New distributors

This past year, I’ve been working toward upping my publishing game. (I’ve got a rant about publishing coming up in another post, so be prepared for that.)

One of the steps I’ve taken toward putting on my Big Boy publishing pants was to get an EIN and a bank account specifically for the Tobenski Music Press. (For those of you following along at home, an EIN is free, and you can get one online; and Spark Business has a great small-business-centric set of online-only accounts that don’t have balance minimums or monthly fees, which is great when your cash flow isn’t huge.)

Another step was to sign on with two distributors: SheetMusicPlus and MusicSpoke. Having my works available in more places means more visibility, and the possibility for more sales (and consequent performances). I have my eye on a few more. J.W. Pepper and Subito both have distribution programs for self-published composers, but both charge a yearly fee to participate (although the fee is waived if the composer meets a certain yearly threshold of sales). I’ve got to weigh the possible benefits against the cost, and for the moment, the cost isn’t very attractive. I’ve also yet to reach out to a few more possibilities who don’t publicly advertise that they distribute self-pubbed works, but with whom I have connections.

The biggest, most time-consuming thing I’ve been doing is to revisit all of my scores with an eye on the engraving. Every score is getting a complete makeover: respelling rhythms, cleaning up compositional artifacts that didn’t get caught in the first editions, simplifying the ways that I notate certain passages, making sure that tempi and dynamics are clear and consistent.

“John Anderson, my jo” original edition
“John Anderson, my jo” 2015 edition
Every score gets a new cover, front matter (title page, title verso, texts, program notes, and premiere and recording information), and back matter (specifically: a call to action listing similar scores in my catalog).

I’ve also registered as a publisher with the U.S. ISMN Agency at the Library of Congress (h/t to Juliana Hall and her article in IAWM for the info on that). Each new score gets registered there, and the ISMN goes onto the title verso.

Title verso info for And He’ll Be Mine
At the moment, I have five pieces out with the distributors – one song cycle, three standalone songs, and a piano piece – and another ten that I’m in the process of proofreading. For composers interested in learning more about the process, you can follow along here as I post more about it, or feel free to email me if you have specific questions. And for composers who are familiar with distributors, etc, I’m interested in learning about your experiences, and am always happy to hear from you via email.



I came across this term recently, and it’s a concept that I really like. A portmanteau of cooperation and competition, it rather perfectly sums up my philosophy on working with other composers: yes, we’re in competition to a certain degree (there are only so many pieces that can be performed on this or that concert, only so many projects get funded through NMUSA, etc), but the nature of our field is such that by working together and pooling our resources, we can create more opportunities for all of us.

It’s for this reason that I love the idea of composer collectives. Ideally, everyone in the collective has something to offer to the group – connections, a special skill set, etc – and each member is responsible to some degree for promoting the group’s interests. By pooling their intellectual, artistic, and financial resources, the collective can put on concerts featuring the music of its members, or they can use those resources to make commercial-quality recordings of their works, amongst other possibilities. An individual might have a difficult time organizing such endeavors on their own – and may find it impossible to come up with the funds -, but a collective can spread the responsibilities and financial burden across its entire membership.

Similarly, I’ve been thinking lately about the idea of composer-run small presses.

A collective of composers could easily found a small publishing company for its members. Each composer could be held responsible for different tasks within the company – tracking sales, marketing, bookkeeping, outreach to performers, proofreading and editing the scores, etc. Whereas a single self-published composer would be responsible for all of these things, and may have a difficult time keeping up, this scenario would allow each member to be more focused on one or two tasks to which they’re well-suited, which ultimately leaves more time for composing.

Off the top of my head, I can see this working in a handful of ways:

1) The composers could pool all of their works in the publishing company, and allow the company to create (essentially) imprints. The imprints could be by composer, where each member has a brand that is a part of the whole, but slightly distinct; or it could be by instrumentation, where vocal music, choral music, chamber music, and large ensemble music are separated out, which could make marketing much easier, since each imprint would be focused on a particular segment of the performing world.

Mock-up for similarly branded imprints in a publisher’s catalog

2) The composers could pool only particular types of their works in the publishing company, retaining publication and distribution rights to the remainder of their catalogs. This allows the publishing company to narrow its focus to a particular market, and would probably be most ideally-suited to choral or band works.

Although I don’t know the inner workings of the group, the Independent Music Publishers Cooperative ( seems to operate in a manner similar to the latter form. (Although I think that each composer publishes their own works, and the group acts as more of an umbrella for the sake of publicity and resource-sharing.) The composers in the group all write a significant amount of music for choirs, and they’ve found a way to increase the visibility of their individual members by pooling resources. The group is a fixture at choral conferences – they always have a booth with racks of music, which is much more affordable to manage when everyone pitches in. I saw them in action in 2013 at the national ACDA conference, in Dallas. Everyone took shifts manning the table to handle sales, and at least one of them would be hanging out by the racks, ready to answer questions and offer suggestions based on a director’s needs. Invariably, the composer-on-dutyr would reach for a piece by one of the other members of the group, saying, “You’ll love this one,” or “I think this would be perfect for your group.” The composers look out for one another. As a consequence, they strengthen their bonds to one another, and they add to the stability of their company, which benefits everyone, financially, personally, and artistically.

A small press, of course, would require that the company license the works from the composers, as well as set up royalty rates. While I wouldn’t recommend that the company own the rights to the works that it publishes (as traditional publishers do), it should probably have an exclusive license to publish them for a finite period of time. (Limiting the length of time that the company has exclusive rights allows the composers and the company to re-evaluate royalty rates on a regular basis, as well as whether or not the composer wants to continue to participate in the company and/or collective, amongst other considerations.) Granting the company exclusive rights creates an incentive for the composer to promote the company/collective. A percentage of the profits would stay within the company, and what the individuals “lose” by not receiving the full profit from their score sales, they gain in the ability to present concerts or produce recordings or go to conferences with the collective, which they otherwise might have difficulty doing on their own.

However, co-opetition doesn’t require any formal agreements or formation of a permanent or semi-permanent group to be useful.

Two of my friends, Clint Borzoni and Philip Wharton, recently paired up to put on a concert of their vocal music. Together, they hired musicians, booked a recording engineer, rented a performance space, and promoted the concert. If each had put on a concert of his own music individually, the individual costs would have been much higher, and the risk of not making back the investment would have been a much more significant consideration. But by banding together, Clint and Philip were able to mitigate the risk because each brought their own set of ticket-buying audience members to help offset the costs. Their goal wasn’t to break even, but to put on a concert that they could be proud of, and to have some solid recordings of their vocal works to use. It was a great concert, and a complete success.

I recently started a new feature in my newsletter where I link to a piece by a composer I like: I spend a few sentences telling the people on my list why I like that particular piece or composer, and why I think that they’ll like it, too. The composer may write in a style similar to mine, and we may be “competing” for performances by the same performers, but it doesn’t hurt me to promote their works. Also, since I know my subscribers, I know that they appreciate learning about a new composer or a new piece. It costs me nothing but a few minutes to type up the handful of sentences and link to the audio, but it’s positive for everyone involved.

StoryBundle is a great example of co-opetition in the world of fiction. Each bundle centers around a particular genre, and every author that signs on to be a part of a bundle encourages their mailing list and followers on social media to check it out. The author hopes for sales on the bundle because each sale is earned income for them. Driving their readership to the bundle is partly an act of generosity – readers who buy a bundle get at least five books by other authors, as well, which is a huge win for readers, and it also helps the other authors -, but when all twelve writers drive their lists to the bundle, each writer is seen by the lists of the other eleven, which greatly increases their own visibility. Everyone wins.

Co-opetition is predicated on the idea that “a rising tide lifts all boats”, but with the added benefit of that tide having been generated by the collective efforts of the boats themselves.

The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Growing Your Catalog

As a businessperson in the arts, the most important thing you can do is to continually expand your catalog of works. No amount of marketing or networking or promotion will help you in the long run if you don’t constantly work to build your catalog. (Conversely, you can build your catalog all you want, but it will be for naught if you don’t do sufficient networking etc.)

So for those composers who moan that all they want to do is write, they’re at least doing something right!

As with any other facet of running a business, there are several strategies for how you can expand your catalog, and you can pick the strategy that best suits you – or you can build your own strategy using elements of others.

Casting a Wide Net
One strategy for catalog building is to cast a wide net. In a nutshell: write pieces with a broad range of instrumentation: a piece for solo flute, a string quartet, some art songs, a piece for orchestra, a piano trio, some duos, etc.

While there are several advantages to this strategy, its greatest strength is that you’re not putting all of your eggs in one basket, in terms of performance possibilities. If you write solely for solo piano, there’s zero chance that a string quartet will program your works, and a much lesser chance that you’ll come up on the radar of non-pianists for commissions. By casting a wide net, you have a much broader base of potential performers and commissioners.

