Thursday, August 21, 2008

Once more about publishing

I recently had an email exchange with a young colleague who asked for some advice about publishers. I realize that I've gone on about this at length before, but it is an important topic, so here's what I wrote to her:

With certain exceptions (those sold in large editions -- educational scores for ensembles, piano albums for domestic use, and, more recently, music-minus-one-style packages) publishers do not make money from the sale of scores and sheet music. In fact, for contemporary art music, the sheet music is a net loss business, and many publishers have actually turned to billing their own composers for the costs of editing and producing scores and parts, leaving many composers in a net negative balance with their publishers against which further score sales and performance licenses are debited.

Publishers, with repertoire like contemporary music, make money from licenses for performances, recordings, and broadcasts and, to some extent, from the rental of score-&-part sets. As far as a contemporary composer is concerned, the function of a publisher, should a composer choose to work with a publisher and not do it on her/his own, is to promote the work and manage the performance materials, making certain that they are in good order and in the hand of performers in a timely manner. For these services, a publisher receives 1/2 of the composer's licensing fees from the responsible rights organization (ASCAP, BMI, GEMA, etc.). The primary function of score distribution today is promotion, as perusal materials to encourage performances, recordings, and broadcasts, with the sale of scores for private use, study, or archival purposes a distant secondary function. Licenses are collected from performances, recordings and broadcasts regardless of whether the performance materials are purchased, rented, stolen, or even non-existant (e.g. most cover bands don't need scores and parts). From a rational point of view, the fastest and most efficient way to get scores into the hands of prospective players and program directors is electronic and any publisher who doesn't allow such distribution is failing to promote their artists adequately, making the argument for the 50% take of licenses hardly sustainable.

The optimal relationship between a publisher and a composer is one in which a publisher recognizes an interesting composer and makes an investment in the composer's present and future work, speculating both that the composer will continue to create music of interest to players and managers and that the publisher be able to successfully place that work onto concert programs, recordings, and broadcasts, with the return on investment to come from the half-share of licenses and, perhaps, rental of parts. Arrangements in which a publisher is essentially acting as a vanity press for the composer — i.e. producing a beautiful score at the artist's expense and not further promoting the work — are to be avoided.

The advice I always give colleagues is this: don't enter into a relationship with a publisher unless (a) you are unwilling or unable to do the work yourself, (b) the contract stipulates precisely which editorial and promotional services the publisher will provide, with no costs to the artist beyond the assignment of the publisher's share of license fees, (c) the contract allows for the free distribution of perusal scores, preferably by electronic means, as a means of promotion, and (d) there is a mechanism for the artist to end the contract in case the publisher fails to provide the services agreed upon.

Finally, since you have interest in an academic as well as a compositional career, you may well come under some pressure to have your work published by a traditional music publisher. If you decide to go this route, fine, but it is also very important to help make it clear to your institution that sheet music publication is not the equivalent of peer-reviewed academic publication. The essential form of publication for a composer is in the form of performances, recordings and broadcasts and if a sheet music publishing arrangement doesn't lead to (or actually leads to fewer) performances, recordings or broadcasts, then avoid it.

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