Are you being paid for the music that you write? Ensure that you are getting the royalties you deserve as we dive into music publishing administration. Joining Bree Noble on today’s show is Downtown Music’s President of Publishing, Emily Stephenson, who helps us navigate the world of music publishing and why artists need publishers for their music. What is the role of a publisher? How do you identify which ones to go with? How does Downtown Music differ from SongTrust? What is fair pay and what does the National Music Publishers’ Administration (NMPA) do about it? Emily answers these questions and more. So tune in to this episode to equip yourself with great information as you continue your way to becoming a profitable musician.
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Music Publishing Administration: Get Paid For The Music You Write With Emily Stephenson
I am excited to be here with Emily Stephenson from Downtown Music. They also own Songtrust, if you’re familiar with that brand. I would love to start the show by getting your background in the industry, how you ended up in Nashville working for Downtown Music Publishing, and all the things.
Thanks for having me. This is really exciting. I am a rare breed in that I grew up in Nashville. I was born and raised there. I started my career in publishing here in Nashville and then moved to New York to work for Songtrust. I was in New York for about seven years and have done a variety of things under the Downtown umbrella on the publishing side from publishing administration, including royalties and copyright to international expansion, client services, and business operations. I started in this new role as the president of the publishing company in January of 2023. Somewhere in there, I moved back to Nashville to raise a family and be home. It’s so fantastic to be back, but I do travel to New York often.
I love that you’re based in Nashville. Most people aren’t. Many people migrated from California during the pandemic to Nashville. It must feel like a foreign place.
It’s different, but I welcome it. It’s fantastic. I love what our growth has been able to do to the city. We have fantastic restaurants and fantastic activities. It’s a really lovely place to live. We’ve been able to maintain our personality and our culture. I love Nashville. It’s fantastic. I welcome newcomers.
I got to get back. The last time I was there was 2007, so I’m sure it’s so different.
It’s very different than 2007.
I want to lay the groundwork for publishing. I still find that independent artists, especially if they’re new, don’t even understand exactly what publishing is, what the role of a publisher is, and what a publishing administrator is.
It’s easiest to look at this from a copyright perspective. Any song that you listen to contains two copyrights. One copyright is the actual sound recording. What the musicians, producer, and sound engineer created in the studio is one copyright that is intellectual property owned by the people who contributed to it.
The other copyright side of a song is the actual composition. The way that the music was composed and the lyrics that were written is the composition side. Publishing represents that composition piece of all songs. For any number of songs, you can have thousands of sound recordings for that one song, but as a publisher, we represent the song. It doesn’t matter who is singing it or recording it. What a publisher does is to look after that.
There are traditional publishing deals where a publisher might want a portion of your ownership because they got you maybe in that writing session or they’re pitching it for an artist to record it. There’s some active work that publishing companies do to substantiate the ownership that they take. We do things a little bit differently at Downtown and Songtrust, which is we don’t take ownership of songs.
We ask for a fee to manage that catalog for you. We register the copyrights, collect your royalties, do any licensing, and do creative work for a good portion of the catalog for sync and things like that. That’s what a publishing administrator does. They allow you to own the copyright outright. We want you to own the work that you create, but we’ll look after it for you because that side of the business is really quite complicated and can be especially complicated for somebody who is starting out in their career.What a publishing administrator does is allow you to own the copyright outright. We want you to own the work that you create. Click To Tweet
Is every publisher a publishing administrator? Their job is to go out there, promote the song, and get people to record it, sing it, and all of that stuff, right?
It depends. Different publishing companies are set up in different ways. Some publishing companies only want to do the creative work. They don’t want to worry about any of the back office, any of the licensing, or anything like that. What they’ll do, and this makes up a large portion of the clients on the Downtown Music Publishing side, is they will come to us and say, “We’ve got A&R and creative covered. We want to sign our own writers, but will you handle everything else for us? We don’t want to issue royalty statements. We don’t want to do income tracking. We don’t want to pay for licenses. We don’t want to negotiate sync rates. Can you handle all of that for us and let us focus on the creative?”
In that case, that publisher would not be a publishing administrator because they’re not doing any of the admin work. There are some companies that do both. Let me be clear, too. We have a fantastic A&R team. We have a fantastic sync creative team. We also have this very robust admin side, which is what makes us a little bit unique.
There are companies that do both where some writers we sign or historically we would’ve signed and taken a piece of the ownership because we’re doing all the things that I mentioned before. Some folks sign up for admin deals because they don’t want to tap as much into the creative services. It varies. Since we are strictly admin and we don’t ever take ownership, all of our clients get to benefit from the creative offerings that we have.
