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

Carl Fischer Music Publishers (CF) has long prided itself on its “downtown” image. The composers who are drawn to the concert music division of CF reflect the cutting edge sensibilities of this company and are well represented by the small but knowledgeable staff that occupies the chic NYC offices on Bleecker Street, just north of Houston. Carl Fischer was founded in 1872 as a publishing house for theatrical music, and it thrived throughout the halcyon days of the silent motion picture. CF’s success came partly from an ability to tailor their scores to suit the eccentric needs of odd ensembles that were in residence at theaters around the country. If the question was: “Do you have Tchaikovsky‘s Fourth Symphony arranged for a banjo, two flutes and a snare drum?” the answer was – hopefully and often – “yes!”

This spirit of flexibility is still evident in today’s Carl Fischer. With a roster of diverse American artists such as Lukas Foss, Henry Brant, John Zorn, Lee Hyla, Margaret Brouwer, Martin Bresnick, Daron Hagen, and others, the concert music division has worked hard to develop individual strategies to best suit the needs of each composer. Bill Rhoads, who is director of the division and active as a composer himself, likes to meet with the CF composers as often as possible to lay out what can be done, and to re-evaluate and re-formulate three-year plans for each artist. Rhoads exudes confidence about what can be accomplished if a composer and publisher are working together to establish that composer’s place in the repertoire, but he is wary of unrealistic expectations that can lead to disappointment. Some composers, upon signing with a major publishing firm, expect that their careers will simply take off. “Having a relationship with a publisher is like a ride on an escalator,” explains Rhoads. “If you stand still, you’ll still go up, but if you’re walking, we’ll go much higher and much faster.”

The advancements in technology have forced CF to re-define what it is they do for their composers. Composers no longer need engravers or archival services. Instead, CF serves as a promotional crew, a liaison with artistic administrators and performers, a consultant, an advanced planner and a source of timely promotional campaigns and marketing strategies. In the role of consultant, the concert music staff might be asked to suggest a 6-minute piece to open a gala program or a piece influenced by the Second Viennese School or a concerto for horn and viola. The office is also home to a listening room, complete with perusal scores, a piano, recordings and audio equipment, and a nicely appointed conference room, where they can host brainstorming sessions, post-concert receptions, artistic administrator meetings, and other gatherings of creative people from the music world. CF moved to their current offices in 1999 as part of a refocusing of its mission. One element of the new strategy was to phase out the retail stores and work instead through their extensive distributing network. The streamlined CF is taking steps to re-invent its catalogue with diverse young artists, and to build on the history and tradition of the firm by imbuing it with the vigor of a new house.

When asked what guides his decision making process in terms of signing a new composer to the CF roster, Rhoads offers the following clues to what is ultimately a mysterious and subjective process: “Music always comes first. I review a lot of scores, and listen to a voluminous amount of music, either through recordings or performances. Often, some part of the composer’s catalogue would just blow me away. In other cases I may have the honor of representing a composer I have always admired.”

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

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