New Music Economics (Part 3): Keeping Up With the Rent


[Ed. Note: This article is the third in a three-part series exploring economic issues faced by the new music community.]

Orchestras are frequently criticized for not playing enough new music. But less attention is focused on the cost of such “adventurous programming,” both from the viewpoint of orchestras renting new scores and the publishers and composers producing them.

Performing new music can be an expensive gamble for orchestras. While major orchestras are more likely able to afford to take risks (and therefore have less of an excuse for offering routine, predictable fare), ensembles lower on the financial totem pole must budget carefully in order to offer challenging repertoire.

The music of self-published composers offers the perk of being both less expensive and negotiable, according to Andrew Berryhill, executive director of the Duluth-Superior Orchestra, which performs in Northern Minnesota and the Twin Ports region: “I am thrilled to work with self-published composers, as they are significantly cheaper. They are scrambling to get their pieces performed.”

Cathy Thorpe, manager of Boosey & Hawkes’ rental library, says programming self-published composers is invariably more appealing for orchestras with small budgets. “There is a natural order to that which is appropriate. These orchestras have to search out music they can afford and composers need to find orchestras willing to play their works.”

But self-published composer Jennifer Higdon doesn’t agree with such hierarchies: “I want my music to be affordable for everyone and to get it out in the world. Orchestras are struggling. I decided early on that renting music is too expensive. We negotiate and will adjust the fees.”

She adds that when she was conducting the University of Pennsylvania’s orchestra during the 1994-95 season she “wanted to do new music, but we couldn’t afford it, which is what pushed me towards self-publishing.”

Chris Theofanidis, another self-published composer, says many artistic administrators have commented that they can’t believe how low his rates are. “I charge about half the price of a publisher, but I still earn more as I keep all the profits. Rainbow Body [his orchestral work] would be about $700 to rent from a publisher, but I can offer it for $300 to $400 dollars, depending on the number of performances.”

But while the lower cost of renting music by some self-published composers might appeal to smaller orchestras, certainly part of the reason many published composers are performed so frequently is thanks to the zealous efforts of their publishers.

Daniel Dorff, a composer and vice president of publishing at the Theodore Presser Company, says, “I would rather keep half the money generated from a lot more performances than all the money generated from fewer performances. No one is doing this for big bucks: we are doing this to have our music heard. The Internet certainly makes a big difference. But disseminating the music is not simply a matter of technology, but committing energy to it.”

Composer Gabriela Lena Frank, a relatively new addition to Schirmer’s roster, says the company “gets my scores to conductors and people I would never have access to. They brainstorm on my behalf and I’m benefiting from their many decades of relationships.”

She adds that the economic benefits for her have been “tremendous.” While self-published composers say they make more than they ever would with publishers, Lena Frank asserts that she makes “more even with Schirmer taking some of my royalties than I would keeping 100 percent if I was self published.”

Each publisher has a different agreement with its composers regarding sales, but typical rental rates are split 50/50 between composer and publisher, explains Marc D. Ostrow, Boosey’s general manager. Composer Marc Adamo, on Schirmer’s roster, adds that publishers “keep all the parts organized – and suddenly a 50/50 split looks pretty good, or the administration will eat up your life and you will never write another piece!”

The time and money spent promoting their composers is just one overhead facing publishers (and hence just one reason their scores are more expensive to rent). Office space, staff salaries and benefits are a major expense. As Daniel Dorff says, “We need to be profitable while working on this music that we’re crazy about!”

Publishing houses are rare enterprises within the classical music industry: they aren’t non-profits. Self-published composer Daniel Felsenfeld calls them “for-profit businesses with a nonprofit mission,” while Adamo notes, “I don’t know anyone who goes into this in a hard nosed corporate way. Publishing is a bunch of idealists.”

Also, only a very lucky few composers are signed by a publisher – and just as some musicians prefer to start their own labels rather than wait around for the rare chance to be signed to a major label, many composers self publish because it’s their only option.

Copyist Bill Holab is one of the people making it easier for the self-published to thrive. He provides services such as engraving and typesetting and negotiates rental fees and copyright on behalf of composers, including Osvaldo Golijov and Michael Torke.

“Many composers are self published because financially it can work out better for them,” he says. “I do negotiate rental fees, with the approval of the composer. We are flexible and you have to be – as the goal is to get the music played. When Barber was starting out the publishers did everything for him, but there were fewer composers then. In the current landscape composers really need to look out for their own interests.”

He also points out that the lines between published and self-published composers are “blurry” these days: some of the music of Philip Glass, the Godfather of self publishing, is distributed by Schirmer and Chester Music, for example.

Another essential spoke in the self-publishing wheel is the New Jersey-based Subito Music Publishing, which, explains co-founder Stephen Culbertson, is like two separate companies: a publishing wing that represents composers, including renting, promotion and copyright; and a separate division that provides printing services for any composer on a price-list basis.

Theofanidis says it costs about $200 to print a full set of orchestra parts through Subito; on his own it would cost around $150. Higdon prints and binds everything herself on her own machines; neither says part production is a drain financially.

When it comes to publishing music for sale rather than just rental, the costs are significant. “If we want to publish a score of a rental work, it’s a major investment,” says Todd Vunderink, Vice President of Peermusic and Director of Peermusic Classical. “You want it to meet standards, as opposed to work on rental scores done by good copyists. There could be a lot of things you might want to change to match your own house rules of engraving. We will end up spending many hours working on what the engraver has done, which is not compensated in any way.”

