Friday, September 15, 2006

The Future of Sheet Music Publishing

As a student, I received a lot of advice about publishing sheet music. Funny thing was, none of those teachers giving me advice, all of it traditional (i.e. write your scores on ozalids, use sizes of paper other than letter or legal, do not photocopy, write a good cover letter), were conventionally published themselves. Already by the early 1980's, things had clearly changed in the music publishing world*, and no one on the composers' side of things seemed to be talking about it directly. The historical importance of publishing was clear -- publishers had helped composers secure their rights and the income from those rights, they produced useable (and sometimes beautiful) editions of the music, they dealt with all the details of getting materials here and there and back again, and, not least, they promoted the works in their catalogs. But are publishers still providing these services? And if so, are traditional publishers now the optimal providers of these services?

First some anecdotes:

About ten years ago, I joined a composer friend (whom we'll call C.)for a few hours at the Musik Messe (Music Trade Fair) in Frankfurt. C. publishes his own music, and he had hired space at the Fair to promote his scores to presenters and retailers. At that time, C's evening-length comic opera, in German, was in the middle of extremely successful parallel runs at a number of opera houses throughout Germany. I watched that afternoon, in astonishment, as one big music publisher's rep. after another sauntered over to the table and offered to "publish" his opera. What exactly were they offering? They weren't offering to typset the score, as the existing score had proved sufficient for performing. They weren't really offering to promote the piece, which, as one representative put it, was both a guaranteed audience draw and so easily presented on a limited budget that it "really sold itself". What they were offering to do was manage the rentals of the materials (all of which C. had prepared by her/himself), in return for half the royalties.

More recently, another composer friend ("D.") took a moment to show me a recent statement from her/his publisher. The balance of the statement was a negative number; it turns out that the publisher was billing the composer, D., for making corrections so that the score would fit the "house style" of formatting. The composer was not being asked to pay for wrong notes, or any other errors on the composer's part, but for comformity with the house editorial style. This wasn't publishing in any form that I could recognize, but rather a partnership between composer and publisher in which the composer was clearly assuming a portion of the financial risk.

And then there are all of those big publishers, for whom an overpriced, spiral-bound photocopy of the composer's manuscript is considered state-of-the-art publication.** That and fifty percent of the royalties, of course. Plus, consider the case of any of those big publishers with a huge back catalog of work still under copyright protection: getting existing catalog items broadcast, recorded, or played in concert is going to have a natural financial priority over acquiring and preparing new works for the catalog, as the old properties represent sleeping investments that can be milked until the copyrights run out. As attractive as it would appear to share a publisher with Richard Strauss or Orff or Schreker, a more contemporary composer is always going to be at a disadvantage in getting services from her or his publisher, as that would represent a new and risky capital outlay.


I'll be blunt: Traditional music publishing does not now offer a good deal for most contemporary composers. This comes at an interesting moment, in which ownership of the means of reproduction is no longer monopolized by publishers. Because of this, more than a few composers have recognized the writing on the wall and begun to take alternative paths to music publication. The first alternative is for composers, alone or collectively, to go into the cottage industry of publishing their own work, printing and selling sheet music, essentially duplicating the work done by traditional publishers.

There are two objections that come up again'n'again when self-publication is discussed. The first is that giving scores away for free eliminates the possibility of making money from the sale of a score. Answer: unless you can guarantee that a score will sell many copies (many = at least 500) and that it will continue to sell for generations, then there is no money to be made in selling sheet music. That is why publishers will invest editorial time in a new edition of the Beethoven sonatas, designed to sell for scores of years, but not in preparing editions of your scores. Real money comes from commissions, licenses, and royalties. A very small number of composers might eventually be able to sell their original manuscripts, but don't do your retirement planning on that basis. This is one of the great lessons seldom taught to young composers. All together now: There is no money in selling sheet music. Real money comes from commissions, licenses, and royalties. The second objection is that self-publication is vanity publication. Short and snappy answer: let me know the name of a composer who isn't vain about her/his music. Longer answer: Publication of musical scores has never been the equivalent of academic publication vetted by editorial or peer review; editorial and peer review in music comes about from performances, broadcasts, and recordings. Publication, and that includes self-publication, is simply a means toward getting those performances, broadcasts, and recordings.

