An Introduction to the History and Mechanisms of Music Publishing in Canada

by Stuart Drozd

Although it is arguably the highest profile sector of the cultural industries in Canada, the inner workings of the music industry are not widely understood. A contributing factor to this situation is a lack of comprehensive research in this regard. Statistics Canada, for instance, did not even begin to compile an annual survey of the sound recording industry until 1977. Consequently, this scarcity of research has resulted in an absence of secondary sources. In 1996, Canadian sound recording industry analyst, Will Straw voiced his dissatisfaction that there still remained no book-length authoritative study in regard to the Canadian music industry. Straw himself was referring to a similar statement made by his colleague Paul Audley in 1983 (Straw, Sound Recording 112). As of 2003, the situation remains unchanged.

One of the least studied but most critically significant aspects of the music industry is music publishing. Although the print aspect of music publishing was established in British North America decades before Canadian Confederation in 1867, it was not until 1988 that the Canadian Music Publishers Association (CMPA) commissioned Paul Audley to compile the first ever, in-depth profile of English-language music publishing industry. French-language publishing did not receive comparable treatment until 1999 when the Department of Canadian Heritage enlisted Audley to review the industry as a whole. Both of these research projects have greatly enhanced insight into Canadian music publishing, however, two studies conducted over the course of ten years by the same person cannot provide a complete, accurate, and up-to-date picture of such a complex business.

Fortunately, in 2001, Statistics Canada conducted the first of what is hoped to become a semi-regular survey of music publishing in Canada (Dugas 1). Unfortunately, the findings of the 2001 Statistics Canada study have not yet been released and therefore cannot be considered for the purposes of this essay. Rather than attempt to redress this enormous gap in music publishing research, in which valuable insight is forthcoming pending the release of the Statistics Canada study findings, it is the intent of this essay to survey the existing relevant literature and provide a succinct introduction to the history, mechanisms, and some of the contemporary issues pertaining to music publishing in Canada.

Pre-Confederation Music Publishing

In numerous respects, music publishing is both the product, and at the mercy of technological advancements. In his broad survey of the American and European music business in the twentieth century, Reebee Garofalo identifies three distinct phases in the development of the industry:

  1. Music publishing houses, which occupied the power center of the industry when sheet music was the primary vehicle for disseminating popular music;

  2. Record companies, which ascended to power as recorded music achieved dominance; and

  3. Transnational entertainment corporations, which promote music as an ever- expanding series of ''revenue streams''--record sales, advertising revenue, movie tie-ins, streaming audio on the Internet--no longer tied to a particular sound carrier. (Garofalo 319)

Although intended to represent the industry as a whole, the stages put forth by Garofalo also adequately reflect the evolution of music publishing in Canada.

Music publishing in the Canadas, 1800-1867, by Maria Calderisi, is thus far the only published monograph pertaining to early print music publishing in Canada. In fact, the Calderisi book remains the only monograph exclusively pertaining to Canadian music publishing whatsoever. Although music publishing had become an established industry in New England throughout the course of the 1700s, similar activity did not commence in Canada until after 1800. As was the case in most Western counties, prior to the proliferation of sound recordings and the gramophone (phonograph), printed musical notation was the only form of music publishing in Canada before the turn of the twentieth century.

Calderisi divides pre-Confederation Canadian music publishing into three categories: "music books - such as hymnbooks, song collections and tutors - date from 1800; music in periodicals from 1838; and sheet music from 1840" (1). Corresponding with a period of tremendous European immigration, the advent of printed sheet music in Canada after 1840 marked the beginning of the consumption of music purely for entertainment purposes. Prior to this development, the more limited amount of music publishing that did take place was primarily of a religious and to a lesser extent military nature. Menu

Sound Recordings

The beginnings of the international sound recording industry can be traced to the late 1870s, but was not solidified until the 78 RPM record became the industry standard some twenty years later. Yet, as will likely be the case with the compact disc and the yet-to-be determined digital media format that will ultimately supplant it, sheet music publishing and the fledgling sound recording industry coexisted simultaneously and in most respects quite independently for a lengthy period of time. It was not until the 1940s, with the release of the long play record (LP) and its tremendously improved sound quality, that sound recordings gained a decisive advantage over printed works as the primary vehicle for the dissemination of music.

