The state of things for composers (part 1)

I have a few thoughts about the state of things for composers that I will post over the next few days. Stay tuned for more exciting and depressing thoughts.

I have a trusted friend who is a wonderful musical mind and a genuine and caring person. He happens to be an excellent editor with many connections. So, when I write something that I think might be publishable, he is always the first to see it.

I sent a few files off to him this week. One of the responses that he gave was that a certain piece was fabulous but that X publishing house would never look at it because “the piano part looked harder than it actually was.” The sad thing is, I knew immediately that he was as correct and insightful as ever.

I think it was sometime last year that a score had to be changed from D flat to D in order to be published. The reason, I was told, was that all the accidentals would scare people away and it wouldn’t sell that well. So, I changed it to D – even though it wasn’t the right key for the piece. Turns out, it didn’t sell all that well anyway.

To be fair to the publishing industry, they are running a business and financial considerations do have to come into the picture. Everyone gets a cut. The distributor takes a huge cut to pay for promotions and lawyers. The local music store takes a big cut. The publisher takes a cut. Some scraps are left for the composer, editor, and the copyist. To give you an idea of the creators cut, most composers are now left with around 8% of the retail or 16% of the wholesale price. That means you have to sell a mad amount in order to make any money.

The entire industry is changing right now, but no one is sure exactly where it is going. A few years ago, I was chatting with the business manager of a publishing firm. He explained the model very clearly to me. “Our model is based completely around publishing pieces that will sell 5000 copies in their first year. We don’t even care that much about what happens after that because it’s all a residual bonus. The model is 5000 in the first year.”

The big question is whether or not this sort of model is viable economically. It’s certainly not a model that fosters creativity and innovation, but as I said before, the publishing houses are businesses and the artistic end is usually not their top priority. They have to eat too.

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