In defense of music publishers
Date: September 23, 2010
by Allen H Simon mail icon
A recent ChoralBlog post by Philip Copeland discussed the changes to the publishing industry brought about by technology and accused music publishers of sticking with a 20th-century model. Many of the commenters to that thread suggested that the best solution would be self-publishing.
Without taking a stand on Philip's main point for the moment, I'd like to point out some of the difficulties with the self-publishing model. While I'm sympathetic to composers who want to cut out the middleman and evade the bureaucracy, from a consumer perspective it's kind of impractical: there are a million composer websites, they're all different, lots of them are filled with crap (or with music unsuitable for my group for one reason or another), and it just takes forever to look for music in them. So while the self-publishing and electronic-delivery model has great potential for ordering music, it makes it much more difficult to choose music.
When I go to an ACDA convention, I riffle through the racks at music store booths such as Music Mart*. There are many things which speed up this process, but one of the principal ones is publisher identification. I've learned that there are some publishers whose music I never like (or is at the wrong level for my group) and I can quickly skip over those. Those which might be of interest I can quickly glance at the first page of; this allows me to eliminate 90% of the other stuff. Then I buy a single copy of the interesting ones so I can file them at home for future use.
Compare this to the process of using the web to look through composer websites.
* Start with a directory of such websites, such as ChoralNet's, and go to a composer's site.
* Figure out the navigation of that site so you can get to the listing of titles (which is often surprisingly difficult to find).
* Click on each title one at a time and see if there's a sample page, usually in PDF format, and see if it looks interesting.
Once you've spent a long time doing this, move to the next composer's site and start over.
The problems are manifold: it takes a long time, the navigation is different on every site, only some sites provide sample pages, each site only has a small number of pieces, and most of the stuff is junk.
There are online storefronts such as Sibelius, which is kind of a vanity press, or rather a flea market, for self-published music. It provides a consistent interface for listening and viewing samples, along with handy tools such as the ability to transpose. But there's too much junk. It's like trying to get your choir outfits by browsing garage sales. Publishers provide a valuable service: using their editorial discretion to filter for quality.
Sure, these sites could allow users to rate pieces, the way Amazon or Netflix does. But the small number of likely users allows the subjects to game the system; just like on Yelp, the person whose item is being evaluated can get a bunch of his friends to go on and rate everything five stars, thus boosting his overall rating.
There are also exclusively-online publishers such as Graphite (which Philip described in his subsequent post) or Handlo. These publishers provide some of the quality control while keeping a consistent user interface. But still, it's only one publisher; it would be like going to Hal Leonard's site, and then to ECS's site, and then to Oxford's site, and then to SBMP's site; still much more work than browsing through Music Mart's stacks. We need to get to the stage where sites like JWPepper aggregate sales of works published by online publishers.
In short, I don't think self-publishing is the answer; the drawbacks far outweigh the advantages. There's not going to be any quick and easy answer.
One plea: for composers and publishers who provide previews (which should be all of them): please consider creating your previews in GIF format rather than PDF; they download MUCH faster, print much faster, and the slightly lower resolution is sufficient for those of us who want to print them out and plunk through them on the piano, without being good enough to tempt people to try to copy them for choir use.
*Thank you, Music Mart, for preparing the reading-session packets for ACDA conventions for so many years.
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Michael McGlynn on September 23, 2010 2:15
This thread seems to run and run under various guises...and it has opened a degree of debate, although, I note, not that much from actual writers, the producers. Rather it is from the angle of the consumers, and US ones only at that.
I need to point something out - the term Publisher from the composer's point of view is not exactly what the consumer would take it to mean. I am published by Warner Chappell, but I publish my own sheet music. Same word, but a very different concept and I think that is one of the keys to understanding this issue more clearly.
The job of a Publisher includes
- Promotion of a composer's work
- Collection of royalties
- Protection of copyright
- Pursuit of copyright infingers by legal means
- Protection of integrity of copyright
- Negotiation of mechanical licences and synch licences
among other things. You give your Publisher a whack of your percentage to do this for you. The smaller the whack, the more control you retain over your catalogue. Sheet music may form part of your agreement with your Publisher. If it does, then very, very rarely will your Publisher be the same as your Sheet Music Publisher. That is as it should be, as one can be used to beat the other over the head with. Hopefully all this makes sense.
A Sheet Music Publisher from a US perspective [gleaned from what I can see on this site and various discussions with US based choral people] appears to have the following function :
- to make titles available online or as hard-copy to interested parties. This may involve re-transcription of scores for clarity.
- to promote those titles to the public including at conventions and at choral gatherings.