That’s on the Downtown Music Publishing side. On the Songtrust side, the creative services are a little bit different. We will paper-sync licenses for people and do those negotiations if that’s something they would like us to do. We don’t have to do that. You can do that on your own if you want to. The nice thing is when we get feedback from Songtrust clients that are like, “I would like to tap more into the creative services. My career is really picking up. I have all this happening. Could I lean into the Downtown creative side?” There’s an easy transition and funnel to push them over to the Downtown Music Publishing side if that’s a better fit for where they are in their career.
That’s really cool. I love that they have that option. Can you explain the difference between Songtrust and Downtown? Is Songtrust more for indie artists, or is it the level of help that they need?
Of course. The two companies have created specific personalities for their clients. That’s not how we think about it internally. What we think about is really the service offering. Songtrust is meant to be a very self-service, easy, simple royalty collection offering where anybody can sign up to get their royalties collected and their songs registered. All they need to do is log into a portal, submit that information, and exchange data between us and themselves. That’s it.
On the Songtrust side, everybody gets the same rate. Everybody has the same signup fee. It’s very uniform on the Songtrust side. On the Downtown side, it’s much more bespoke because there’s a variety of different things that we do on the Downtown Music Publishing side that we don’t do on the Songtrust side. Those deals are all negotiated individually. They all look a little bit different based on what clients are looking for. The way that they interact with the company is different. They don’t turn in songs on a portal. They’re talking to our client services team directly and things like that. They’re a little bit different. That’s what we think about. We think about the service offering.
However, it has created personalities among our clients whereas we do have a lot of independent creators on the Songtrust side at all stages of their career. It is really cool to get to see that what works for somebody who’s getting millions of streams on Spotify works for the same person who has started creating music, is maybe distributing through CD Baby, and wants to collect on the publishing side. That’s fantastic.
On the Downtown side, we have individual creators, artists, and also companies. It’s more B2B. Larger publishers sign up with us. We can do specific territories if they want to. It’s a little bit different, but it’s a really nice range of people. Having both Songtrust and Downtown Music under one management allows us to think when we are making decisions about the direction of the company or when we’re renegotiating a license with Spotify or someone else. We think about it from all of our clients’ perspectives. It’s not just focused on the independent songwriters or the professionalized B2B like larger publishing companies. It’s a diverse group of people.
That makes sense. I can see how those work together. Those different perspectives can benefit both sides, for sure, when you’re negotiating. Is this publishing admin non-exclusive? If somebody signs up with Songtrust or Downtown and then they get approached directly for a licensing deal, they can do that, right?
It all depends on what you’re talking about. On Songtrust, you do maintain non-exclusive sync rights. Sync, to back up because I realize I’m throwing that jargon out there, is the synchronization of music to visual work. Think about it as songs you hear on TV, commercials, music trailers, and video games. That’s sync. On the Songtrust side, we’re happy to paper a license for you and negotiate that license for you if that’s something that you want us to do. We’re not actively pitching all of the Songtrust catalog because it is non-exclusive.
They may have a massive catalog.
Exactly. In good faith, we can’t say, “We’re pitching the entire catalog.” It’s a huge catalog. There are certain clients with whom we have created this relationship and it makes sense to do that. We can negotiate. That’s non-exclusive. The Songtrust deal is also interesting. In publishing, generally, you either do a general agreement or a specific agreement.
General means we have the right to administer your entire catalog. Everything that’s under your remit, we will administer. Specific is you tell us what songs you want us to administer and we’ll administer those songs. Songtrust is all specific agreements. You can bring your whole catalog to us if you’d like to, but if there are only 5 songs you want us to administer and you want to keep the other 50 for yourself or you’re not sure what you want to do with them yet, that’s fine as well.
The right to register copyrights and collect royalties on those songs that you do give us is exclusive because if you then gave a different publisher the same right, it would throw everything into conflict. Income sources wouldn’t know who to pay. That has to be exclusive, and that’s true of any publisher. On the Downtown side, it’s similar. It all depends. For the most part, those rights are exclusive as well because of all the things that I mentioned before about creating confusion with income sources and them not knowing which publisher-administrator to pay for which songs.
That makes sense. What you said about the way the Songtrust works makes sense. It’s called Songtrust, not Artisttrust. You’re signing up individual songs and they’re asking you to administrate them. That makes sense to me. Let’s pull back from your company in a bigger view. Being a publisher in the industry and working with one for so long yourself, what do you think makes a really good publisher? What should artists be looking for, whether they go with you guys or someone else?
