How the developments of new technology have changed the way Music Publishers generate income over the past 50 years


Music Publishing is the area of the music world that controls the copyright contained within musical works. Publishing companies exist to collect the royalties generated by the use of the copyright contained within songs and act on behalf of songwriters to exploit these copyrights in order to generate revenue. [Avalon, 2009, pg 41]. For this to take place a deal is signed between the songwriter and the publisher to give control of the copyright contained in the works to the publisher and gives them permission to administer them. The income from the exploitation is then split in accordance to the deal (e.g. 60%/40% or 70%/30%) and depending on the deal, an advance may be paid to the songwriter that is then recouped by their future earnings [Passman, 2011, pg 230].

The three main areas of publishing income are split into royalty brackets; performance (live performance and broadcast) and mechanical income (reproduction of recordings and works) being primary sources and synchronization (sound recording placed with moving image) being a secondary source [Wikström, 2009, pg 57]. The way each of these revenue streams has earned money for publishers has changed over time thanks to developments in technology. The relationship between these technological advancements and how they have affected the income generated will be the main subject of this piece. 

History of Music Publishing

The music publishing industry as we know it today started with the production and sale of sheet music on Tin Pan Alley, which is where the term “Publishing” was, coined [Harrison 2011, pg 110]. The publishing offices on Tin Pan Alley (Denmark Street in the UK, West 28th Street, NY in USA) employed songwriters to write songs that were pitched to the popular singers of the time to be performed. This was the only way for the works to be heard, as there were few national radio platforms in the early 20th century and those that existed, did not cater for popular music. It was also regular practice for performers to not write their own songs and therefore relied on published songwriters to give them material. Unfortunately, this resulted in unpublished songwriters finding it very hard to exploit their music without the backing of a publisher [Passman, 2011, pg 232].

Because of the lack of recorded music at that time, people had to buy and perform sheet music in order to enjoy music in the home. This is the first time the commoditization of music yielded significant profit, with “School Days” performed by Gus Edwards selling over 3 million copies of sheet music in 1907 [Wikström 2009, pg 62] showing just how vast the secondary income market could be.                                                                                                                                                                        Performance Royalties

In terms of publishing, performance royalties are a primary source of income and not only limited to when a composition is performed live in by an artist, it is whenever that particular work is broadcast publicly, whether that be on the radio, in a place of work, the internet, a shop or on television [Wikström, 2009, pg 57]. The money generated by broadcast/performance is then collected by collection societies, the main UK collection society being the Performing Rights Society (PRS), and then distributed back to its members. In short, each publisher assigns the performing right contained within all of the songs in their catalogue over to the PRS to be licensed on their behalf [Nichols, 2013]. Once this deal is completed, the PRS then go to every user and ensure that they have the correct license in order to broadcast the music publicly. The users pay a license fee to the PRS that covers their particular song usage and the funds generated (minus the PRS’s operating costs) are paid to the publisher and then, in turn, the songwriter [Passman 2011, pg 251]. It is also possible (and encouraged) for unpublished songwriters to join the PRS so that their royalties are collected and distributed to them, as some songwriters choose to publisher their own work and get paid directly, or have not yet signed with a publisher [PRS, 2013].  

Technological innovation has played a huge role in the way that performance royalties have been generated over time. Tin Pan Alley had songwriters creating works for singers to perform live in public, but this evolved with the invention of recording technology and development of radio equipment. These advances meant the songs could be broadcast as recordings and earn significant royalties without the need of a performer [Wibberly 2013]

The earning potential of recorded songs being broadcast developed further as technology opened up further avenues of secondary income. Songs started to become used in motion pictures and broadcast to cinema audiences where performance royalties are earned, although US cinemas are exempt from this. Works also started to be used in television advertising campaigns where broadcast royalties are due after every airing. As the number of television channels has increased, so has the possibility of earning public performance royalties [Passman, 2011, pg 253]

However, the largest shift in performance royalties has come in the digital age with income being generated through plays on YouTube, digital download services such as iTunes and streaming services such as Spotify. As of 2012, the royalties generated through online usage have eclipsed radio broadcast and live performance. This is an indication of the radical change the music industry has been through over time [PRS, 2013]. 

