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Publishers -- the GOOD, the BAD, and the UGLY
By Paula Carpenter - 11/05/2003 - 07:07 PM EST

People often ask me what a songwriter should look for in a publisher; once the craft is honed, the skills are there, the contacts are being made...lets' say an offer is made? Publishers are interested, how wonderful! Slow down though...I know you're happy to be at the party, but hey, use your head. Don't dive in TOO fast.

I thought it might be beneficial to all to hear about some 'common sense' applications for what to look for in a song publisher...that person that is going to represent YOU to the RECORDING community. What is it you need to know? Here are a few examples that come to mind:

GOOD -- these are by far the majority!

* You 'click', they understand your needs/personality/style -- This is what you want; someone or some group who 'get' you. You and they have a rapport and some common ground.

* Intro you to co-writers, able to make connections for you -- You definitely want someone/some group who is 'connected', who can introduce you to collaborators, to artists, to others in the industry it is important for you to know.

* Willing to pay you the draw/contract you need -- A publisher who has some pockets is always beneficial; some one or group who can pay you the money you need in order to ply your craft. Bear in mind, the entire industry as we once knew it, has taken a big HIT from the new frontiers which technology has opened up in terms of burning CDs and downloading songs; the recent lawsuits have curbed the downloading somewhat; however, there are SO many people out there who copy friends'/relatives'/coworkers' CDs, and never buy their own...the industry is poorer. That said, you STILL need to look for a publisher who can do right by you financially.

* Ideal is a signing bonus up front, plus whatever draw you think you need (This comes out of future royalties, be advised)

* They pitch your songs vigorously -- Most definitely, you want someone who 'knows the right people and can get in the right doors' ... or email boxes. You want a publisher with the contact and the know-how/savvy to be able to pitch your songs where they need to be going.

* Great communication w/you, and others -- Over-communicating is such a great thing; if you can find a publisher who takes the initiative in keeping you abreast of what songs of yours have been pitched, and to whom, you will sleep better. Not all of them do this; but it helps to know basically what is going on w/your songs and what efforts have been made. Still, a publisher, or say, his/her creative director/song plugger with a creative/people/get out there and socialize bent, need not be bogged down with paper work/calling or emailing you each time a pitch is made, don't get me wrong. It just helps if you can get say, a monthly update.

* Publisher has an honest and good reputation; goes to industry events -- you do want someone who knows that it's important to 'see and be seen', who hangs out at the major industry events and has a definite presence that is recognized and respected. You want HONESTY and integrity...someone who will treat you and represent you as they contractually and verbally promised. This can only be good for you.

* Doesn't automatically rule out a co-pub (with experienced, successful writers)
Experienced writers deserve a co-pub deal, in my opinion. If you have a track record, no way should you settle for the standard 50-50 deal. You have a lot to bring to the table yourself, and the publisher should recognize this and reward it. She/he is not signing a beginner, but someone with CLOUT, if indeed, you have a great track record of cuts.

For the BAD, and the UGLY scenarios...I'm going to use shorter * bullet points, so here we go:

BAD -- occasionally...

* Does not want you to work w/writers outside their group; this is selfish--if you write only w/this publishers writers, they make more royalties. You should make sure up front you're free to write with writers from other publishing houses/no publishing house.

* Does not vigorously pitch your tunes; like a real estate agent who lists your house then does nothing or as little as possible to sell it, but waits to get paid at the sale/closing -- the equivalent of that in a publisher is someone who signs you as a staff writer/ or song by song, and doesn't pitch your stuff, waits for you to do it, then collects royalties

* Not enough good connections; not regularly involved in industry-wide events

UGLY - please note: these are few and far between, in my experience. Publishers who try these things, don't usually survive, and are non-existent among the fine and reputable people/companies with which I have ever dealt. Still...I've heard of these things happening, so be warned:

* Dishonest, or at best, full of hype and unfulfilled promises

* Steals songs, says they are theirs, not yours (I do not know any publishers who do this)

* Wants YOU to pay THEM, for you to get a song published -- NEVER agree to this!

With all the above please remember that by far, most publishers are reputable, honest, hard-working, trust-worthy people/companies! More food for thought: the INDEPENDENT route is a WONderful way to go. Technology, including the internet, while our foe in many ways (the afore mentioned down-loading/CD burning capabilities) has indeed made all things possible, musically. If you are able to pitch your tunes, if you have some important contacts, think long and seriously about keeping your publishing.

If however, you are just beginning, you could indeed benefit from the skills and contacts of a reputable and fine publisher with lots of contacts.

Most of all...don't give up! Keep writing!

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