Also, writing a broad range of works can show versatility, if that’s a quality that you value (some juries and panels do). Again, if you only write for solo piano, some performers may question your ability to write for their instrument.

Casting a wide net also allows you to resist being pigeonholed. I know plenty of composers who resist labels as a “choral composer” or “song composer” or “band composer”. It can be difficult to avoid these labels out in the world (in certain circles I’m known as a “choral composer”, and in others I’m known as a “song composer”, and in others yet I’m known as a “cabaret singer”), but writing a broad range of works can help to ameliorate that, if you see it as being a potential problem.

There are, of course, drawbacks to this strategy: some composers will feel that it lacks focus. Writing for a wide range of ensembles for the sake of writing for a wide range of ensembles does lack focus if you don’t want to write for the ensembles that you’re writing for.

And if you keep up this wide net strategy for too long, or take it to mean that you can never write for the same group of instruments more than a few times, you can limit an ensemble’s choices of works in your catalog.

Another option is to take a more targeted approach to the instruments or ensembles that you write for. There are any number of living composers I can think of who write a range of works, but also have certain areas of focus: John Mackey, David Rakowski, and Daron Hagen. John has a significant output for band, David for piano, and Daron for the operatic stage, although all three have much larger ranges.

To take David Rakowski as an example, he has a wildly impressive catalog of works for solo piano, including his books of Etudes, and the Preludes that he’s currently at work on. But he’s written a ton of music that’s not for solo piano. Following him on his various web presences, it’s clear that he manages this huge catalog by writing regularly.

This strategy is easiest to pursue when you have easy access to performers. For example, if you’re friends with an accomplished flautist, you have a unique opportunity to write extensively for the flute, either as a solo instrument or as part of an ensemble (especially if they’re already a part of one). And the more of an advocate that flautist is for your music, the greater the benefits to taking this course. That flautist can recommend your music to their friends, colleagues, and students, and when you make all of your flute music available and easy to find, you’re encouraging sales and performances, which can obviously lead to more performances and commissions. The flautist might also make mention of you on their various web presences. Or if they record with any sort of regularity, you may end up on one or more of their discs.

If you have a friend who is active in the World Harp Congress or the International Society of Bassists or any similar performer organization, and you write regularly for that friend, you are much more likely to have your works heard by an extremely wide range of performers. Or if not heard, at least spoken about.

Assuming that you show a real aptitude for writing for a particular instrument or group of instruments, you are more likely to gain a loyal following amongst that community. And that targeted ability can give focus to your catalog, and affords performers within that community more options to perform your music, as well as more entrees to your work.

Whereas casting a wide net may seem unfocused or limited, the targeted approach can more easily allow you to be pigeonholed, and you run the risk of limiting interest from performers outside of the area(s) that you’re targeting.

A hybrid of the above to strategies may be the more obvious path: giving special attention to one or two or three areas while also continuing to write for a broader range of ensembles.

Commissions often put us in a position where we end up focusing on one or two areas, so we may feel a need to cast a wider net when we’re not working on these pieces. For example, I’m frequently commissioned by my alma mater to write new choral works. It’s great because a) I get paid, b) I get to write music I like, c) I get to work with great performers and good friends, and d) I’m expanding my catalog. Unfortunately (as I often see it), it puts me in the position to be considered as primarily a “choral composer” if I don’t make sure to keep my catalog sufficiently diverse. I love writing for choirs of all types, but I can’t imagine writing primarily for choir. The same goes for art song: I love writing it, and I frequently get commissioned to write more, but I love writing for chamber ensembles and the orchestra too much to limit myself to just art song or just vocal music in general.

In this position, I find it smart to write between commissions whenever possible to build my catalog as much as possible, and in directions that I feel are important to me. For example, I’m between commissions right now, so I’m pursuing two different paths: one is a choral music project that I’m collaborating on with several other composers, and the other is a group of instrumental duos that I have long-term plans for. Sure, with the first project, I’m going down one of my well-worn paths, but the project as it’s working out is a solid business decision. But the second project broadens the area where I feel that I’m under-recognized, despite having a solid catalog.

And in addition to building my catalog, these projects are, in their own way, “practice”, but that’s a GIGANTIC post for another day.

I see the hybrid approach as being about balance – balance between focusing on one area and broadening your catalog. But without that flautist friend who advocates for your work at every conference and performance, how do you find it?

One option is to monitor your performances. If you find that one piece or a group of pieces in a specific instrumental area is getting more attention than the rest of your catalog, you can consider writing more in that area. These areas of interest are ripe for the targeted approach.

Or if you start to feel hemmed in in one area or another, you can consider making forays into other instrumental combinations.

Beyond Instrumentation
Having a catalog of substance extends beyond mere instrumentation, however. You’ve created a catalog that includes vocal works, small and large chamber pieces, works for band and orchestra, and maybe even some stage works, but there’s also the important element of timing. If your works mostly clock in between three and seven minutes, you’re probably not showing your range well. You’ve written a dozen or so short pieces for trombone and piano for this great trombonist who loves your music – maybe it’s time to consider writing a larger work for them/the instrument.

Or the reverse may be true – I have a friend who feels that the concert music community is suffering from severe ADD, as evidenced by the over-inundation of the scene by works shorter than eight minutes. Consequently, few of his works are shorter than twenty. He’s done himself no favors by primarily writing works that take up a quarter or a third of a standard program since performers can’t just try him out – they have to commit to a lot of rehearsal and devoting a significant portion of their concert to his one piece.

And although this is a minor consideration: is most of your music slow? fast? Do you usually start a piece like this or like that? Do a significant number of your works end on a quiet, contemplative note? Or maybe they all end with a bang? Think about it.

Beyond the strategies I’ve outlined here for expanding your catalog, and the reasons for each, it’s just flat-out important to continually add to your list of available works. The more works you have available, the more performance and commissioning opportunities you have, and the more stable of a career you’re able to build for yourself. Writing two dozen works, then trying to push those onto performers over and over will get you next to nowhere unless you’re incredibly lucky. But by having lots of works ready for performers, while you still need luck, you’re creating more of that luck for yourself.

I write the Composer’s Guide here, taking time away from my composing to do so. If this post helped you in any way, be a dear and click the donate button at the bottom of this post, will you? If you can’t afford to donate, please pass this chapter along to someone who you think might get some help from it.

And I really love to get feedback in the comments section, via email, and on Twitter – they really keep me going on this project.


The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Commissioning Consortia

Consortia. Such a great word. Consortia. Don’t you just love Latin plurals?

Commissioning consortia have been on my mind a fair amount lately, not just because they’re another source of income, but also because I’m in the middle of helping to build a consortium to commission a new choral work of my own.

Commissioning consortia are a great way to get works commissioned, especially in economies as crappy as our current one. There are a lot of arts organizations right now that really want to commission new works, but can’t do it by themselves because they have severely limited budgets.

Traditionally, consortia have been used to commission larger works such as operas and orchestral or wind band pieces. Commissioning large works requires a correspondingly large budget, and even the biggest of organizations can be financially strained by such projects, so they often band together and share the financial burden. John Mackey’s Redline Tango for wind ensemble and Daron Hagen’s opera Bandanna were both commissioned by consortia of wind bands.

Today, I think that consortia are incredibly useful for smaller-scale works, as well; and also for organizations (and individuals!) with limited budgets.

For example, a group of middle or high school choirs could commission a new choral work from a composer. Or a group of individuals who play the same instrument could commission a new work together – each would have a new piece to perform at a fraction of the cost than had they done it alone. Meanwhile, the composer gets the full benefit of being commissioned and receiving a fee that is probably much higher than she otherwise would have received from any of the individuals by themselves. I’ve heard heartening reports over the past few years that this sort of thing is happening more and more, and I couldn’t be happier!

The lessening of the commissioner’s financial burden is possibly the greatest benefit to forming these consortia.

For a work for which the composer would ask a fee of $5,000, five participating ensembles would only have to raise $1,000 apiece, which is an easy Kickstarter campaign for almost any group. A few requests to friends and family could raise a handful of individuals the funds needed for a $2,000 fee. And eight commissioners contributing $300 apiece earns the composer a nice $2,400 fee. When broken down, what might be prohibitive for one commissioner becomes much more manageable for several.

I especially like the idea of consortia of school groups for a number of reasons past the benefits to the composer. Not only does the project become much more financially manageable for the schools, who are almost uniformly in budget cut hell, but the students benefit infinitely more from the experience than the school might otherwise be able to afford for them. By exposing students to new music in an active capacity such as premiering new works and working with living composers (hello Creative Connections grants!), schools can help to create a culture of active arts participation, and hopefully train the next generation of musicians to make commissioning a regular part of their careers.

Of course there are always practical considerations, too!

