For most songwriters in the early stages of their careers, the idea of being hired as a staff songwriter for a publishing company is close to the Holy Grail. It represents that most coveted prize of industry recognition and validation of your talent along with a gateway to cuts, movie placements and any one of a number of other exciting possibilities. However, keep in mind that wanting or entering into a relationship with a publisher in order to simply validate your talent is probably not the best approach. As with any business relationship, it’s essential that you, as the songwriter, understand what you’re giving up as well as what you stand to gain by signing over partial (or complete) ownership of your copyrights to a music publisher.

What is a Publishing Deal?

Let’s start at the top. In general terms, a typical publishing deal involves the assignment of some part of the ownership of your songs to a publishing company in exchange for a monthly payment known as a draw. The publisher can also provide co-writing opportunities based on their industry relationships and pitching opportunities by members of the publishing company’s staff called song pluggers. I’m aware that there are many variations on this arrangement such as no draw in exchange for giving up less ownership of your copyrights to the publisher but for the sake of this article, I’m going to paint in broad strokes.

The Pros

Listing the advantages of a publishing deal is easy as most songwriters have heard – or dreamed – of these.

  1. A Draw – For a songwriter getting started in the business, it’s extremely difficult to write full time without having money to live on. The monthly draw provided by a publisher can help ease that burden. While some draws are enough to allow the writer to write full time, most are enough to, at least, make it so the writer only has to have a part-time job leaving more time for songwriting.
  2. Demo Budget – Making high quality recordings of your songs is not cheap and having a publisher to put up the money for these recordings can help out quite a bit.
  3. Song Pluggers – Employees of the publishing company who are specifically charged with finding opportunities for your songs. They pitch your songs relying on their relationships with record labels, producers and artists as well as a variety of other music business decision-makers.
  4. Networking/Connections – The credibility that comes from signing with established music publisher is a powerful thing. It can open doors to meetings, co-writes and countless other relationships in the industry. Also, publishers have industry-wide relationships that can provide great opportunities for a songwriter who hasn’t had the opportunity to network much on their own.
  5. Validation – The validation that comes from a publishing deal is what most beginning songwriters long for. In the early stages of most songwriters’ careers, they’ve most likely written songs in obscurity and with the exception of friends and family, they’ve never received praise and recognition from anyone in the industry. This validation can even act as a motivator to improve a writer’s work ethic and even inspiration.

The Cons

This is where I’d recommend paying close attention. I know the idea of being able to write songs and have your publisher take care of all the details is an appealing thought but the reality is a bit less simple. Don’t kill the messenger here, but as a friend of mine once said, “They don’t call it the music ‘friend’ or the music ‘nice.'” This is a business and it helps to remember that a publisher is giving you something in order to get something.

  1. Your draw & demo budget are essentially loans – The money that makes up your draw and your demo budget is money that the publisher will take back from your share as soon as your songs start generating income. More importantly, unlike a loan paid back to a bank, even after you’ve made back the money to pay the publisher for the money they’ve invested in you, they will continue to own the publishing on your song and make income from it. In most cases, this is an arrangement that lasts for the rest of your life and then some. Also, in most cases that recording that the publisher split with you or loaned you money to make is their property entirely. This translates into no master fee payment for you, the songwriter, if that recording ends up in a film or on TV.
  2. You and your songs aren’t always the priority – Even though the idea of a song plugger getting your songs heard is comforting, the reality is that in most publishing companies, there are many more signed writers than there are pluggers. In other words, your songs, while the most important songs to you, are among the hundreds (actually thousands if you count the back catalogs of most publishing companies) that the overworked song pluggers have to consider for every pitch opportunity.
  3. Validation is NOT enough – As a songwriter, I understand how good it feels when someone in the industry tells you they love your songs. In and of itself, this is not enough of a reason to give away your publishing. To me, the analogy would be of a guy going up to a girl in a bar and saying “You’re beautiful and you should sleep with me.” It might be a wise decision on the girl’s part to stop and ask what she stands to gain from this “generous” offer. In other words, as a writer, you should work every day until you’re confident your songs are good. Use resources like song critiques, songwriting organizations and your songwriting peers to get solid, constructive feedback on your material. Don’t just sign with a publisher because they tell you you’re good.

Your Options

My intention is not to discourage but rather to empower you. By not looking at a publishing deal as the only answer to your songwriting prayers, you’ll put yourself in a position to take care of many of these things yourself which, ultimately, will be the most consistent and rewarding way of having a sustainable career as a songwriter. In other words, you don’t have to have a publishing deal in order to act like you have a publishing deal every single day. Here’s what I mean…

