by Anders Johanson January 08, 2021 15 min read
As we turn the calendar over into the beginning of a new year, it might be good to go back and take a look at some basic aspects of the music industry that may have changed, as a little bit of a refresher course. A lot of things evolved and took on new forms in 2020, with bands not being able to tour and artists quarantining in different capacities, there was still a boom in music despite the complete absence of live shows. Along with that boom in music came an increased presence of online avenues, whether that be Bandcamp, Spotify, Apple Music, or other internet spots. Places like Bandcamp ran Bandcamp Friday, where Bandcamp bypassed their typical fees for purchases in order to give bands and artists 100% of the money received from merchandise and album sales - truly a wonderful way to take care of musicians during this time. Venues and organizations held live streams so bands could still “sell tickets” and earn some money that way. Great advancements were made in streaming technology, allowing bands to play together remotely, whether just to practice or for an audience of quarantined viewers. Whatever roadblock was presented, people did their best to find a way around it, and musicians were still able to find ways to do what they love in 2020. If you are at home and just starting to figure out what you need to do to start publishing music and working your way up to being the one doing the live streams, or selling albums or merchandise with your name on it, then this is a good starting point for you.
Maybe your goal or resolution for 2021 was to start making music, or maybe to make more music, but you still are not quite sure what you need to do in order to publish your beats or get it out there into the world for friends and family to hear. Whether it is the basics of choosing a platform, to what might go into securing the rights for your tracks, this article should be your one-stop shop for tips and solutions regarding publishing your music, selecting streaming services, distributing tracks, and whatever other fine-print details you might need to consider before moving forward with your decision.
Thankfully we live in a time where it is easier than ever to get your music out there. The downside to this fact is that it is easy to be so overwhelmed by the options to the point where you don’t know what to do, so you just don’t do anything. There is nothing quite like the feeling of releasing music of any kind, whether a single, EP, album, or anywhere in between. Part of that comes with a few decisions you need to make before you can hit publish, so hopefully by the end of this you will feel encouraged and ready to move forward with publishing your music.
An important fact to remember is that “official publishing” pertains to the commercialization of a composition, not a sound recording, which is often handled by record labels. One of the main reasons musicians self-publish is to collect more royalties. Typically, royalties are split between 50% to the writer and 50% to the publisher. If you self-publish your own song, you get paid double because you own the writer’s share and the publisher’s share. In addition, you hold all the rights, IP, publisher's credit, and songwriter's credit. There is a difference between the “publish” button on Bandcamp and “publishing your music” in an official sense.
While that may sound like a no-brainer, self-publishing has its cons, such as being left to create your own opportunities, doing all of the admin work, and being the salesperson for your music. For some artists, the 50% is worth sacrificing in order to focus solely on the creative aspect of writing your music. Though, most independent musicians are used to wearing multiple hats, and the extra money and control is worth it for them. So, let’s get into the details of how to self-publish and self-distribute.
There are several places on the internet where you can upload your music, each with varying degrees of ease and features - as with everything these days. Two of the most popular websites are Soundcloud and Bandcamp. Those two websites are very widely-recognized and well-respected hubs for uploading music, whether you are a record label, a band, an artist, a producer, a beatmaker, you can upload your music easily and share it with the world. Soundcloud’s free account has some limitations in that you can only upload two hours worth of audio, so once you hit that two hour mark you will have to make some decisions as to what you want to keep and what you want to get rid of. You can upgrade and pay $12 per month for a premium account, which gives you unlimited upload time and a slew of other features, such as advanced analytic tracking and monetization.
Bandcamp, on the other hand, has no upload limit (though they do require specific file types for uploads) and has a cleaner user interface, making it easier to navigate and host your releases. Bandcamp also has a premium option that, like Soundcloud, gives you advanced analytics, video hosting capabilities, and other features. Bandcamp has a pre-order feature so you can publish an album and have it released on a later date, but start collecting digital pre-orders so people can pay for your album now and receive it as a download when it releases. If you want to have certain items in your merch store go with an album or a release, you can select that as an option.
Usually bands and artists with a merch line and multiple releases will go to Bandcamp, while artists who prefer singles or alternative release methods might choose Soundcloud. Soundcloud is very popular in the hip-hop and rap genres, and also a lot of electronic music. It all depends on what you need and what works best for you.
Unlike SoundCloud and Bandcamp, it usually costs something to upload your music to Spotify. This shouldn’t dissuade you from using Spotify, though. In most scenarios, the cost is very minor. And to be candid, in 2021, Spotify really is the place to be when it comes to music streaming. There are competitors, of course, but Spotify is the current front runner.
While there are distributors that offer free services to get your music on Spotify, there is usually a caveat; they want a portion of your royalties or there’s an annual service fee. This isn’t always the case, but as of now, there are few options for independent artists to simply upload their music to Spotify free of costs.