Fee structure
I can think of two ways to structure the composer’s fee for these sorts of projects: a per-participant split, and a per-participant fee.

With a per-participant split, the composer sets her commissioning fee, and the co-commissioners split it amongst themselves, either evenly or at varying percentages. So: a group of four commissioners might split a $3,000 fee evenly so that they each pay $750, or they may find a different, unequal split that takes into consideration any number of factors (that the composer probably need not directly concern herself with) so that some commissioners pay more than others (and probably have more leverage in claiming the full premiere of the piece – more on that later). The advantages here are that you as the composer know unequivocally what your fee will be regardless of the number of participants, and the commissioners’ shares of the fee will be correspondingly lowered as additional ensembles and individuals join the consortium. A disadvantage is that the commissioners’ shares of the fee are higher if there are fewer participants in the consortium. However, that becomes an advantage in that the participants will have a greater incentive to want more co-commissioners on the project, which will hopefully lead to their finding additional ensembles to join the consortium (which will mean more performances of the piece for the composer).

With a per-participant flat fee, the composer sets a fee per commissioner, so that each ensemble or individual pays a set amount to be a member of the consortium regardless of the number of co-commissioners. I might advocate for this sort of fee structure if the per-participant fee were reasonably low and you either had a reasonable sense of how many participants there would be or were feeling particularly generous should there be few participants. The main disadvantage here is that the composer doesn’t necessarily know what her fee will ultimately be until everything is finalized. An advantage, however, is that the co-commissioners know exactly what their financial stake will be from the start. On the other hand, should there end up being more consortium members than originally anticipated or hoped for, the composer can end up with a correspondingly higher fee. I’m much less a fan of this second option for a few reasons, but I can see uses for it.

Lead commissioner
Every commissioning agreement spells out a series of rights and responsibilities that the commissioner is entitled to, which can be complicated by the participation of multiple commissioners. Consequently, there is usually a “lead commissioner” who has a greater stake in the commission, both financially and in terms of the rights and responsibilities. The lead will likely pay a greater share of the commissioning fee and have the right to the first performance; so while the other commissioners end up paying less, they also don’t get to have the first performance, but are entitled to subsequent – possibly regional – premieres and performances of the work within a period of exclusivity. Everyone gets credit as co-commissioners.

The lead commissioner may also take a more substantive role in finding additional consortium members because they may have an increased visibility or prestige over the other participants, and will likely handle the negotiations involved with figuring out which participant is entitled to what and when (it’s probably best if you keep your nose out of this one if you can!).

The lead may not have a greater financial share or any additional entitlements, but may just be the go-to member for communicating with the composer or advertising the performances, or may merely be the person/ensemble that initiated the commission.

Getting Paid
Again, there are a few options here. Each commissioner might pay you directly; or they may designate the lead commissioner as the financial point person, in which case all funds funnel through the lead and are paid to you on whatever schedule is spelled out in the contract. And on occasion, a third party may be involved as the collector and administrator of funds. In the end, how the composer gets paid comes down to what is easiest for all parties involved, and what everyone is most comfortable with.

Finding Participants
This is probably the hardest part of setting up commissioning consortia. (Duh!)

In many cases, I’d probably advocate for having the lead commissioner do the majority of it. They probably know more ensembles of the same instrumentation or performers in their field than you do. And depending on the situation, there’s a certain…legitimacy…that is lent to the endeavor when the lead is the one who approaches potential participants. The alternative could come off like: “Hi, person I don’t know! Do you want to commission me?” Maybe not the best face to put on the project?

So tell me – do you all have experiences with commissioning consortia? Please share in the comments section below!

Speaking of income: see that “Donate” button down there? Be a dear and click that will you? If you can’t afford to donate, please pass this chapter along to someone who you think might get some help from it.

And I really love to get feedback in the comments section, via email, and on Twitter – they really keep me going on this project.


The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Passive Income

OK, so I should be getting back onto a semi-regular updating schedule here. The past two months have been filled with travel, yearly audit prep at the day job, apartment hunting, and moving, all of which are horribly un-conducive to writing or composing. But such is the way of life – we take these things in stride and get back onto our schedules when the dust starts to settle. In the meantime, I’ve been sketching out a handful of posts on a wide variety of topics, so I should be able to power through a few essays in the next few weeks so that the Guide can get back into full swing.

One of the topics on my mind lately has been streams of income – particularly passive income. So let’s talk about money this week, shall we?

Before we talk about passive income, though, let me define active income: Active income is any source of revenue earned through personal effort – wages, salaries, tips, etc. Commissioning fees are active income, as are any fees or pay we receive from performing, speaking, teaching, copying/engraving, etc. The bulk of our income as composers will be active, and these are the sorts of things that we’ll always be seeking out.

Passive income, on the other hand, is any regular or semi-regular income that requires little to no effort to maintain. This includes royalties and licensing fees. And for our purposes, I’m going to lump in score and recording sales because our profits from these are traditionally regarded as royalties.

Now, while passive income will likely be much less than active income, it shouldn’t be ignored for a number of reasons. One is the simple fact that passive income is INCOME. Why pass up the opportunity to have money come to you without having to work hard for it just because the money you have to put out effort for is greater? For this reason alone, I think that ignoring passive income is silly. By making your scores (and hopefully professional-quality recordings, as well) available for sale, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to bring in revenue that you really don’t have to work for. Sure, you may have to mail out the scores themselves, but compared to the effort that goes into writing a piece of music or rehearsing for a performance, sticking a score in an envelope and walking it to the post office is nothing! At the very least, the effort is commensurate with the amount of money you’ll earn for each sale.

Also, each sale you make will likely lead to additional passive income.

For example, when you sell a score, it’s entirely probable that the person buying it intends to perform the piece. And with performances come what? If you said royalties, you’ve been paying attention. Gold star! More income you didn’t have to work for. At all. You sat back while someone else did all the work of buying the score (which you got paid for), learning and rehearsing the piece, and getting up on stage in front of who-knows-how-many people and performing it. Then nine months later, ASCAP or BMI wrote you a check. All because you made your score available for sale and took the few minutes to address an envelope, slap a stamp on it, and pop it in the mailbox. Or maybe your scores – like mine – are available digitally, so you just checked your email, saw you had a sale, and moved your earnings from PayPal to your bank account. (An ING reasonably-high-yield savings account with pretty damned good interest rates. Oh noes! My little moneys are making more moneys!) Such herculean effort!

Up-front effort
OK, I’ll admit that passive income isn’t completely effortless. You have to put in some effort on the front end to make sure that you can earn it.

With physical scores, you have to engrave the score and either have copies on hand or be prepared to have the scores printed and bound on demand. But because you’re a professional (or working to become one), your scores are nicely engraved to begin with, and you’ve done the minor research you need to do to find a printer in your area that can service your needs. Since I just moved, I need to find a new print shop, or start farming it out to Limes or Subito or another company that’s been actively courting me for a few months now via Twitter. (If y’all are reading this – I haven’t forgotten about you!) Then you create a simple page on your (up-to-date) website letting people know how they can purchase your scores. You can even set up simple PayPal buttons that process payment automatically and collect shipping information that is emailed to you within nanoseconds of the sale being made. (This is almost obscenely easy to do, by the way.)

With recordings, of course there’s the effort and expense of the actual recording (provided that you’re the one bankrolling the project, as in my own planned series of recordings), plus cover design, packaging, etc. But that’s the expense of making the recording. Making it available for sale is as simple as setting up an account with CDBaby and letting them set you up with iTunes and Amazon. Click click, tippity-type, submit: done.

And with digital scores or recordings, you need to either set up a store-front or find an online retailer who fits your needs (for recordings, see my CDBaby comment, like, one sentence ago). Creating your own storefront, admittedly, can be time-consuming, though it’s getting easier and easier with all of the open source options out there. I’m a relentless DIY-er, and found the process incredibly rewarding and worthwhile. And how nice that I don’t have to give a cut of my sales to anybody but PayPal?

But once these initial setup steps are done, they’re done! Your works are out there. You’re not guaranteed any sales, but at least you have the option now. The only guarantee is that if your scores aren’t available, you won’t make any sales at all.

I think one of the biggest reasons to pursue passive income streams is the fact that they can be leveraged to create active income. At the very least, they lead to additional passive income, as in the royalty scenario. Or, if you have multiple recordings, a person who likes one recording of yours may buy another, and may continue to buy any subsequent recordings that you put out.

And also: In my experience, the purchase of a score and subsequent performance of the piece has a significant chance of leading to a commission of some sort.

My song cycle at least a moment was commissioned by a harpist who had discovered Starfish at Pescadero through a Google search while looking for a piece with instrumentation similar to George Crumb’s Madrigals, Book III. After requesting to buy a copy of the score, she performed Starfish, and immediately after the performance commissioned at least a moment. There was even talk of a companion piece, which I may still write because a) I want to, and b) I have the text setting permissions, so why waste them!?

