Pricing: The Goldilocks Zone

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be cross-posting a series of short essays that I wrote at the NewMusicShelf about self-publishing and making good financial decisions as an artist.

When I’ve talked to other composers about self-publishing and selling their own works, one of the most consistent stumbling blocks is the issue of pricing. It can be very difficult to evaluate whether a given price is too high or too low.

The worry is that if a score is priced too high, no one will want to shell out the money because it’s too expensive, and consequently won’t buy it; but if it’s priced too low, people may think it must not be any good, and they still won’t buy it. Also, pricing a score on the lower end of the spectrum gives a smaller return to the composer, which may be undesirable because of all of the time and effort that went into composing the piece and engraving the score; but pricing on the higher end of the spectrum, while maybe “fairer” to the composer considering his efforts, may still turn people off, thus depriving him of any income at all.

It’s a difficult situation.

An element that adds to the confusion is what we might consider to be the pricing “standards” set by currently available scores that are published by the big music publishing houses. Let’s take for example two song cycles of roughly equal duration, difficulty, and quality. A major publisher will charge upwards of $20 where I would probably ask for $7. The major difference is that they have to charge that much because they have a much higher per-score production cost than I do – they have editors, engravers, marketing, art, and legal departments to pay; not to mention the costs of printing and materials. And while more publishers are doing print-on-demand, it’s much less efficient and cost-effective than printing a larger run of scores. So, like any business, they’re going to pass the added expense onto the consumer. Again, they have to charge more to stay in business.

I think that we shouldn’t be pricing our scores in a similar range as those that are traditionally published. I think, instead, that we should be competing – and you don’t compete by charging the same as your competitor. By which I don’t mean that we should adopt the Always-The-Lowest-Price, cut-throat, Wal-mart-style approach to slashing prices maniacally and attempting to drive out all other business. I mean instead that we aren’t burdened by anywhere near the overhead costs as traditional publishers, so we have the luxury of pricing accordingly. Plus, even when pricing my song cycle at $7, I can expect a much higher return than had it been sold at $20 by a traditional publisher (especially if I’m selling digital copies, where there are no printing or other overhead costs).

Personally, although I like buying new scores, I find most traditionally published scores to be prohibitively expensive. I just can’t afford them. Consequently, I take myself as a model customer. If I were looking for new material to perform, or at least to consider performing, what price range would I find most comfortable and inviting? Is that price range fair to the composer given the length and instrumentation of the piece?

Unlike the world of novels, where standardized pricing is the norm and sales expectations are much higher, we have a much tougher row to hoe, I think. One current argument in the book world is for ebooks to be priced at $2.99. Another argument is for a tiered method. We don’t have the luxury of such clear delineation of categories as is required by the tiered pricing method – we have to balance duration, instrumentation, and (potentially) difficulty in our pricing decisions. We also have the question of whether or not to sell parts bundled with a score or separately, and how to price those.

I like the sentiment behind the current arguments for ebook pricing: encourage sales and foster long-term growth through affordability. Simple, really. We certainly can’t expect the sheer number of sales that a successful novel can generate, but we can definitely encourage more performers to take a chance on our music by making it affordable. Affordable without underselling yourself.

I think it’s a much easier task when you stop trying to assign Monetary Worth to your works, and start thinking in terms of affordability, fairness, and long-term growth.