Updated: Jul 23, 2018
When someone meets me for the first time, they usually ask "So, what do you do for a living?" My usual answer is "I'm a composer."
From there, the conversation usually goes into "what" I compose, "who" I compose for, and "where" you can hear my music. Of course, there are answers to each of these questions. When I really think about it, though, the truth is this:
I'm actually a music publisher.
Now, in my case (and in the case of many others like me), the music that I publish also happens to be music that I composed; but the bulk of my income is from the publishing of that music, through commercial release, broadcasting royalties, and licensing.
This is a very important lesson. You can be the most prolific composer around, writing symphonies, sonatas, operas, and concerti; but if no one performs that music, you won't get too far. There's nothing wrong with writing music as a hobby. Everyone starts out that way. If you want to make a living from your music, that music needs to published and performed, so that it can live on and generate income.
Back in 1994 when I released my first album, I started my own record label and publishing company (back then, it was called Zebra Music). Once the album got retail distribution and airplay, I started receiving money from distributors (who were selling the record) and from BMI (the performing rights organization that collects broadcasting royalties for me).
This has essentially been the way it has gone for almost 25 years now. Never having been signed to a label, all of my music has been released by my own label (now called Kevin Keller Music), and I've kept the publishing rights to everything. Even when I compose a score for a dance company, I still keep the publishing rights. The choreographer who commissions the work gets to have exclusive use of the music for a period of time, and after that time is up, I'm free to license that music to other choreographers.
(Sometimes, I have agreed to a "work for hire" arrangement, in which the client becomes the copyright holder. This is not ideal, because in this situation you are only getting a one-time fee for the service you've provided (i.e. composing), and that's the end of it. Once you're working in Hollywood on studio features, this is most likely the way it will go; but at least that one-time fee makes it all worth it!)
Until you've broken into that business, my advice is to hold on to your publishing.
Here we are in 2018, which is 25 years since I recorded "The Mask of Memory" in a small studio in San Diego. If you had told me back then that a little improvised track called "Goethe Park" would still be earning royalties 25 years later, I would have thought you were crazy. Yet, that is exactly what is happening, every month.
I'm curious to hear your thoughts on this subject: what have your experiences been, as far as publishing rights for your music?