The Publishing Dilemma: DIY or Traditional Methods

June 22, 2015

I think we’ve arrived in the future.

Think about it: All the tools necessary to do practically anything are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Things we could only dream of doing a few years ago are a reality now.

But this new reality breeds an emerging construct: Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. When it comes to determining whether to self-publish or work with a traditional publisher, understanding this new paradigm is critical. For that reason, it’s worth taking a few steps back and evaluating how we got here. Actually, the better approach is to first figure out what we’re even talking about. What is publishing, anyway?

Historically, publishing – at least in the music industry – was the activity involved in turning lyrics and music into printed sheet music. Over time, that activity morphed and evolved beyond printing sheet music to the broad concept of “generating value from copyrights.” Depending on who you talk to and their perspective on the music publishing business, I think most of us would agree that “generating value from copyrights” in the music industry today means a handful of things.

Creating sheet music (albeit primarily in digital form) is an integral part of the current industry. So is licensing musical compositions to artists and labels to be incorporated into their projects. So is licensing musical compositions into film and television. And protecting musical compositions. And registering musical compositions with appropriate collection agencies and performing rights organizations. The list goes on and on.

And having a basic understanding of what a publisher does is only the beginning. Knowing how is just as important.

How, for example, does a music publisher motivate labels and artists to record songs they (the labels and artists) don’t own? Likewise, how does a music publisher license songs into film and television? What does that even mean?

You see, the business of music publishing is complicated and simply knowing how to list the activities of a music publisher doesn’t automatically equate to knowing how to accomplish those tasks. Since I’ve seen behind the curtain, I’ll let you in on a little secret – even some “qualified” music publishers have lost their way and don’t know how to navigate this brave new paradigm of exploiting copyrights. I think that’s part of what has led many songwriters to believe they can accomplish the same things as traditional music publishers. A new belief system was birthed with the growth and availability of music publishing tools, a belief that the individual songwriter can accomplish the same things as a traditional music publisher. Today, most songwriters believe they can do it themselves.

I completely agree and yet, I also completely disagree. Ultimately, it depends on the person and the circumstances.

Here’s the reality: There are services to help you with nearly every single task that was traditionally reserved to a qualified music publisher. Desktop and mobile apps to facilitate almost anything. Self-help resources and friends in the business make it even easier. You can literally search YouTube for almost any music publishing topic and find someone willing to tell you how to act as your own publishing company. It feels fantastic, doesn’t it? Everything at your fingertips?

Allow me to digress for a moment.

Before I was an attorney, I was a music publisher. I was experienced in all of the things we’re talking about here, and had my “hands on the plow,” as it were, in the business. When I went to law school and became an attorney, I gained an even deeper knowledge of the music publishing business. Not only the practical, hands-on characteristics of a technical business, but the underlying issues related to copyright authorship and ownership, and the legal implications of every single word contained in a document related to a musical composition. From there, my knowledge has only expanded.

So when a songwriter reaches out to me to advise them in a transaction and they tell me they are “publishing” their own songs, I ask them why they need my help. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t ask them in a condescending way, but rather in a thought-provoking way. There’s nothing wrong with a songwriter needing a lawyer and the truth is that any legitimate publisher will always have a lawyer in the pocket, most of them with one on the payroll. It’s not about needing a lawyer – you do! The reason I ask is because I want to find out if they really are a publisher, or if they’re simply calling themselves a publisher in order to retain part or all of their ownership in a song. Because at the end of the day, I believe that single motivation is present for a substantive percentage of people who want to self-publish.

I mean, if you’re a music publisher, doesn’t it follow that you should know licensing inside and out? Doesn’t it follow that you should know how to register a copyright with the US Copyright Office, why you would select one PRO over another, or how to collect foreign royalties? Know whether a translator should own a portion of the song he or she just translated? Let’s get real – these are all traditional music publishing activities, and they are all very basic issues you will face as a music publisher. If you don’t have a handle on them (or have no interest in understanding these issues), I think it’s time to reconsider whether you should do things on your own. As a publisher, you will be responsible for nurturing, protecting, promoting and accounting for your copyrights. That’s a lot of work!

In my law practice, I advise songwriters, publishers, and administrators on a daily basis. I navigate these issues from all angles, and have found that most songwriters are wholly unequipped to handle them. But I’m an encourager and builder, not a dream snatcher. That’s one of the reasons why I created The CogniPop Podcast (available on iTunes, Stitcher, and TuneIn). I know people are going to try and build things even when they don’t know how, so I want to help equip them. I even recorded an episode on the topic of self-publishing versus working with a traditional publisher, to help songwriters navigate this question.

I also work with great companies like Christian Copyright Solutions. The wonderful people at CCS provide a number of services tailored for the “indie” songwriter and artist, through their INDIEadmin, including copyright registrations, licensing and royalty payments, all designed to help you fulfill your dreams and focus on your art.

So listen to the podcast first. After that, if you’re up to the challenge, make a list of things you’ll need to know and get cracking. For those of you reading this, I’m giving away a previously confidential audio recording on the topic of self-publishing versus traditional publishing. All you need to do is sign up for my email newsletter, and you’ll have the session sent to your inbox.

I’m also offering a special discount to you on my “How To Register a Copyright with the US Copyright Office” video course, to help you in your journey. This course is normally $149 and walks you through every step of the application process, but it’s available to you now for $99. Take your first step right now by sending an email to and using the discount code, “CCSVIP” in the body of the email. We’ll send you instructions on how to retrieve the course.

If you’re going to do it, do it right.

I wish you the best!


Shinen10 (1)

For more than a decade, Brock Shinen, Esq. has helped businesses, entrepreneurs, artists, and people pursuing their passions tilt and shift towards success.

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