It depends, to be honest, on where you are in your career and what you’re looking for. What makes a great publisher is understanding the way that the publishing company is thinking about the collection. At the end of the day, you can get all the creative services and get your song in front of all the biggest A&Rs, but if you don’t have the infrastructure in place to collect on those royalties in the most efficient way possible with the fewest hands in the pot, then what’s it all worth?
For us, something that we pride ourselves on a lot is that in the US, you have a handful of societies, which is what we call them, where they represent you. There’s a portion of publishing royalties called Writer Performance and it’s about 25% of the overall copyright. Writers are entitled to collect that directly. Publishers cannot collect on that. That is your stream that you have to use ASCAP, BMI, or someone like that to collect. All of our writers maintain their right to collect their Writer Performance share.
There are different societies all over the world. The big ones are ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. What Songtrust has done as well as Downtown Music Publishing is we have created direct lines to all of those societies internationally. We’re not going to a publisher in the UK and saying, “Can you help us figure out how to get our royalties out of the UK?” We are going there directly. We’ve set up shop in the UK. We work with the society there. Our strategy is to go as direct as possible to as many places as possible so you get to collect that money directly. That’s a really interesting thing to look at.
What should be considered, too, is what are publishers doing with their data. Are you maximizing data? Are you analyzing royalty statements? Are you doing what you can to collect metadata from your clients and various sources like the streaming services or are you taking what your writers give you and passing them on? We’re doing a lot of data enrichment on our side, which is leading to a lot of additional revenue for our clients. There is a variety of ways to think about it, but those are the things that we’re prioritizing. Those are the things that I’m finding, for us, are helping us win deals.
That’s really important, the data, because a lot of times, artists don’t even know their song is playing on something in Europe or other countries. How would we know that’s even happening if we’re not collecting the data?
That’s really important. There’s this term for artists that people throw around, which is fair pay. Is fair pay making sure you’re getting all the payments you’re owed or making sure that you’re getting enough from each place and they’re not screwing you?
There are two sides to that. There’s one that’s a lot easier to influence than the other. One side of it is setting royalty rates with income sources. That, especially here in the US, is a lot of work. That’s done in DC. It is negotiating old rates that have been set for decades. That is something that the NMPA does a fantastic job. The NMPA is the National Music Publishers’ Association. They’re based in Washington on the Hill. They are meeting with congressmen, women, and senators and advocating for fair pay for music creators.
The other side of it is what I was alluding to earlier. Let’s make sure that also, you’re collecting every single penny that you’re owed. It is really hard to do because there are so many different income sources and most of it’s coming in micro pennies. You have to collect enough to make a worthwhile check to come in. That’s what we’re striving to do on both sides of the coin through all of our data work. We’re making sure we understand where music is getting used, what we should expect, and whether or not we’re getting that. If there’s a gap between what we’re collecting and what we’re seeing as usage data at different places, then we go after it and try to get it.
That’s awesome. I feel like every artist needs that. We don’t have time to be chasing all of that down. You’ve already got the infrastructure set up. What is the lag time on the payment? I know I’ve heard some artists say it takes them up to a year and a half to get their statements from their PROs.
It varies by all PROs. Every single society is different. For the most part, in the US, it’s about 2 to 3 quarters from when a song is used and when they should get paid. Internationally, it’s a little bit longer. Some of the international societies only pay out once or twice a year. It can be delayed, but ideally, you’re getting it quickly.
Typically also, the standard expectation is that if money goes uncollected after about three years, then the societies will put that money in the black box and you can’t recover it at that point. It is important to get those songs registered and collected when they’re having a lot of performances because you don’t want to lose that revenue.
That’s one thing we’ve found that a lot of people love about Songtrust. People might have a song that’s gone viral and doing really well. Their career is taking off and they want to partner with a more traditional publisher. They want to find the right fit of somebody who’s managing their calendar to set up co-writes and do all of this.
Those are not services that Songtrusts offers, but at Songtrust, we offer a really short-term. We offer a one-year term, meaning if you bring a song to us, we’ll look after it for a year. After a year, if you want to take it elsewhere, you can. It is very short-term. The reason we even have a year is because societies require it. They’re like, “You can’t send songs to us and then tell us two weeks later that it’s no longer your song.”
What people will do is they’ll come to Songtrust and park a song for a year while they’re out there looking for a more traditional publishing situation. Hopefully, if we’re doing what we should be doing, then Downtown Music Publishing is pitching to be that person. We can transfer them over. Other times, people are like, “I want to park this for a year and see where my career goes. I don’t want to lose that revenue because I haven’t given it to a publisher.”
