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.


Response Part 2

After I posted here the other day about my comment at the J.W. Pepper blog, there was a fun and lively conversation on Twitter about self-publishing. Those that were involved generally seemed to be of the opinion that they’d much rather go the route of self-publishing because of the level of control that it affords them, as well as the higher royalty rate and the fact that they keep all of their rights.

The next morning, my comment was approved, and the composer/blogger who wrote the original post responded. Unfortunately, his response didn’t really address any of the points that I made, and instead continued to plug the legacy publishing system without offering any support for why he thinks it’s a good idea. Here is his response (which you can also find here):

Dear Dennis,
Thanks for your response to my article. I’m not surprised by your comments, and I can see where you’re coming from. No question, great music deserves to be published, recognized, and performed, and I know it can be extremely difficult, or impossible, to find an established publisher that considers the work to be a profitable investment. But, when I see self-published music that does have the attributes of a profitable publishing investment, I like to encourage the writers of those works to go the route of commercial publishing. I realize that in some cases self-publishing might be the composer’s only reasonable alternative.

And here is my lengthy response:

I still completely fail to see the benefits of going the route of legacy publishing (if you want to know why I use the word “legacy”, Google the phrase “legacy system“).

First, I have to give up *all* rights to my creative efforts. I give away my copyright, and all claim I have to the piece I just spent days, weeks, or months writing, to a corporate entity with no real stake in its success or failure.

I can’t even write an arrangement of that piece anymore without asking the permission of my publisher. I wrote it, and they own it now. In exchange for what? I have absolutely no say in cover design, pricing, distribution or marketing methods, or whether or not my piece actually makes it to print. A publisher has zero obligation to actually put the piece into print once the contract is signed – they own it, they can do with it what they will. And unless it’s stipulated in the contract, they don’t have to create parts (another horror visited upon one of my friends – he wrote a piano trio, which was published by one of the big houses, yet they never made parts; instead, the score is sold in sets of three for over $100 – it’s never been bought, ever, and it’s been sitting in a warehouse since the mid-’80s). If a particular piece turns out to have been a “bad investment”, then it’s just left on the shelf, and no further effort is put into promotion. And if they decide to license the work for a cause that I find completely abhorrent – oh, well – they own it, and can do with it what they will.

So: I lose all claims to the piece, and have no control over its uses. Fun!

Editorially, there’s not much benefit. Publishers are now requiring composers to engrave their works themselves or at their own expense.

Monetarily, I’m entitled to royalties, but royalties are net of all expenses incurred by the publisher. But what expenses exactly? That’s a good question, and one you’ll never get a publisher to answer with any level of specificity. Salaries of the marketing / legal / art / editorial staff? Rent for their offices? Pencils / paper / office supplies? All are needed to sell my piece, but not all are direct expenses, especially once the piece is printed and on the shelf of some warehouse. However, the accounting departments of publishing houses are quite creative places, and any expense can be used to justify keeping a little more of the pie. Generally, though, in the end I’m left with a royalty of around 10%. Plus, if the piece is ever commercially recorded, the publisher banks the bulk of the recording royalties, as well. Good luck paying your mortgage with that!

And the fun continues! Brick and mortar music stores are essentially off-limits to concert music composers. Patelson’s shut down years ago; the two music shops in my hometown don’t stock concert music, except the Czerny exercises and some beginner piano stuff; and the music shop in the town where I went to college – there were two big schools in town that both had good music programs – didn’t stock anything written after “Mikrokosmos”. Brick and mortar stores are mostly around for instrument sales and rentals, or to peddle the Glee songbook.

Promotion is one of your big reasons for working with a legacy publisher, but again I have to ask: what can a big publisher do that I can’t? I’ve not seen much of this promotional muscle you mentioned, and I do enjoy buying scores and looking for new works to perform – both for myself as a vocalist, and as a concert presenter. In fact, I couldn’t tell you a single new thing that any of the major publishers have picked up in the past few years. I know that Boosey represents Du Yun, but only because I read it on Twitter. Beyond that, I, as a consumer of concert music, have not been marketed to. At all.