Recordings, too, can be leveraged to create performances, score sales, additional recording sales, and even commissions. I leave it to your capable imaginations to come up with examples of how a person listening to a recording of your music can lead to additional passive or active income.

Speaking of passive income: see that “Donate” button down there? Be a dear and click that will you? If you can’t afford to donate, please pass this chapter along to someone who you think might get some help from it.

And I really love to get feedback in the comments section, via email, and on Twitter – they really keep me going on this project.


The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Print vs. Digital

Print vs. digital. Print scores or digital scores?

Of course, it’s not a question of either/or. But how can a nearly-thirty-year-old (!) American raised on the evening news not open with a sensationalistic and misleading pseudo-question?

A business-savvy composer with her eye on the changes taking place within the industry will see that print and digital scores are a logical complement to one another. Print scores continue to fulfill the needs of and carry on tradition, while digital scores offer more immediate access for a generation of musicians steeped in technology, and that embraces the digital revolution of the 21st century.

While few composers neglect the print side of the business in favor of digital scores (although I must confess that my efforts are generally – and obviously – more geared toward digital, and I would be a bit better served if I found more of a balance between the two), most have yet to hop on the digital bandwagon, as it were.

I think that there are a few reasons why the digitization of scores is still in its infancy.

For one, I think that people forget that they have some wonderful technology at their disposal that wasn’t there a few years ago, which can help them to accomplish so much. The ability to create PDFs – and when I speak about digital scores, I’m speaking primarily of scores and parts in PDF format – has come a long way in the last few years. The Open Software movement has offered a number of PDF creation tools that are remarkably sophisticated, while proprietary products with full technical support like Adobe Acrobat have become infinitely more affordable.

Why do I automatically speak of digital scores as being in PDF format? Simple: accessibility.

Everyone has full and free access to Adobe Reader (do people use other PDF reading software other than maybe Google Docs?). Very few non-composers own Sibelius or Finale or Score or whatever notation software you may use to create your beautifully-engraved scores. Consequently, to offer scores in one of these formats as opposed to as a PDF strikes me as self-defeating.

Digital Springs from Print
In my creating my own scores, I prepare my files to be printed in one fell swoop – everything in one file, which gets uploaded to my Dropbox account. That way, when I need a bound copy of one of my scores, I just email it off to the printer. No muss, no fuss. My files are formatted to be printer-friendly so that they’re always ready, and require as little effort to print as possible.

In the process of putting my print score together, of course, I’ve generated a full digital score, including the cover and everything else that needs to go inside. Ensemble X is hosting a competition with electronic submission? I’m already prepared. Performer Y has a call for scores out? Point, click, send.

So, in preparing my print version, I’ve coincidentally created the digital version, as well. And the whole process could hardly be easier.

My process, in brief, is this:

1) I create my score in Sibelius
2) I create my cover, notes, texts, etc in either Microsoft Word or OpenOffice (depending on my mood that day)
3) I print my score to a PDF using Adobe Acrobat Professional (any PDF creator worth its salt will come with a printer driver that is installed automatically, allowing you to “print to PDF”)
4) I print my cover, notes, etc to one or several PDF files, depending on whether or not I’ve created them in one or several documents
5) I use Adobe Professional to append the files to one another (Document -> Insert Pages, if you’re wondering), creating a single PDF file.

And voilà! A full digital score!

Let me offer as an example this song I wrote in 2009, To a Western Boy: tobenski-t82-v2009-3pdf.pdf

The cover was created in Microsoft Word, the score itself in Sibelius, and the back page (a “stock” page that goes at the back of every score, and which I have always available) also in Word. All were printed as PDFs, then aggregated to a single document and saved. Because the song is so short, I decided to forego any additional pages in the score so that it could be printed on a single 11″x17″ page and folded, like many older short songs from legacy publishers were printed on a single 12″x18″ page.

It’s simple and economical – any additional pages would complicate the matter too much. Were I to add any more, I would have to either add two pages’ worth of material, which would necessitate the buyer to print on one sheet of 11×17 and one page of 8.5×11 (or, more simply – three sheets of 8.5×11), or a whole four pages’ worth, which would be a silly waste of space and of paper.

Digital Concerns
As the founder of, I spend a lot of time pushing people to take the digital leap, and consequently talking people off the ledge when it comes to their concerns about sending digital copies of their works out into the world.

Concern number one is the big topic that has been highly visible in art-business circles: piracy.

I’ve already written a big post on DRM and Piracy here, so I’ll just give the salient points with a little new elaboration.

Piracy, for the most part, stems from a demand for a work that is either unavailable or priced beyond the means of the people who want it. A thirteen-episode series of Doctor Who (squee!), last I checked, retails for around $50 (when I first started searching, they were $99 apiece), which is a lot more than this sci-fi dork can reasonably afford for something like a DVD box set. I adore the show, and would love to own it, but it’s too expensive for me. A lot of people are in the same boat. Consequently, all six series of the new Doctor Who ($300 in all, plus tax) are particularly popular on various file sharing sites.

The hundreds (probably thousands) of wannabe Companions would happily buy the whole thing to watch over and over and over if the DVDs were only more reasonably priced.

And therein lies lesson number one about piracy: piracy can be combated with affordable pricing. Just think about how many scores you yourself would buy – and not photocopy from the library (just admit that you do it) – if they weren’t so prohibitively priced!

Another television example (since that’s where a lot of piracy is happening): Game of Thrones (god, I’m just putting my nerdiness on display here, aren’t I?) was almost impossible to get for months after it finished airing. The DVD set wasn’t due out for months, and streaming versions were only available by buying or upgrading your cable package. In fact, there’s a great dissection of the whole scenario here – check that out for a wonderfully pithy (and swear-tastic) explanation. Piracy, in this case, was just about the only option for many people (fortunately, I’m blessed with a boyfriend whose parents had an HBOGo account just lying around unused).

And that’s lesson number two: piracy can be combated by making your product available and easily accessible. Fighting piracy with scarcity – by removing the product from the market, or making it prohibitively difficult to obtain, or by putting the release date off for an obscene amount of time – only encourages piracy.

And so it is with your scores. If you’re afraid people will share your scores without paying for them, then make it easier to get them and easier to afford them. Don’t undervalue yourself, but don’t insult the people who want to buy your scores.

The corollary to all of this is lesson number three: the artist’s enemy is not piracy, it is obscurity. Which problem would you rather have? People want your music so badly that they’ll resort to piracy (which we know you can combat), or people don’t know where to find your music/can’t afford it, so no one bothers to perform it? I think we both know the answer here.

Another concern I’ve encountered has to do with page size. For those composers who insist on adhering to the traditions of using outsized paper, digital scores are a bit harder to justify. Either there needs to be a big neon sign attached to every digital score that uses odd-sized paper in order to warn the buyer of what they’re getting, or a second version of the score needs to be made to accommodate regular sized paper. (Scaling is maybe an option here, but then the size of the printed music can be a little too small.) I don’t quite have an answer to this one yet – while I format my scores to 8.5″x11″, I understand the allure of slightly larger pages: they really can be nice. I welcome input on this point – how do you reconcile the issue?

A third concern that I’m going to acknowledge here, but tackle in a few weeks, is how to sell the digital score. How does a composer go about putting his digital scores out there, collecting payment, and delivering the files in a way that doesn’t require constant attention? We all know I’ve got solutions to this one, so I’ll address it when we get to distribution.

So Why Digital?
To the question “Why should I embrace digital?” I can really only respond, “Why not?”

You’ve already got the files ready to go.

Also, the overhead of selling digital scores is almost nil. Print scores come with the costs of printing/binding/postage – a necessary part of doing print business. But digital scores come only with the time cost of creating the files, which you already have to create the print version. After that, your investment is over – there are no losses to recoup. The only money you may “lose” would be the fees that PayPal or Google Checkout or whatever your payment solution of choice charges per transaction, or in the cases of NewMusicShelf and similar services, the distribution fee the business deducts per sale.

Digital scores can, consequently, be offered at a lower price than the print score because there are no print costs involved. (I think that offering digital copies at the same price as print copies is counterproductive and silly – as major book publishers do with ebooks and their print counterparts.) And despite any discount you may offer for ecopies, your profit margin is probably higher, depending on how steep of a discount you offer. In other words: less work and higher return.

In the end, I think that print and digital sales complement one another very well: print accommodates those who appreciate the Score-as-Object, and digital accommodates those who are happy to save some money and print the score themselves.

I write the Composer’s Guide here, taking time away from my composing to do so. If this post helped you in any way, please leave a tip or a small donation on the way out. If you can’t afford to donate, please pass this chapter along to someone who you think might get some help from it.

