Fit To Print: A “Hyperhistory” of the Current State of American Music Publishing

G. Schirmer Music Publishers, Importers, and Dealers (GS) was founded in 1861 by Gustav Schirmer, the son of a German immigrant. The Schirmer family understood the importance of classical music in German society, and hoped and believed that it would someday achieve a similar status in their newly adopted homeland. When Gustav established his first offices at 701 Broadway in 1866, Carnegie Hall was twenty-five years in the future, and the corner where the hall stands today was still an apple orchard. In 1891, the company established its own engraving and printing plant, and it inaugurated the famed Schirmer’s Library of Musical Classics the following year. The Musical Quarterly was founded in 1915. In 1964, Schirmer, acquired Associated Music Publishers (BMI) which had built up an important catalog of American composers including Elliott Carter, Henry Cowell, Roy Harris, Charles Ives and Walter Piston, adding to a Schirmer’s ASCAP roster which had already included Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Morton Gould, Gian Carlo Menotti, William Schuman and Virgil Thomson, as well as composers from the earlier part of the century such as Charles Tomlinson Griffes, Charles Martin Loeffler, John Alden Carpenter, and Percy Grainger. The company remained in the Schirmer family for over 100 years until Macmillan, a major book publisher, purchased it in 1968.

With the music publishing business under siege in the mid-1980s, due in large part to the proliferation of the Xerox copier, Macmillan sold G. Schirmer to its current owner Robert Wise in 1986. Although Macmillan had come to view the music publishing area of its business as an albatross, Wise recognized that the classical copyrights owned by Schirmer/AMP would enhance the prestige of the company he had created to publish popular music, Music Sales, Inc. Music Sales publishes sheet music and songbooks for many of the major names in pop music, including Paul Simon, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan. In addition, the company currently handles a variety of European publishers in North America including Music Sales Affiliates Chester, Hansen, Novello, and UME, as well as Breitkopf & Härtel, Salabert, Sikorski and the vast majority of Russian and former Soviet composers‘ catalogs. They are also the rental agent for EMI, the Gershwin catalog, and ATV, who publish the songs of the Beatles. Another fascinating aspect to the complexities of the Schirmer history is their 1986 “marriage” to the Hal Leonard Corporation, one of the leading print distributors of jazz and popular music, who are the sole distributors of Schirmer’s printed music.

Today, the Schirmer/AMP catalog boasts one of the largest rosters of living American composers including John Corigliano, Richard Danielpour, John Harbison, Aaron Jay Kernis, Leon Kirchner, Peter Lieberson, André Previn, Bright Sheng, Tan Dun, and Joan Tower. In addition to the composers published by Schirmer and AMP, Schirmer also distributes the music of several important American composers who maintain their own publishing companies, e.g. Philip Glass (Dunvagen Music), Michael Tilson Thomas (Kongcha Music), and the three founders of Bang On A Can: Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe and David Lang (Red Poppy). An even greater number of American composers will fall under the Schirmer umbrella since G. Schirmer/AMP and Shawnee Press (another Music Sales affiliated company) have recently acquired the compositions and related rights to works published by the Margun Music (BMI) and GunMar (ASCAP) catalogues, which contains works by Gunther Schuller, Robert DiDomenica, Elliott Schwartz, William Russo, and many others.

While the success of their current roster of composers necessarily limits the number of new composers that they can take on, the company nonetheless holds regular meetings to discuss both solicited and unsolicited submissions. “We are looking for music we have never heard before,” says Susan Feder, Vice President of G. Schirmer, “But we have to anticipate how it will fit into the core performing areas we work in, e.g. orchestras, opera companies, dance, chamber, and increasingly, film and advertising.”

“When we heard the music of Tan Dun,” Feder elaborated, “none of us were precisely sure how it was going to fit in but we were so excited by this hugely original voice that we knew we had to bring him to the field and in so doing change the perceptions of the field as to what new music should or could be. One of our core missions is to make a contribution to a composer’s career trajectory." This contribution can take many shapes – from helping a composer formulate a long-range plan, offering timely career advice, negotiating complicated commission arrangements, and helping get music performed and recorded around the world.

Schirmer’s initial goal was to introduce Tan’s music to a number of influential decision makers in the music industry both in the United States and abroad. This has resulted in a diverse array of commissions ranging from the radically-experimental opera Marco Polo, which premiered at the Munich Biennale, to the extremely-popular Symphony 1997, which celebrated the reunification of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China, and to the unusual Concerto for Water Percussion, one of the few contemporary works commissioned by the New York Philharmonic under Kurt Masur, prior to the recent plethora of millennium commissions. Schirmer also helped to set up Tan Dun’s first conducting/management relationship as well as negotiated his exclusive recording contract with Sony Classical, which have resulted in even greater exposure.

When the Metropolitan Opera approached John Harbison about commissioning The Great Gatsby, an opera that received its world premiere in December 1999, Schirmer/AMP understood that the enormity of the project required special attention. Their staff worked closely with the Fitzgerald estate to obtain the book rights, they negotiated every level of the agreement with the Met, they worked closely with the composer on the structuring of the libretto, they prepared literally thousands of pages of performing materials, they identified and worked with a publicist to heighten awareness of the endeavor, and they supported the composer and the Met’s music staff during the rehearsal period. They even published the libretto as well as a collection of “Gatsby Songs” from the opera, which were both on sale at the time of the premiere. The hard work was rewarded by eight sold-out performances, another run scheduled for October 2000 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and promises of a Met revival.

“Music publishing is a combination of matchmaking and crystal ball gazing,” muses Feder. But with a third of the Pulitzer Prize winners in the Schirmer/AMP stable it appears to be a winning combination.

From Fit To Print: A “Hyperhistory” of the Current State of American Music Publishing
by John Robinson
© 2000 NewMusicBox

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