1. Music & Audio
  2. Songwriting

The Dark Waters of Music Publishing

Scroll to top
Read Time: 8 min

How to Define a Shark

Any of numerous elongate mostly marine carnivorous fishes with heterocercal fin and tough skin covered with small toothlike scales.

A person who is ruthless and greedy and dishonest.

The two are not so different really. The sharks of the music industry are numerous,  carnivorous, have tough skins, and are covered with scales (in the form of layers of apathy over what they will do to get their teeth sunk deeply into your money. Swimmers beware!

The Nature of the Beast

The dangerous, greedy, and long-of-tooth sort are part of every industry. All aspects of the music business seem to have more than their share, however, ready to prey on the dreams of the innocent, starry-eyed, and sometimes delusional artiste. 

Frequently, these man-eaters are former artistes themselves, bitter and vengeful folk seeking their fair share of the pie that they were once denied. One must be cautious, but not so defensive that you blow a good thing, when money is on the table. 

Out there you will find great deals, downright awful deals, and arrangements that are merely fair and mutually beneficial. You have to be a bit of a detective to tell the difference at times. Let's take a look at some of the scams that murk the music industry's salty waters.

The Opportunist

This individual sees a great, albeit vulnerable opportunity and dives on it. Seems like good business, perhaps. Definitely. Good but not particularly scrupulous. 

Occasionally a relative newbie shows up on the scene with a few songs that are undeniable. Often they are the very best songs of an out-of-towner who has been writing for quite awhile without any professional exposure. 

If this talented soul meets with an unethical type first, he may unwittingly fall prey to justifiable flattery and sign his catalog away to someone with no track record and a terrible reputation to boot. That songwriter is sunk, at least for awhile. Paying a certain amount of dues before getting discovered has its benefits. 

Take your time. Learn the game by walking the streets. Get a wide range of opinions. Visit a performing rights rep for advice and/or drop into a songwriter advocate agency like NSAI.

I know of a legendary tale of woe from the streets of Music Row that I will share with you. It is a good example of what can happen to the unsuspecting, green-around-the-gills tunesmith.

The star of this story is an extremely talented songwriter who was not being taken as seriously a he might have been because of his little drinking problem. He was known for hanging out all too often in a certain bar on the row. 

Legend has it that one evening his cash flow was running low even though he had a pending cut on a guy that would become one of the biggest phenomenons the town had ever seen. 

Out of sheer desperation for that next potent potable, he sold the publishing rights to his pending cut for his bar tab. I would hate to tell you the name of that song, but trust me you know it well. The title of it is far too ironic. Enough said.

The Mentor

There are a vast array of people passing themselves off as music mentors for a fee. The majority of them are well-meaning individuals who formerly were staff songwriters, publishers, producers, A&R people, or song pluggers. 

There were legitimate players but no longer have enough gainful employment and need to supplement it, ideally without leaving the field. I know many of these people and would divide them into three categories.

1. Teachers

This group shares a passion for the artistic side of the field and can get genuinely excited about other people's talents and careers. They have been there, done that, and have the talent and experience to spot and develop other talent. 

The upside and bet case scenario is that they can save you some mistakes, help you hone your craft, introduce you to people, and send you in the right direction ...for a price. 

The downside is that their connections and tastes may be obsolete. Their credentials may look a lot better on paper than they ever really were too. 

Do a little research and weigh the cost. A lot of what they can do for you, you can do for yourself the old fashioned way. 

2. Bluffers

This group is part of a shadowy underworld. They cannot possibly be fooling themselves about what they are, but are only too happy to try and fool you. 

Often, they have never been respected, never had any legitimate connections, and have never assisted anyone at anything except draining their checking account. 

Word travels fast so a few well-aimed inquiries about who is and isn't legit will do the trick. 

3. Moguls

Occasionally a fairly current, high roller will seemingly take a person under his wing. Nothing to be concerned with yet. Heck, this is what we all dream of. The moment where he asks for money is the caveat point. 

If he thinks you can both make money off of your talents, question why he is charging you.

I only know of one such scenario where there was no rat to be smelled. A major producer knew of a gentleman determined to spend a fortune to have a record produced on his daughter. 

