Interview on Music Publishing Podcast

Before the Memorial Day holiday, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by my friend and colleague, the composer Dennis Tobenski. Our 90-minute talk, which was posted last week, covered a variety of topics applicable to composers, songwriters and other creators, including copyright principles, fair use, the role of PROs and estate considerations for artists.

Here’s how Dennis summarized our discussion:

In our conversation, we talked about:

  • basic tenets of copyright
  • the limits of what is copyrightable
  • the Poor Man’s Copyright
  • the benefits of and incentives to registering your copyrights
  • fighting infringements
  • folio registrations
  • working with living poets vs. dead poets’ estates
  • Performing Rights Organizations
    • selecting
    • collecting performance royalties
    • what PROs don’t do
  • estate planning for artists
  • international copyright issues
  • why you should get permission <strong>before</strong> setting a text
  • First Sale Doctrine
  • licensing vs. selling
  • copying licenses
  • Fair Use
    • Fair Use is not a right; it is a defense against an infringement accusation*
    • the four factors of fair use
    • transformative use vs. derivative works
    • the false “rules of thumb” of fair use

And here’s the link to our talk:


The Biggest Mistake Composers Make About The Music Business

I hear it all the time.  Composers think that if they just sign up with a performing rights organization (PRO) like ASCAP or BMI that’s all they need to do to protect themselves.

Don’t get me wrong – every composer should belong to a PRO. But there are at least seven ways a composer can make money from the use of his music and the PROs only handle one.

Most composers are never taught anything about the music business. They’ll sign up with a publisher and leave everything to them. But it’s harder than ever to get a publishing deal and publishers typically want to own the copyrights to your music and take 50% of the royalty income – and a lot more for sheet music. So either by choice or necessity, most composers are self-published. But do you really know what’s involved in being self-published?

There’s much more to it – and more money to be made – than just selling downloads and collecting PRO royalties.

Here’s how composers make money from their compositions:

Licensing of Non-Dramatic Public Performing Rights: Your PRO licenses performances of your works in live venues, in radio and TV broadcasts and over the internet. And your PRO will pay you directly. However, this is the only income stream your PRO represents. They don’t handle any of the others!

Licensing Works in Audio-Only Sound Recordings: Record labels get a mechanical license when a composition is recorded and distributed in LPs, CDs MP3s and other audio-only formats, whether in physical copies or in downloads.  Once a work has been commercially recorded, anyone can “cover” the work, provided the label pays applicable mechanical royalty, either directly to a musical publisher or through a mechanical rights clearing house, such as The Harry Fox Agency, Inc.

Licensing Music in Audiovisual Works:  When someone wants to use a composition in an audiovisual work, as in films TV shows and video games, they need to get a “synchronization” or “synch” license.  There is no set rate for synch licenses and fees vary greatly from a few hundred to hundreds of thousands of dollars depending upon the value of the work, the nature of the project (blockbuster movie or student film), the usage (title credits or underscore), the territory (worldwide, US only) and the duration of the license (perpetuity or one year).  If someone wants to use pre-recorded music in a project, they need two licenses: the “synch” license for the use of the underlying musical work and a “master use” license from the owner of the particular recording of the work, usually a record label.

Sales of Printed Materials for Smaller Works:  Smaller works, like SATB chorals, chamber ensembles (like string quartets), solo piano pieces and even jazz and wind ensemble works are usually sold, not rented. They may be sold directly to the public online in PDFs or in printed editions through distributors such as Hal Leonard and Alfred Music.

Rental of Performance Materials: Because they are both voluminous and expensive to produce, performance materials for larger-scale pieces such as works for full orchestra, operas and musicals are typically handled on a rental basis. That means the rental agent rents out the score and parts for a fee to the performing organization or presenter who then sends them back.  Rental fees are based upon a variety of factors, including the duration and instrumentation of the work and the level of the performing group and may run several hundred dollars per performance.

Licensing of “Grand Rights” or Dramatic Performances: PROs in the United States only license non-dramatic (sometimes called “small rights”) public performances of your work. If you write an opera, musical, ballet or other dramatic or choreographic work, your PRO will not license performances of these works and you won’t get paid performance royalties from them. That means if you don’t have a publisher that means you’ve got to do this yourself.  Grand rights license fees are typically based upon a percentage of “the house” or ticket sales, determined by the average ticket price and the capacity of the venue.

