Thursday, October 23, 2014

Music Publishing Trends, Part Two

In my last post, we examined how the preparation for printing music has become so much easier and far less time-consuming with the advent of computer musical "engraving" software such as Finale and Sibelius. Let's continue with that theme and see how it plays out currently as far as composers and publishers are concerned:

Today almost every working composer or arranger creates their music in Finale, Sibelius, or a similar brand of electronic notation. In fact, many younger composers are writing their music right into their software, with perhaps only some sketches done at the piano with pencil and paper. I myself am going straight to Finale- I've become that comfortable starting right away into the program. I think it helps my ideas become more concise when I see them clearly on a "page", not that I won't heavily edit quite a lot as I go, and of course, later on when I really need to finalize things.

When a composer has strong Finale/Sibelius skills, her submission to a publisher will be pretty clean and clear. In fact, most of us composers working today are quite proud of our engraving skills. We turn out a great looking score almost all the time. What does this mean? It means that publishers are being presented candidates for publication which are already very close to being camera-ready! The laborious metal plates are a part of history and the publisher saves hundred of hours of labor. Between the disappearance of the plate method and the fact that composers are supplying camera-ready "manuscripts", publishers are now  saved oodles of time and hand labor. As an example, some of my traditional-world publishers have used my score straight up, although adjusting from my usual 8 1/2 by 11 down to their octavo size (by the way, most of us feel that octavo sizes should go the way of the dinosaur- we don't see any advantage to their use- if you can, let me know!). Years ago, Oxford would take my scores and reset every note- I was never sure why they bothered with that- their result looked almost exactly like what I had presented to them. Maybe it was some kind of British "I can do this better than an American" thing!

Now that I've exhausted the score preparation issue let's jump to the financial picture. Let's look at where each dollar of gross income goes from the sale of a typical music score. These are my guesstimates-they are approximate figures.

In traditional publishing:

$1.00 is broken down this way:

90 cents to the publisher
10 cents royalty to the composer, who must sign over copyright ownership of the music to the publisher

If a living poet's copyrighted text is used here is the breakdown:

90 cents to the publisher
5 cents to the composer, who must sign over copyright ownership of the music to the publisher
5 cents to the author, who will  not be asked to sign over any copyright ownership

Here is a rough idea of how that 90 cents on the dollar that the publisher takes breaks down:

30-40 cents reserved for discounting to retailers
20-30 cents "engraving" and printing
20 cents publicity
20 cents profit

Here are the aspects of the traditional business model which currently rub almost every composer/arranger I know the wrong way, and which causes almost every one of us to join a co-op, self-publish in some way, or for some talented composers, simply quit writing in frustration (believe me, I know some very fine people in that category).

1) Composers are handing publishers virtually camera-ready submissions. Why don't we get any financial credit for that? May I also add that publishers no longer have to do large print runs to keep costs down. With modern presses, there is no reason that anyone has to do a 2,000 copy run of anything and warehouse copies until they sell. This is another cost-saving area that publishers are benefiting from today. I think it's great, but please, dear publisher, don't tell me you have massive costs in warehousing hundreds of thousands of copies- it's just not true anymore).

2) Why do publishers present such hefty discounts to retailers? And when the publisher sells directly to the public (which is more and more the case because of the internet), why isn't the composer offered any cut of that large savings in publisher cost per score created and sold?

3) Publishers have fallen into the trap of hawking nothing but this year's new releases. Or they will hawk a new piece for about two years. If the piece doesn't sell in that period, it dies. I have actually been told by a publisher that they don't care what a piece does after two years. If they make money on it the first two years, then they are happy. That attitude really rubs composers the wrong way. Most of us are trying like the devil to write music that might endure, it's part of the classical music point of view we were raised on at the college level.

If the piece gets no support the composer can't regain control of the piece since he has signed away the copyright (although a few houses do have a right of reversal clauses- that's all I will sign these days). Additionally, composers today are very present  at music conferences. We are out there meeting conductors- we do a lot of the publicity wok ourselves. Sometimes I am amazed that we do so much for that for our traditionally published pieces when we are only receiving a 10% royalty.