  1. Be your own publisher – You don’t need an established publisher to publish your songs. It’s a relatively simple procedure to start your own publishing company through one of the performing rights organizations (BMI, ASCAP and SESAC). A simple phone call to one of these three organizations can get you started.
  2. Put yourself on a regular writing schedule – If you want to be a professional songwriter, act like one. Set aside regular times to write and treat it like a job. Folks in the working world don’t skip work because they “don’t feel like it” and neither should you.
  3. Demo your songs – Develop a relationship with a professional recording studio and when you’re absolutely certain you’ve got a song that’s ready for prime time, spend the money to make a broadcast-quality version suitable for a variety of uses from pitching to placement in film and TV. And speaking of pitching…
  4. Pitch your songs – Actively look for opportunities for your songs. It’s one thing to write a good song and have a great demo but if no one hears it, then it can’t possibly generate any income for you. This isn’t the glamorous, romantic part of the business but I promise you, the overwhelming majority of successful songwriters – even those with publishing deals and song pluggers – spend a lot of time pitching their own material. It’s tough out there and you need to do everything in your power to get your songs heard. Also, as I mentioned above, no one will make your songs a priority more than you will.
  5. Network – Another less-than-pleasant reality for the gifted, introverted songwriter is that there is no substitute for the relationships you make in the industry. Get out there and meet people. This doesn’t mean you have to be fake or stay up until 3am drinking every night (unless you like that kind of thing). It does mean, however, that you have to find opportunities to interact with the decision-makers in the music industry. A few suggestions of ways to do this might be attending music conferences, songwriter festivals and some of the events sponsored by organizations like the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI).
  6. 6. Sign an admin deal – If you’re starting to get some cuts and placements for your songs and the subtleties of copyright law, royalty statements and licensing feel like too much to keep track of or negotiate, then consider signing with a publisher to administer your copyrights. In other words, instead of giving away ownership of 50%-100% of your copyright, give a copyright administrator 15%-20% to mind the store while you’re taking care of the other stuff. I promise you, if you’re making money from your songs, you’ll have no trouble at all finding an experienced publisher to administer your copyrights.


For the sake of simplicity, I’ve kept this article and the terms of a publishing deal very general. There are all manner of publishing deals from copyright administration all the way to full ownership of your publishing and there are reasons for and against all of these. Music publishers provide a valuable service in our industry but I think it’s important to realize that signing a publishing deal isn’t always your best option. Be absolutely certain you understand what you stand to gain – beyond the simple validation of your talent – and what you’re giving up to get it. In the world of professional songwriting, there is no one way to achieve success and, no matter what, the more you understand and can do on your own, the better off you’ll be.

Good Luck!

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22 responses to “The Pros & Cons of Signing a Publishing Deal”

  1. Larry Beaird says:

    Thanks Cliff. Deeply appreciated.

  2. Thomas James says:

    This is the first time I have seen the topic laid out so simply. Thanks much, Cliff. Thomas James

  3. Rick McGee says:

    Great advice, Cliff. Very clear and concise. Thank you!!

  4. jc richardson says:

    This was a mindblowingly comprehensive article that I printed out right away & will carry around like a Gideon bible

  5. Shannon Voykin says:

    Thank you Cliff – this is very informative!

  6. Tyler Morger says:

    So much to consider, that’s part of having a seasoned veteran helping out. Thanks Cliff, and enjoy your endeavors!


  7. Robert C says:

    Thanks for a great article on the “business” side of songwriting.

  8. Francis Westerman "Frank" says:

    Cliff, I have been writing lyrics for a long time and the education you are giving me for free I cant put a value on. I can only say thanks for these gifts and if I venture to Nashville I will certainly call you first.

  9. Bruce says:

    Thank you Cliff. I do like the idea of maintaining as much control as possible as long as possible.
    But surviving economically versus song writing is the on-going trade-off.
    Example: I have my song “Incidental Consequences” available to the world via the Jango radio app.
    Full control but no profit.
    One day, huh?
    Thank you again for your succinct yet general advice.

  10. Mary says:

    Wow, Cliff, thanks so much for the insight!

  11. Sconnie Songster says:

    Cliff, thanks. So 15-20 percent for copyright admin. No wonder they say don’t quit your server job! That’s tip money. Doesn’t always come easily, and it’s taxed.

  12. Thank you for making some concerns I have about copyright administration clear. The entire article is a good read about the music business.

  13. Robbie says:

    From what I understand, songwriters seem to be getting less and less of the pie which is expanding and contracting in various areas yearly but the songwriter sees no benefit or opportunities in this. So whatever he can hold on to or, better still, what can he expand into will now be not only his future but his survival. The first step to a successful song is the songwriter not anybody else and it’s this initial creativity that enables the industry to flow yet little attention is paid here or rewarded in the current model. If successful songs were treated like successful patents perhaps things would be more tolerable but they are not. I think you’re right that writers must be careful what they let go of and I would suggest they may have to try to acquire income from other areas not traditionally given. Why can’t song writers hire or find pluggers and reward them if they come through on a deal? At least that way it’s performance-based and less reliance is placed on the need to give away so much of your publishing rights.

  14. Neil Patrick says:

    Cliff, thank you for giving back. You’re touching a lot of lives. I believe my writing has improved just by following your advice. I’m very grateful!

  15. Stephen Szawlowski says:

    Very helpful. Thank you.

  16. Thomas Treanor says:


    I started out reading your article just because you write so well, not because I thought I would profit from reading it. (My “career” path doesn’t involve me writing songs for a living).
    But, when I got to the end of your article and read about options, there was plenty of advice you offered which I can profit from. Thanks for the unselfish sharing you put forth all the time.

  17. David Harper says:

    First of all… great article.
    There aren’t many draws going on these days. In fact, many writers dont take them unless they absolutely have to. You’re borrowing, basically. And every month that goes by without earnings makes you a roster liability.

    A big pro to a deal is camaraderie and push. When you sit in a publishers office you hear the other writers, what they’re doing and it brings your game up FAST. I learned more in my first few years in Nashville at my publishers camp than I could have learned in decades. It’s a good source if inspiration.

  18. I appreciate your article, but I’d like to know more about finding and even paying for someone to plug my songs….that seems to be the hardest info to find…not a lot of valuable information on Google and I’m always leery about sites that say they will do stuff for you… Can you please write more on this subject.

  19. Roger E. LaPointe says:

    Cliff I just started getting information from you and I have to say your approach to info is different. Not in a bad way, I really like how you make the points clear and understandable and right to the point. I look forward to having more contact in the near future.

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