Rather than watch Daddy Bigbucks blow a fortune on an inept producer, the fellow advised the man of his daughter's slim chances, and then produced a more moderately priced record on her. 


And speaking of producers, there's a word with a wide range of definitions. 

The biggest producers have the final say in the way a major label's artist's record sounds. The lowliest are amateur engineers who own a board and throw the moniker around. As a songwriter, you absolutely do not need a producer. 

If you don't demo your own material, the engineer at a good demo studio, along with your input, will work just fine. The better the studio, the better the engineer as a rule. As they say around Nashville, You can't dress up a dog

Until your songs are really well written, don't waste money on studio demos. And for heavens sake, don't go near so-called producers who claim credentials, drop names, and promise that their magic touch will get your song cut.

The only person who should be talking you into demos is a publisher who is going to pay for them. I guess what I am saying is that producers have little to do with songwriters. 

Unless you plan to be an artist, they are not your problem. At the point they come into the legitimate scenario, you are mostly out of the picture.


Many songwriting contests are harmless enough. Some are entirely free and are great for boosting one's ego. 

Do be careful to read the contract carefully though or you may be giving away the rights to your song in exchange for a four inch trophy. I know of many songwriting contests that are mainly money making ventures for the contest holder. 

They charge a decent fee to enter, take nary a song right, and pay a cash price as promised. No deceit at all. It's a gamble, period. Other contests imply that the winner's song will be recorded by a certain artist or used on a certain show. 

Again, no  dishonesty but the implication that your career will be greatly boosted if you win is probably an overstatement. Such contests usually are highly publicized and have a great many entries. 


A legitimate music publisher that shows an interest in you believe they can make money off of your music. They do not ask you for money. They do not advertise for writers either. They are inundated with the CDs of hopefuls. 

Paying to have a song published is basically paying someone to take the rights to your song off your hands. Bogus publishers seldom stop there. They will also want you to pay an inflated price for your song to be demoed poorly. 

They do not believe in your talent. They are only in it to take advantage of your assets. Don't fall for these scammers just so you can boast, "Yup, I'm published" to the homefolk.

Indy Songpluggers

Independent songpluggers are another common lot around the music industry. Like chiropractors, they once had a less-than-stellar reputation but that has changed a lot in recent years. 

Songpluggers at publishing companies are the sales fleet of the company. They try to exploit the catalog of their company by playing specific songs geared to specific artists in hopes of getting them recorded. Their day consists of meetings with A&R staffers, producers, managers, and artists. They spend a lot of time trying to match songs to people.

An indy songplugger does not work for a publishing company. He or she is hired by a songwriter to do the same job as an in-house plugger. Some writers who wish to hang on to their own publishing rights and administration will hire a songplugger. If the writer has a big name, that alone will open doors. 

If the writer is unknown, the reputation of the songplugger will be what opens (or fails to open) doors... and ears. 

For this reason, legitimate songpluggers do not take on writers they do not believe in. Less legitimate ones will. I would venture to say that many songpluggers will represent anybody. Because of this fact, they either lie about the meeting your songs were taken to, or they have very low level meetings indeed. 

In the middle are many songpluggers who are decent, hard-working people, but have to settle for good but not great writers in order to pay their own bills. Mediocre rosters amount to lukewarm reputations, and unimpressive meetings. Again, ask around, and ask the right people. 


In closing, sharkiness is in every aspect of the music business to a greater or lesser degree. Magazine ads proclaiming, Have your songs heard by radio programmers all over the country are prime examples. If it sounds too good to be true, once again, it nearly always is. 

Like people who don't want to do the hard work of losing weight, a purchased diet pill in enticing. It makes them feel closer to their goal. Sadly, a year later they are usually still fat. 

Wasting your money on schemers will assure that a year from now you will find yourself... still unknown. Do the work it takes to succeed since you can not buy success.

Did you find this post useful?
Want a weekly email summary?
Subscribe below and we’ll send you a weekly email summary of all new Music & Audio tutorials. Never miss out on learning about the next big thing.
Looking for something to help kick start your next project?
Envato Market has a range of items for sale to help get you started.