And if Twitter is the best promotional tool at the disposal of the big publishing houses, then I should point out that it’s one of the promotional tools at my disposal, too. I have slightly over a quarter of the number of followers that Boosey has, half of Schott, nearly as many as G Schirmer and Peters, and almost two and a half times as many as Subito. If this is the future of concert music promotion, then I’m playing with the big boys.

Ok, yes, the publishers have an easier time going to conventions, and have more clout with the major orchestras. But what’s to stop me from banding together with some of my composer friends, renting a booth at one of these conventions, and marketing our works directly? Just by being there, we’ve gained some name recognition, and we can market our works directly to performers and directors – much more passionately and personally than a publisher could do.

A publisher is interested in making sales. Any sales. They have no interest in the individual welfare of their composers. Individuals who work for a publisher may take an interest, but the corporation itself is interested in one thing only: maximizing profits and minimizing risk/loss. And to romanticize the role of the publisher is, frankly, silly. A publisher is a business partner, not a friend, and should not be a source of artistic validation. The gatekeeperism inherent in the system has been romanticized to a degree that has crippled countless composers’ careers. My works are only valid or good if some faceless corporation says they are? I’m sorry, no, my works are valid and good because I stand behind them, because performers enjoy presenting them, and because audiences enjoy hearing them.

While you didn’t really address any of my points in your response, this idea seems to be at the center of it: composers who are good enough should get a publisher (*snap*, get one, just like that), and those that aren’t good enough, well, self-publishing is a reasonable alternative whose relative obscurity won’t get in the way of works that have been vetted by the sales department of X Publishing.

There are a lot of composers who are very successful, and who self-publish their works. Most notably, of course, is Jennifer Higdon, who I think it’s safe to say is good enough to get a publisher if she wanted. And she has some pretty interesting things to say on the nature of publishing and self-publishing at the NewMusicBox. That a composer as successful and respected as Ms. Higdon should consider the idea of giving her rights to a legacy publisher to be “absurd”, I think is very telling.

Meanwhile, I’m making sales this week and pocketing 92% of the cover price (these are digital sales). That’s a royalty rate that no publisher could ever offer. And while my score sales aren’t going to be paying my rent (yet), I’ve covered my web hosting fees for the month (read: I’ve recouped my marketing expenses). I made those sales the way that composers have been making sales for ages: one person heard me perform one of my own song cycles with the American Opera Projects recently, and the other is filling out a series of recitals and found me by Googling a phrase that is particularly pertinent to me and my music.

And unlike with a legacy publisher, I’m creating a personal relationship with both – I’m thankful for their support and for the fact that they enjoy my music; and in creating this relationship, I’m hopefully paving the way for new collaborations or commissions or score sales. With a legacy publisher, there’s a monolithic wall between the composer and the score buyer that discourages such a personal connection. Had either person I mentioned bought my music through a legacy publisher, I wouldn’t know it, they wouldn’t know me, and there would be no way to know that there are already plans to perform those song cycles in various parts of the country.

One final point, and then I’ll stop typing for now.

Author Kristine Kathryn Rusch ( has been making some great arguments in favor of self-publishing for writers (as have Dean Wesley Smith and Joe Konrath, whose blogs I encourage everyone to check out), and while there are some qualitative and quantitative differences between the book publishing world and the concert music publishing world, certain tenets hold true across the board. I’m not completely against legacy publishing, but I don’t think it’s a very good *business* decision at this point in time. (As I said before, I’m much more interested distribution at this point, which doesn’t require a publisher.) And that’s the heart of my argument – every decision a composer makes regarding her scores and their uses should be sound business decisions. I’m not speaking of artistic choices, which are entirely separate – it’s after the artistic choices have been made, we must be savvy in the way we approach our careers. So I’ll end with a quote from Ms. Rusch’s blog, substituting “Composer” for “Writer”:

Composers Are Responsible For Their Own Careers.
Composers Are Professionals.
Composers Are In Business, And Should Behave Like Business People.

As always, thoughts and responses are welcome in the comments section!