And I really love to get feedback in the comments section, via email, and on Twitter – they really keep me going on this project.


The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Why Self-Publish?

Alright, now that we’ve talked about some non-everyday, slightly esoteric stuff, let’s tackle something a bit meatier and more immediately applicable: publishing your music.

Let me say here and now (though I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again [and again and again]): I strongly advocate against pursuing a publishing deal with a traditional publisher. Traditional publishers, or legacy publishers as I prefer to call them, are not the institutions that they once were, fostering the careers of promising composers, and advocating for performances and recordings of their living composers. Honestly, though, I’m not sure if they ever really were what “they once were” – just as our cultural memory of the 50s as a wholesome-as-apple-pie, not-a-care-in-the-world era of happiness and prosperity is a false one, I think our memory of publishers as bastions of modern music in the style of Ralph Hawkes’ cultivation of Benjamin Britten is fabricated from equal parts wishful thinking and Stockholm syndrome. We’ve always been taught to believe that if you write good enough music – and maybe win an important prize or two – one of the big houses will swoop down from the heavens and offer you a contract to publish X or Y piece (or an exclusive contract!), and you’ll be taken care of for the rest of your life. All we have to do then is keep writing music, and our publishers will take care of the rest.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. At least not anymore. (And I can’t say as I’ve ever heard of a case where things did work like that.)

Concert music publishers today are, for the most part, antiquated subsidiaries of subsidiaries of subsidiaries of multi-national corporations. Some are still independent, but that mostly means that there’s not a larger corporate structure in place to bail them out if they get into financial hot water; although it also means that there’s not a larger corporate structure in place to shut them down if they don’t meet the arbitrary profit expectations set by some accountant sitting in a back office of one of the parent companies, and who has no interest in knowing the concert music industry or its financial idiosyncrasies. This is all to say that, like many things these days, concert music publishing has been corporatized, and is primarily interested in what will sell.

Now none of this is to say that publishers, because they’re corporate, are evil. Nor are they uncaring or lazy.

What they are is: lost.

The world of concert music has never embraced innovation or technological advances. We do the things we do because that’s how things are done, not because they’re efficient or intuitive. Some things are efficient, some things are intuitive, but most things are… tradition.

Take, for example, paper sizes. Concert music is published on 9 x 12 inch paper, while the world operates on 8.5×11; sometimes 8.5×14 or 11×17. But whenever I hazard the opinion that self-publishers should format their scores to 8.5×11 (especially for digital scores, which will be printed by others without specialty printers), at least one person in the room suddenly turns into the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey – I’m confronted with a flusteredly scowling Maggie Smith, hooting a shocked, “But my dear, it simply isn’t done!”

Publishers are locked in the same mindset. And what changes they make are either too little too late, or mere retrenchment. Most publishers, in response to flagging score sales, resorted to print-on-demand for most of their titles. This allowed them to avoid some warehousing costs, but (at least at first) added 3 to 4 weeks to the delivery time – a major inconvenience to customers. And it took most publishers years and years to create an online storefront on their own websites, which would have afforded them (after the initial investment in an ecommerce setup) a higher rate of profit. Instead, their websites pointed to various and sundry distributor sites, which sold through their own online storefronts, and took a sizable discount, leaving the publishers with less money, as well as less brand recognition: I didn’t buy this score from Boosey & Hawkes; I bought it from SheetMusicPlus. The storefronts of most publishers today are still mostly clunky, ugly, counter-intuitive, hamster-powered labyrinths of confusing nested categories and incomplete misinformation. (Pardon my horribly mixed metaphors.)

Services like Schirmer On Demand are great steps in the right direction, but they won’t, I fear, be enough to save the industry.

Although it’s all I hear in private, it’s difficult to say in public that concert music publishers are dying a slow and agonizing death. (To channel the Dowager Countess myself for a moment: one doesn’t say to a man on his deathbed, “Did you know that you’re dying?” One smiles and comments on the weather, and when one is out of earshot, tsks and tuts and well-he-brought-it-upon-himselfs behind his back.) Without a drastic shift in the way publishers do business, their continued survival will not be a long-lived one, and their various play-it-safe experiments will do little more than put off the inevitable for a few more years.

I’ll continue to pick on legacy publishers as we go, so let’s talk about happier things in the form of your alternative in the game of getting your music “out there”: self-publishing.

It used to be that the mere suggestion of wanting to self-publish was an admission of defeat, or a sign of very poor judgment. Self-published scores used to be synonymous with poorly-engraved scores of music that was, to varying degrees, unlistenable, unplayable, or just plain bad.

Now, some of the most successful composers publish their own works very successfully. Jennifer Higdon, Stephen Paulus, Philip Glass, Alex Shapiro all publish their own works and have thriving careers. No longer is self-publishing a dilettante’s game.

The advantages of self-publication are numerous, and include:
• complete control over rights, layout, pricing;
• larger profits;
• collection of writer and publisher royalties;
• the enthusiasm of your sales force – you.

Compared with a legacy publishing deal, where you hand over all rights and control, earn a 10% royalty on sales, forfeit half of your performance royalties, and are lumped in with hundreds of other composers and thousands of other scores vying for the attention of the already-badly-overworked marketing department…. Self-publishing isn’t looking so bad.

With all the control you maintain, however, come the responsibilities of:
• knowing how to engrave your scores to professional standards;
• managing your bookkeeping;
• finding distribution outlets for your scores and recordings;
• being a good spokesman for your works.

Some of you may start to balk here because <whinyvoice>It’s too much woooork</whinyvoice> and <whinyvoice>It takes up too much tiiiime</whinyvoice>.

Well. As a business, which, if you remember my chapter on the benefits of entrepreneurship, you are, these are things that should be on your mind. Every successful business owner has to think about these things: the quality of their goods or service, cash flow and bookkeeping, distribution channels, ways to let people know about their services, finding new business/clients. They’re a necessary part of establishing and growing a business. And they’re a necessary part of establishing and growing your compositional career.

Some of us are already good at some of these things. For me, engraving is a part of my composing process – although I write in a number of different ways (at the piano, at the computer, away from both piano and computer, hurriedly scribbling notes on the subway before I get to my stop), I’m always thinking about the final look of the score: how will I notate this? is there a clearer way to show that? how in the hell do I put that on the page? And I’m ridiculous about bookkeeping – I have spreadsheets for everything: performance royalty tracking, project budgets, what I owe my collaborators in royalties from score sales. I have a spreadsheet where I enter my musical income, and it analyses the data so that I can track my income by score, income by year earned, income by year of composition, and income by source. It may be a little overkill for some people’s tastes, but I know where my money comes from, and that helps me to know where my energies are (literally) paying off.

For those of you starting to get panicky over all of these businessy considerations, take a deep breath – no one is forcing you to implement everything all in one go and to understand the whole shebang out of the gate. For the rest of the year, we’ll be tackling these issues piece by piece, and exploring ways to approach each one.

For this week, your homework is to take stock of your skills as a businessman/businesswoman, and be honest with yourself about where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Consider yourself in the role of a shop owner or service provider: what do you need to keep in mind to manage your business properly? Now, compare those requirements to your composing career: where are the similarities? Where are the almost-similarities? Where are the differences that really aren’t all the different when you think about it a little bit? And what just flat-out doesn’t apply? I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that there aren’t many that fall in the last category.

So tell me: what are your strengths? And how do you intend to capitalize on them? And what do you intend to do to address your weaknesses?

I write the Composer’s Guide here, taking time away from my composing to do so. If this post helped you in any way, please leave a tip or a small donation on the way out. If you can’t afford to donate, please pass this chapter along to someone who you think might get some help from it.

And I really love to get feedback in the comments section, via email, and on Twitter – they really keep me going on this project.


The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Copyright Part 5

My apologies for my absence last week – an unexpected health issue kept me from making use of my regularly-scheduled Composer’s Guide writing time last week (I set aside every Wednesday evening from 6:00 until 1:30am to write this, though I try not to take that long!), and the rest of my time was already spoken for until today. Such is my life!

So this week I want to finish off (at least for now) our copyright discussion with one of the most controversial topics surrounding intellectual property law: the cutely-named “copyleft” movement, and its impact on how copyright law is perceived.

First, though, a brief note and a few links on copyright infringement again. One of my earlier posts on the importance of registering your works, and it was noted in the comments that wholesale theft of concert music almost never happens. However rarely it happens, though, it still does.

Take as an example the Messe de requiem by Alfred Desenclos. The Messe was composed in 1963, and published by Durand et Fils in 1967. Then in 1999, almost 30 years after the death of Desenclos, it was presented as an original work by the young composer Tristan Foison. The story is sordid and sickening. And a wonderful cautionary tale. You can read about it here and here. So who doesn’t want to register their works now?

OK. Copyleft.

