Rent Control

Recently in NewMusicBox there has been a lot of discussion surrounding the relationships that the music publishing industry has with composers and consumers. One issue in particular has been the sale and rental of scores and parts. While there is a huge variance on how much one charges for such materials, in the world of pre-college music education there is a lot of frustration among players and teachers regarding the affordability of buying or renting new music.

Not long ago I was faced with a dilemma when dealing with an ensemble of high school students that wanted to produce a concert of new music. When they approached the various publishers to procure the scores and parts of the pieces they wanted to perform, they were hit with incredibly high fees, sometimes over $800 simply to rent one piece. When the music teachers at the school approached the companies to request a discount, very little change was made in the prices even though it was clear that there was no way the kids could pay. The result was that some very wonderful works by living composers were dropped from the program in favor of works by dead ones, whose music the student ensemble could afford.

This is not an isolated case. When I was 15 years old, I won a concerto competition in orchestra camp, and I chose to play a contemporary work. When the director went to order the music, the costs were so high that he could not rent the parts for the orchestra so they reduced my public performance to a two piano rendition of the work. It was a real bummer for a teenager. Even professional groups struggle as there are stories about players being faced with the choice of either dropping a piece from their program or going about less-than-honest ways to procure the music, all because they cannot afford to pay.

How do we change the culture surrounding the sale and distribution of our music so that it is available and accessible to those beyond the insular world of professional ensembles? Even though the majority of composers are not signed with one of the major publishing companies, this issues affects us all. Most teachers of young or amateur players do not know about the options out there for finding new music, so they usually make their first foray into contemporary music by approaching an established publisher’s catalog, of which they already have a familiarity. If they experience problems when going to a resource they know, why would they ever want to make the extra effort to find out about music that is not published by the big guys?

This may sound like a David vs. Goliath story, but there is more to it than that. Publishers argue—rightly so—that they are not dictating draconian prices. Rather, the fees represent the real costs in terms of the manpower and materials needed to keep a presentable collection of scores and parts available for rental. Time and time again, they lament, rented-out parts are returned unusable, with pen scrawls and tattered edges. And if the music is actually sold, the company often loses money as it can take years to recoup the costs inherent even in printing a run of 200 copies of a score.

So if we can’t blame all the ills on the publishers, how can we make it viable for them to encourag non-professionalse to try the music of living composers? Jennifer Bilfield, past president of Boosey and Hawkes, has come up with some ingenious ideas. She suggested that perhaps all the publishers could work together and create a foundation which would give out vouchers to teachers and students to make using a piece of published music for performance affordable. The publishers could design a simple, one-page application process. When an application is submitted, the applicant is awarded a certificate which can be redeemed for part rentals. That way the publishers know how their music will be handled and teachers/students have a simple portal into the world of working with music by living artists. Jennifer also suggested a more local approach in which performing organizations that already have a relationship with a publisher, such as the local orchestra, adopt a school and its music program. They then act as intermediaries from which schools can request music. The costs for the music could be underwritten by the performing organization or the publisher could allow 2-3 rentals at reduced prices to the student ensembles in exchange for a guarantee of the sponsoring professional music ensemble renting a certain amount of music for their respective players.

So there are ways to try to change this situation and I am sure some of you have great ideas of your own. However, it takes movement and initiative by those in the publishing world, an arena that is hard-pressed now to remake itself in light of the digital age. Any interested individuals inside that industry cannot go out on a limb without some support from us. They are working for businesses, and businesses have to make a profit. We need to show them how fostering programs for the performance of new music by young players is actually a smart investment decision. We can talk and write all we want, but if we can’t get the ears and the trust of the publishers, how can we get them to be part of the solution?

6 thoughts on “Rent Control

  1. david toub

    how to change this?
    What needs to happen, and what is going to happen, is for all of this to be distributed via the Web. There is absolutely no reason, other than draconian and arcane copyright protection laws, why we can’t have scores and parts available for either free or for affordable prices on the Web. All my stuff is freely downloadable, as is true for many other new music composers. The best way to get market share is to just give things away, and given that many people won’t/can’t pay for new music scores, if we want to engender a larger community of new music lovers, we need to give it away or at least make it much more affordable. The economies of scale afforded by the Web do just that.

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  2. Kyle Gann

    David’s right. Composers need to be aware of what they lose when they work with a publisher, and I’m always advising young composers to give publishers a wide berth. Perhaps ensembles should be encouraged to gravitate toward composers who self-publish. There are plenty of us around, and getting parts to our music costs no more than the paper required.

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  3. curioman

    Creative Commons licensed work is a logical answer.

    I agree with what’s been said. Publishers (in general) are dinosaurs that have no clue about the real world, and by enforcing cost-prohibitive rules on perhaps their most important investments (students), they’re killing themselves.

