What Does a Music Publisher Do?
Tin Pan Alley (Photo By Ranveig)
Your picture of a music publisher, if you have one at all, might be of some fat guy on tin pan alley sitting behind a desk, smoking a fat cigar, grinning a shark’s grin at the skinny songwriter sitting across with him. The kid is quaking in his boots, afraid he’s about to sign his soul away to the devil. That devil hands him a contract – it’s fat too – saying, “Now I can’t offer much of an advance, but…” He makes his pitch, as devils do, and it’s a good one. The kid suddenly sees visions: his name on a gold record, himself living in a palatial estate, girls…He signs.
The first actual music publisher I met wasn’t fat, didn’t smoke a cigar, didn’t even make me sign anything. Marv Goodman didn’t grin like a shark. He smiled benevolently as he sat behind his desk, the most jovial fellow I’ve ever met in the music business. Maybe he was just happy by nature. Or maybe it was his recent good fortune, which he made no secret of. One of those skinny songwriters had given Marv a song which he’d placed with an unknown artist, Pat Benetar. The singer was no longer unknown. The song was a monster hit – “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.”
I was impressed, but actually had been seeing stars before I even entered Marv’s office for the first time. Hanging on the lobby wall of Marv’s company, ATV, was a platinum record of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” The Beatles’ publisher!
Marv liked my music, but thought the lyrics weren’t commercial. He set me up with a series of lyricists. We wrote together, I made demos at a studio down in the Village and Marv submitted them to artists. We came close with Olivia Newton-John and Roberta Flack, but no cigar.
After a couple of years I became impatient with all the near misses. My heart wasn’t in pop ditties, but my instrumental music, which was starting to get noticed. The last lyricist Marv sent me schlepped up to my rathole apartment on Seaman Ave., north of Dykeman Street. Julie Gold seemed quite nice. We complimented each other’s work, but I never saw her again. After that I gave up songwrting.
Unlike me Julie Gold kept at songwriting. Ten years later she placed her song “From a Distance” with Bette Midler and it became the signature song of the first Gulf War. Ah well.
Around the time Julie Gold got her gold record I became a music publisher myself. I was not bigtime like Marv, but tiny-time. All I published were my own pieces, which I released on CDs for my Music Library.
I had to become my own publisher because the performing rights organizations – or PROs – require every song to have a publisher. The publisher shares royalties with the writer, 50/50. I figured, no reason not to take half a loaf if you can’t have the whole thing.
Except that to start, there was no loaf to split with myself. No royalties. That’s because the PROs had no mechanism to identify instrumental music, which is what music libraries distribute. My ex-boss Doug Wood, the guy who got me into the library business rode to the rescue. He tirelessly hassled the PROs about the royalties music library publishers and their composers should be getting. They claimed that our music was not on the air. Finally Doug extracted from one of the PROs a tape of “unidentified performances.” If he could find some of his music, they’d pay. They were confident he’d come up dry. Instead he found 75 pieces from his music library, many of them mine. The PROs started paying us royalties. Doug sits on the board of ASCAP today.
Which brings me back to answering that question – what does a music publisher do?
What I do is try to get people to license our music, to use it in anything from iPod apps to movies. I do it directly, and through distributors around the world. It’s hard work, because there’s recently been an explosion of music libraries. The competition is fierce.
Getting a piece of music licensed is far harder, and much less edifying than writing one. Why don’t I just write, then? A good question, which I’ll answer some other time.
Globalization via the internet has transformed my business into a strange one. I interact with business partners whom I’ll never meet, who from their emails apparently barely speak my language (often I don’t even know what theirs is.) Every country has its own copyright and licensing laws, so I never know if what I’m doing is kosher or not.
But the strangest thing I do is listening to the “unidentified performances” provided to me by one of the PROs. There’s no programming, just commercials and promos –about 10,000 per year. Which is why it takes me several weeks to do the job.
During that time I feel like some shut-in with nothing better to do than sit around all day listening to radio and a TV with the picture busted. Only all the good stuff, the meat, the program, has been cut out. I’m left to rummage through a steaming pile of fat, gristle, skin and bones looking for a scrap –a piece of my music.
A cynic might say that on the contrary, what I’m hearing is the essential part, the sound of the pure soul of America. The sound of people hawking stuff – whispering, screaming, pleading, lying, cajoling me into buying something, anything. Concentrated like that it’s a desperate sound.
It’s a mind-numbing, tedious job, but occasionally enlivened by something of interest. Because there’s a time lag between the broadcasts and my receiving them, many products’ sell by date has passed. It’s poignant hearing spots for the two also-ran Johns, Kerry and McCain, or PSAs warning of swine flu, or bird flu, fears of the past.
The irony of certain juxtapositions can make me laugh. I heard a spot for a hot dating service, a smoky woman’s voice ending with the suggestive tag line, “You never know what might happen…” followed by a spot for the Advanced Pregnancy Test. Well, that might happen. Next spot was a condom ad. Well, maybe not.
All of which informed me of the perhaps interesting fact that over the years I’ve been hearing these spots, radio and TV have been getting more and more explicit.
Trawling the dungeons of local access cable I came across a station that was playing both ends of the street – a remarkably explicit erotic gay program followed by a real fire-and-brimstone sermon, calling out Satan by name. Hm.
But mostly the job is demoralizing. After several thousand spots I start fearing that we Americans are what that cynic sees – a people with nothing to do but sell, sell, sell.
Why in the world would I torture myself like that? Because around day three of a listening marathon, when I’m considering putting an icepick through my ears, I hear a familiar sound. Is that…? Yes! That’s a piece of my music. But which one? I can’t collect my royalties until I identify it to the PRO. Over the last 32 years I’ve published over 500 pieces. And as any 60 year old will tell you, my memory is not what it used to be. Sometimes it takes hours of going through my old CDs to find the piece.
Those surveys are not exactly a gold mine. There are no gold records down there, no millions of dollars. More like the proverbial salt mines – a place that makes me thirst for art, or music in the clear without all that hysterical blabbering. But you won’t find me complaining, because it’s how I make a living.