Vunderink explains that (allowing for a range of copyists’ fees) a 15-minute orchestral work could cost between $5,500 and $10,500. This includes the publisher’s time supervising the work through to getting the music on the stands. In addition, he estimates another $3,000 to $4,000 for reformatting the performance score onto 9 x 12 inch paper, which is the industry standard.

Engraving for a symphonic score might cost $26-30 a page, says Lauren Keiser, president and CEO of Carl Fischer publishing. Then there are additional overheads like the cost of designing covers. His company will be publishing Ricky Ian Gordon’s opera The Grapes of Wrath; the vocal score is about 400 pages. It will probably cost between $15,000-$20,000 to print and engrave it, says Keiser.

The overheads for rentals are also more than simply sending out the physical materials, as staff need to organize perusal scores and go through scores once they’ve been returned and sometimes clean them up. Boosey’s Cathy Thorpe explains that she deals with 6,000-7,000 smaller, amateur, regional level and community orchestras “with less sophisticated administration in place” than top tier ensembles. “They think we are amazon.com and we spend a lot of time solving crises and dealing with their poor planning. We take that responsibility off the composers’ shoulders.”

Both self-published composers and publishers allow rental scores to be kept for an average of 8-12 weeks and impose both rush fees (if scores are needed within less than ten days) and late fees. As for those rental fees, antitrust laws prevent publishers from disclosing their rates, but all companies have flexible pricing tiers that take into account factors like the size and budget of the organization, and whether it’s an amateur or college ensemble.

While the music of self-published composers is often cheaper to rent, it doesn’t mean that smaller orchestras avoid published composers, of course. The Duluth-Superior Orchestra, which has a $1.4 million budget and offers seven classical concerts a year, has programmed Corigliano’s Symphony No. 1 next season, even though it will be a strain on the budget. A John Adams piece, says executive director Andrew Berryhill (a fan of the composer, whose The Chairman Dances was performed in January) costs about $600 to $700 a performance compared to around $100 to $200 for some self-published composers.

Programming new music is a tricky balancing act, agrees Cathy Cahill, CEO of the Brooklyn Philharmonic. She adds that during her six-year tenure, the orchestra has never opted not to perform a new work because rental costs were too high. “But if we decide to do a John Adams piece, we have to spend more on that concert and less on the next one.”

For major orchestras, the few hundred dollars difference between a self-published and a published composer is negligible. Berryhill, who was assistant director of programming for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1996-2002, says that cost (unsurprisingly) was less of an issue there. “When Daniel Barenboim says this is what he wants performed you don’t argue over rental costs!”

Self-published composers do often negotiate prices or even give their scores away for free, which isn’t particularly surprising, as artists in many industries are often willing to sacrifice payment for valuable exposure. Higdon has given her music away as a goodwill gesture and doesn’t regret it. It’s one way, she says, of advertising her music and breaking into market where her music isn’t known, in this case Russia.

Dorff doesn’t blame self-published composers for doing so, and says that if he were on his own he might well do the same. But if someone calls Presser about one of his scores he knows the company won’t negotiate. For the most part, publishing companies don’t budge much on prices, although Peggy Monastra, the interim general manager of Schirmer, says that the company has made deals with orchestras for fundraisers, for example. “It’s a case by case scenario and we regularly donate to specific institutions.”

The internet has affected the music publishing industry as much as any other. Piracy is a lot easier and publishers, who used to be hurt by photocopying, now also lose out to people sending illegal PDFs around. Copyright administration is thus another important fact of publishing, adds Monastra. “It’s one advantage to having a publisher, and I think composers are more conscious of copyright than they were a few years ago, since everything has become digital.”

It will be interesting to note whether, and how fast, more self-published composers make it into the American Symphony Orchestra League’s list of the top 10 most frequently performed living U.S. composers. According to the League’s data, nine of the ten most frequently performed living composers in the U.S. during the 2005-06 season were published, with Jennifer Higdon the only independent in the list. But two of the top four most frequently performed new works that season were by self-published composers: Higdon’s Blue Cathedral and Osvaldo Golijov’s Last Round; those two works also held the top two spots in 2004-05, with Chris Theofanidis’s Rainbow Body in the No. 7 spot that year.

But what will happen to the works of Golijov, Theofanidis, and Higdon sixty years from now? Lauren Keiser says it’s helpful for young composers to learn about self publishing, but wonders “who will service their legacy” when they or those they work with die. Long-term viability can also be a problem for published composers who have works with various companies, he adds. “Their catalogue is divided, and so when they pass on their work is divided, instead of with one house firmly behind their talent.”

The long-term viability of both self-published composers and publishers might be questioned from both sides of the fence. But in any event, the extraordinary advances in technology that have facilitated the trend towards self-publishing can only be a good thing. The Duluth-Superior Orchestra founded a competition for college-age composers six years ago offering prize money for publishing and copyist services. Now it’s not even an issue anymore, says Berryhill. “The fact that composers can produce legible and clean music themselves has lessened our expense for new music dramatically. And any barrier removed to performing new music is a good one!”

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VivienSchweitzer
Vivien Schweitzer
Photo by Eluned Roberts-Schweitzer

Vivien Schweitzer is a New York City-based music critic, arts reporter, and pianist. She covers music and dance news as Associate Editor of PlaybillArts.com, and has contributed classical and world music criticism, profiles, and features to The New York Times, The Economist, the Financial Times, BBC News, Newsday, Time Out, and The Gramophone.