If I've missed out anything, please let me know, but I would assume/hope that Sheet Music Publishers will actively through legal means protect copyright infringement.
Let me draw your attention away from this for a moment to the Music Industry. While the odd time something turned up that was exciting and new, much of what was cutting-edge and exciting was ignored simply because you couldn't access it, while single artists were puffed up and shoved down our throats. Then along came MySpace, YouTube, Garageband, self-releasing CDs, CDBaby and that was that. The entire industry collapsed, and is currently, and happily, approaching its final gargle... now Cyberspace is an exciting music place. Niche groups such as my own have seen significant increases in visibility and music sales simply because consumers can access us by typing the word into Google.
This is exactly what is happening, albeit very, very slowly, to Choral music. The availability of performances online to view on YouTube, the advent of composer created websites for their music [many of them hugely self-important I would agree] and crucially, the advent of portable reading devices for sheet music such as the iPad, plainly and simply mean that whatever system has survived until now will not be around in 10 years. I counted six singers out of 22 last night at my rehearsal viewing music on electronic devices. When they want to correct my pitch quibbles they use an iPhone app, or can give me a metronome pulse if requested. Some of them can also tell me what level of pitch a piece has fallen during performance...
Composer self-publishing is the tip of the iceberg. I see huge changes in choral music. It will either be embraced or will eventually rampage [quietly : )] over the existing structures.
CJ Redden-Liotta on September 23, 2010 4:33
Thank you for your response. As someone who works for one of the major choral retailers (Musical Source in DC), I know how hard it is to work with each of these individual publishers. There are a couple issues that you did not mention.
1. When you purchase music from the traditional publishers, you receive the music for the price paid. An octavo that costs $2.00 is in your hand for $2.00. Often, these self-published composers charge you for a PDF copy - $2.00 per pdf licence - and then you take on the cost of the actual copying of the piece - which if you are a community choir, you are then paying .10 per page - adding $1-2 per copy to the cost of the octavo.
2. Most of these individual publishers (there are a few wonderful exceptions) do not sell their music to retailers. This causes extra costs for schools and choirs who do work with established music retailers because they are incurring extra purchasing and shipping charges. Many of the smaller publishers are not familiar with a retail model, and do not provide any discount to retailers who wish to feature their music, making it cost prohibitive for the retailer to keep their titles in stock, or they have to sell the music at a higher price than the publisher does on their own website.
Having worked with some composers over the years, I am very sympathetic as to why we have these self publishers, as it is nearly impossible to get a new composer recognized by an established publisher - but perhaps the self publishers are only aggravating this issue instead of helping new music get exposure. We need to start complaining to the publishers who are doing nothing but publish the same bad or unusable music year after year, and as a community, pressure them to start working with newer composers and get this music out through the traditional channels.
Steven Glade on September 23, 2010 10:39
Allen - I'm an ASCAP composer and my sheet music is published by Emerson. For a year or so I've also been self-publishing as Park Music Publishers. Let me make a pitch for self-publishing.
First, in this tough economy sheet music publishers simply aren't accepting any work from any composer new to them. Period. And works accepted from a composer in the publisher's stable are currently being warehoused for 2-years or more before the editing process begins.
Second, the self-publisher's growth model isn't nation-wide, as you seem to assume. A self-published composer should start locally (with university, H.S. and community choir directors in his/her city, and with other friends in the choral community), providing some free sheet music to get a foot in the door. The composer's reputation will either grow beyond his/her locality by word-of-mouth, or will die. As a self-publisher, I think I'm regional (west, southwest) at this point. Even a small, regional success is real success if new literature gets a breath of life.
Your preferred model of shopping for music is cumbersome and incomplete, if you don't mind my saying so. Trudging through the on-line offerings of major publishers is exhausting---and it's very difficult to know where you stopped the last time you visited. Many don't show much of the score. Some provide an audio file snippet; at least half don't. A composer's web-site will generally be more complete, with sample audio files and sample scores. A choir director, new or experienced, should take note of the living composers he/she enjoys and visit the composer's web-site periodically to see what's new. E.g., www.danforrest.com. Dan seems to think there's a reason to have his own web-site, even though he's published by every major publishing house. (And visiting Dan's site is simply good for the soul.). By periodically visiting ten or more web-sites of composers you enjoy, you'll be assured of picking up new music that will delight you and your choir. And it's a much more manageable more rewarding task.
Using middlemen isn't practical. For instance, SheetMusicPlus won't take on a composer's work unless the composer has a "book" of 100-pieces to turn over. (I'm 30-works short.) Same relatively high threshholds for other distributors.
