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):
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 (www.kriswrites.com) 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!