Friday, June 05, 2009

Setting the Price

A bleg:  In my sideline as music publisher, we're having some serious discussions about the price of sheet music.  We're not exactly operating in a perfectly balanced supply and demand environment, and there are real costs in materials and time in handling individually printed and shipped orders of sheet music (often with some unusual formating issues), so the calculation is far from easy.  For my own music, and the music of some others at Material Press, I'm usually happy to give away electronic copies of scores (knowing that, if all is reported correctly, I'll earn money from performance licenses), but sell paper scores to libraries or others who don't like to roll their own.  But setting the price for those paper copies is tricky, particularly (a) when a single piece has a relatively modest — by page count — size, or (b) when text or graphic scores are involved, or (c) the score is published on demand.   Peters gets 5.95US$ for a copy of 4'33", perhaps two photocopied pages in a folder.  Peer Southern sells Thomson's Piano Sonata No. 3 — 6 pages of engraved music in a folder — for five bucks.     Anthologies of smaller works by either of these composers, in an engraved and staple-bound format, range from 5 to 25 dollars.  What would you be willing to pay for a single page of instructions for a piece of music?  For a piece 5, 10, or 30 pages long?  How about a cd of recorded sound required for performance of a work?


John Mackey said...

At $6 for a copy. it's not worth my time to print, package, and ship something -- and I'm self-published, meaning I would actually retain all 6 of those dollars. Presumably I'm only selling one copy at a time. I have to write the music, too, so stopping writing to print, staple, and ship something is not worth doing for $6.

I charge a fairly high amount for my chamber music -- typically in the $90 per set range for something with 4-5 players, and I only sell the pieces direct. I've only ever had one person complain that the price was too high for a 5-minute piece, but in the end, they paid it. If you refuse to budge and they really want to play the piece, they'll come up with $90. Their initial response was "but composer X only asks $40 for a comparable piece," but that's hogwash. Composer X should be asking $90, too. My music isn't too expensive; Composer X isn't charging enough!

I don't have a piano sonata, but if I did, even if it were 6 pages, I couldn't imagine letting it go for under $20 plus shipping. Maybe it's different for Peer, since they have a whole staff to deal with only shipments, but if you're the only one handling the publishing end, too, $6 is a silly amount. Our music is worth more than that. Charging only $6 for a piece hurts the entire community of composers, since it gives the impression that $6 is the value of what we do.

I think performers pick a piece based on the piece, not the price, as long as the price is somewhat reasonable. They won't say, "oh, that composer's piece is $15 cheaper, so let's just play that one instead, even if we don't like it as much."

I hope that doesn't all read as terribly crass. Money matters in music get me riled up. :)

Lisa Hirsch said...

Not at all, by me. You're making important points. Composers have earned compensation for the music and for the time/expense of setting it up and making it playable, distribution costs, etc.

I know of a couple of cases in completely unrelated fields where I know people who were lowballing in ways I thought damaging. One was a top-notch tech writer, a friend, who when she did freelance work was charging $35/hour when she should have been charging $50 to $75. Her rationale was something about "I'm learning a new technology and I'll charge more when I know it." Uh-uh. The client is paying for your experience and ability to learn new technology faster than a less experienced writer, and for your superior writing skill. (She is one of the best tech writers I know.)

The other - at my former dojo, the school head also owned the building. She had a judo school as a tenant for a year or so and I think charged them $100/month for twice-weekly classes. That was nuts; the time they were in there was worth $250 to $300/month on a reasonable hourly basis.

Daniel Wolf said...

I think part of the problem is that the market is highly segmented, and each segment deals with sheet music differently, so that there is no single optimal pricing scheme. The handful of libraries with good new music collections will pay well for well-produced scores. Students, on the other hand, need inexpensive study scores (unless someone wants to argue in favor of US textbook pricing). Soloists and most chamber groups own their own music. Professional orchestras and oepra houses rent performance scores and parts, and expect to receive perusal scores free, posted on the composers or publishers dime. Academic bands and orchestras purchase whole sets of scores and parts. Some choirs require members to buy their own vocal scores, others — churches in particular — cheerfully photocopy wahtever they need.

For most new and experimental music in solo or chamber formats, the main income source is the licensed performance, recording, or broadcast. The sheet music is only a vehicle to these performances. Score rental, although a real hassle, is often more lucrative than sales, and is usually a solid budget item with institutions. This means that presenters will pay for score rentals for orchestra concerts and opera, but expect that soloists and chamber musicians bring their own. In turn, these musicians will often expect to get the scores directly from the composers for nothing, having done the favor of programming their work in a licensed environment.

Also, I think there is a question about the nature of the score itself. Is a page of verbal instructions for a piece of 20 minutes duration equivalent, as a commodity, to twenty minutes of conventionally-notated music. How about a graphic score?