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It used to be that an aspiring artist or band writing their own songs would initially approach a music publisher with a view to getting a publishing contract. The publisher would put up money for living expenses and demos, then when the artist or band was ready, they would promote them to record companies.
Now apparently you can't get a publishing deal for love nor money. The reason? Record companies now bypass the intermediate role of the publisher and seek out and develop acts themselves. They do all the same work and pay the same advances upfront, so in this respect they are indeed fulfilling the publisher's role.
But there is something else. A publishing deal would normally take a 40% slice out of the artist's or band's songwriting royalties. The record companies have now realized they can take this slice for themselves.
Since record companies are doing the publisher's initial work, surely this is fair?
Well actually not...
The traditional role of the publisher did not end when the act was signed to a record company. It extended into promoting their songs to other performers as cover versions, promotion to television producers, film, and - most importantly - TV commercials.
From this, the publisher would make loads of money for the writers, they would both get their fair shares, and the band would derive additional and separate income from record sales.
Unfortunately, the record companies are far too busy selling records (and downloads) to bother about this additional source of income, which largely goes unexploited.
In fact the people who are exploiting this revenue stream are the publishers who, starved of new talent, promote their back catalog to the hilt.
And the record companies? It's oh so sad. Once upon a time film production companies would pay to use a song in their movie. Now, the record companies have to pay them to get a song featured, simply so they can sell records off the back of that.
Traditional music publishers are by no means starving. And right now they are laughing at record companies' meager efforts. They know their turn will come again.
This article was inspired by a conversation with producer Dave Allen.