As to navigation confusion, well, some sites are better than others. But an intelligent and understandable web-site can be designed. Visit mine, please, at www.musicbyglade.com. I offer .pdf scores (they are small files and download in seconds--I don't understand your preference for any other, less universal format) and audio files and anyone can navigate with ease.
I fill orders with octavos averaging, let's say, $1.85 each. I'm toying with the idea of e-mailing score files and selling authorized stickers, but would do so at, say, 35 to 50-cents. Can't conceive of any self-publisher who would charge the same amount for an octavo and an e-mailed .pdf file.
I'll turn 62 in a few weeks. I'm just too old and too impatient for the submission routine: 6 to 8 months for a reply, no simultaneous submissions to other publishers, and in this economy, invariably a rejection. To heck with that! (Although I admit I still submit to Oxford, Hinshaw a one or two other houses, just to see if I can ever break through iwth them.)
A genuine pitfall for the self-published composer is the quality of his/her printed score. The composer-dabbler is not equipped to produce a score that obeys all the many decades of rules developed by music engravers. Avoiding the editing function is the strongest argument for avoiding self-publication.
One of the best arguments for self-publishing is that self-publishing promotes composition, whether good or bad, whether successful or unsuccessful. A durector who has composed, or even attempted to compose, is a changed and better artist who will never approach or interpret literature in the same way again.
I like to tell my John Kubiniac story. John was an editor at Oxford. For maybe 2-years I got form rejection letters from him. For 2-more years the rejection letters were individualized. Now we exchange Christmas cards.
I think Michael McGlynn recognizes an inevitable trend.
Anyway, here's a hooray for the self-published composer.
Steve Glade (ASCAP)
Park Music Publishers
Paul Carey on September 23, 2010 19:37
Change is good and change is inevitable. What we will see is a push me -pull you situation regarding all this over the next ten years or so- it's an evolutonary process. Don't fault self-published composers- they are not forcing a new system on anyone- they are simply utilizing readily available 21st century tools AND are really tired of being treated like crap by traditional publishers (oh, the stories we all could tell you- you would cringe if you truly knew how publishers talk to composers- even established ones).
And, while I am at it, this whole slant trying to talk self-published composers into undervaluing their art by selling ti for $0.35- 0.55 is really quite ridiculous. If we do the work as composers AND publishers, we are certainly justified to charge what the big boys do for a typical octavo. This totally misunderstands the increased efforts we put into the composing, the websites, networking efforts, etc. Of course we want our music out there, but we deserve some respect and shouldn't have to consider resorting to bargain basement prices just to make some sales.
I think it also needs to be said that even for "established" composers like myself, the traditional publisher still rejects almost all of our submissions (this surprises most folks) , especially if they are not neat, tidy, safe, "accessible" octavos (God forbid any divisi or truly great, not hackneyed text is involved). Almost none of our really well-crafted commissioned pieces are winding up published, because they are not easy, neat, tidy 3- 4 minute octavos. This whole situation is sad-- any quality piece over 4 minutes is being rejected left and right by the traditional publishers- no matter how fine the piece may be. I can steer you to many a fine composer and many a fine, earnest commissioning advanced HS or university choir-- and piece after piece is successfully premiered and enjoyed by singers and audience alike- yet these pieces never get published. It's really a sad situation. Without any self-publishing these pieces are guaranteed to be lost forever.
I somewhat agree that it might be cumbersome to select music from self-publishers- but it's also ridiculously cumbersome to navigate some major publishers websites as well. And honestly, let's not praise the retailers too much-- some of the browser bins that various retailers lug to convention after convention are filled to the gills with crap they are just trying to clear out-ugh.
Anyway, this will all shake out- none of us should lose sleep over it, and we should all realize that life isn't simple and it isn't all contained in a neat, tidy drawer of ease! And it ain't so bad that we are talking about all this!
please visit my annoying, opinionated blog at www.paulcarey440.blogspot.com
Allen H Simon on September 23, 2010 20:22
Your PDF files are low-res and download quickly, but some people's PDFs are big files which take a long time to download. I don't really prefer GIF (although it's just as universal as PDF) if everyone made small PDFs like yours. Good work.
Everyone thinks their own site is well-designed and easy to navigate; it's just that they're all different. On yours, could I easily find all the TTBB music (were I interested in such)? Could I easily search for a single title? Prices are hard to find. The first "click here to buy" I tried brought me to an error message.
