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Advice for the Emerging Composer: Publishing, With Guest Blogger John Mackey

January 31, 2011 at 9:22 pm UTC

John Mackey and I have known each other for 15 years. We both began our Master’s degrees at Juilliard together, both studied with John Corigliano, and we sat next to each other in the best and most terrifying class I’ve ever taken, Theory & Ear Training, with Ms. Mary Anthony Cox. Over the years, John has built an incredible career as a composer and conductor, and even more impressive, he has continued to self-publish (and own) everything he writes. He is hugely in demand as both a composer and a guest speaker, and he maintains a terrific blog.

I’ve asked him if I could reprint one of his blog postings about self-publishing; I think it will help us kick off a lively discussion here. There are so many pros and cons to self-publishing and traditional publishing; over the next few months we will explore all of them.

Music Publishing, by John Mackey

When I talk to composers who are still in college, a lot of them are of the belief that the big goal for a composer is to become published.  “How did you get your first piece published?” they want to know.  “I want to publish my new percussion ensemble piece.  Where should I send it?”  Oh man, what a kettle-o-fish this is.  I tend to be overly opinionated when I speak to student composers about anything, and I’m worse about this topic than just about any other. Below is what I tell them.  This post is going to be mega-wonky, and if you’re not interested in the business side of being a composer (or you think “business” and “composer” should never go in the same sentence together), you should skip this entry.

When I was really young — high school age — I thought it would be amazing to be published. My dream was to be published by G. Schirmer, because that was Samuel Barber‘s publisher, and Barber was my favorite composer. (They currently publish John Corigliano — my teacher at Juilliard — Bright Sheng, Tan Dun (one of my favorite composers), David Lang, and their various divisions handle Eric Whitacre, the young composer Nico Muhly… the list goes on and on.) I figured that if I could be published by Schirmer some day, their stamp of legitimacy would mean that I was a Real Composer, and people would climb over each other to play my music! It was a perfect plan!

I never actually submitted any material to Schirmer, though, or to any other publisher. When I was 19, I got a commission to write an orchestra piece for the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra, and I learned that if I joined a performance rights organization like ASCAP, I could collect performance royalties for that performance. But here’s the thing… If you have a performance that is licensed by ASCAP (just about every live music performance of “classical” music is licensed — and therefore paid), the composer gets 50% of that performance royalty. Who gets the other 50%? The publisher.

I didn’t want 50% of the performance earnings go into the ether since I wasn’t published, so I registered a publishing company with ASCAP — Osti Music. (I came up with the name “Osti Music” because when I first sent music to John Corigliano, he complained that my music had way too many ostinatos, or, repeated phrases. Clearly, not much has changed.) I became both a writer and publisher member of ASCAP, and I copyrighted that first orchestra piece with the Library of Congress under the publisher name Osti Music. Eventually I got an ASCAP check for the performance royalties for that premiere performance — my writer royalty check. Then, a few weeks later, I got another (equally tiny) check, for the same amount — my publisher check.

This is an important thing to remember: a publisher gets 50% of just about everything (not just performance royalties — they get half of CD royalties, half of DVD royalties, half of music rental fees, and half of all license fees, like marching band licenses), and they own the copyright. The composer does not own the copyright; the publisher does. That means the publisher controls all of the rights for the music. Yes, they give half of the earnings to the composer, but they also call the shots.

Let’s say that you write a piece that’s very personal to you — for the sake of this example, we’ll say it’s a choral piece that you wrote for a close friend. Your publisher, who owns the copyright, is contacted by disgraced beauty queen and breast-implant recipient Carrie Prejean, who, fresh from her successful performance at the Del Mar Racetrack, has decided to record an album about the evils of the homosexual lifestyle, and has requested permission to sample your choral piece in her first single.  Your publisher, seeing dollar signs, agrees. You, who are so liberal that you think even straight people should have to get gay married (if nothing else because the weddings would be FABulous!!!), are horrified — but powerless, because you don’t own the copyright. If you self-published your choral piece, though, you could prevent this.

What does a publisher do for you? I mean, what do you get for that 50% that they keep? It depends on lots of things, like the size of the publisher, and the number of composers they represent. (It goes to reason that if a publisher handles a lot of composers, not everybody will get the same amount of attention.  If you publish only only one person — yourself — there’s no shortage of attention.)  A major publisher who is enthusiastic about one of their composers can definitely help that composer to gain exposure and potentially help to secure performances. The publisher can pick up the phone, call the Artistic Administrator of the Chicago Symphony, and say, “we have a great new piece by Jonathan Newman. You guys should give it a look” — and the orchestra might actually give the piece a look. If I, on the other hand, send a piece to the Chicago Symphony, they won’t care. (Trust me; I’ve tried it.  But that touches on the whole “band vs. orchestra” thing that I’ve blogged about before.)  Orchestras get stacks of unsolicited pieces every year. Why would they look at a piece by a composer they haven’t heard of, particularly when they play essentially no music by living composers anyway? There’s something to be said for having a trusted middle man like a major publisher. Publishers also negotiate contracts (commission contracts, license fees, etc.) and maybe most importantly, they print the music and get it into the hands of retailers and performers.

The Internets have made a lot of this very easy to do on your own, and I would argue that with a lot of work and some luck, you can do fine professionally, and much better financially, without a publisher. Can you put up a website with score and audio samples? Yes, and that’s already more than most publishers would do for you. Can you attend music conventions and promote yourself and your music? Again, yes, and since you only have yourself to promote, you can do this more efficiently than a publisher who is at the convention pushing 60 different composers.

Can you print the music yourself? Of course you can. I still print every “Strange Humors” score, and all of the sets of my chamber music, myself. It’s a hassle to print each set, then fold those parts in half, then staple them, then ship them, but here’s the difference: publishers keep 50% of royalties, but if a composer is published and the printed music is sold, the composer will see 10% of the retail price.

I’ll say that again. If you are a published composer, you keep 10% of the list price on a set of music. When I told this to somebody in Hollywood once, the reaction was, “wait, that’s backwards. The agent gets 10%; you get 90%.” Not in music publishing. A very established composer might get a great deal and see 12% or maybe even 15%, but that’s unusual. Granted, the publisher doesn’t get all of the other 90%. The music store keeps 40-50% of it.  But the fact is that if you publish a piece through a standard publisher and the retail price is $10, the music store gets $5, the publisher gets $4, and the composer receives $1.  But if you’re self published and you sell the sheet music directly (rather than through a music store), you get the full $10. Even if you sell it through a music store, you’ll see $5, which even by my music-school-level math education, is better than $1.

Is that difference of 400%-900% worth the time it takes to print, fold, staple, and mail a set of parts? To me, the answer is yes, but to a lot of composers, the answer is no. All of this takes a lot of time, and a lot of composers, understandably, would rather just compose and not worry about the business aspect of it.  They just want to write the music, give it to a publisher, and not think about it anymore, and whatever income they collect, no matter the amount, is just a nice bonus.  Most of those composers probably have other jobs — like teaching — or wealthy families to make that possible. I like to think of it like I also have a “day job,” and my day job is publishing my own music.

The biggest challenge is running the business side and still finding time to do the most important part, which is to write the music itself. Speaking of that — I have some work to do.


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