The copyleft movement started in the software world: software engineers wanted certain of their programs to be freely available while still limiting certain uses of them: particularly commercial use. In other words, they wanted people to be able to use and build upon their code, but didn’t want corporations to swoop in, modify the code slightly (derivative works, anyone?), and release the minorly-edited version commercially, thereby making potentially millions of dollars on a product that they neither created nor funded the creation of. The fruits of this movement are quite robust and active still in the tech community in the form of Open Source. WordPress, OpenOffice, VideoLAN, Wikipedia, Apache, Android, Mozilla: these are all companies and products centered around the Open Source Initiative, which has its roots in copyleft. Each of them may be used and disseminated freely, and users may modify or add to them so long as they don’t offer the modified version for sale, and in most cases maintain the notice of original authorship.

Most of what we make use of on the internet is thanks to the Open Source Initiative, the GNU License, etc. This blog is powered by WordPress. Some of the cooler bits of coding on this site are my own adaptations of various codes available on sites like Dynamic Drive. If you care to, view the source of this page and see the authorship notices embedded in the site’s header material. You can bet your sweet bippy that I’m thankful for open source software.


This is all tech crap I’m talking about. It’s not music.

So where does music enter into the equation?

With the advent of sampling and sound libraries, there came a wider call for freely-available sounds and sampling materials. Just as with the proliferation of powerful image editing software, there grew a need for non-copyrighted stock images. Of course, when I say a “call” or a “need”, I mean: people wanted to use things that other people made, but not pay for it.

Enough people had gotten in trouble for using copyrighted images or sounds without permission that some of them started making their own and offering them for others to use without having to pay licensing fees. Many of these are available thanks to the proliferation of the Creative Commons license.

I get a lot of questions about Creative Commons and how it compares to copyright. (There’s nothing to actually compare, but we’ll get to that.) In fact, it was an email conversation I had with a fellow composer about Creative Commons that sparked me to write my first essay on copyright, which I’ve plundered liberally for this series.

This composer argued in favor of abandoning copyright in favor of licensing under Creative Commons and similar entities. (I say “entity” because Creative Commons is a non-profit corporation. FYI.) And it was this argument that made me finally realize how little composers and other artists understand about what Creative Commons actually is, and how it stands in relation to copyright.

A lot of composers and artists I talk to seem to think that Creative Commons and similar types of licenses are an alternative to copyright. That somehow CC’s ShareAlike and NoDerivs licenses replace the need for copyright protections. CC is, in fact, a type of extension of copyright that allows creators to forfeit various and sundry of their rights so that other people can have more stuff for free.

You can see that I’m not the hugest fan.

Now, I’m not completely opposed to CC licenses, but I think that composers should be careful about using these licenses with their works.

The most successful uses of CC licenses that I’ve seen used with creative works have been with photos, sound samples, and webcomics. All of these are small individual works that help to give a creator exposure and experience while also allowing them to generate revenues in other areas.

For example, photographers can make a handful of their photos available with a CC Attribution-NonCommercial license as teasers for the rest of their work – individuals and companies that want to use other of their images can pay a licensing fee, or hire them for individually-tailored shoots. Audio engineers offering sound samples can create a tiered service: the basic set of samples are made available gratis, and the “premiere” set can be purchased for a fee.

Webcomics make ingenious use of CC licenses. The individual comics themselves, because they’re posted to sites that are accessible by anyone, and because no image online is safe for long, are all licensed under CC. It’s merchandising that earns the artists their income. Jeffrey Roland’s TopatoCo is a prime example of this, as is Randall Munroe’s xkcd comic and store. Roland’s comics Wigu and Overcompensating, you’ll notice, like Munroe’s xkcd (all three of which I adore – I have a whole folder of webcomic feeds that I subscribe to in Google Reader. If you want me to dork out some time, ask me about it.) are available via CC licenses. And fans who want to have the comics collected in book form, or want T-Rex of Qwantz fame on a t-shirt , or want a print of Cornelius Snarlington, Business Deer, can shell out cash for the comic artist’s merch.

Concert music, in my opinion, differs greatly from these media. Enough so that I find CC licenses to be ill-advised for concert music composers. I’m always willing to listen to arguments to the contrary, but for the moment, I can’t see CC (say that ten times fast!) as being beneficial to our financial or artistic well-being.

Let me explain as best I can.

Our works are highly-individualized, labor-intensive, time-consuming things that have very specific types of secondary income: score sales and print/recording/broadcast/etc royalties. By appending a CC license to any of our works, we forfeit our claim to those sources of income. And unless we write many, many works with the same instrumentation, we aren’t likely to be able to use a limited number of CC-licensed works as gateway works to the rest of our catalog. Even then, a composer with a significant number of works for solo piano would be – in my opinion – ill-advised to offer one or two pieces under CC licenses hoping to attract interest in the rest of his catalog. A photographer offers a limited number of photos under CC because she knows that those few she offers for free won’t be appropriate for every project that others may need images for. An audio engineer can offer a limited number of quality samples because he knows that while some users will be content with the free product, more users will want the full complement of samples because of a) their quality, b) their range and scope, and c) again their quality.

The concert music composer who offers a CC-licensed piano piece is offering a stand-alone work that is presumably of considerably high quality. (Why offer a work that is not your best?) That work is likely to be played more often than those that require the performer to pay for the score and performance licenses. People will, of course, buy the others, but probably rather less often.

One argument I’ve heard in favor of CC licenses is that they allow others to make use of your music to create more art.

That’s nice and all, but they can still do that without you renouncing whole swaths of your rights.

Remember the last chapter from two weeks ago when I told my little story about the visual artist who used one of my scores in her work? (I completely failed to mention, by the way, that her name is Yu-Wen Wu, and he’s fabulous. You can see the body of work inspired by my score here.) Well, I gave her permission to use my score, and I didn’t ask her for a fee or anything. She’s a friend, and I was happy to have my piece repurposed for the sake of her art, so I just said, “Yes.”

You can do that, too!

I’ve also had my works remixed by pop artists, and arranged by fellow composers. All I asked of them was that I get credit as the original author. That may sound like a CC Attribution license, but the big difference is that I retain my rights to those works for all other uses.

It’s not that I’m stingy, it’s that I don’t feel the need to renounce significant portions of my rights altogether.

If you want people to remix your work, or make use of it in some new and unusual way, you don’t have to give up your rights.

A simple solution? Put something on your website saying that you welcome collaborations with other artists, and all they have to do is email you at Done!

Problems with Perception
There are a few reasons, I think, why people tend to rebel against copyright, and lean toward the copyleft movement (which I recently heard referred to as “copywrong” – I don’t disagree with that assessment), and I think it has to do with public perception of how copyright can be…misused…? I hesitate to use the term, although I think that it is what I really mean to say.

Copyright duration tends to be a big issue for some people, and I can’t say that I completely disagree with them. I fully believe that a creator should have complete control over his/her works for the entirety of their lives, including the right to assign those rights to others (publishers, etc). I even think that the creator’s heirs should get some benefit from royalties, etc. So, I definitely advocate for a life-plus-___ duration.

I certainly don’t have an answer as to how long I think copyright should extend beyond the life of the creator. But it should for some reasonable period.

I’ve heard a lot of people lately saying that life plus 70 years is too long, and they’re not unreasonable in saying so.

And it’s the reason why life-plus-70 exists that has skewed much of the public’s perception of copyright. The Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 was lobbied for extensively by the Walt Disney Company and the Gershwin Estate. Both had a lot on the line – the copyright terms for Mickey Mouse and Rhapsody in Blue were both nearing their end; and because the CTEA was passed, both of these continue to be significant sources of revenue for each organization, respectively. Thus, the perception of copyright as benefiting only corporations was born.

Because of this sore point, it’s easy to overlook how greatly copyright benefits individual creators. As I’ve said many times already, all opportunities we have for income generated from our works are because of copyright.

I feel really strongly about composers holding onto their rights. So I urge those of you considering using Creative Commons and similar licenses to think carefully before you do. It’s a bell that can’t be unrung – once you put a piece out there with a CC license on it, those copies can circulate and undermine any attempt you may make later on to generate income from the same work, should you reconsider your earlier decision to go the copyleft route.

Before I close the door on our copyright discussion, I would be remiss if I didn’t make note of termination rights. For those of you who have pieces that were published during or after the late 1970s, you have a unique opportunity coming up: you can reclaim rights that you’ve assigned to your publishers. This right comes available 35 years after first publication, and is available only for a window of 5 years. There are hoops that must be jumped through, and some really specific timing issues involved, but some of you may find it to your benefit (though don’t expect your publisher to be happy with you).

There’s a good blog post by an Intellectual Properties lawyer on the subject here, and the Copyright Office’s official language here.

That does it for now for copyright, so I’ll see you all back here next week for the next exciting episode chapter of The Composer’s Guide!