 Composers have websites and blogs. We diligently answer questions e-mailed to us from conductors. We Skype for free with choirs all around the country. We spread word about our self-published music but also about the scores we have with traditional publishers.  We aren't the composers of yesteryear who were pretty much inaccessible to the public, who didn't make appearances at conferences, who were never much part of the selling and marketing of the music- the publisher was supposed to do all that. Composers' music was heard, but they themselves went quite unseen (with some obvious exceptions of course). Once again, Oxford comes to mind. When I first was published by them  there was a publicity arm in the NY City office dedicated solely to giving personal advice to conductors on new Oxford releases. They would suggest repertoire, especially the new repertoire, to conductors personally. They would publicize all this and even suggest concert programs to people. Oxford composers wee never asked to do any of that. It was part of the business model at Oxford carried out by their employees assigned that task. That disappeared completely when Oxford HQ in  England shuttered the US office. 

4) The copyright issue has become huge. Many of us just don't see why this has to be this way. Look at Eric Whitacre having the cojones to up and leave Walton overnight and strike out on his own. Look at the late Stephen Paulus starting his own company years ago.  Most composers question the need to permanently sign over the copyright of their creation.

5) Composers are frustrated by the nature of what most publishers are looking for. Their key word is accessibility- often this translates into "dumbed-down". Now don't get me wrong, I love accessible music- we need it and many of us try to write quality accessible pieces.We're not always trying to write mixed meter eight-part counterpoint in Icelandic!

 I have something I call the 10/90 90/10 syndrome. The typical mainstream publisher would like access to the top ten percent of a quality composer's work which can be deemed accessible (in a good way) and which will create the most sales. They then want to keep 90% of that music's sales and only pay the 10% royalty. It's an upside down world. Even more vexing is this: virtually none of our very best pieces, the ones we have spent the most time crafting, the ones with truly great texts, with challenging passages worthy of mastering by a choir, as well as our longer, often multi-movement works commissioned by the better choirs in the country are NEVER published by a mainstream publisher. Every accomplished composer I know has a thick file of these finer works. We don't even try anymore to get them published by a mainstream publisher- we know they will be rejected.  We struggle to get 2-3-4 performances a year across the country for them via word of mouth. I don't think there is a mainstream publisher today in the US who truly nurtures and markets a composer and helps them develop their composing career in the way this was done decades ago. It really is a sad state of affairs. The worst gobs of dumbed-down music create a terrible devastating loop. As younger conductors see poor music in the marketplace, they often buy these products especially for middle school and high school choirs, When those pieces sell, the publisher looks for similar dumbed-down pieces to fill the next year's new releases. The loop just keeps making things worse.

So there you have it- a tiny bit of a rant, I suppose (hey, I was trying to stay calm!). But these truly are the frustrations today's composers have about the situation between themselves and the traditional publishers. We truly care about conductors and singers and want to create quality music for the performers out there. The disconnect between composers and publishers today is large.  I wish it weren't so. And honestly, I do not blame anyone personally for this situation. I'm quite more mellow about it than I was five yeas ago, maybe because I believe that some of us are inventing new ways to do things. If a company wants to keep their old model, they are free to do so. Why should I tell them what to do? What I do hope is that more and more people will discuss this and look for solutions. We composers actually love the relationships we have right now with conductors and singers. I think there's a lot of Big Love going both directions. Back to solutions- I wish we could find one for all these wonderful pieces I mentioned earlier that get premiered and then lay unpublished, unknown, and so on. If  a traditional publisher could find a way to dedicate a portion of their catalog to some truly fine, multi-movement works by our best composers today that would a great thing. Maybe they could look at what Deborah Simpkin-King is doing with her Project Encore project. If Deborah can do this all on her own, why can't the industry notice what she is doing and pick up the ball bigtime on it?

At this point I still publish a few things with mainstream publishers, but it's only because a specific series editor has personally asked me for a piece for their catalog. These are usually great people, I want to please them and I am thankful for them for asking for music. But everything else is sold on my website (which is really in need of updating, ugh).

COMING UP NEXT: Some proposed changes in the divvying up of that $1.00 gross income. And a preview of some of the ways composers have banded together as well as some of the ways small, new publishers are changing the rules. And starting next Monday, a succession of these trendsetters will be featured every few days. Hope you will keep reading!

1 comment:

  1. I'm appreciating reading these posts. One troubling feature in the 'dumbed down' race to the bottom: you may survey posts on Choralnet made by our music teaching and conducting peers: 90% are looking for 'accessible' if not 'easy' or 'requires no rehearsal'!