There are many examples of self- and composer-organized group publication (e.g. the Wa-Wan Press, Charles Ives' publishing his 114 Songs, or helping to subsidize the operations of Henry Cowell's New Music Edition). A more recent operation, and still a going concern, is that of Karlheinz Stockhausen, who, dissatisfied with both his sheet music publisher and his recording firm, set up his own shop. The initial impulse seems to have been a need for greater control over the quality of the publications, and dissatisfaction with production delays, but I believe that the added advantage of retaining all of the licenses and royalties soon became just as important an impulse. Stockhausen is far from the only cottage publisher -- Tom Johnson, Christopher Fox, Hans-Joachim Hespos also come to mind. In addition to self-publishing solo composers there are the entrepreneurs and collectivists, with catalogues of music by several composers -- Composer/Performer Edition, Feedback Verlag, Frog Peak Music, Material Press, or the Thürmchen Verlag. But all of these ventures are still basically dealing with paper -- whether published in advance or on demand -- and still have to deal with packing that paper, figuring out how to ship it from point a to b, and sometimes back again, figuring out how to pay for it (currency transactions can often cost more than it's worth) and doing it all within a reasonable period of time. (For musicians, a "reasonable amount of time" for getting a score is usually "now", and not infrequently, "yesterday").

The second alternative, and the one I believe that is most important to the future of new music is to get out of the paper-handling business and bypass the post altogether. Already, with my own commissioned works, the usual practice has become one of producing Postscript or PDF files and emailing them directly to commissioners or players. With the resources of my own home studio, I can produce scores in any format the players would like to have (American or European paper norms, miniature, short, or full scores, and sets of parts, transposed or not) and don't have to worry about packaging. This flexibility is particularly useful for new music, as some musicians prefer to play from score, others from parts, and almost every musician has their own preferences about how pages should be hooked together or pasted to poster board or shrunk or blown-up to suit eyes or fit music stands. Moreover, musicians can get a score as soon as it's been proofread (and -- admittedly a down-side -- often before that) or a score can be put online for even wider access. By putting the score online and making it available free to the public, the traditional composer-publisher-retailer-player chain is shortened dramatically. Players can peruse scores online, download and print out whatever they like, and any royalties or licenses, should they choose to publicly perform or record a piece, can go undivided back to the composer via their rights organizations. And in the best of cases, such a shortened chain of transmission invites more direct communication between composers and performers.

Is there still room for beautiful, bound editions of music? Absolutely, and sales to libraries and collectors may still be a vital market for some scores, but such editions are not essential to getting music played. Is there room left for traditional publishers? Sure, if they can provide services to those composers who cannot or will not do them on their own and are willing to share their royalties.

* The early 1980's also mark the point in time when traditional engraving was dying off and computer "engraving" was not yet practiced widely.
** A particularly poignant example of this is to be found in the catalog of C.F. Peters. Why did it take so many years -- and years after the deaths of both composers -- to figure out that more money could be made by collecting piano (and prepared piano) scores by Cage and Feldman into modestly-priced anthologies than by continuing to sell handmade ozalids and photocopies of individual pieces one-by-one? On the basis of sales to academic libraries alone, such anthologies had guaranteed sales in the hundreds. But not only institutional sales -- buying up expensive Peters scores one-by-one with hard-earned paper-route money was a real bummer, and for the price of one score published the old way kids now can get a whole repertoire of pieces in a single volume. This is good all-around -- for the composers' estates, for Peters, for players, and for young people trying to get a sense of these musical landmarks.


Alex Shapiro said...

Bravo, Daniel! This is the best run-down on contemporary publishing issues that I've yet to see. Wonderfully written and laid out. As an incurable and insistent self-pub composer myself, I speak about this topic very often, to anyone who will listen. Well... at least the cats are always patient.

I've linked you to my kelpy blogroll...

Take care,

Anonymous said...

"Traditional music publishing does not now offer a good deal for most contemporary composers."

I agree with you whole-heartedly. Perhaps artist/composer-run collectives are a valid alternative. I know of one in the US that seems to be successfully managed: Frog Peak Press (

Thanks for your thoughtful post! I've linked to you as well.

jon brenner said...

excellent post. these are things i have been thinking about recently.

-jon brenner

Matt Nielsen said...

Great post! I just have one question. Selling music online is a great way to get the music from the composer to the musicians fast and easy. But they're only buying one copy. In my case as a choral composer, I could sell to a larger choir around 90 copies, but if sold online, they'd buy it once and print out 90 copies. What's the solution?

Daniel Wolf said...

Matt --

Sheet music for choirs and bands may be exceptional, in that a piece could potential receive a critical mass of sales, especially with educational connections (church choir music, on the other hand, is an area in which combatting photocopying AND pursuing royalties are largely lost causes).

The question that I cannot answer is if a composer places choral or band scores online as perusal materials only, can he or she expect that the perusers will follow through in good faith and purchase sets of parts or choral scores? I know some band composers who have been successful with this, but have no idea about choral music.

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InnaTsv said...

Hi Daniel,
that's a very controversial and thus exciting topic. I was quite absorbed in reading your reflections.
Not so long ago I ran into a wonderful article about self-publishing which lead me to MusicaNeo - a sheet music self-publishing platform for modern composers. I believe that's in your line too: How to Publish Sheet Music at MusicaNeo