 Mechanical Royalites

Another form of copyright exploitation in the music industry is the reproduction and manufacturing of songs contained within sound recordings. Whether these are vinyl records, cassettes, CDs or even digital download files, a license needs to be applied for in order to reproduce the works in this way [Krasilovsky, Shemel, 2007 pg 161]. This license is called a mechanical license and in the UK is obtained through the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society (MCPS), which is paid on every physical release manufactured. The license fee on every physical copy produced is 8.5% of the published dealer price (PPD) but is a slightly different amount for online reproduction. These are the primary sources of mechanical publishing income. Mechanical license fees are also payable when copyrighted music features on computer games and DVDs that are being mass-produced and sold [Harrison, 2011 pg 121].

Initially, it was only vinyl records being sold that generated mechanical royalties and over time this has developed into many other forms of media using music also having to pay for it usage. Given the wealth of different formats carrying licensed songs in today’s market, it would be assumed that mechanical royalties would generate a significant portion of the music industries revenue. Unfortunately, because of the digital revolution, the amount of money generated through the mechanical reproduction of music has been in decline due to an overall decrease in the amount of physical releases sold [Rogers, 2013, pg 32].

This has not always been the case though, before the digital age, one of the music industry’s primary royalty generators was mechanical revenue. This is highlighted with the invention of the CD, as record companies were able to reissue their artists back catalogues. Avid fans would purchase their favourite acts recordings, repackaged on the new medium, which resulted in mechanical royalties coming in from records that were not only popular at the time, but also from those who had long since disappeared from the public eye [Wibberly, 2013].     

This could be seen as one of the music industry’s greatest ever marketing achievements, maximizing mechanical income. The public were promised that CDs had a cleaner sound of much higher quality, as well as being more portable and more hard wearing, enticing music enthusiasts to take up the new format [Harrison, 2011, pg 183]. However, the digital age has actually seen some music buyers revert back to purchasing vinyl; the format the industry proposed was out of date. Although still small in number, the resurgence of the vinyl format could indicate the extent of the music industry’s cunning, seeking to squeeze maximum amount of profit from the consumer [Dredge, 2013].

Synchronisation Royalties

Synchronisation in a publishing sense is the act of placing a recorded musical work to moving image and in order to do this, a synchronization license must be obtained. From films and TV programs to advertisements and computer games, wherever a musical work is used, it would have been paid for. These deals are often very lucrative for the songwriter with fees of £100,000 being relatively commonplace [Harrison, 2011, pg 123]. If a song is to be used in any film or motion picture then the producer of the film must go directly to the publisher to use the song in question, then to the record label to use the sound recording in question. This process also applies to get permission to use a work in a television advertisement or video game. The same also applies if a song is to be used on a television program in the USA. However, in the UK, the process is slightly different for television programs. The main channels such as SKY, BBC and ITV pay a “blanket license” to the PRS, which is a negotiated set fee, enabling them to use any song controlled by the PRS and any sound recording registered with the Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL) in their show [Passman, 2011, pg 261].  

The potential for royalties from secondary revenue sources can be explained when looking the soundtrack of the 1973 motion picture, American Graffiti. Music from the 1950’s and 1960’s was synced to the moving images in the film to recreate the feel of early 1960s America [Guardian, 2013]. Music from Buddy holly, Johnny Burnette and Bill Hailey [Amazon, 2013] among others, was included, which saw interest in those acts rekindled long after their recording careers had diminished or completely ceased. This meant that inclusion on the films official soundtrack provided mechanical income from the copies of the album manufactured, performance royalties were generated from the films cinema showings and synchronisation royalties were also paid for the songs inclusion in the film itself. Record labels also had the idea to stimulate primary income by re-releasing material from the featured artists back catalogue and so benefited from the profit of those sales, which in turn lead to the songwriters (or their estates) benefiting from mechanical copyright attached to production of the re-released work.