Neither Soundcloud nor Bandcamp distribute your music to the major streaming sites like Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, Amazon Music, or anything else. Soundcloud does, however, have the edge in this category as they have launched Repost by Soundcloud, a $2.50-per-month service that does send your music to streaming sites. Bandcamp does not currently have a feature similar to this but it would not be surprising to see them roll one out in the future, especially now that Soundcloud offers this. At the same time, Bandcamp is so artist-oriented and it is well-documented that streaming sites pay fractions of pennies per stream, so Bandcamp intentionally steering clear of that feature would not be a surprise either.
If you are looking for a website to host your music in a way that distributes it out to the streaming platforms, that opens another can of worms, each with pros and cons. Websites like Distrokid, CD Baby, TuneCore, RouteNote, and others will all get you to that point for different costs, fees, and with different features. Typically these websites charge you per release, for example RouteNote will charge you $40 per year, per album to distribute music to streaming services via their platform. If you are trying to figure out which one to use, I highly suggest checking out each one and doing your own research. What might look good to someone else might not necessarily look good to you. Soundcloud’s Repost feature seems like one of the more attractive options, with its price point, ability to split payments between collaborators and credited musicians, and inherent reputation with the Soundcloud name. If you tell someone your music is on Soundcloud they are going to know what you are talking about, but if you tell them your music is hosted on RouteNote, few people are going to know what that is (not that many people will be asking where you host your music for streaming websites, but still).
Some of these sites, such as CD Baby, will distribute your music to streaming services while also giving you the option to order professional quality physical copies of your CDs for an additional price, a major selling point of that platform. RouteNote offers a free option, as well as paid options, with a higher percentage of streaming royalties going to RouteNote if you choose to host for free. Each platform has its advantages and disadvantages and it is up to you to decide which one works for your budget, your anticipated reach, and your timeframe. Some of these sites can get your music published quicker than others, though if you are preparing your release weeks or months in advance that should not be an issue.
An important note - using multiple distribution services can make things a little strange. Sending one album to Spotify from TuneCore, then switching to RouteNote’s free option for your second album could potentially create two different listings of your band on Spotify. It’s important to stick with one for everything, or if you do want to switch then make sure you delete everything from your previous account before switching to a new one.
This is one of the most important questions for any musician to ask: when, where, andhow do I get paid? You’ve put in the hard workcreating your sound, marketing your release, and jumping through the hoops to upload your music. Now, you’re owed your due. There are a few ways you will get paid:
“Publishing” your music is a little bit different than clicking the “publish” button on Bandcamp, Soundcloud, or whatever service you are using. In the music industry, getting your music published usually refers to a much more involved and official process, one that will get you set up with a few different organizations and bring you royalties. The first step to publish your own music is to register as a publisher with a Performance Rights Organization, also known simply as a PRO. PROs collect royalties for songwriters for both the publisher and the writer, and they are simple to sign up for. The three main PROs are BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC. Once you are the publisher, you have full rights to your music and can license it however and wherever you want. You will take in 100% of the profits and you will have full control over your publishing career.
However, it’s important to remember this also will mean you will receive no advances, no help with A&R and promotion, and all of the grunt work and administrative duties will fall on you. For many independent artists, this extra work can be worth it to retain full control. But it’s important to weigh the benefits of potentially signing with a publishing house that can help build up your career in ways you might not be able to on your own.
The role of a publisher in music works similarly to the role of a publisher in print. An author takes a book to a publisher, they secure the rights, they shop the book around, and they publish the book. A musician takes a song to a publisher and the publisher searches around for spots for that song to land. Maybe a well-known singer is looking for the next hit and this song happens to end up with them. Perhaps an advertisement agency comes along and needs a song for their commercial, a publisher could set up your song with this agency. Those are just a couple of examples, but basically a publisher will take your song or album to different markets and try to put your song either in the hands of someone else or with a label or record company for release.
While you do not technicallyneeda publisher for your music, depending on the type of musician you are and what you ultimately want your tracks to accomplish, it will definitely help. With enough time and energy invested you could do this job on your own, building out a contacts list and sending emails with links to music and albums, but your response rate might be slim compared to someone who has an established reputation in the music industry. Getting involved with them could open doors for your music that you never would have even known existed otherwise. It all just depends on what your goal is for your music. If you want to be a songwriter that shops lyrics or music around to different artists, or if you want to be a jingle writer that writes for television or radio commercials, it might be in your best interest to track down a music publisher and see what it would take to hire them to get your music into the world in the right way.
