For all you composers big and small who still think that a big publisher contract is the bee’s knees: composer John Mackey blogs in a nicely lucid way about why the deal is nowhere near as good as the dream, and how you can and should be taking control of the full fruit of your labor. This is stuff that, to me, is every bit as fundamental to a young composer as learning I-IV-V-I (& maybe more, these days). Yet it’s rare that we ever see a “Basic Music Business 101″ course — not the first year, not the fourth, not even the sixth or eighth.

14 Responses to “The ($ mostly $) joy of self-publishing”
  1. I’m not so sure that’s true about the Basic Music Business courses, Steve. I took one as a grad student back in the early 80s. We have a required 3rd year course in Career Development here at UNCSA, and several grad electives as well. Used to be something that nobody talked about, but most major conservatories have it in their curricula these days.

  2. Christian says:

    This is an excellent summary of the virtues of self-publishing, although it omits one thing. Some composers may be required to find a publisher for professional advancement purposes: for instance, to achieve promotion and tenure in an academic setting.

  3. Steve Layton says:

    It’s great you got one, Lawrence, and I’m sure many larger programs have caught up with the times. But I still have a sneaking suspicion that there are a *lot* of institutions that don’t treat this much if at all. The mere fact that Mackey has to disabuse so many students of their fantasy, and what I’ve seen from my own many composer acquaintances, tells me it’s not very consistently addressed.

    And Christian, the idea that you’d *have* to find a publisher for advancement seems a sure sign of an institutional mentality stuck in the middle of last century. Like a lot of awards & etc., these aren’t so much significant accomplishments, as they are hoops to jump through in a dog-and-pony show.

  4. Steve Layton says:

    And by happy coincidence Molly Sheridan, Alex Shapiro & who-knows-who-else-joins-the-party are discussing very closely related things over at Molly’s “Mind the Gap” blog:

    http://www.artsjournal.com/gap/2009/07/blogger-book-club-iii-selling.html

  5. Thanks for the link, Steve.

    This party is an open house, so come on down! We’re chatting about Tara Hunt’s The Whuffie Factor (yeah, I didn’t know what that was at first either) and about “social networking meets your career in the arts” in general. Alex is blowing our minds with stories of her composerly experiences online and schooling us on how it’s done.

  6. Rusty Banks says:

    This is pretty conventional wisdom now. Our audiences are so targeted that there’s not a lot to gain from traditional publishers, unless you write very conventional pieces for large educational ensembles. Most composers I know published a piece or two, then never again. I give this spiel in my bidness classes and every composer that comes on campus says the same thing.

    The real thing is distribution…

  7. I had members of a promotion and tenure committee tell me that if all I wanted to do was self-publish then maybe I shouldn’t be a faculty member at that institution. You know what? I’m not at that institution anymore (my choice).

    I did contact a publisher recently who actually told me that I should consider self-publishing instead (which I already do).

  8. Rusty Banks says:

    Yeah, it is too bad universities are like that. I think performances of the works should count a lot more than weather or not they’re published. They seem to miss that the parallels between music and other fields break down at the publishing level (peer-review vs. business model). A piece I wrote a while back is about to be published, and the institution I do some work for will be thrilled. It was actually just a concession I made as part of a larger commissioning deal. Later, however, I was able to negotiate keeping all the performance royalties, handing over only the rights for sheet music.

  9. Paul H. Muller says:

    Rusty -

    Obvious solution: Start a publishing company – make it look really serious – and publish work by aspiring academics. Looks like it would fill a real need. It could be funded by anonymous contributions so it wouldn’t have to actually sell anything…

  10. Rusty Banks says:

    I dunno, I can’t even spell “whether” correctly. Not sure I’m the one to help out the academic guys. :-p

    I’ll have to get a lot better at editing to start a publishing company:-)

    An idea I’ve had for a while is a non-profit publishing collective of composers. The scores would be free, and distributed only online. Composers would be compensated by performance royalties. (Other than choral guys, have any serious composers ever made bank on sheet music sales?).

    Add juried selection to that and BAM! useful to academia. Have some big names in the selection process and limit it to 100 selections a year (which also makes targeted marketing easier).

  11. Rusty Banks says:

    Also want to note that I don’t mean any of this as an attack on the publishing industry. I know some great guys in that field, and it’s tough for them now. Publishers’ role definitely need re-defining, and many of them are working on that. But for a lot of us, self-pub is the best deal…

  12. Eric Wendoloski says:

    Is your idea of making a non-profit company with free online distribution your way of eliminating any issues with free downloading sites such as Limewire or torrents?

  13. Rusty, your idea sounds a bit like http://www.thatnewmusicwebsite.com/index.html

    Anyone do much with them?

  14. Rusty Banks says:

    Eric: It’s really not a way to address that, it’s just that composers usually don’t make that much on sheet music sales, they make more on royalties. If distributing free got you a few more performances, that would make up for not getting sheet music sales, and cuts the cost of “printing” the score. If you want to make money of the actual paper product (fakebooks, anthologies) then torrents are killing you right now. For most of us, it doesn’t really matter. People not reporting to BMI/ASCAP is a way bigger leakage for us “gigging” composers.

    Jay: Yeah, there are some awesome sites like that, and sites like that would serve non-academics best. The main criterion is good type-setting, ensuring a lot of people have distribution and style biases aren’t so much of a factor.

    The only difference in my suggestion for academics is having a high-profile panel pick only set number of submission for publication, and entirely on artistic merit (as decided by that committee). This would make it useful to academics seeking tenure/promotion in that it is “juried.” Not the kind of stuff that excites me all that much, but it seems there is a need.

    This is not to be “instead of” sites like thatnewmusicwebsite but one with a narrower and more competitive focus.

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