Publishing companies still didn’t realize just how productive the area of secondary income could be until Levi Jeans re-launched their brand with an innovative television advert featuring Marvin Gaye’s, “Heard it Through the Grapevine” which together married moving image and music to create a cool, authentic and original feel for their brand. Advertising agencies realized that music could be a way to help branding and sell products. This was an opportunity that could yield large amounts of money for publishers with both synchronization and performance royalties generated. Not to mention the mechanical royalties generated by the rejuvenated sales of a long since forgotten record. Virgin Publishing were the first act on this and set up a dedicated synchronization department to fully exploit this revenue stream which is now a cornerstone of every publishing company today [Marcel Visser, 2013]. 

Today, the synchronisation departments of publishing companies also have to change the way they generate revenue in the digital age. For example the act of synchronisation in a computer game should generate both synch and mechanical royalties. This is not the case and instead, a flat fee is paid to the publisher of the work in question in return for the songs use. [Passman, 2011, pg 262]. 

Another interesting sync case to look at in the digital age is Bjork’s release of a digital and interactive “App” in conjunction with an album. This is an innovative idea as music is synced to moving image in an interactive way, in a product will be copied every time the app is downloaded and therefore, generate both synchronization and mechanical royalites for publishers [Kiss, Needham 2013].  

Unfortunately for publishers, it seems that the increase in technology available could lead to difficulties when completing synchronisation deals in the future. Leading music supervisor PJ Bloom suggested that the potential exposure and revenue sales generated through a synchronisation deal are so important, that rights owners should be willing to pay for the right sync deal [Musicweek2013].


Labels and publishers paying for advertising space would indicate a complete shift from the current synchronisation paradigm, as advertisers would no longer be paying for the use of songs. Music Publishers would instead, pay for a works inclusion on an advert, in order to benefit from the exposure that would generate income through other revenue streams. Coupling this with how the digital age has seen mechanical royalties continue to decline, the publishing market looks to become even more challenging [Rogers, 2013, pg 32].

However, the copyright in a song will always be exploited, which means royalties will be generated, even if the money generated becomes spread thin over a number of different revenue streams. If the days of big mechanical royalties are over and synchronisation fees continue to decline, the future could be in song placement. Higher quantities of music in more places all together generating sufficient income could be the future of the publishing world in the 21st century [Musicweek, 2013].

Reference List:

Amazon. (2013) American Graffiti Soundtrack. Available at: (Accessed: 24th October 2013).

The Guardian. (2013) American Graffiti. Available at:

(Accessed: 24th October 2013).

The Guardian. (2013) Daft Punk and David Bowie Have Helped UK Vinyl Sales Double in 2013. Available at:

(Accessed: 24th October 2013).

Harrison, A. (2011) Music the Business. 5th Edition. London: Ebury Publishing.

Krasilovsky, M. W and Shemel, S (2007) This Business Of Music. New York: Watson-Guptill Puplications

Moses, A. (2009) Confessions of a record producer. 4th Edition. Milwaukee: Backbeat Books.

Nichols, S. PEDL Key Account Manager, PRS for Music (2013) Conversation with Danny Dawkins, 27th October.

Passman, D. (2011) All You Need To Know About The Music Business. 7th Edition. London: Penguin Group.

PRS. (2013) YouTube Deal – Help Centre. Available at:

(Accessed: 24th October 2013).

PRS. (2013) PRS For Music 2012 Financial Results Briefing Paper. Available at:

(Accessed: 24th October 2013).

PRS. (2013) Press Releases. Available at:

(Accessed: 24th October 2013).

Rogers, Jim 2013, The Death and Life of the Music Industry in the Digital Age, e-book, accessed 24th October 2013, <;.

Marcel Visser (2007) Levi Commercial – Laundrette. Available at:

(Accessed: October 24th 2013).

Wikström, P. (2009) The Music Industry. Cambridge: Polity Press.


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