Five Things Composers Should Ask About Working With a Publisher

In December, I was invited by Jennifer Higdon to speak about various aspects of the music business to the Curtis Institute’s Composers’ Forum. I was peppered with some very pointed questions about the music publishing prospects for emerging composers. The students were justifiably skeptical because a publishing deal isn’t for everyone. But there are also alternatives besides signing your works away to a publisher or doing everything yourself.

Here are five questions a composer should ask to determine whether a publishing deal makes sense:

1. What exposure do you already have? Just as a record label won’t sign a band that doesn’t already have a following and a self-produced album, publishers need to see that you are worth the investment of their resources. So, if you already have a resume that includes performances, awards, commissions and residencies (not all boxes need be checked) that’s a foundation a publisher can build upon. It also shows that you’re serious about your career and are willing to work at it.

2. What kind of works do you mostly write? Publishers are best when dealing with large-scale works such as orchestral works or operas. And even if a composer submits a Sibelius or Finale “manuscript” it’s still very costly and time-consuming to produce performance materials acceptable to professional orchestras and opera companies. Because they are voluminous and expensive to produce, performance materials for symphonic and operatic works are rented rather than sold. Publishers make the most money, both for themselves and the composers they represent, from the rental and performing rights income.

Works for smaller ensembles, such as string quartets, works for solo piano, piano and voice and other ensembles of say, eight players or fewer, are mostly sold rather than rented. After deducting print costs, publishers make much less money off of these works. Public performance income is also typically much lower than a larger-scale work of comparable length. Similarly, works for concert band or chorus are also sold rather than rented. These will be “new issued” like books and will generate sales in the first year or two. After that, unless the composer continues to supply new product, i.e., new band or choral pieces, a single work will likely languish – as far too many composers have found out the hard way.

3. Who’s performing your music? If you’re a member of an ensemble and you write for that group there’s no need for a publisher intermediary. You also have to ask yourself if you really want other groups to perform your music. And even if you do, if your ensemble has unique instrumentation it’s less likely that other groups will program your works.

4. Will a publisher promote my music? Publishers have long-established relationships with artistic administrators at orchestras, opera and ballet companies, as well as domestic and international music festivals, individual conductors and soloists. However, all publishers have an existing roster of composers that need care and feeding. For example, at Boosey & Hawkes, where I used to work, not only do they have living composers like Adams, Reich and Rouse, but the heirs of Bernstein, Carter, Copland, Stravinsky and many others still want these composers’ works programmed as much as possible. Classical publishers haven’t been immune from the ills that have plagued the music industry for more than a decade. And everyone’s promotion staff is stretched thin. That said, some publishers do a better job than others. Ask around.

5. Do I really want to handle the business of being a composer? This includes photocopying and shipping scores and parts, negotiating commissions and license agreements, managing expenses and being your own publicist. Some composers are good at this and enjoy it. Others, not so much.

In short, if you are a composer that writes mostly smaller-scale works, particularly if it’s for your own ensemble, you may well be better off selling downloads from your own web site.

However, if you:

– want to write large-scale works
– have an existing catalog that’s generating some income
– are getting commissions and performances
– have gotten some awards and/or a residency or two

Then, a publishing deal may be something to consider.

However, publishers sign very few composers. Boosey, Schirmer, Presser, Peer, Peters, Schott, Subito and any others will sign only about a handful of composers a year combined – not each. That’s less than a composer per publisher per year. Why? Because it’s a very expensive, long-term commitment and each of these publishers has continuing obligations to its existing composer roster.

Bonus Question: What should I ask if a publisher’s interested in me?

Here are five basic questions to ask:

– Will they pay an acquisition fee for my “back catalog” of pre-existing works?

– Will they pay an advance on royalties for works written during the term of the contract?

– Will I retain ownership of any portion of the copyrights to my works or will the publisher own them outright? In other words, am I being offered a publishing, co-publishing, administration or distribution deal – or some combination of them?

– What are the royalty splits for various income types (print, rental, grand rights, synch, etc.)?

– How will they promote my works, including increasing my income and getting commissions for me?

Those are just the preliminaries. A typical publishing contract has many other terms that need to be understood and often negotiated. Entering into a publishing agreement can be the most important career decision a composer can make. Any composer contemplating signing up with a publisher should consult with a knowledgeable attorney. And a good lawyer can also suggest and negotiate possible alternatives to a pure publishing or pure DIY relationship, such as hiring a publicist, administrator or music distributor.

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