One of the most important and far-reaching developments with composers over the past fifteen years or so has been the ability to self-publish one’s works. With the confluence of the advent of powerful personal computers, professional-level notation software, large-format printers, and the ability to reach musicians across the world through one’s own website, self-publishing has moved away from a cottage industry model to a very real and feasible option for many composers who do not become affiliated with a major publisher. The pros and cons of taking this route are myriad, but it has evolved into composers making a choice between little-work/little-gain (publisher) and way-more-work/way-more-gain (self-publisher) and, up until relatively recently, those have been the only two choices a composers could make.
Two of the major challenges with going the DIY self-publisher route center around production and distribution. Most composers are comfortable creating professional-grade score and parts and running them down to the post office as occasional one-offs, but as orders become consistent it can be daunting to keep up with such demands. Two of the most successful self-published composers, Jennifer Higdon and John Mackey, have to spend a considerable amount of their time in that role; Mackey beautifully describes the situation in a great 2009 blog post about self-publishing:
Is that difference of 400%-900% worth the time it takes to print, fold, staple, and mail a set of parts? To me, the answer is yes, but to a lot of composers, the answer is no. All of this takes a lot of time, and a lot of composers, understandably, would rather just compose and not worry about the business aspect of it. They just want to write the music, give it to a publisher, and not think about it anymore, and whatever income they collect, no matter the amount, is just a nice bonus. Most of those composers probably have other jobs—like teaching—or wealthy families to make that possible. I like to think of it like I also have a “day job,” and my day job is publishing my own music.
Over the past few years some composers have been looking for a middle ground between the “legacy” publisher/DIY self-publisher dichotomy—they aren’t interested in giving up 50% of their royalties and 90% of their sheet music sales, but they’re also turned off by the amount of time and effort a successful self-publishing endeavor requires. The options for a “third way” have been few and far between, primarily because there are few printing houses that are set up for dealing with the vagaries of printing sheet music and the fact that a self-published composer is just one person and few distributors will deal with individuals (most state up front that they only deal with established publishers).
That does not mean there haven’t been notable exceptions on this front. An early variation on the traditional publisher model was created by Bill Holab, who left the world of the brick-and-mortar publishers to start his own hybrid business overseeing a stable of composers and facilitating their various engraving, distribution, and management needs while allowing them to keep their publishing royalties. Recently this model was taken up by one of those traditional publishers with the introduction in 2011 of Project Schott New York, a pilot program from Schott Music Corporation and European American Music Distributors, LLC that has selected a list of composers and has created an online distribution system for selected works by those composers.
On the DIY side, there have been a couple of options that have worked to various degrees. Back in 2006, I came across the Houston-based composer Karim Al-Zand’s website and discovered that he was using the print-on-demand book publishing website Lulu.com. It looked promising but the fact that the largest size paper you could have your works printed on was 8.5″x11″ made this option less than desirable. Another publisher, Subito Music, has attempted to tap into the growing self-publisher population by offering both printing and distribution services for composers not published by Subito themselves. During my interview with Lisa Bielawa she told me about working through their printing service—she would order scores and parts in bulk and then sell those herself—and she seemed quite satisfied with them.
So far these have been publishers and print houses trying to capitalize on the growing self-publishing trends, and now it’s the distributor’s turn…and it looks pretty damn good.
A few days ago, I came across a Facebook ad that mentioned a new printing and distribution service (imagine, a Facebook ad that was actually pertinent!). I followed it and discovered that J. W. Pepper & Son had initiated a new service called My Score. On the face of it, it looked promising: it is directly aimed at self-published composers, offering printing and distribution as well as the ability to create a profile page on their website to direct interested parties to individual composer’s catalogs. A one-time charge of $99 will get you in the door and there’s a $25 yearly fee—unless you sell over $400 of music, in which case the fee is waived. More importantly, the composer keeps the publishing royalties and the print music split is much better than any publishing agreement I’ve heard of—25% of print sales and 40% of digital sales (compare that to your industry standard 10% for all sales with a typical publisher)…and the composer sets the selling price (Pepper does state pricing minimums).
After several colleagues asked if I could delve further into this service, I contacted Ian McLoughlin from J. W. Pepper & Son with several questions: How long has this been going on? What made you decide to start this? What about composers who don’t cater to educational markets? Can I see an example of one of the composer pages?
Here’s his entire e-mail response:
We decided to create My Score because of the growing number of smaller “Self-Publishers” and composers who needed an outlet to sell their compositions. J.W. Pepper & Son has always prided itself on having an extensive list of available compositions, but in the past 10 years, there has been a noticeable movement toward self publishing, and J.W. Pepper has not been able to represent these smaller publishers. My Score now gives these smaller publishers the option to be represented in the J.W. Pepper database.
The service is only about two weeks old and we have about 20 composer/self publishers signed up already. Take a look at www.jwpepper.com/myscore/hirschmusic as an example.
Composers can distribute any work they would like to! Traditionally, Pepper markets to educational institutions and churches but if someone comes to us and needs a piece of music and it is in print, we will get the music for them.
My Score was created for the composer/self publisher that needs to get their music out to the masses. We have created a platform where the composer/publisher gets their own URL so they can market their compositions. We have given them a place for a bio, picture, social media links (You Tube, Twitter, Facebook) and their own website if they have one. If the composer does not have their own website, the provided URL would be a great place to start. For only $99, you get a platform to sell and promote your music. It would cost more to create their own site and maintain it!
The best part about our service is that we can provide the customers a printed or digital copy of the composer’s music. I believe we are the only service out there proving print and digital services.
My Score was not created as a way to replace the traditional composer/publisher relationship. We would recommend that a composer still try and have their works published by a publisher because a publisher will be able to market their compositions across the world and sales will be much greater with a publisher. My Score is for the composer/small publisher that has not been picked up by a publisher yet but still wants to make their music available.
I showed this to my studio last night and, while there were many questions, I came away impressed with the composer’s page as well as the individual work pages. The “marketplace” interface in which customers can purchase music looks very similar to Amazon (even to the point of allowing customer reviews). They allow for audio and video links within the individual work pages as well as PDFs from the uploaded scores. Ian let me know that international composers can sign up for the service as well (answering one of my Japanese student’s questions). Finally, there’s integration within social networks (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) so you can have links from the Pepper page to your website and social networks.
To be honest, I’m excited about this on two levels. On a pragmatic level, this looks like something I could use—with my teaching and many other projects, I don’t have the time to go all in on a self-publishing model, but I’m also not interested in signing everything away to a major publisher—so this option is very attractive to me as a self-published composer. On a more conceptual level, however, this is also big news because it’s the first time (that I’m aware of) that a major distributor has recognized the growing strength of self-published composers in our industry and is willing to allow the individual to jump into the marketplace. I’ll be very interested to hear any other responses or questions about this and especially any reactions from composers who are using the service. The comments section is yours for the taking.