can develop a recognized name by offering specialized music.

Copyrights and Contracts:

Legal issues in the music business have grown exponentially in the last three decades. Careful planning in contracts and copyrights will avoid litigation later. Some key questions need to be addressed before you offer any music for sale. Will the company retain the rights for the music, lyrics, arrangement, or mix? Will the artist retains the rights with your company simply marketing the piece? Will your company consider sharing rights? If so, what will be the profit split? How much money would you offer for your company to buy a piece outright?

If an artist writes the music and lyrics, and your company purchases these rights, what will happen if an advertising agency uses the song in a multi-million dollar ad campaign? Will the artist share in any of the profits? Will payment to the artist be made on a percentage of the sales or rentals? All of what if should be addressed in the contract. Think BIG. You never know what the future might hold for any piece of music. If you plan to resell music, the contract must address this contingency. Much of the Lennon and McCartney catalog has been resold, some of it many times and for millions of dollars.

Contracts should be signed for all music, lyrics, arrangements and mixes. Never assume because the artist is a friend or relative that everything can be worked out at a later date. Hired counsel should look over the contracts to make sure they do not violate any state or federal statutes – it will prove to be money well spent if a contract is ever challenged. Once a contract is in place, it can be used again for other artists. Sample contracts, from professional writing and arranging societies, can be used for a basic model. Select an attorney who specializes in contract law, preferably one who also has music industry experience.

Joining one of the professional organizations shows potential artists that your music company understands the market and operates on a professional level. The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), Music Publisher’s Association (MPA), and the Songwriters Guild of America (SGA) are the largest nonprofits, and their websites provide information about contract law and copyright.

These websites can also give you an indication of the payments that are standard for the industry. While most music, arranging, and lyrics earn little money for one-time use, the repeated use of one piece can turn into a valuable resource for your company. Think of the number of stations playing a single song over the course of a month. The money quickly adds up!

Marketing and Advertising

How will potential buyers find your company? Identification of the market requires careful study and consideration. Whom do you think will play the music your company represents? Where are they located? How will you reach them?

It is important that your company develops an easily identifiable logo and name. A logo or symbol associated with the company will help customers remember the name. Once you open for business, avoid changes: you want customers to remember you and be able to find you quickly.

Advertising is an important element of a successful business. A decade ago, the music market determined the type of advertising your company would select. Today, all music advertising, regardless of the type of music, uses both online and print outlets. A new company, with solid artists to represent and a sharp, user-friendly website, can do as much business as a large company that has been in business for decades.

Many music publishing companies offer online catalogs. Consider hiring a specialist to put together an online store complete with shopping cart and online credit card payment. Make it easy for your customers to quickly select your music. Do online searches to see what your competition is offering, and find ideas your company can borrow from their sites. Focus on: What types of payment does your competition take? What are their terms? How is their site organized? Locate your competition by use of a combination of search terms such as music, lyrics, rentals, sales, sheet music, arrangement, and the type of music your company offers.

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The degree to which your company uses printed mailings will be determined by the type of music your company represents. If you offer choral, band or orchestral original compositions or arrangements, target schools (high schools, community colleges, and universities), professional orchestras and symphonies. If your company represents popular lyricists and composers, you will need to develop an aggressive plan to contact groups and recording companies. Some companies advertise in musical trade magazines and visit local music venues on talent nights. Unsigned talent is a major opportunity for new businesses to expand their music offerings.


A successful music publishing business requires a high degree of organization, in addition to creativity, but with careful planning of contracts and copyrights and advertising and marketing, your business will continue to grow year after year.

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