Guide to setting up a publishing company with your PRO

As an independent songwriter setting up a publishing company through a Performing Rights Organization is one of the best ways to protect yourself and your songs.

Guest post by Dan Reifsnyder of Soundfly’s Flypaper

When you think of a publishing company, you probably think of tall glass buildings with lots of gold and platinum records on the wall, maybe in L.A. or Nashville, staff writers and artists funneling through with laptops and guitar cases, churning out hit after hit, day after day.

Obviously, that image is correct, but it barely represents what most publishing companies look like in 2021. In fact, many publishing entities in the music industry are simply the registered repositories of a single artist’s royalties. 

You can (and honestly probably should) start one of your own, through your own Performing Rights Organization (or PRO), such as BMI, SESAC, or ASCAP. A ton of artists and writers do this for themselves as a way to protect their publishing interest. It’s very simple to do, and may make good sense for you to do it. In this article, we’ll explain the ins and outs of it all.

Why You Should Do It in the First Place

Being in the music industry is an increasingly DIY proposition — the days of a cigar smoking label bigwig discovering you from the back of a rock club and putting your music in front of millions is largely in the past.

These days, it’s all on you; create the music, do your own PR, do your own booking, and get your music on the right Spotify playlists. If you don’t have a publishing company, your publishing royalties could be lying around uncollected. That’s never a good thing for an artist, when that money could be used for demos, promotions, or just living expenses.

If you set up your own publishing company, it makes it much easier to collect that money.

The bad news is, you’ll be doing it yourself… But you’re likely a pro at forging your own path at this point, and at least you won’t have to go out of pocket to hire someone new. You also gain the ability to pitch your music directly for certain opportunities, and maintain 100% control of your music (always a bonus).

Step 1: Are You Eligible?

Has your music already been released? Is it available on streaming platforms, or physical CDs? Has it been performed in venues? Is it about to be? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” you should be eligible to start your own publishing company.

This can sound daunting if you’re first starting out, but it’s all really simple.

You can self-release anything digitally these days and release it into the world. Your performance doesn’t even need to be in a stadium or major venue – any music venue licensable by the Performing Rights Organizations is valid. For example, your local coffee shop that regularly plays music and/or hosts performances would work. Your back yard or your local house of worship probably wouldn’t.

Step 2: Pick a Name for Your Publishing Company

While you can name your company pretty much anything you want, we recommend that it at least sound somewhat professional. Keep in mind, you’ll be on the phone with people who can potentially be making decisions on whether or not to license your music; will they trust a publishing company called LaserKitty42069?

Inspiration can be hard to come by, but I’ve seen some great publishing company names — from the titles of songs written by artists, to even as simple as the name of the artist that owns it (i.e: Joe Smith Publishing).

Since there’s about a million publishing companies out there, and nobody wants to be confused with anyone else, try to pick a name that’s unique. Don’t worry, though, the PROs will help do that for you — they ask you to choose about five different names you’d like to use, and they grab the one that’s most unique.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “What Is a Personal Publishing Entity?”

Step 3: Fill Out All the Forms

The three main Performing Rights Organizations in the United States are ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC — so you’ll likely be submitting to one of these. Each has their own slightly different way of doing things (and differing application fees), but they are all fairly similar. Membership is generally open to anyone that meets the criteria, but it should be noted that SESAC is by invitation only (you need to know a member who can recommend you).

Once you’ve done that, it’s a waiting game to find out that you’ve been accepted. Keep in mind, if you’re already associated with one of these organizations as a writer, you can’t pick a different PRO for your publishing; it needs to be the same. So if you’re already an ASCAP member, you need to register your publishing company through them as well — unless you want to change PROs altogether.

Step 4: Make It Official

Once your name and application have been approved, it’s time to jump through one more hoop — registering with your state. This part may or may not be strictly necessary, depending on your goals, so consult an attorney, tax professional, or other expert associated with your PRO.

If you do decide to register with the state, the pertinent information can usually be found at the Secretary of State’s website or your County Clerk. Assuming you’ll be getting checks addressed to your new publishing company, you’ll probably also want to set up a bank account for it. Every bank has different rules, and with some you can simply add a “doing business as” (or DBA) to an account. Some may need to see forms from the state.

This is where it’s up to you to do your own legwork. It’s important to dot all your i’s and cross your t’s here; you don’t want to wind up in trouble down the road.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “Know Your Rights: A Simple Guide to Digital Royalties.”

Step 5: Register Your Works

Ahhhh... more paperwork. Now you get to register your songs with your PRO — assuming you haven’t already done so. This is a pretty straightforward process, in fact, you likely already have most of the info you need.

Primarily, the title of the song, co-writers, and their PRO info, are the bulk of it, but you’ll also need to add what percentage of the rights they may hold (ditto with their publishing companies). In many cases, that’s pretty straightforward — everyone usually gets an equal share — but that’s not always the case. In some songwriting circles, it’s common to give rights in proportion to who wrote what.

For example, if you wrote most of the song you get a larger share of the rights than someone who, say, only contributed the bridge or a word or two. You get the idea. It’s important to hash this out with your co-writers so you’re all on the same page.

Every situation is going to be a little bit different, and you’ll need to figure out what works for you. Maybe you’ll decide it’s too much hassle and you’d rather have a publisher or other administrator handling your stuff. Maybe you’ll end up loving the experience and decide to take on other artist catalogs!

Regardless, hopefully we’ve demystified this for you and you’re now equipped with the knowledge you need to start your own publishing company, and start collecting all the royalties owed to you.

Daniel Reifsnyder is a Nashville-based, Grammy-nominated songwriter, having started his musical journey at the age of 3. In addition to being an accomplished commercial actor, his voice can be heard on “The Magic School Bus” theme song and in Home Alone 2. Throughout his career, he has had the honor of working with the likes of Michael Jackson and Little Richard among many others. He is a regular contributor to several music related blogs, including his own, Songsmithing.net.

+ Learn more on Soundfly: Find out once and for all how streaming and sales royalties work — and how to get the money you deserve — in Soundfly’s free course, How to Get All the Royalties You Never Knew Existed

Share on: