I received a commission to write a piece for piano and children's chorus. So, I wrote a little lullaby on a William Blake text. I thought it was sweet, and that a publisher might be interested. So, I sent it off to one of my usual sources. No one was interested.
A few years later, I needed to use the piece again. I thought, "This piece sort of sounds like Gershwin went to church. It would sound more like that if I swung the rhythm. So, I reset the work using swung rhythms. I sent it off again with a nice recording, and it was accepted for publication. I signed the contract and sent files to the copyist. Everything was ready to go. Then I got the phone call.
"Kurt, the people at Hal Leonard want you to change the key."
"Why? It's in the right key as it is."
"I agree, but they say that they can't sell music in D flat major. A choral director looking at the piece casually will see all those flats and just put it down."
"Yes, but it's written for young singers. An A flat is good high note. You can't move the piece down without changing the mood and making it too low for the lower voices. If we put it up to D, it will sound too bright, and the difference between an A flat and an A in a young voice is significant."
"I agree with you on all of this, nevertheless, they aren't going to print it if you don't put it in D. Two sharps sells. Five flats doesn't."
"I don't think it will sell if I move it up to D, but fine."
So, I moved it up to D, and it didn't sell.
The point here is very clear. The publishing industry is not interested in the creative freedom and wisdom of composers. They are a business that believes that D Major should be chosen over D flat major because of financial reasons instead of artistic ones.
At a national convention one year, I got the chance to chat with the business manager of a publishing house. He was the bean counter, numbers guy. I was talking to him about his business model and how they decided what to publish. He was, to his credit, very honest and frank with me.
"Our model is simple," he said. "We publish pieces that we believe will sell 5000 copies in their first year. We don't care what they do after that. If they continue to sell, that's a bonus, but our company is designed around publishing works that will sell 5000 copies in the first year."
I believe that most of the traditional publishers are so worried about financial considerations that they are no longer committed to artistic values. There is not even a commitment to promoting a work after it has been in print for more than a year - unless it is selling well.
At MusicSpoke, we are working to build a new model of publishing that is based around artistic freedom and integrity. We believe that the composer should have the freedom to decide what the right key of a work should be without concern for the financial implications if that's what she or he desires. You own the rights. You get the profits. You retain your artistic integrity and freedom. So visit us at MusicSpoke and sign up. Help us put power back in the hands of the artists.