I’m sure you’ve read about the evils of publishing companies, record labels, and the music industry at large. I recently came across some posts which made me wonder, is the common perception of publishers that they are opportunists? I was shocked anyone would see what I do as taking advantage of my fellow composers rather than a vital service to the field. Publishing isn’t a lucrative business, it’s a passion project we pursue to advocate for the music we love.
I can’t speak for other companies as I have little dealings with them and don’t presume to know how they do business, but I can share the main reasons we are an indispensable part of composers’ professional lives and why conductors need publishers too.
“Oh, you don’t want to perform my music, it’s not very good” said no composer ever.
This is, by far, the single most important part of what I do as a publisher. I deal with a ton of unsolicited music submissions and it takes a huge amount of time to separate the wheat from the chaff. Sure, not everyone likes the music we pick, but conductors whose tastes align with our own know they have a place to find something they’ll love.
It’s especially crucial when dealing with new music. A composer’s name istheir brand; how can you get your foot in the door if you’re barely known? New music publishers willing to take on up-and-coming talent are a vital discovery tool. With the right curator, you get a resource like Saturday Night Live for comedians, a brand you can trust that will showcase great unknown artists so you get to know the next generation of composers.
This is the other biggie. I don’t mind sharing that a full 80% of expenditures for See-A-Dot Music in the last year were for marketing. My experience tells me most composers don’t have an extensive budget set aside for getting their music out there. One of my more industrious composers recently mentioned one of her pieces was doing very well because it had a handful of performances. I think it’s a good start; but I want to see 10x as many, and with a global outreach and dedicated budget, that’s totally possible.
It’s not about the money we spend on promotion, it’s also time. It takes our marketing team countless hours to send newsletters, design catalogs, update social media, make promo videos, and all that other marketing stuff. Most composers I know have day jobs and compose in their spare time, they don’t have time for the awkwardness of self-promotion. One composer referred to the divide between her ‘immortal work’ of music creation vs. ‘the mundane crap’ of music business. It’s no surprise how most people prefer to spend their free time.
Shoddy (or non-existent) websites, illegible scores, and poor communication/organizational skills are not uncommon plights of dealing with artistic genius. As a conductor I’ll hear a piece and search for it online, but will be unable to find it available anywhere; sometimes I can barely find information about the composer. One of the things I see publishers do is make sure every composer has their own page, that all pieces are available on-line, and professionally engraved. We follow up with every conductor who buys a score from us, respond promptly to emails, and offer rehearsal resources. This is huge for conductors, and it helps composers present themselves in the best possible light as well.
Of course, modern technology makes a lot of the above available to anybody. These aren’t secret tools exclusive to publishers, but the ability to manage it all and make it work and look great is our specialty.
A lot of what we do is build good relationships with conductors getting to know their individual ensembles to send the right kind of music their way. People we meet at conferences can attest: we are always asking about their choirs, what they like to sing, if they have themes for their upcoming concerts, and their level of expertise. We recommend specific repertoire that fits their group and match them with the right composer when they are interested in commissions. Building relationships is core to what we do and it’s invaluable to both conductors and composers.
It’s not just ensemble leaders, part of a publisher’s job is to connect with other key programmers as well, like festival organizers, who rely on a publisher’s curation to make their jobs easier. Publishers can open the door for composer who are starting out, or connect them in areas (like overseas) they might not have otherwise reached.
I recently had a conversation with one career composer in his mid-50’s who, until joining the See-A-Dot Music roster, had never published his work. He has many recordings, tons of commissions, and at least one master-piece that will be seminal to the canon of contemporary music. He shared with me his concerns about his music becoming lost after he passes away and wanted to find a way to keep his work alive years down the road; until recently he hadn’t thought beyond how to make a living.
This struck me with a deep sense of personal responsibility and the most intimate part of what I do. There’s a profound trust between myself and the composers that I will make sure their life’s work isn’t forgotten and it receives the legacy it deserves. It’s a great honor to work with these artists, one we don’t take lightly.