Another thing that publishers typically handle is the paperwork that goes into making sure your music is credited to you and you are being compensated properly. This is an aspect that a lot of people fail to maintain on their own, simply because of the level of difficulty in today’s day and age. People use music improperly all the time and nobody knows how to follow up on that type of behavior. Working with a publisher will ensure that the right documents have been presented and signed and that your music will be in good hands, and good money will be in your pocket. Music is not always about the money to certain people - a lot of artists truly do want to make music just to have it out there for people to listen to, download legally or illegally, use as the soundtrack to their podcast or presentation, and that is fine with them. If you are not one of those people and you would rather dot and cross the appropriate letters, then having someone to handle this step will be a huge load off of your shoulders.
This is a hard topic to nail down accurately, as the internet age has made it increasingly more difficult for musicians to maintain control over their music and where it goes. Anyone with Google can find an MP3 ripper, insert the link to your non-downloadable song you hosted on Soundcloud, and use it in a video they will upload to YouTube, monetize, and earn revenue from. Where is the fairness in that? Going through some of the publishing websites will usually include copyright in the amount that they charge to host and publish your music. Some offer services that will flag any video that has your music, sending an email to you so you can handle it properly.
There are laws that allow people to download music, remix or remaster it, mangle it, change it in any way, reupload it and claim it as their own, and even make money off of it as long as they credit the original artist. Some Creative Commons laws get more restrictive, stating that people can do all of those things but not make money off of it, make money off of it as long as it is untouched but has proper credits, or just flat-out not being able to use it for anything without licensing it from the artist themselves, which can actually be a much simpler process than a lot of people realize but can still get tedious.
There are websites you can go to that will register your music in a database for a fee, whether per song or per batch of songs, and that will help you make sure that someone is keeping track of your music. If this kind of thing is important to you and you want to make sure you know where your music is being used and whether it is being licensed properly, then you should definitely factor that in when you are hunting for a publishing platform for your music, or if you want to take another step in protecting your original work by registering it with a copyright database. As with all things, this step may matter more to one person than it does to someone else, so the only person who can decide whether you should copyright your music or not is you.
If you want to take yet another step in protecting the rights to your music, companies like BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) and ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) are two organizations that will collect license fees on your behalf. If a song of yours that is registered with a company such as this is used in a for-profit venture of any kind, these organizations will make sure that a bill arrives in the mail or email of someone affiliated with that project. These are the people you do not want to mess with. They will make sure your work is compensated one way or another, and that a licensing agreement and/or a check eventually makes its way to you.
Joining organizations like this, whether as an artist or publisher, require paperwork and years-long agreements, but could really pay off in the long run if you are the type of musician who makes tracks that are frequently used without consent or permission, and you want to make sure that you get financial compensation for the use of your music. Having organizations like this on your side can save you from the headache of discovering your music is being used for-profit, without credit, without compensation, and having to plug a hole afterwards. Hiring a lawyer, possibly going to court, it can get messy really fast. Instead, you could get set up with an organization who will handle all of this for you while all you need to do is wait for a check if and when it happens, and you can have peace of mind that someone else will be fighting your battles for you - and winning. Like I said, these are the people you do not want to mess with when it comes to using copyrighted music without permission.
As we have climbed the ladder from self-publishing an independent release all the way up to now joining BMI, ASCAP, or similar organizations, the key theme has remained the same throughout - nobody can decide what is right except for you. There is no “one way” to do anything in music. People argue on message boards about whether you should use Logic or Pro Tools for making music, imagine the conversations that take place over copyrighting and whether joining BMI is a good idea. It all comes down to what your priorities are when it comes to releasing your music, and how far you want to go with protecting it. If you want to upload an album to Bandcamp and let people download your music, maybe pay for it if they so choose, and that’s where it ends with you then that is completely okay. If you want to upload a beat to Soundcloud so rappers and artists can download it and put lyrics over it, then post it to their streams as long as they credit you, you can do that as well. If you want to go further down the rabbit hole of copyrights and representation, that is entirely up to you.
Unlike 20-30 years ago, independent artists have infinitely more resources at their disposal to get their music out there - and get paid. Whether you’re publishing your own music or distributing it, you have options to remain in control. However, there are always drawbacks to independence. Record labels and publishing houses have connections and capital that most up-and-coming musicians lack, and it can often be a smart tradeoff to give them a percentage of your profit in exchange for their ability to accelerate your career. But as we’ve seen more and more, independent artists are capable of making a living on their own. It will take an extra bit of hustle and business skills, but if you’re serious about being in control of your own vision, it will be worth it. Make sure that the conclusion you come to at the end of the day is one that you are happy with and that will be the only way to make sure you are pleased with your release.
Writer and musician based in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife, Hannah. Extensive career as both a writer and a musician previously working with brands such as Fox Sports, Yahoo Sports, and Sports Illustrated. As a musician, Anders has played in several bands throughout the last decade, and has experience in touring, booking, band management, engineering, producing, mixing, and composing. Anders has recently composed music for short films and media presentations in universities, and has launched a podcast focusing on giving musicians and artists a place to talk about their work and the process behind their creation.
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