Share and Enjoy!

I write the Composer’s Guide here once a week, taking time away from my composing to do so. If this post helped you in any way, please leave a tip or a small donation on the way out. If you can’t afford to donate, please pass this chapter along to someone who you think might get some help from it.

And I really love to get feedback in the comments section, via email, and on Twitter – they really keep me going on this project.


The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Copyright Part 3

Welcome to part three of our discussion of copyright. This week I’d like to cover the topics of public domain, the doctrine of first sale, and at least get a start on fair use.

First, however, I’d like to make an addendum to last week’s chapter on the benefits of copyright registration. It was pointed out in an excellent comment that I had overlooked an important point, which I’d like to address here.

What I overlooked last week was the fact that the most common type of infringement that a concert music composer today will have to face (any file sharing aside) is an unauthorized use of a recording of the composer’s work by a dance company or non-profit organization, or an unlicensed live performance. Small-potatoes-style infringement.

The most effective way to deal with such a situation – in my opinion – is merely an email or letter from you stating the issue and offering a solution. These types of situations are born out of an appreciation for your work, and most likely an ignorance of the company’s/organization’s obligations when it comes to using copyrighted material. The commenter suggests – and I wholeheartedly agree – that you request a retroactive licensing fee.

Your letter should be polite, yet clear. Explain why you’re writing, be direct, but don’t be an ass. If you keep in mind that these people liked your music enough to use it – quite the compliment! – and that they should be treated with respect as your artistic colleagues (and just as people), you’ll do yourself a service.

Lawyering up in this instance is not only overkill, but likely to earn you a poor reputation in the community. Nobody wants to be known as That Composer Who Sued The Small Dance Company Because They Used His Music Once And Didn’t Make Any Money Anyway.

Unlicensed performances are also best handled by your Performing Rights Organization. Each PRO has a reporting system in place for performances so that there’s a greater likelihood that they will be properly licensed, even after the fact.

Always, always, always act in good faith.

Public Domain
So what happens to works when their copyright term is up? Provided that their term isn’t extended by changes in the law (another discussion for another day), they go into the public domain. The expiration of copyright is – like the existence of copyright itself – intended to “promote the Progress” of the arts. If copyright were indefinite, we wouldn’t have nearly the access to works and scientific writings and findings that we do now. Our artistic and scientific advancement would be seriously curtailed.

It’s public domain that allows us to use poems by Shakespeare or Whitman or Dickinson in our vocal and choral works without having to pay licensing fees or royalties. Because the copyright term on those works has expired, other artists are free to make use of them without compensating the artist (most likely long dead) or his/her estate.

Personally, I prefer working with living poets when I set a text, but there are projects for which I feel that it’s more appropriate – or just plain easier – to use a text in the public domain. All of my choral works use public domain texts, but the bulk of my art songs are on poems by living poets. I have both artistic and financial reasons for this dichotomy. For one in-progress, temporarily-stalled project, I’ve chosen to set 24 public domain texts and collect them into a single album of songs; by setting only public domain texts, I remove any question of what portion of royalties are due to this poet or that out of the sale of the collection. However, I find great artistic satisfaction in setting texts by poets I know, as well as bringing their poetry to a wider audience. Plus, I just really like the idea of helping my friends to earn additional royalties from their works. Big warm fuzzy.

As I mentioned last week, it’s not always easy to know when a work is in the public domain. As a rule, it’s usually – though not always – safe to assume that something written before 1923 is in the public domain. After that point, things start to get more complicated depending on where it was published, whether it was published with or without a copyright notice, and if it complies with various and sundry U.S. Copyright formalities (this last one applies mostly to older works published outside of the U.S.). Here’s an interesting resource from Cornell University’s Copyright Information Center that makes things a little clearer:

So what happens if you think something is in the public domain, use it, then subsequently learn that it isn’t? Surprisingly, I’m actually dealing with such a situation at this very moment!

A few years ago, I wrote a choral piece believing that the text was completely in the public domain. It turns out that the version of the poem I used was an adaptation of the original by another (living) composer for one of his operas. I hadn’t registered the work either with the Copyright Office or ASCAP, so I haven’t earned any royalties on the piece, and have no registrations to amend. The change from the original is very, very minor (substituting one proper name for another). I could conceivably change the name back to the original, but I rather hate the original. Or, I could find another name to substitute. (Tried it – really hard after becoming so accustomed to it. And I chose the poem partly because I liked the name so much!)

I’ve opted for a third route: I’ve emailed the composer, asking his permission to use the text as I currently have it in the score. And when I say “I’ve emailed the composer,” I mean that I’ve only just emailed him, so I haven’t yet had the chance to receive a response. I’ll be sure to keep you all informed of the progress of the situation, hoping, of course, that this will be an excellent example of the power of writing a friendly, straightforward message that addresses the issue and offers an equitable solution.

Doctrine of First Sale
There are a number of names for the doctrine of first sale: “first sale rule”, “exhaustion rule”, “right of first sale”. So what is it, and how does it affect you?

The first sale rule allows the purchaser of a CD or score (or other individual copy of a copyrighted work) to either sell or lend that copy to another person. So, if you buy the score of a string quartet, you can then resell it. You can also lend it to another person.

You can’t, however, make a copy of it to sell, or to keep when you sell the original. Any copy you may make is, of course, an illegal copy.

It also, in the case of scores/parts (although not CDs or other “phonorecords“), allows the original purchaser to rent his copy to others.


I buy a copy of the score to your most popular piano piece. A pianist I know wants to perform it, but can’t afford to buy it. So (because in this example I’m a bit of a dick), I rent it to him at a lower cost than if he were to buy it. I’ve just – legally – made a profit off of your copyrighted work. I’ve probably not made much, but it’s profit that you’re not legally entitled to. Not a huge deal in the long run, but there are instances when the first sale rule can start to chafe for some. (I’m not entirely sure that I mind this whole thing, but it’s absolutely worth knowing about.)

For example, Choir X buys 60 copies of one of your choral pieces so that they can perform it. A month later, Choir Y wants to perform it as well, so, rather than pay to buy it from you or your publisher, they rent it from Choir X instead. Choir X can rent your piece out to choir after choir, keeping you out of the income loop, and it’s completely within their right to do so. This is a fairly common occurrence, although it seems that more choirs are attempting to buy scores rather than rent them (I’d love to get some statistics on this, or at least feedback from choral staff). It’s also not unheard of in the concert band world. Orchestras do it less because they tend to rent their scores and parts directly from the publisher, and usually don’t buy.

And there’s the interesting point in all of this.

If you fear that copies of your scores will be rented out, and that your sales will suffer for it, your recourse is simply to not sell your scores/parts, but to rent them. Then, the terms of your rental agreement can prohibit the renter from sub-renting to other ensembles. Should you forget that particular provision, then be content in the knowledge that the renter would most likely have to sub-rent the piece at a higher rate than you are charging in order to make the whole thing worth their while, at which point it’s no longer worth the while of the sub-renter, because they can get it cheaper directly from you.

Also a possibility, is the idea of “permanent loan”, which I’ll cover in subsequent chapters on rental agreements.

In terms of practicality, I find the doctrine of first sale to be more academic than useful. But I know that there are composers who do worry about it. There are a lot of factors involved here in the sell vs. rent argument, and, like I said, I’ll cover it in later chapters.

Fair Use
Here’s a biggie. And I surely won’t be able to cover everything in this chapter. So: a quick overview.

Fair use was implemented in order to allow for discussion of copyrighted works, and to further – here’s that phrase again – “promote the Progress” yadda yadda yadda. How is science to further itself if one scientist refuting another’s published claim can’t quote the original in his own paper? How can a book or play be criticized, studied, reviewed, if the original text can’t be quoted? Imagine a TV news story reporting on a concert or musical or gallery opening that couldn’t display any portion of the event in the report – what would be the point?

There are also a LOT of misconceptions about what constitutes the fair use of a copyrighted work: educational use is always fair use; the 15-second limit; the 300-word limit; use by non-profits; the use is non-commercial; etc. There are a lot of instances when the use of some portion of a work is fair use. There are even more that are fuzzy.

My own personal opinion is: when in doubt, ask permission.

That said: it’s late, I’m nearing my 2000 word limit, and I have a mysteriously limping kitten that needs some love.

So let’s meet back here next week to talk in much greater detail on fair use. The week after, we’ll wrap up copyright with a discussion of Copyleft, and then we’ll move on to new territory.

So: what are your thoughts on using public domain texts, tunes, etc in y our work as opposed to more contemporary stuff? Do you have a preference? Let me know in the comments!

I write the Composer’s Guide here once a week, taking time away from my composing to do so. If this post helped you in any way, please leave a tip or a small donation on the way out. If you can’t afford to donate, please pass this chapter along to someone who you think might get some help from it.