Reprints of Excerpts, Sampling, Arrangements and Other Permissions:  If someone wants to use an excerpt of your work in an article or text, wants to create an arrangement or wants to reprint lyrics in liner notes, or wants to quote or “sample” your composition in a new work, they will need permission from the owner of that work. Similarly, composers will also need to obtain permission if they quote or sample someone else’s work or set copyrighted text to music. There is no set rate and permission may be denied for any reason.

So now you know there’s a lot more to music publishing than just belonging to ASCAP or BMI.  Do you think you can do all this by yourself? Do you know what the appropriate deal points and fees are?  Do you want to spend your time photocopying and shipping performance materials?

Talk to other composers about their experiences with music publishers and with self-publishing. These days, it doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. There are ways composers can control some aspects of their business themselves while having publishers and other professionals handle others. And if you do work with a publisher, publicist or other professional, make sure you also talk to a lawyer before signing the contract.


This article is adapted and abridged from a more detailed article on music publishing available to American Composers Forum members on the ACF web site.

Bunheads: My Guilty TV Pleasure

So I’m hooked on Bunheads. No, I don’t have a thing for teenage girls (or boys) in tutus.  I’m actually a fan of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s writing.  I first encountered her allegro vivace rhythmic patter peppered with pop culture references when I used to watch Gilmore Girls with my (now ex) wife.

It’s basically the same show. Both take place in quirky small towns about a two-hour drive from a major metropolis. Michelle is Lorelei 2.0, although two-time Tony winner Sutton Foster is a better Broadway babe than Lauren Graham. (Getting to watch Ms. Foster belt one out in a leotard is definitely a reason to tune in.)

And Bunhead’s Sasha is kind of a Gilmore Girl’s Rory reboot, too, especially since Michelle’s her surrogate mother since her parents conveniently left town. Then there’s Kelly Bishop: mother on Gilmore Girls, now mother-in-law on Bunheads. And Liza Weill has a recurring character on Bunheads, just as she did on Gilmore Girls. I’m just waiting for a special guest appearance by Edward Herrmann.

But, again, I watch it for the writing – and the quirky, if sometimes caricatural characters.  I may be biased, but the dialog is better in the scenes between the adults than the teens. I recently read an article about Ms. Sherman-Palladino and her obsessive Bunheads creative process through the ArtsJournal blog.  As to her writing style, she says:

“Well, my writing is very rhythmic,” she said. “It’s got a very specific beat to it and its part of the reason that our show is pretty much [acted] verbatim, word for word. It’s not just my Mussolini complex. Sometimes you drop ‘and’ or ‘a’ or ‘the,’ it just shifts the rhythm off and it doesn’t land the way it’s supposed to land, and that I think it’s like a dance, almost.”

Ms. Sherman-Palladino was a dancer before she became a writer and it shows. Her style is similar to that of Diablo Cody, of Juno fame. Ms. Cody was also a dancer, albeit of a more exotic kind, having exchanged her lap dances for laptops.  The rapid-fire delivery owes much to the screwball comedies of the 1930s, Bringing Up Baby, with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant being a prime example of the genre. While the style has a certain artifice   – and in unskilled hands it becomes cloying quickly – the jazz-like rhythms and swinging pacing enhance the wit and weirdness of it all.

I think I respond to this writing because, as a musician and songwriter, I also write rhythmically. Readers of my blog and other writings will notice the frequent use of alliteration and rhyme as well as a certain cadence or beat to it. While it’s my natural style, I do cultivate it a bit  (particularly in this post) as it makes blogging on otherwise dry and technical topics less plodding so that hopefully people will really read what I write.  And, I too, will add or subtract a word in a sentence or a lyric to make sure it “sounds” right.

But Bunheads also engages my brain – at least the music publisher part. Watching a show with plenty of set-piece musical numbers and many scenes of dance rehearsals, I sit there thinking things like: “who’s the music supervisor on the show?” and “did they do a MFN deal for the music and master with the label and publisher(s) for the featured choreographic performance of They Might Be Giants’ Istanbul (Not Constantinople)?

And while there’s shows like Glee and all the singing contest shows, there’s something to be said for one like Bunheads that features numbers from classic musicals, as in recent episodes, where, as part of the plot, Sutton’s Michelle sang show stoppers from Bells Are Ringing and Sweet Charity.

But the season’s just ended and it’ll be quite awhile before I can get another fix. At bottom, Bunheads is a guilty pleasure. Sure, it’s a confection, but  more like what you buy at the bakery rather than the wrapped nougat one gnaws on from the newsstand – not that there’s anything to snicker about the latter. It’s light entertainment, sometimes informative, with occasional sprinkles of meaning – hopefully like my blog posts…:)

So Nu, Music?

As many of my friends and colleagues know, I’ve been working for nearly two years on launching a comprehensive new promotion, publishing and licensing service for classical and jazz composers. Needing a break from dealing with the travails of software application development and the cast of characters involved, I decided last night to actually go out and listen to some of the music that inspired me to pursue what is a seemingly Quixotic quest to do something radical to help composers of new music.

As a preface, I was frequently asked back when I was running the New York office of a prominent classical music publishing company why I was signing jazz composers like Paquito D’Rivera and Andrew Hill, among others.  Among the responses I would give were things like they’re both taught in colleges and conservatories, are performed in concert halls and require a similar sophistication and study of compositional and performance skills.  And they have similar demographics in the marketplace.

The music I heard last night made me once again consider an even more radical reason: it’s all new music. And while there is plenty of contemporary music in both the classical (and I use the term to include “concert”, “serious” and “new music”) and jazz camps that are more firmly rooted in their respective traditions, I suspect that listeners who were unfamiliar with the artists and how they’ve been “branded” would be hard-pressed to classify the musical offerings I heard yesterday as definitely either classical or jazz.

First, I attended a concert of two short sets:  one by Missy Mazzoli and her group, Victoire and the other by the Vijay Iyer trio. With respect to Mr. Iyer’s music, he’s clearly been labeled as a jazz composer –  he’s won a fistful of Downbeat awards this year –  and the piano trio is one of the most traditional of jazz ensembles.  But the music he played had little if any of the trappings of traditional jazz. The drummer didn’t groove on a traditional swing beat. In fact, for long stretches he didn’t keep time at all.  And to my ears, the musical structures and harmonies Vijay composed seemed closer to the classical tradition than to that of jazz.

As for Victoire’s performance, the ensemble of two voices, clarinet, keyboards, violin, double bass, two female singers and electronics wouldn’t immediately strike someone as classical music if they were merely accustomed to hearing symphonies and string quartets.  The works Victoire performed certainly would fit nicely on a program with those of Mr. Iyer and the other “jazz” performer I heard last night. And yet, Ms. Mazzoli is signed to G. Schirmer, another prominent classical publishing company and she does write works for more traditional musical groupings. Last night, however, she presented her works as performed by her own ensemble, reminiscent of a more recent “classical” tradition epitomized by Reich and Glass, composers now regarded as classical – but not back when they first toured with their respective groups.

Then there’s last night’s the third group: Scott Robinson’s Doctette, which performed last night at the Jazz Standard.  Mr. Robinson, an established jazz saxophonist and composer,  presented a set of his compositions inspired by the Doc Savage pulp magazines of the 1930s and 1940s. And while an ensemble of piano, bass, drums and percussion, with Mr. Robinson on various winds, is a traditional jazz format, the inclusion of theremin and the rare, monolithic, awe-inspiring contrabass sax is not.  And like Mr. Iyer’s music earlier in the evening, there wasn’t much in the way of traditional swing beats and the music sounded far more like the music I hear at Zankel Hall than at a jazz club like the Jazz Standard.  And yet none of the music I heard last night sounded anything like the “third-stream” experiments of the post-war period, either.

The other day, my good friend, Frank J. Oteri, writing in NewMusicBox about accordionist, Guy Klucevsek’s album, Polka from the Fringe, concluded, “the next time someone comes up to you claiming to be able to define new music, tell him or her to listen to these recordings.”  I offer a corollary: the next time someone tries to draw lines separating what’s classical and what’s jazz these days,  tell him or her to listen to Mazzoli, Iyer, Robinson and a whole host of genre-bending new music composer/performers.