Giving It Away

One of the quandaries faced by today’s composers that seemed simpler a generation or two ago is how to distribute our scores. Previously, the established publishers were the only viable method for ensuring that our music reached interested parties and for producing beautifully engraved scores. Now, music notation software allows anyone to create scores that rival professionally typeset ones in their aesthetic appeal (although here I should note that the programs used by some publishers—unlike home software—create scores without jagged edges where the noteheads and stems meet). More surprising to me, it’s becoming easier to find 9×12 paper and printers that are able to handle it, and even side-stapled scores in larger formats are now being created by ambitious composers. Meanwhile, many publishers are accepting the home engraving of composers for their editions, so the line between professionally produced and home produced scores grows ever thinner. When you add in the incentive for ASCAP composers to create their own named companies for their personal score distribution (since ASCAP requires that a percentage of rights be allotted to a publisher, composers who don’t create such an entity lose half of their possible licensing fees), it can be impossible to distinguish between music backed by a publishing house and music created by an individual.

Therefore, the beauty of the score itself is no longer a reason for choosing a professional publisher, and the advent of modern communication technology has created an environment where individuals can publicize their music and reach a large audience. Also, a sole proprietor will naturally spend all of their time and energy on their single composer where a larger publisher will necessarily funnel their resources towards those products that promise the greatest return. When you couple these considerations with the fact that many music publishers retain all rights to the music they print—a practice that is only rarely found among non-music publishers and that book authors generally consider predatory—many composers choose to self-publish. I am one of these intrepid loners, and have never sought the services of a publishing house, nor have they been filling my inbox with requests for my scores.

Many considerations arise for those of us who self publish. How do we publicize our music? How do we distribute it? How much do we charge for a score? What do we make available for perusal? These questions present a minefield and independent composers each need to find the answers that work best for them. I have made watermarked sample PDFs of nearly all my scores available at my personal website and will remit free PDFs or charge a fee for reproduction and shipping for physical scores for anyone who asks. Many of my colleagues think that I should charge even for the computer files, and some earn enough yearly income through these types of sales to make a difference for them. Those who send PDFs often create agreements specifying that the recipient only print the file for their personal use and that they should not send the file to others. As I am not a lawyer, I would recommend consulting with one in order to ensure that you retain your proper rights before creating or entering into any sort of contractual obligation, whether with a publisher or with a client who wants to peruse your music.

Although I will personally give free copies of my music away, I’ve always done what I could to control the reproduction of my music (again, for legal advice on how to do this, please contact a lawyer). As an experiment, I recently decided to upload a score to the International Music Score Library Project, which for a very brief time was available for anyone to download. Immediately, I found myself greatly conflicted about doing so. I simply could not condone giving anyone anywhere the ability to reproduce my music at will. Also, in considering the terms of the Creative Commons License, I decided that losing such a large amount of control over my music simply wasn’t for me and that I wanted to retain my licensing rights for non-commercial public performances. While I remain an admirer of these organizations that are working to allow freedom for art to enter the public domain, I personally would like to maintain some control over my creations while I can.

I’m curious as to how other composers solve these issues and how you distribute your music online. It seems to me that there is no single answer to these questions nor a simple one size fits all solution.

One thought on “Giving It Away

  1. Armando Bayolo

    Interesting questions, David. And way to draw me back into the NMBx comments section!

    I, too, choose to self-publish, although I toy with pursuing a publisher from time to time, mostly out of a desire for wider distribution of my music. And that there is the biggest issue for me: I can’t see my music (accessible, for the most part, to a pretty wide audience, but not enough for it to be hugely successful, commercially, it is also usually challenging to perform, which cuts out the lucrative educational publishing market) making enough money for a publisher to put significant resources into promoting it for it to make enough of a difference in my revenue stream to consider giving up half of my creative rights (and BMI, to which I’ve belonged since 1996, allows composers to grant themselves publishing royalties without incorporation). With social media, to boot, it’s pretty easy to get yourself noticed by fellow musicians, making the promotion aspect that much more manageable.

    And yet, I’ve found social media most useful in pursuing opportunities to create NEW pieces. When it comes to promoting pieces of mine that already exist, it’s proven rather more difficult, which brings me back to considering submitting works to publishers (at least the very few who still take on submissions) for consideration.

    One of these days I’ll figure it out, I guess.

    Reply

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