    I encourage schools and self-published composers to work directly with each other. A few years ago, I was commissioned to write a piece for a high-school string orchestra. I prepared the score and parts electronically (in Lilypond) and sent pdf files via email. The music director printed out as many parts as needed. I enjoyed a good commission, the students and director loved the piece, and it was hit with the audience. Goodness all around. :)

    Publishers are not needed. But a good central repository of Creative Commons (or similarly) licensed works would be a valuable resource so that music directors could go to a single source to find new music easily.

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  4. dalgas

    “curioman” wrote: Publishers are not needed. But a good central repository of Creative Commons (or similarly) licensed works would be a valuable resource so that music directors could go to a single source to find new music easily.

    Maybe along the lines of the wiki-style “International Music Score Library Project”?:

    http://imslp.org/wiki/Main_Page

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  5. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    David is right — web distribution is an excellent way of working.

    My music has been online since 1996, for free download. If convenience is more important than cost, the music can be purchased ready-to-go from Frog Peak Music. If cost is critical, then the music can be freely downloaded.

    Sales of my scores were always low enough that there was no point to hoarding them … and you never know where they will show up. Some show up on my ASCAP reports, others via email notices. In recent months, I’ve had performances by folks I didn’t know in Lincoln, Pomona (CA), Las Vegas, and Greenville (SC) — including a piano piece written in 1967 that was premiered after 40 years on the shelf.

    When I was first online more than 25 years ago, this concept seemed impossible. In 1989, the Vermont Composers Consortium met to discuss how to distribute our music online, but it was still too early — slow dialup, pre-web, and definitely pre-audio. Now we not only have our music online, we meet and plan online.

    As for the costs to download, it’s paper to print on (and since they’re PDFs, they can be scaled up for larger paper) and royalties (with the usual exceptions for educational uses — a perfect answer to Belinda’s question).

    Dennis
    http://maltedmedia.com/bathory/

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  6. jenny bilfield

    We really can hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time, everyone. We can be glad for the effective promotion, legal, and editorial representation of commercial publishers ALONGSIDE the success composers have had self-publishing in a variety of forms. As a former music publisher I’d argue that there’s merit to having worldwide representation, and the infrastructure of a Boosey & Hawkes (or Schirmer, or Schott, etc), especially for a relatively undiscovered composer, or even one with a substantial amount of visibility. Many of the composers or estates we worked with (at Boosey, eg) can look back over the years and trace growth in their visibility first and foremost to their work. But then also, to a fruitful partnership with their publisher, one which may have resulted in larger commission fees and royalties that enabled them to take time off to write, or to send their kids to college…or to see an existing work licensed for a film, with a 5 or 6-figure fee attached. So, before you dismiss publishers as dinosaurs and such, pinky-swear that you’d never want a company like Boosey or Schirmer to represent your work globally, promote it alongside the likes of Stravinsky and Shostakovich and Glass and Reich. Or to be there at the ready with a legal team in place when an unscrupulous company uses your music without your permission…for free. There are some rather remarkable people still working at the world’s finest publishers. And I’d say that the composers for whom they work are pretty darn happy to have them advocating for their work. It’s imperfect. The investment is huge, the return long time coming. But there’s a heck of a lot of upside.

    Self-published composers, as the other folks here have stated in various ways, have more options than ever before, thanks in great part, to the web. Composers don’t need commercial publishers, per se, but those who have very active catalogues have had to create substantial infrastructures for their work. At great cost. Philip Glass and Steve Paulus are two models of composers who have retained their independence, but oversee considerable personnel and operations.

    The ultimate goal, whether one is commercially published, or self-published, is to get the music into the hands of performers. Whether this is done behind closed doors, or through myspace, I think we can all support the concept of composers getting their music played, and getting paid for the music they write (should that prove important…which to say that not everyone expects to be paid for their creative work). Whether someone else is investing in an infrastructure in exchange for a piece of the income, or the composer is charging for music distributed via their website (or another’s) and sending the music out him/herself (in-kind labor), is probably incidental. Publishers of ‘contemporary’ music aren’t the enemies — believe me, there are faster ways to make a buck. The thing that frustrates me the most about this discussion? Whether for profit, for visibility, or for pure artistic ideals, our community of creative music makers really is striving towards the same goal: getting music into the hands of the performers, and future practitioners. An operation with scale can lead to worldwide distribution of a new choral work. A website and attentive composer can make a connection with a performer one-on-one, completely bypassing a publishing house. So if a rental fee is too high, and non-negotiable (which is rare, truth be told), there are hundreds and thousands of other options beyond a publisher. I made a few suggestions, in the event that folks are set on exploring music that is financially prohibitive to secure.

    As a reminder… you’ll find self-published music, and commercially-published music, on AMC’s NewMusicJukebox. Side by side.

    Reply

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