And I really love to get feedback in the comments section, via email, and on Twitter – they really keep me going on this project.


The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Copyright Part 1

This week’s installment is part one in a multi-part series on copyright that I’ll be writing over the next few weeks. This week, I want to tackle the basic terminology and concepts behind copyright before moving on in subsequent weeks on ways that composers can and do leverage their copyrights to generate income; the benefits of registering your copyrights with the U.S. Copyright Office; practical concepts like public domain, fair use, the doctrine of first sale, and the “poor man’s copyright”; and the impact of the Copyleft movement. I’ve written briefly about copyright before on this blog, so I’ll be rehashing a bit of old territory, but I’ll be going into greater depth in this multi-part section.

Copyright is a bit of a difficult concept for most people to get their heads around, in large part because it centers on the idea of intellectual property – the ownership of creative ideas, or the expression of those ideas. Things get a little more confusing for composers in some areas. My father – a smart man – has asked on more than one occasion: “When someone commissions you, who owns the copyright?” The answer is, of course, me, but when a CPA with a successful, 30-year career is fuzzy on issues of copyright ownership, you know it’s not a simple subject.

So let’s start with a basic definition of copyright and work from there.

What is copyright?
Copyright is a term that refers to a group of rights granted to a creator – we’ll refer to him as an “author” from now on, understanding that for our purposes “author” is interchangeable with “composer” – with respect to his creative works. Those component rights are:

• The right to make copies of the work
• The right to distribute copies of the work
• The right to make adaptations of the work
• The right to publicly display or perform the work

The right to make copies of the work is pretty self-explanatory. The right to make copies – copyright – get it? Eh? Eh? Upon the creation of the work (specifically when the work is fixed in some tangible form, such as written or notated on paper, or recorded by means video or audio), the author is the only person allowed to make copies of her work. This simple beginning is the lynchpin on which copyright is secured. All other rights, as you may notice as we go along, flow from this first right.

The right to distribute the work means that the author may sell or give away any copies of the work that she has made, yet she still retains ownership of the work, and others are prohibited from distributing the work without the author’s permission. So, after writing your latest string quartet, you aren’t giving up your copyright when you sell a copy of the score, or give one away – you’re merely distributing the physical copy of the work. The right to make copies and the right to distribute the work, when combined, form the basis of the publishing industry.

The right to make adaptations – most commonly referred to as “derivative works” – means that the author may arrange or expand on the original work in other, separate works, barring others from doing the same without the author’s permission. It’s this right that allows J.K. Rowling to continue to write in the world of Harry Potter, and prohibits other writers from writing new Harry Potter stories without Ms. Rowling’s permission. Similarly, a composer may make an arrangement of his piano piece for orchestra or brass quintet or guitar, but another composer may not make arrangements of that same work without the original composer’s permission. This right ensures that the intellectual property that Ms. Rowling has gone to such time and effort to create isn’t usurped by another writer who can’t be bothered to come up with his own world to write in.

The right to publicly display or perform the work allows the author to hang his painting, produce his play, perform his music, or read his novel or poem in public – preferably for a fee – and prevents others from doing the same without the author’s permission. This right is where we get our performance royalties from – ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC have built an entire industry around this one right. Performances via audio or video are also covered under this right.

Now, reading all that, it may seem as though these rights are actually more restrictive than helpful, and maybe the Copyleft folks have it right – copyright only serves to restrict the freedom of speech and dissemination of information. Uh, no.

First, a word about the origins and purpose of copyright in the U.S. (my apologies to my non-U.S. readers – this is all U.S.-based discussion).

Copyright was seen as so important to our Founding Fathers that it was written into the body of the Constitution itself. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution reads: “The Congress shall have Power … To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries”. From this section comes the legal basis for copyright, patent, and trademark. Powerful little clause there, huh?

The basic purpose of copyright is to promote science and the arts by allowing authors to control the uses of their works. Imagine: if these rights weren’t protected by law, anyone could appropriate our work, slap their name on it, and not only call it their own, but attempt to make money from it. In such a world, what incentive is there to share our writings and scientific findings? (Let me point out here that copyright doesn’t extend to facts, but only to the individual expression of ideas. Consequently, writing a novel set in London doesn’t put London under copyright, only the particular story and characters expressed in the novel.) Obviously, there is a drive in many to share their work for the love of their art or the advancement of science, but the ability to generate income from that work is an even greater incentive to disseminate it. What better way to promote science and the arts than by allowing people to make a living at them?

And Free Speech, while a lovely banner to wave, isn’t an excuse to deprive artists of their right to control how their work is used and distributed. I’ve got a big section planned on Copyleft and these arguments, so let’s move on for now and get back to copyright basics.

You’ll notice that I used the word “permission” a lot in my explanations of the component rights of copyright. Permission is the key to what I often refer to as “leveraging copyright”. These permissions are called licenses, and are the basis for the entire music business.

By giving another person permission to arrange your string quartet for full orchestra, or sell copies of your score on your behalf, or publicly perform your music, you are granting them a limited license to exercise one of your rights as an author.

Licenses can be granted for any individual right or group of rights, for any length of time that you might specify in your agreement with the licensee. Licenses can be exclusive – i.e., only one licensee may exercise those rights for a period of time – or non-exclusive – multiple licensees may exercise the same right at the same time. Licenses are the basis for royalties, publishing agreements, recording contracts, you name it. Basically, anything that will earn you money from your music is due to a license on your copyright.

When you join a Performing Rights Organization (PRO), such as ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC, you authorize the organization to license performances for you – in other words, to act on your behalf in exercising your right to publicly perform your work. So when an ensemble wants to perform one of the works you have registered with your PRO, the organization authorizes those performances and collects the fees that it charges for the licenses. This type of license is a very limited license – it extends to specific performances, and no more. Any performances of that work that aren’t licensed by your PRO are unauthorized, and a violation of your copyright.

When you grant another composer permission to arrange one of your pieces, you are granting them a license to exercise your right to create a derivative work. Any derivative work here, by the way, has its own copyright, which is now split between you, as the original author, and the arranger, as the author of the arrangement.

When a piece of yours is recorded, you’ll have a mechanical licensing agreement (and you should be paid a licensing fee). When that recording is broadcast, the broadcast is licensed, and you receive a royalty. When a piece of yours is used in a film, TV show, or commercial, the filmmaker etc will have to secure a synchronization license, for which a fee and/or royalty is paid to you.
If a piece of yours is recorded multiple times, you’ll be paid a compulsory license royalty.

All these opportunities for income – however big or small – are because of licenses.

While licenses are for individual rights or groups of rights, an assignment is a little different. When you assign your rights to another person or a company, you give them all of your rights to a particular work, typically for the life of the copyright (we’ll get to that).

In the concert music publishing world, a composer typically assigns his rights to his publisher. He forfeits his rights to the work, and the publisher becomes the effective “author”. In exchange for this assignment of rights, the publisher then pays the composer a percentage – typically 10% – of its gross sales for that score. (Now, I have a lot of thoughts about this, as y’all may know, so obviously stay tuned for the posts I’ll have on Publishing and Self-publishing later in the Guide.)

Duration of Copyright
Works don’t stay protected by copyright forever. There’s an expiration date for each work’s copyright. Because U.S. copyright law has changed several times in the past century, most notably to extend the duration of copyright, it can be a little confusing when it comes to knowing what is still protected by copyright and what is in the public domain. Unfortunately, there’s not always an easy answer to this. It’s almost always easier to determine whether a work is still protected under copyright than to determine if it’s not.

For works written as of January 1, 1978, the duration of copyright in the U.S. is the life of the author plus 70 years. So for your own works, you’re fine until you die, and then some.

But when quoting or sampling other works, be careful and be educated.

Quotation / Sampling / Text Setting
Before I sign off for the week, I’ll touch on one final thing. Not exactly a copyright basic, but it ties in nicely with licenses.

If you find that you absolutely need to quote or sample another work whose copyright is held by someone other than yourself, you’ll end up licensing that portion of the original work. Likewise, if you set a text that isn’t in the public domain, you’ll end up licensing it from the publisher or author. Don’t play it fast and loose – just ask for permission. And if you don’t get it, move on. We’ll talk more about securing permissions in coming weeks, though in the meantime, ASCAP has some good resources for this very topic.

On that note, I bid you a fond farewell. Next week we’ll continue with more copyright! Yay!

Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer, and these posts shouldn’t be interpreted as legal advice. They’re my interpretations and opinions. If you have specific questions about copyright, I highly recommend Nolo’s excellent publications on the subject, or consulting an intellectual properties lawyer. If you think you may be the subject of copyright infringement, absolutely consult a lawyer.

I write the Composer’s Guide here once a week, taking time away from my composing to do so. If you find value in this blog, please do leave a tip or a small donation on the way out. Thanks!