The ultimate supremacy of sound recordings forever changed the primary role and function of music publishers. Garofalo addresses the initial reaction of music publishers to sound recordings:

Recording started as a sideline business, initially given to spoken word comedy, instrumental brass-band releases, and other novelty selections. It is not surprising, then, that the publishers initially regarded the revolution in technology that would eventually transform the production and consumption of popular music as little more than a supplement to their earnings from sheet music. They were too busy enjoying the fruits of a very lucrative, centuries-old relationship with this earlier form of music software. (319)

Yet, over the course of the last sixty years in Canada and elsewhere in the industrialized world, the publication of sheet music has been relegated to a marginally profitable fringe element of the larger music publishing industry. Paul Audley's 1988 study revealed that by this time print royalties accounted only for a mere 1% of gross publishing revenues earned by Canadian English-language Music Publishers (A Profile of ELMP 27). Menu


Rather than focus on the production and distribution of sheet music or even recorded music for that matter, music publishers have primarily become the buyers, sellers, administrators, and revenue collectors of intellectual copyrights. Copyright law is in fact fundamental to all aspects of popular music publishing. Audley goes as far as to state that without copyright law:

[. . .] there would be no music publishing industry. Copyright law provides creators of musical works with the exclusive right to exploit the property they have produced, to protect against unlawful use of their copyrights, and to assign their copyrights to someone else, generally to a company in the business of music publishing. (A Profile of ELMP 26)

The ability of composers to assign their copyrights to a third party is what sparked the creation of publishing houses which specialized in the collection and promotion of catalogues of musical works.

The earliest copyright law in Canada dates back to the Provincial Statutes of Lower-Canada, passed in 1832. However, although adequate copyright protection had existed and been enhanced since this time, the practice of copyright registration for sheet music in Canada did not commence until 1859 when Nordheimer, Canada's predominant sheet music publisher of this era, joined the American-based Board of Trade Music. Yet, until Britain (and consequently Canada as a British Dominion) became party to the 1886 Berne Convention in which signatory countries reciprocally recognized international copyright laws, a large proportion of the sheet music published in Canada continued to be reprints of non-copyrighted European works (Calderisi 89-91).

Intellectual copyright protection was further entrenched with the passing of the 1924 Canadian Copyright Act which stood primarily intact until 1988 when Phase I of the present period of copyright reformation process commenced. Undoubtedly, the primary cause behind the demise of sheet music publishing has been a lack of consumer demand. It is relatively safe to say that most modern Canadian households can boast the possession of some kind of radio or stereo system to receive radio broadcasts and play back sound recordings. However, not since the end of the First World War have a large proportion of Canadian households reliably contained a piano and a library of sheet music to go with it. With that said, there are also several components of copyright law that ensure the greater profitability of sound recordings than sheet music for music publishers. There is essentially only one way for a copyright holder to earn monetary royalties from print music publishing; through the sale or licensing for use of printed musical notation in the form of sheet music, songbooks, or folios. Menu


However, there are numerous methods for copyright holders to earn royalties, almost entirely achievable only through the creation and marketing of sound recordings. For instance, performing rights royalties are earned whenever a copyrighted work is performed or broadcast in public. In Canada, the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN) is the primary collective society responsible for the collection and redistribution of performing rights royalties. SOCAN also administers reciprocal agreements with like societies from around the globe. Additionally, since 1997 when Bill C-32 was passed in conjunction with Phase II of Canada's ongoing copyright reformation process, the Neighbouring Rights Collective of Canada (NRCC) has been responsible for the collection of broadcast performance royalties for producers and performing artists who are not necessarily copyright holders.

Mechanical rights royalties are earned when a copyrighted material is put to a fixed medium, such as a compact disc or cassette tape, and sold to the general public by a licensee such as a record label. Synchronization rights are earned by a copyright holder when a work is used in conjunction with another audio-visual medium usually in the form of film, television, or commercial advertising. Mechanical licensing fees may also apply in this regard if the synchronized material is subsequently put to a fixed medium and sold to the general public. In Canada, the Canadian Musical Rights Agency (CMRRA) and the Society for Reproduction Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers in Canada (SODRAC) are responsible for the collection and redistribution of mechanical and synchronization rights. The Audio-Video Licensing Agency (AVLA) also administers licenses for the exhibition and duplication of audio and music video recordings. The public broadcast of music videos also requires a licensing agreement with AVLA.

The revenue potential of performing, mechanical, and synchronization rights outweighs the collection of print music royalties by such a great extent that most contemporary music publishers now license the print aspect of the business to an increasingly small number of specialty publishers that focus specifically in this area. However, despite the marked increase in the viability of the international sound recording industry beginning in the 1940s, the potential for earning publishing royalties in this manner in Canada remained scant until the 1970s. Menu

Record Labels

Today, the largest music publishers in the world (EMI Music Publishing, Warner-Chappell, Sony/ATV, BMG Music Publishing, and Universal Music Publishing) also happen to be the largest record labels in the world as well (EMI Group, Warner Music Group, Sony Music, BMG Music Group, and Universal Music Group). As previously mentioned, the surest way to earn publishing royalties is through the marketing of sound recordings. Hence, the record label / music publisher is a natural fit.

