Turning Melodies Into Royalties

The real revenue in the music business lies in the ownership rights to the hits. Here's how to publish and not perish.

a.k.a. Timbaland. “That was important, because we were able to go to the labels with a full musical package,” she explains.

While self-publishing requires the greatest amount of time, effort and personal connections, a new songwriter is often in the best position to go this route. Since new songwriters do not have a catalog of alreadyrecorded tunes, they are not in need of someone to find new royalty sources for their old songs. Additionally, new songwriters aren’t going to be in the studio as frequently as a Jimmy Jam or Elliott, so they have more time to shop their songs and handle the administrative details of their publishing company.

Songwriter/recording artist Nokio, a member of the singing group Dru Hill, is someone who decided to go the self-publishing route. Through his publishing company, North Avenue Music, Nokio penned nearly half of the songs on Dru Hill’s 1996 debut album, as well as tunes for such recording artists as Montell Jordan, up-and-comer Mya Harrison and groups such as Pure Soul. Instead of immediately going out and signing with an existing music publishing company, Nokio, decided to take on the challenge of publishing and administer his own song catalog. “I knew that as a new songwriter, I wouldn’t get the best deal from a publisher,” he explains.

Nokio advises anyone wishing to self-publish to take the time to really understand what they are getting into. “It’s best to set up your publishing situation before you ever release a song,” he says. “I ran into trouble because I hadn’t registered with ASCAP before I started writing professionally.” Because Nokio, his song titles and his publishing company were not registered with a performance rights agency, he says he chanced not earning his performance royalties early on.

In addition to making sure that you stay on top of administering your catalog, Nokio says you have to really hustle to get your songs recorded. “It’s a constant challenge. You have to go out and make deals yourself, and any opportunity that you get, you have to let artists know that you want to work with them.” Songwriters say music conferences are often good places to gain access to producers and artists.

Finally, Nokio advises that you get a lawyer as soon as you can afford one. While you can register yourself with a performance rights society and a licensing agent, you will definitely need a lawyer to register and establish your company’s name and to make sure your copyrights are in order. While some lawyers will charge an hourly rate for their services, others will ask for the 5%-15% that a publishing company would take to administer your catalog. The advantage to having a good entertainment lawyer, however, is that he or she will often have the connections to help you exploit your catalog. Some may only ask for a percentage of the copyright on songs that they actually get placed or a percentage of the publishing deal they actually made for you.

“The good thing about self-publishing,” says Nokio, “is

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