With the modern music landscape becoming so focused on DIY success stories and independent artists soaring to the top of the charts, the art of publishing and distributing your own music is much more common—and simple—than ever. Historically, most recordings that found their way to the public in mass were handled by record labels and publishing houses, who would distribute the music and handle the publishing. That is still common today, however, distributing and publishing your own music is now a reality for several successful musicians. Additionally, for any musician looking to have complete control of their work, self-publishing will be ideal for reaping all of the financial benefits.
An important fact to remember is that 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.
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.
The first step to publish your own music is to register as a publisher with a Performance Rights Organization AKA 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.
BMI is the largest PRO in the United States, representing over 12 million musical works and nearly a million artists. It’s completely free to sign up as a songwriter, however, it costs $150 for individual publishers. ASCAP, on the other hand, is the second largest PRO in the U.S. There is a one-time fee of $50 for both songwriters and publishers. They are very similar, but many songwriters go with BMI because it’s free to sign up. But for those looking to self-publish, ASCAP is technically a bit cheaper. SESAC, on the other hand, is invite-only. Each PRO offers different yet similar benefits to their members, and depending on your individual goals, one may seem more appealing to the other. Now, let’s look at distribution.
Distributing music refers to the process of getting your music to listeners. For example, your distributor will upload your music to Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, iTunes, etc. Typically, this is handled by record labels, but in the modern era of digital distribution, there are countless companies that allow artists to distribute their own music, usually for a small fee. A few of the most popular music distributors are:
These companies will allow you to upload your music to various digital formats all over the web and cash out on your mechanical royalties.
On the other hand, you can self-release your music completely for free on websites like SoundCloud and Bandcamp. Both websites are easy to use and sign up, but they won’t allow you to monetize your music based off of streams like you could with Spotify or Apple Music. Bandcamp allows you to sell your music, whereas SoundCloud is purely promotional, unless you sign up for SoundCloud Go. You can also upload your music to YouTube free, and if you own the music outright, you can apply to monetize your videos through advertising.
In theory, yes, anyone can upload their music to Spotify. However, there are a few caveats.
Unlike SoundCloud and Bandcamp, it usually costssomething 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 2020, Spotify really isthe place to bewhen 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. However, there are options we’ll get into below.
Unlike PROs, there are dozens and dozens of distributors you can go with. In many cases, the differences are negligible and it really comes down to just picking one that best fits your budget and release schedule, but we will go over a few benefits of five popular distributors:
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 work creating 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:
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.