However, only recently have Canadian-based companies managed to achieve moderate success in utilizing this model. Will Straw comments on the operations of Canadian recording companies prior to the opening of American label branch offices in Canada in the 1970s:

Compared with those firms which emerged in the 1970s, most Canadian-owned recording companies during the 1950s and 1960s were not 'record labels' in the sense of being engaged exclusively or even predominantly in the signing of performers and recording of master tapes. (English CDN Recording 56)

With limited success, some Canadian firms during this period did attempt to develop Canadian artists and composers with subsidized revenues earned from their primary business focus - the reproduction and Canadian distribution of foreign product. However, the sub-publishing or straight reproduction and distribution contracts that Canadian recording companies relied upon did not generate a tremendous amount of money in the way of royalty revenues.

The prospects of Canadian-owned recording companies took a decided turn for the worse when American firms began to establish distribution subsidiaries in Canada during the early 1970s. Straw notes that this development was disastrous for Canadian firms on two accounts. The first is that with branch plants in Canada, the major American labels no longer had the need to license distribution contracts to Canadian recording companies. Secondly, the American-based major labels were also simultaneously swallowing up other smaller American labels, thus, further reducing "the number of independent, unaffiliated labels whose product was available to Canadian firms for licensing" (English CDN Recording 57). Quality Records for instance, which was for decades one of Canada's largest independent record label / publishers, suffered a slow death losing license after license such as MGM and Motown until it finally closed its doors in the late 1990s.

Today, the five aforementioned "major" record label / publishers, all of which are now components of even larger multinational conglomerates, overwhelmingly receive the vast majority of publishing royalties earned in Canada. Moreover, although the Canadian branch offices work with and sign Canadian songwriters, most of the multinationals administer their entire publishing catalogues out of their American home offices. In fact, in 2001, Warner-Chappell packed up its Canadian publishing office altogether (Bouw 11). Despite the increased success of Canadian recording artists, the multinationals still do not make it a great priority to publish Canadian composers. Audley maintains: "Generally speaking the foreign controlled publishers earn at least 75% of their revenue from the exploitation of foreign musical works" (A Review of Music Publishing 5) Menu


The situation, however, is not all doom and gloom for music publishing in Canada. Canadian Content regulations set by the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, which currently ensure that 35% of all musical selections broadcast per week meet Canadian content requirement guidelines, have helped to foster a vibrant domestic and internationally-reaching Canadian recording industry. The Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent on Records (FACTOR) has also served to significantly boost the production of Canadian sound recordings through grants and low interest loans to performing artists. As a result, numerous Canadian record labels have also taken advantage of the economic incentives of such programmes.

Labels such as Nettwerk, Stoney Plain, and Aquarius have followed the lead of the major multinationals and merged recording operations with publishing activities, often licensing parts of their catalogues to publishers in various parts of Europe and Asia. Most of the Canadian-operating, independent and major music publishers have also begun to advertise their catalogues on the World Wide Web in search of mechanical and synchronization licensing agreements. The Music Publisher (TMP), one of the exclusively publishing-oriented Canadian firms, did not fare so well in its foray into the recording business. TMP merged with Attic Music Group in 1999 to form the Song Corporation. However, by 2001, Song Corporation was bankrupt and what was left was purchased by the Canadian-based entertainment conglomerate Alliance-Atlantis. Toronto-based Morning Music is one of the few remaining Canadian-owned companies that still concentrates exclusively in music publishing.

It seems that only uncertainty is for certain in the Canadian music publishing industry. In 1988, Audley determined that fewer than 100 businesses were actively engaged in music publishing activity in Canada. By 2001, the CMPA was down to forty member organizations (A Review of Music Publishing 2). Today, the CMPA website is no longer active. As was the case with the advent of print music and sound recording-based music publishing, the industry is once again in a state of transition.

The dynamic difficulties and opportunities posed by new digital technologies pose questions far too complex to address in the framework of this essay. On the one hand, advanced digital technologies may serve to only further undermine the protection of intellectual copyright. On the other hand, these new technologies can assist artists and composers in making more money by cutting out the record label / music publisher middlemen. The Government of Canada remains hesitant in prematurely reacting to industry demands being made by advocates of either viewpoint.

For instance, the Government of Canada signed the Performances and Phonogram Treaty and the Copyright Treaty put forth by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in 1996, but have yet to ratify the agreements in the House of Commons. The passing of the WIPO treaties would in essence constitute a large proportion of Phase III of Canada’s copyright reform process. However, there still seems to remain too many unknowns in regard to the long-term implication of such actions.

Canada did make some consideration for copyright protection in the digital era with the passing of Bill C-32 as part of the Phase II copyright reforms. The Canadian Private Copying Collective (CPCC) was established to collect and redistribute revenues to copyright holders from levies attached to the sale of blank audio recording media. The purpose of the collection of the levies is to offset royalties lost by copyright holders due to music piracy. Again, many people are extremely skeptical as to the viability of this measure. However, like the future of music publishing in Canada, the effectiveness of initiatives such as the CPCC as a intellectual copyright protection measure, remain to be seen. Menu


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Basherville, David. Music Business Handbook and Career Guide. 7th ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2001.

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