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The Role of a Music Publisher

Tip Published Wednesday 1 August 2018
A composite image of Marianna Annas, Damian Trotter and Karen Hamilton
L-R: Marianna Annas, Damian Trotter and Karen Hamilton have a wealth of knowledge about the business of music publishing

Music publishers manage the copyright of a song or composition as opposed to the recording

Music publishers generate income from the song by getting artists to record the song, pitching the song to Film & TV and protecting the song from copyright infringement

Publishers try to strategically grow their songwriter’s career through opportunities such as co-writing


In its basic form, publishing seeks to find an audience for every song. But as three publishing veterans reveal, there is much more to it given the opportunities and challenges of today’s music paradigm.

Each songwriter is different

As conduits between creativity and commerce, publishers take on diverse roles in a songwriter’s career. According to Marianna Annas, Head of ABC Music Publishing (Tim Rogers/You Am I, Ruby Boots, William Crighton), it all comes down to the individual songwriter.

“Publishers work with songwriters’ rights differently depending on their strengths, career objectives and what the songwriter needs from their publisher. “

Publishers manage the copyright of a song (not a recording)

Generally, music publishing is the management of the songwriting process and the discrete rights in the songs. The latter, of course, relates to copyright in a song’s underlying composition.

Marianna emphasises how this is distinct from copyright in the sound recording, commonly administered by the record label or distributor.

“Labels manage the recording process, market and promote the release of recorded music. This is only one element of a song’s life or creative and commercial potential,” she explains.

“In contrast, the publisher manages the various rights attached to a song and the different ways these rights can be embellished, whether through live performances, new recordings such as remixes or ‘arrangements’ by other artists, reproduction of songs in film and TV, print rights and more.”

When a songwriter signs a publishing deal, they assign the copyright in their music to their publisher

Publishers try to generate as much income from a song as possible

The publisher tries to generate as much income as possible for their writers’ songs and compositions by pitching them to films, TV programs and advertisements; organising other well-known artists to record and perform them; and protecting their writers' works against infringement, such as unlicensed commercial use or plagiarism.

Publishers can provide management support to their songwriters

Karen Hamilton, General Manager of 120 Publishing (Bombs Away, Sam La More, Joel Fletcher, SCNDL), agrees with Marianna that every writer has different needs.

“Some writers simply need you to work closely with their label or management to maximise exploitation of their releases, some need a lot of A&R support, some need help setting up co-writes or securing or placing toplines and some want to write for other people.”

“For many of our writers, we also act as pseudo management – providing business affairs services to finalise their contracts, helping plan work and release schedules or helping them get a record deal or booking agent.”

Publishers can provide strategic support to grow a songwriter’s career

With their extensive network of contacts and resources, publishers can play a key strategic role in the career of a songwriter.

Damian Trotter, Managing Director of Sony/ATV Music Publishing Australia (Tame Impala, Sia, Paul Kelly, Delta Goodrem), says this was the case with APRA and ARIA Award winner Jarryd James.

“We signed Jarryd when he was not in a record deal. We arranged collaborations and an opportunity to perform in front of the industry at the APRAs in Brisbane.

“This ultimately resulted in us securing management and enormous label interest for him, from which he eventually got signed and has obviously gone on to great success.”

Publishers can help set up collaborations and co-writes

When it comes to creating new work, publishers work closely with their writers to set up collaborations and co-writes – both locally and internationally, and often across genres.

“For those who are great in the genre, there are remix and ghost writing opportunities. But for the most part, our ‘EDM’ writers are writing or collaborating on J-pop or pop or even country songs in between releasing club bangers,” says Karen.

Such collaborations can be very rewarding. Damian mentions previous APRA Breakthrough Songwriter of the Year Alex Hope who initially penned a few hits with Troye Sivan.

“Off the back of these songs, we were able to sponsor her to move to LA and she has since become one of the most in-demand writers/producers in LA. We’ve also been able to place Alex in songwriting camps initiated by our US and Scandinavian offices.”

Damian notes how these camps and initiatives, such as APRA AMCOS’ SongHubs, have proven to be vital for songwriters.

“With Alex, this has helped her build a broader international network of writers/producers to continue to collaborate with for both pitching songs to other artists and writing and producing directly with some of these artists.”

Other opportunities

For other songwriters, their work can also encompass the film, TV and theatrical worlds. Here, publishers can take a broader role in a songwriter’s career and this can be incredibly fulfilling, as Marianna shares.

“We recently licensed the iconic You Am I song Cathy’s Clown for Bombora Film’s Mambo documentary. Tim Rogers, known as the principal songwriter in You Am I, is also one of Australia’s most diversely talented artists. He has released several solo records, has composed for film and TV and is hugely in demand as a co-writer and collaborator. Tim’s solo album What Rhymes with Cars and Girls was developed into a theatrical production by the Melbourne Theatre Company in 2015 and the show will tour nationally next year.

“As a publisher, that’s what it’s all about - working with someone like Tim who traverses the entire spectrum of publishing activity and being able to provide support, negotiate on their behalf and explore new channels and opportunities.”