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A Guide To Music Publishers vs. Record Companies

Co-Written and Researched by Tyler Anthony

With the sheer number of players and moving parts, the music industry has developed into a complicated system. Despite our leap into the digital age, record labels and publishing companies still wield most of the power in the music world.

This article explains the important roles that publishers and labels play for today’s professional musicians.

Music Publishers

Music publishers usually control written music and lyrics on behalf of songwriters. They issue licenses to parties like streaming platforms, filmmakers, or recording studios, collect the money, then pay out the songwriters. These functions are referred to as administration rights.

When a songwriter enters into a publishing agreement, the publishing company is obliged to conduct administration activities on their behalf. In exchange, the writer assigns copyright ownership to the publisher using an exclusive or non-exclusive license that covers a set period of time.

Recording Studios

Recording Studies often control specific sound recordings and generally deal with anything from recruitment and production to marketing and distribution to a broad audience.

During the days when CDs were at their peak, recording studios were the kings of the recording industry. Since there were few with the technology and ability to make great recordings and distribute them, recording studios had the power to claim ownership rights over the master recordings.

Now that technology has advanced, their power in the industry has somewhat declined. Artists can produce high level sound recordings in their own homes, get them professionally mastered by a remote sound engineer, then distribute their music through streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music.

Music Publishers and Labels in Summary

Music publishers own the rights to songs and control distribution of written compositions on behalf of songwriters.

Record labels control a particular recording of a song, track, or sound performance.

In practice, if the music supervisor for The Queen’s Gambit wants to use a Nickelback song for the upcoming season finale, they need a license from Nickelback’s publisher. However, if the music supervisor wants a particular live performance of Nickelback, they would likely work with a recording studio.

Next, we discuss why you should always sign an investor agreement as a musician.

Written by:

Claudius is an experienced commercial lawyer who specializes in acquisitions, financing, and securities law in relation to corporate commercial law.


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