About two weeks ago, I finished up another of the many temp jobs I’ve had. The end of this particular day job was a little unexpected, so the typical anxiety attendant at the end of a bout of gainful employment was considerably magnified – doubly so thanks to my financial worries over the past year. As usual, I started to worry about where my next paycheck would come from (truth be told, I’m still worrying about that).

Then I happened to read a Wikipedia article about a web comic that I particularly like (Overcompensating.com). I didn’t learn anything that I didn’t already know, but the story of the artist’s merchandising company mixed with my worry and desperation, and sparked a new idea based on an idea that I’ve been idly toying with for years.

In 2006, around the time that Jeff Algera and I formed our concert series, I started thinking about starting a small publishing company. Something akin to the Cos Cob Press. I would publish works by young and emerging composers. I did a lot of research into startup costs and general overhead costs for such an endeavor, and decided that there was no way that I could make it work without suddenly winning the lottery or coming into a large inheritance. So, I set the idea aside, and I sigh over it every so often.

Since 2006, I’ve made some significant steps in selling my own music. I set up my ASCAP Publisher account, I put together a system of identifying codes for my works, and I started the Tobenski Music Press online store on my website. The thing that I’ve not managed to do is to get people to the site to buy scores. That’s the problem – generating traffic. I’d spent a surprising amount of time during the last week of that job thinking about how to bring traffic to my site, but, while I’d come up with a few potential promotional ideas, I didn’t have a long-term solution.

What I needed was distribution.

And that’s where “Overcompensating” came into the equation. When Jeffrey Rowland – the creator of “Overcompensating” and the founder of TopatoCo (the merchandising company) – started doing merchandise for other web comics, he quickly became the one of the biggest distributors of web comic merchandise. So, why shouldn’t I do the same for concert music and start a distribution company?

The idea percolated for the remainder of the work day, then my brain went into overdrive as I walked the 4.5 miles from the office to my boyfriend’s apartment. By the end of that hour-and-a-half walk, I’d come up with the basic business model and fee structure, and pared the idea down to its essentials. At first, I thought it would be feasible to sell bound scores, but too many questions got brought up, and the idea was dependent on too many variables: who prints/binds/mails the scores? If I mail them, do I have to have them printed and bound, as well, or do the composers send me copies in advance? If the former, then the fee structure depends on the specifics of the score (number of pages, size of pages, special printing needs, weight of the bound score); if the latter, then I don’t have enough space in my apartment to act as a warehouse – I barely have enough space for me, and I can’t afford a separate storage or office space. Maybe when there’s a sale, I send the money to the composer, who then prints and mails the score to the customer, in which case, I’m dependent on every composer to be a) completely honest, and b) not a flake; otherwise, my business is made to look bad.

In the end, I decided on purely digital distribution of PDF scores. If that goes well, I can add MP3 recordings in about a year, and then start distributing bound scores as well in about 5 years.

Then started the beginning of the actual work – I needed to make the website, and get it running. I quickly found a lot of open source shopping cart software that was very trustworthy, but settled on OpenCart because of its general layout and the ease with which it could be modified. It took me a week to learn the basics of the software and how to bend it to my purposes. The site was officially live exactly a week after I’d had the original idea for the company.

I really think that this could be the “next big thing” for concert music sales.

As it stands, composers’ works are either published by a major publishing house like Boosey & Hawkes or G. Schirmer or Edition Peters, etc, or composers publish their own works. Those whose works are published through a major publisher automaticlaly get distribution through that publisher’s established channels. Those who self-publish have next to no distribution. We may sell our scores on our own websites, or we may find a way to shoehorn our scores into a site that doesn’t cater to musicians. Regardless, the only way to find our works is to actively look for them. You have to know who Dennis Tobenski is before you can go traipsing off to buy my scores. Granted, you could stumble across my site by accident, but that isn’t a long-term solution to getting exposure for my scores.

NewMusicShelf.com offers a central location for scores by self-published composers. A one-stop shop, if you will. Ideally, performers and other buyers of new music scores will know of the site and go there to look for new works, and they needn’t have a specific composer in mind when they arrive.

Also, the inventory will be very dynamic – as new composers sign up, their catalogs will be added to the site, and composers already selling their scores there will continue to create new works. The site is not dependent on the production schedules of publishing houses, only on the output of the composers who sell their works there.

I’ve spent the last week drumming up interest in the site and preparing for what I hope will be an onslaught of submissions and purchases. It’s an interesting exercise writing FAQs and Returns Policies. I’ve been trying to anticipate most questions and situations, which I know is impossible. But it’s definitely caused me to refine my ideas about the site and the business.

The response so far has been incredibly positive. Quite a number of composers are very excited about the site, and are currently pulling together their scores and accompanying information. And the performers I’ve talked to love the idea because it means a wider base of repertoire for them to draw from.

Obviously, I’m very excited!

Check it out!