How and When to Find a Music Publisher

The 2012/13 issue of Songwriters Magazine is about to hit the stands.  In celebration of our 2nd edition of this annual reference publication, we’re sharing some of the great articles from last year’s issue on our blog.  First off is a frank conversation with Barbara Sedun, formerly the Senior Vice-President of EMI Music Publishing Canada, now off charting new musical adventures.  Read on if working with a music publisher is one of your goals.

Barbara Sedun is a busy woman.  So busy, that this interview almost never happened.  You will usually find Barbara attending showcases across the country, scouting out talent in secret venues, sharing her knowledge on panels at music industry events, and anything else music related.  She eats and breathes music, hence, has some invaluable insight from her former position as Senior Vice-President of EMI Music Publishing Canada.  BEFORE you go knocking on her, or any music publisher’s door, best be prepared by reading her answers to the following questions!

At what point should a songwriter approach a publisher? (What should they have prepared?)  In an ideal world, a songwriter would not approach a publisher. They would have generated enough activity on their catalogue that the publisher would contact them. However, if the publishers aren’t lining up as quickly as you like, you would approach the publisher in the same way that you would approach anyone else in the business. Know what you are looking for in a publishing deal and do your research on the publishing companies to determine which ones would best suit your needs. Know if you are looking for a co-publishing deal or an administration deal. Know which publishers work best with the style of music you are writing. Do your research and find out which member of the staff deals with the style of music as well. You should have had some activity on your music. Know that if you are approaching a major music publishing, they may have different requirements than an indie publisher. There is a lot of work you can do on your own before ever getting involved with a publisher.

Try to place songs with artists if you are not an artist yourself. Or write with artists. Work your songs at radio. Pitch your songs to tv and movies. Or commercials. Or Video games. If this seems like a lot of work, it is. But you are competing with the person down the street who has been doing all of this for the last 2 years and is just now knocking on the publisher’s door. AS well, once your catalogue of work starts earning money, you will need a publisher to administer your earnings.

What are publishers looking for?  What is your ideal candidate of someone you would like to work with?  I am a workaholic yet it seldom feels like I am working because I love what I do so much. I want to work with people who work equally hard on their songwriting careers as I will once you are signed. Basically you should become your own publisher, and do everything a publisher will eventually team up with you to do. I look for talented, hard workers who are not afraid to think outside the box and will do anything to move ahead. I want you to want to be “rich and famous” – one of my pet peeves is when a writer tells me “I just want people to hear my music”.  Put your Canadian humility aside and reach for the stars!! I also want to know that if you have a team around you they are strong and bring something to partnership. Leave your dependencies at the door too, please.

What to bring when you land a meeting with a publisher (and what not to bring)?  Be prepared – bring your best music, make sure everything is labeled very well and you have extra copies in case one of them doesn’t work. bring lyric sheets even if they are not used. Bring your best, most positive attitude – and know your stuff. Have a playlist ready of what you feel is your strongest work – don’t go searching for it. And remember that even though we are sitting on the other side of the desk, we are just people like you.  I see how nervous people are sometimes and I understand it and do my best to help you relax.

What types of songwriters are offered contracts and what kinds of different contracts are there?  The main publishing agreements are co-publishing deal (where we become a co-owner of the song with you); an administration agreement (where our percentage is slightly lower generally but there is little or no creative input) once in a very long while we do single-song agreements. An indie publisher may need sub-publishing agreements (where another publisher in another territory will collect your royalties, etc for them because they do not have an office there) but EMI is a worldwide company and has offices in most territories and therefore seldom have need for sub-pub deals.

What does a publishing contract usually look like (term, exclusivity, commitment)?  Every publishing deal is different and the final result depends on what your focus is. Different points to negotiate include: Term (ie how long the contract is – usually the initial term plus options); Songs that are included; the minimum delivery commitment (how many songs you are required to hand in to the publisher during the contract period); how long the publisher retains the songs after the contract is over; the territory; the advances; Royalty percentages (mechanical, performance, synchronization, other income); administration fee.

Should artists contact publishers as well, or only songwriters?   If you are working to place your songs, you should contact everyone!  There are legendary stories out there of how hard people like Dianne Warren and Chad Kroeger have worked on their careers before they had any interest from the music industry. Look them up. Check out their stories. When you are willing to work as hard as they have (and still do), then come see me!  I’ve heard stories of Ms.Warren sitting outside recording studios in the early days, pouncing on artists when they arrived or left, giving them her demos and asking for them to record her songs. And Chad is notorious for how hard he pushed radio stations to play Nickelback’s music before they got a deal.  I saw approach everyone. When I am pitching a song I approach everyone involved in the project – if I know someone who knows the artist, I go to them. I send copies to producers, engineers, labels, management – anyone who may be able to get the song recorded. And follow up is so important.

What are common mistakes made by artists and songwriters when approaching music publishers?  The most common mistake is approaching the music publisher (or anyone in the industry) too early. If you have written 10 songs and your mom tells you they are great, it’s probably too early to approach the industry. If you have written 500 songs and work full time and have never had any activity on any of your songs (except playing them once a year at family gatherings) you are probably not ready to approach the industry. You really need to be able to make it a full time job. Not everyone is made to be a fulltime songwriter and there have been cases where we have signed single song agreements with writers, but I think in my 20 years at EMI, there have been maybe 2 or 3 cases of that.

To get the new edition of Songwriters Magazine, why not join the Songwriters Association of Canada today.

15 thoughts on “How and When to Find a Music Publisher

  1. Ray Bergeron

    This a great article. It is about exactly what I am trying to do in music. I have actually emailed Barbara on this subject, about my songs, and she was kind enough to reply, but I realize now it was, and still is way too eary for me to be contacting major publishers. This type of article makes it clear just how much work I need to do. Thanks.


  2. Very well written and explained article. Thanks folks. Drop by and here some GOOD & COOL music. I’ve written songs like Unconditional Love, Can you hear me Ray, Zero Zero Zero and MANY others. Thanks.


  3. Joseph

    Guys I’m a composer and I’d like to know that is it a good or a bad thing to work with different publishers “on different single” when u are still in a process of looking for thee publisher to work with on your other projects?


  4. Chris Wilson

    Very clearly stated but as someone who has worked as an artist and an A&R person, I hate this dated yuppie attitude. Record companies and Publishing companies are 70% staffed with people like this who don’t know how to deal with and nurture the more sensitive talents out there. The people in the office need to realise they only have a job because of talented artists and songwriters.


  5. As a Major label Lyricist I have experienced the business for the good and the bad. This is a great article for learning the basics but realistically it is much harder to land a deal with a publisher or a label then they lead on to be. If you would like to know more feel free to contact me. Just Google my name “AMILLIANZE” to find my contact info.



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  7. Charlotte Forbes

    Thank you so much for posting this helpful information. You just saved us artists about 2 hours’ worth of Google searching!


  8. alfred duchateau

    hello music 😉 ,
    I’m alfred and i write songs but not as fast to fill up my first cd or repertoir. i would like to find songwirters wich will help me to speed up my repertoir.
    i do sing french, english, dutch. hopefully we can build a good relationship of music.
    many thanks and injoy music for life 😉

    0032 (0) 471 67 61 16
    alfred duchateau
    im also on FB
    ps pls serious candidates


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