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Navigating the Path to Modern Music Publishing


I’m going to kick this post off with a brief thesis statement:


The modern music publishing world is stupid, and it’s basically rigged against composers who are new on the scene.


Lemme explain.


One of the most common goals for composers is to get published. Just imagine showing up for rehearsal one evening, your conductor passing out a new piece to learn, and there it is: crisp ink, perfect size, fancy design, all of those copyright and legal numbers and letters behind the title page, a cool corporate logo, and your name right next to “Music by:”.


This is not just some 8.5x11 copy paper printed in someone’s home office.


This isn’t an illegal copy of a copy of a copy of a draft that you gave your professor six years ago for them to look over.


You’ve made it, baby!


You’re a published composer! Let the hashtags flow and let the smiles glow on you!


But what does it all mean? And how did it happen?



Traditional vs. Self-Publishing


The process of composing original music is time-consuming. From concept to that glorious final barline, you might spend anywhere from a few days to a few years laboring on your opus. But even when your work is done, the working isn’t.


You still have to engrave it, whether you use notation software or just have really, really good handwriting. Then you need to go through it about two dozen times to make sure the notes are all correct and the spacing and kerning works and that it’s easy to read and on and on.


Even after all of that, you need to get people to actually perform the thing! Maybe you wrote it on commission, which all but guarantees a premiere performance, but what about after that? How do you get the word out and convince other people that your music is worth spending money on to perform more than once? They teach us a lot of skills in music school, but somehow, they keep forgetting to teach us how to actually make money off of our skills. Before you know it, you’re spending more time trying to publish your music than you ever did actually making the music in the first place!


At least, unless you have someone else do the publishing for you.


A traditional composer will gladly take all that busy work off your hands. That’s their job! You give them your completed piece; they’ll do the rest. Engraving, editing, formatting, printing, marketing, distribution, advocacy, and sales accounting. All of it! Now you have all that time to just write and make a living on your music.


Right?


This was the major point of a recent article in the ACDA periodical Choral Journal, written by one of the most celebrated choral composers alive, Dan Forrest. (Seriously, check out his music. It’s face-melting good.) Granted, I’m being a bit heavy-handed, but the argument the article is making is that the benefits of traditional publishing outweigh its cons and is a better option than self-publishing.


And to that, I definitely agree.


Traditional publishers take care of all that obnoxious busywork. They have a lot of doors already open and can introduce your music to a much bigger audience. And who doesn’t want a major publishing house right smack dab on top of their artist’s résumé? Sure, they give you a bogusly small royalties cut on your sales, but the sheer number of copies sold kind of makes up for it. They also own the soul of everything you sign over to them, so who knows what your music will sound like after a Top 40 artist samples it, or that political candidate you despise starts using it in their campaign, and there’s nearly nothing you can do about it? You do get your cut of the licensing fees, but still.


But there was a significant point that was neglected, and that is just how much the cards are stacked against new composers to even get published in the first place.



What Wasn't Said

It’s hard to get a decent contract with the good publishers. Like, freaky hard. And it’s not like it’s anything malevolent against us poor composers; it’s just regular business. The point of a for-profit business is to make money through the goods or services they provide, and to better ensure that goal they try to minimize the financial risk of any product that they sell – in this case, your music.


At its core, a publisher is a retailer. They purchase intellectual property (music) from an independent contractor (composer) and then sell it to the public at a profitable markup (sheet music sales). In return, they share those profits with their contractors at an agreed-upon rate (industry standard is 10% of sales goes back to the composer in the form of royalties).


This process costs the publishing company money in the form of time which employees need to edit and engrave the


music, print and distribute it, advertise it, etc., as well as the cost of materials and shipping. Therefore, they will want to ensure that the I.P. they purchase from the composer will be successful, i.e. will sell enough copies to make that money back and then more so they can keep the process up, hire more people, and continue on with their goal. There are committees set up to determine which pieces get approved for publication and which don’t. Members of these committees are made up of business folk and musicians alike, looking for both profitability and the quality of the music (which, in more cases than not, are the same thing).


The problem comes with the sheer amount of music that is submitted for consideration.


Next to everybody would be thrilled with a contract from G.I.A., from Boosey & Hawkes, from Novello, from Alfred. So, next to everybody submits their work for them to look at.


You know how many pieces that is?


An impossible amount!



Therefore, when determining whether a new piece will make a publisher money, committees will look for a very specific thing in everything submitted: Is it already making money? If it’s already selling well, being performed a ton, it means a very low risk for the publisher and a higher likelihood of being approved. If a work is already making money, it’ll make even more money when it’s given the company’s resources.


And therein lies the rub.



The Problem


You’ve probably noticed by now what I mean when I say that the modern publishing game is rigged against new composers. If you want a publisher to help you make a living off of your music, you basically need to show them that you are already making a living from your music before they’ll take you on. It’s nothing malicious, nothing evil, nothing even intentional or personal. It’s just economics.

Now, there are a ton of small publishers who are much quicker to give you a contract on your “unproven” works. They’ll even offer you a massive chunk of the royalties. But, because of their own limited resources, there’s not much else they can offer you. I myself have had works published by two such companies, and I was thrilled just to be accepted! I’m still grateful for that. At the same time, though, it was disappointing when I was told that I would still have to take care of all that busy work – the engraving, the marketing, the networking, the editing – all by myself. Essentially, I was just given a spot on the shelf and nothing more. The most I gained over self-publishing was the hope that someone who came there looking for someone else’s music would see my name and somehow get curious to look.


The numbers are in: 2 publishing houses. 8 pieces published. Nearly 10 years on the market.


Maybe 3 copies sold – total.


Zero performances.



The Two Bridges Music Difference


Two Bridges wasn’t started by a business guru, or a venture capitalist, or a kid fresh out of their MBA with a cool idea. It was started by a composer who was fresh on the professional scene, recently graduated with advanced degrees, and supremely frustrated with how hard it was for a new composer – even one with fair connections and a decent amount of talent and skill – to even make it on the first rung of the ladder of musical success.


I saw a need: emerging composers need a champion.


I saw an opportunity: No other publisher focuses on composers at the early stages of their careers.


I had the passion.


I still have it.


If you submit your music, we will listen.


If you don’t submit your music, we’re trying to find you anyway. (I love that part of my job. You know how fun it is to just go out onto the Internet and listen to new music and say “Whoa! That was awesome! I want to help more people hear that!” regularly? It’s pretty heckin’ rad.)


If your music hasn’t been performed a whole lot yet, or even at all, who cares? That’s my job.


Are your Finale or Sibelius skills the stuff of children’s nightmares? Leave it to me!


My job is to take on all of that busy work so that aspiring full-time composers can actually compose full-time.


My goal is to uplift and edify people and communities by championing composers who are at the beginning stages of their careers.


Then I get to introduce musicians from all over to their next favorite composer.


Pretty sweet gig I got here.


Group portrait of emerging composers associated with Two Bridges Music Press, including Steve Danielson, Mckenzie Ahlman, Filip Holacky, Alyson Fewless, Hope Salmonson, Mike Merrill, Nicholas Ryan Kelly, Calum Carswell, Juan Martinez, Tobias Patrick Wolf, Nathan May, and David Jones. Illustrating the vibrant world of contemporary sheet music publishing.


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