Michael McGlynn on September 24, 2010 2:48
Well - thats because there is no uniform technology solution to deal with this issue Allen. My site isn't "easy to use", simply because what I am selling isn't easy to define. Certificate/Digitally based sales are nebulous and ill-defined. I had to make up the system on my site at www.michaelmcglynn.com that deals with sales. There simply was no system to copy in 2000.
The other issue is that there are always errors on sites like ours simply because the sofware we use is constantly changing and there are only a limited number of hours in the day. Finale 2010 is a major update on the other versions, so I, of course, want to update my scores to look better - sometimes I make an error in upload, or I copy the wrong page so an error occurs. Then the phone rings and one of the hildren falls out a window or similar, and voila - an error.
These are forgiven [mostly...] by people, as they can write to me personally, the writer, the creator of the work. They make a connection, correct unclear notation, advise on improvements and generally interact with me. The personal contact with people is something I love, and I know gives them a kick too.
Great to see so many composers responding. Maybe we should all pool our resources : )
Paul Carey on September 24, 2010 5:33
If you are referring to my site- yes, we aim to make the files easy to download-- thanks for the thumbs up and thanks for visiting!
As far as your ease of navigation comments I do feel I need to defend my site as 1) there is a clear tab on the left side of the home page which says "Alphabetical Title Index" and another which says "Works and Ordering Info". Clicking either one leads you to a page which further gives you easy color tabs to click which break my scores down into voicings (including male choir) and even broken down as well into sacred, secular, winter holdays, and so forth.
When you are on each pieces homepage the price is always in the same place- towards the top RH corner. As far as the error message you received- I am very sorry for that- if you remember which piece it was I can jump right on that, otherwise we will start searching for it on our own, of course. My webmaster and I are always looking to fix bugs in the system. And after doing this for a few years, I know there will always be bugs to fix!
For each of my self-published pieces we try to make visitors feel at home- there is a score sample of at least a few pages (and we will be happy to send full score pdf perusal files to people who request them), duration and difficulty level, a recording if we have one, some program notes, and the text. One thing we have tried to do to set my site apart is the "program notes" or inside story of the piece. We're trying to give people some insight as to why or how I wrote a piece, and most folks seem to like this personal touch. I don't think there is a traditional publishers website that attempts to do this- other than something like a two sentence sales blurb a la what you read at JW Pepper for example.
Anyway, we're all doing our best and everyone has likes and dislikes. We'll never agree on everything, eh? Let's keep moving forward, keep bouncing ideas off one another, and enjoy our art!
Steven Glade on September 25, 2010 16:11
Thanis for your time and the feed back, Allen. - Steve Glade
Terrence Liverkey on September 24, 2010 7:30
KUDOS to the composer who actually understands. Selling music at .30-.50 per PDF is not under-valued. Let's take the emotion out of this shall we? We're talking about commerce here. Watch those shows where people think their house is "worth" something much more than it is. It's only "worth" (in terms of price) what someone is willing to pay. And from what I've seen over the past 15-20 years, many, many, many conductors out there are NOT willing to pay 1.85-2.00 per score. That's why they photocopy SO much. Composers are not selling one-of-a-kind items. There is very little overhead in a composed piece. I could go into specifics, but trying to explain business economics.....
Paul Carey on September 24, 2010 13:20
Wow, Terrence, are you saying that if a conductor has decided not to pay $1.85- 2.00 per octavo that they are justified in photocopying music and breaking copyright laws? If that is the mode of thinking, I guess I could go break into a car lot and drive off with a new car if I have decided the dealer is asking too much. The market has determined that an average octavo will sell for $1.60- 2.20 or so. That is fact. What we are sort of debating is why should the self-published composer sell at your suggested tiny fraction of that? Is it because there isn't a fancy cover (the music still sounds the same) or the music automatically in someone's mind isn't as good as that from a traditional publisher (that could go either way)?
Here are two things I do know:
1) I'm glad I don't know anyone like the conductors you are talking about, and I am proud of all the many folks I do know (all the way from elementary schools thru HS and university and professional choirs) who belong to ACDA and/or MENC, AGO, and so on, who would never make any illegal photocopies and always do the right thing in regard to paying for purchases, arranging for performance and mechanical licenses, etc. In fact, as a member of MENC you are expected to be following the law- not making up excuses why you can break it. At many well known universities professors aren't allowed free access to all the school's photocopiers- they are specifically handled by secretarial or admin people who the university expects to follow copyright law.
