The answer, of course, is to publish! As a composer, you are sitting on a collection of potentially money-making assets and it is in your best interest to make them available to the public. The real question is whether or not you should self-publish or find a company to publish your music instead.
To answer this question, it helps to understand what publishing entails so you know what characteristics you might look for in a potential third-party publisher, or what to expect if you are going to do the work yourself. The functions of a publisher are numerous, and to do it well can be expensive and time-consuming. Here are the 5 most important jobs for a publisher, and a self-publishing composer should be comfortable with taking on these tasks. Having a publisher means not having to worry about this administrative work, but it also means giving up some income and rights in exchange for these services.
This has, traditionally, not been a publisher’s job (though the web has changed this). Instead, publishers partner with music retailers to distribute their catalogs and get music into the hands of performers and conductors. While this relationship still exists, there are a number of retail opportunities for self-published composers, mostly online. Some of the biggest retailers, like JW Pepper and SheetMusicPlus, have options for the self-published. New niche marketplaces, like MusicSpoke and Swirly Music, exist solely to serve composers in this capacity. All retailers take a percentage of sales, so you might consider selling on your own site if you have the technical know-how. On the other hand, if you’re already giving up a percentage of sales you may consider working with a publisher since they’ll have access to additional retailers, potentially worldwide, and the increase in sold copies might balance out the smaller percentage you’ll receive from each sale. Wider distribution and marketing efforts are big bonuses to working with a publisher rather than a single retailer, and can ultimately lead to more commissions, which is where most composerly money comes from anyway.
Branding and Curation
For composers, their name is their brand. When we hear Debussy, Philip Glass, or Beyoncé, a certain kind of musical aesthetic immediately comes to mind. When a well-known composer is commissioned to write a piece, there are certain expectations of what it will sound like. Good publishers should also have a reputation for a certain kind of music. Maybe it’s pop arrangements, or songs influenced by world music, but they offer a certain level of curation and branding for all the pieces in their catalog. For up-and-coming composers, association with an existing brand that is aligned with your interests and style can be extremely helpful. If, however, you are a bit more established in the field and have your own branding you might want to self-publish.
Speaking of time, marketing is the biggest function of a good publisher and is both expensive and time consuming to do well. A good publisher is letting the right kinds of performers/conductors know that you and your piece exist, and that they should want it. This is done a number of different ways. Often, publishers are printing and sending out sample recordings and scores, hosting exhibition booths at conferences, running reading sessions, sending newsletters, etc. I can’t speak for other companies, but for us, marketing takes up about 80% of our total budget and work hours. A third-party publisher will generally have a larger budget, better infrastructure, and more resources for marketing than an individual composer. On the other hand, those resources are going to a whole collection of composers, so it’s worth looking at how much energy they’d put into promoting your personal work.
A publisher needs to make sure a piece is professionally presentable. Generally, this means hiring a copyist, though it’s been made WAY easier through the accessibility of excellent and relatively inexpensive notation software. The importance of a well engraved score cannot be over emphasized. A poorly organized score with errors and confusing markings frustrates performers, wastes rehearsal time, and comes off as amateur. If you are going to self-publish, you’ll need to have an excellent eye for detail, thorough knowledge of the software, and a keen understanding of notation rules, or pay someone to do this work for you.
Licensing, Negotiation, and other Logistics
In addition to selling the scores, a publisher makes sure your pieces are registered with a performing rights organization like ASCAP or BMI and that performances are reported so you receive royalties. Publishers can also help register your pieces with the copyright office, negotiate licensing fees to have your music used in videos, film, TV, etc. and make sure people aren’t using your music without permission, thus making sure you are being compensated appropriately. These are certainly things an individual composer can do on their own and many do because they receive a higher percentage of the income. Again, you’ll have to weigh if you might receive the same or better income because the number of licenses might be overall higher with a publisher despite the initial buy in and percentages that they take off the top.
Ultimately, the question of self-publishing comes down to the individual artist and the individual publishing company. Keeping the above in mind, you’ll have to weigh your strengths as an an administrator and entrepreneur to see what’s the best fit for you.
Fahad is the director of See-A-Dot Music Publishing, Inc., a company devoted to the advocacy of new choral works and emerging composers. He is an active performer, composer, and conductor and specializes in contemporary and experimental music, particularly improvisation and the use of extended vocal techniques. He is co-artistic director for the interdisciplinary music/dance company The Resonance Collective, is a founding member of the Choral Collective of Los Angeles, and a board member of C4: The Choral Composer/Conductor Collective. He is currently a faculty member, choral director, and doctoral candidate in the performer/composer program at the California Institute of the Arts.