That’s a smart thing to do. If you’re not sure if you want to go with a traditional publisher, at least make sure someone is administering your royalties. What is the role of streaming in all of this? I feel like hear how much is being uploaded to streaming services every single day. Has that made catalogs of music explode?
Yeah. The more music out there, the better for all of us. It certainly added to the larger pool and also forced companies to rethink the way that they’re addressing volume. There was a huge spike in music creation during the pandemic. People with accessibility were able to get music on streaming services, which wasn’t always the case, and allowing songwriters to sign up for publishing administration.The more music out there, the better for all of us. Click To Tweet
That was a huge explosion. It has been really fantastic to see it, but it has forced everybody in the music space to rethink how you’re handling that. Streaming is such an important part of our revenue. It’s such a massive percentage of our revenue that we have to always be rethinking our collection strategy, checking that data again, auditing income sources, and making sure everything looks great because it’s such an important piece.
I know that in the US, the MLC was created to distribute some of the money that was awarded from streaming services. If people are with Songtrust, do they also need to sign up for the MLC or do you guys handle that?
We handle the MLC. We have a really tight relationship with the MLC.
That’s cool because I know that a lot of artists have been confused. They’ve heard about the MLC and they know they need to get in touch with them, but then, they’re like, “What if I have Songtrust?” I’m glad that we covered that because some people will have that question. This is a loaded question. Being that you have so much experience in the industry, what changes do you think we need to make or need to be made in the industry to build a more equitable system for everyone?
When I think about the music industry, I do think it’s made up of a lot of really smart, forward-thinking people who want to see equity and inclusion. In every single conference I go to or newsletter I read, it feels like there’s a piece in there about that. It’s wildly important. We don’t want a bunch of music that sounds the same. We want to be able to see songwriters who are starting out but have written a fantastic song have the same access to success that somebody who’s been signed to a major label for ten years has.
One thing I do think is the mystery of how you create a viral moment. Who really knows? I’m sure there are very smart people who do know. The rise of social media and things like TikTok and Reels are creating some space for people who are amazing to have a voice and a platform that they haven’t had before. It’s about always being able to point back to bringing up new talent and recognizing fantastic talent when you see it.
Going back to having a really diverse group of clients, meaning big publishing companies who have 30 writers signed to them to the independent songwriter who is starting out and maybe they’re in their college dorm room writing songs. When we are able to represent such a wide variety of songwriters, it’s an excellent way for us to make sure that the new, fresh songwriters are getting the same level of service as the professionalized ones.
I love that you’re providing service to everybody at the different stages of their career. If people have been reading and they’re like, “I need a publishing administrator. I want to know more about Songtrust,” or maybe they are already on Songtrust and they’re like, “I didn’t know you had Downtown Publishing. I feel like I’m ready for that,” what is the best way for people to get more information and get in touch with you?
Admittedly, our Downtown website is a work in progress. It doesn’t have a lot of information there, but our Songtrust website is really fantastic. There’s a place where you can put in a contact form and hear from somebody. I would also highlight that our social media for Songtrust as well as our education centers on the website are amazing.
There is a signup fee when you sign up for Songtrust. We want to make sure that this works for you. It’s a $100 signup fee. If you’re not going to make $100, then let’s hold off and figure out what we can do with you to get you to that point so you’re ready for a publishing administrator. All of that is on the website. There’s so much information there. We’re on TikTok. We’re on Reels. We’re doing all the things to make sure people know what to expect from our service.
That’s awesome. I follow Songtrust. I see some of your Reels on Instagram. Is it @SongTrust?
Go follow Songtrust. They do have some really good content. The Songtrust website is Songtrust.com.
Thank you, Emily. This has been really enlightening, especially for those who are still confused about all the terms and all that stuff in the publishing world. This is understanding that there are different levels of support that you can get on the publishing side and figure out which one is right for you. You can always move within those. You can do it based on each individual song. Every song has its own life. I love that Songtrust has that option as well. Thank you so much. This has been enlightening and super helpful to all the artists that are tuning in.
About Emily Stephenson
Emily Stephenson is based in Nashville and currently serves as Downtown Music’s President of Publishing, where she oversees all publishing efforts, including client acquisition and business development, A&R, rights management, and client services for the group’s publishing companies – Downtown Music Publishing, Songtrust, and Sheer. Downtown’s publishing administration services currently have nearly 2 million songwriters and more than 1.5 million copyrights under management. Prior to her current role, Stephenson served as the division’s Vice President of Business Operations and during her 10+ year tenure at the company has been responsible for all aspects of publishing administration and client services for Downtown’s songwriter and publishing clients, including Ryan Tedder, Big Yellow Dog, and the John Lennon Estate.