2) I make a decent number of sales on my website of my own music- usually at $1.75. Even if it costs ten- twenty cents per to make the copies on site at the purchaser, we are still under $2 AND they haven't paid a penny of mailing costs. And they are all very happy to be supporting me as a living composer and the creator of the work- I know this because they tell me so. It's a good feeling when this happens and we have a much, much closer composer to director relationship. It appears Abbie Betinis is doing quite well in this regard as well- good for her. Abbie does mail out scores and her price is around $2.25 - 2.50. Uh oh, she's charging a bit more than the average big publisher- how is she doing this? The music is good, unique and creative and people want to sing it. God forbid she should now decide that her music is only worth a fraction of that. Her results affirm her business model and she seems pretty happy about it.
Let's look at this from a new vantage point. Many people would agree that, if you reflect on it, we are living in a golden age of new US choral creativity (both of enlightened conductors and composers, often working closely together) which started around perhaps 1990 when composers decided to drop out of their university composition department ivory tower of the serial/12 tone world and reconnect with performers and audiences. In the last twenty years ACDA has grown immensely, especially lately, women's choirs and womens' repertoire have taken off to the max, and many American composers have dedicated themselves to writing great new music crafted for choral musicians. Much of this started with Stephen Paulus and Libby Larsen and ACF, and it has grown and grown. We have established people like Lauridsen, Whitacre and others creating memorable music; also people like Joan Szymko and Eleanor Daley also rising to great new levels. We have some younger composers like Tarik O'Regan, Betinis, Eric Barnum, and Ola Gjeilo showing a lot of promise. The whole choral world needs to continue to nurture these established and developing talents. If any of them decide to self-publish what sensible person would look for ways to punish them? Instead, try to understand why they decided to get out of the 10% royalty trap the traditional publishers are doling out (and the publisher gains full and permanent copyright ownership of the piece, mind you) and support their creations. Think about this, what if all the great and semi-great choral music written in the last twenty years all of a sudden disappeared? Would that be a great loss? I think the answer is obvious, and especially in the women's choir music world it is emphatically obvious. We need to continue to support our choral composers and make sure they have bread on the table for their families and the freedom to create. Getting checks now and then for 10% of the music's selling price from a traditional publisher is NOT keeping bread on these tables, that is for sure.
Yes, business economics will sort most of this out- in the meantime people are free in our country to test what the actual economics of today and tomorrow means to them personally. If a composer or a traditional publisher for that matter wants to sell a piece in paper or pdf form (or on a Kindle, a clay tablet, or tattooed on the side of a congo buffalo, whatever!) for 10 cents or 10 dollars they are free to do so and see what happens. You are also free to either buy it or say no thanks (but those conductors you referenced still don't have any right to illegally photocopy!).
Reginald Unterseher on September 24, 2010 14:17
Quality control is indeed one of the most important aspects of being with an established, identifiable brand. I have had much more success with commissions (actually closing the deal, and getting a better rate for them) after getting pieces published with Oxford and Walton. That is not the only place to get that "stamp of approval," though, and I often rely on the recommendation of people who are not the composer selling their own wares or traditional publishers. Reading sessions have often been one of those sources.
The reading session issue is especially interesting to me, as I am NW ACDA Men's Chorus R&S chair. In my few years in that position, it seems increasingly that publishers and retailers want to not deal with the R&S procedure, but create their own. This is another area that technology is in flux, and the importance and format of the reading session is changing. I used to find a lot of what I would buy for my community and church choruses at sessions like that, but now, less and less. It costs publishers a fair amount of money to put a lot of paper into peoples' hands, and a lot of that paper ends up as landfill. I do like the process of reading pieces with others, but as a composer I worry that people will not understand the piece based on one reading of uncertain quality. When I present reading sessions these days, I tend to mix actual reading with listening to recordings or even watching videos.
Those reading sessions do provide an important independant "editorial function," a recommendation and winnowing process that is less governed by the particular publisher's desires, though we have traditionally started with whatever they send us, so how independant is it, really? They sometimes don't like that process, especially as it costs them money and they want to have control, even more than they already do. It is a potentially sticky relationship. Mr.McGlyn, I recently wanted to present one of your pieces on a reading session, but as your music is not handled by the retailer that was the sponsor, they would not include it. Ticked me off.
As to self-publishing, I am hesitant to dive in with my own pieces, not conceptually but just because of pure practicality. The time and potentially the expense it would take to set up a site that worked well is daunting. A self-publishing web site is like a vegetable garden, too--if you don't water it and weed it, you wont get many tomatoes and the bugs will eat the corn. On the other hand, I have purchased things for my choruses on both Michael McGlyn's site and Paul Carey's site, and I loved being able to pay, get the download, and go. Nice, tasty tomatoes, better than those red cardboard things designed for shipping and shelf life, not eating, that you find in the supermarket.
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