Publishing advice for composers

Don’t wait to “get discovered”

One of my biggest pet peeves are artists talking about “getting discovered.” Obviously it’s naïve, but it’s also a passive way to look at your career. I prefer to think about building an audience, cultivating a following, networking, creating opportunities, etc. etc. 

You won’t be “discovered” by a publisher and find fame that way. But you might be “discovered” by musicians looking for new music to play. Publishing is a topic that comes up often for composers, and I’ll do my best to give you an overview in this post. 

Keep in mind, music is going to be up in the air for some time following the pandemic. There was no formula for success before, and it’s going to be even more. . . interesting . . . going forward.

Do you really need a publisher?

These days, most composers self-publish. You don’t have to have pieces on Schott or Peters to have “made it.” In fact, some composers like John Mackey control all aspects of their publishing (sales, rentals, promotion, printing and binding) and it constitutes a substantial income.

Remember that publishing companies retain most of the money generated from sales (often 90% or more). That leaves you with 10% or less from each sale. Secondly, classical music publishers rarely do any promotion or marketing on your behalf. 

You may want a publisher if:

  • You need the cachet for tenure, etc.
  • You are selling enough that you need someone to manage sales, rentals, etc.

Since it’s so easy to sell online, and since many people are happy to buy PDFs these days, you might as well jump in and sell your wares.

Selling on your website

Selling on your website can be as simple as posting your contact info and taking care of sales over email. If you want, you can make this more automated.

My site is built on WordPress, and the plugin WooCommerce was very helpful for setting up my online store. I have tied it to my PayPal, and only sell PDFs. People who visit can easily and securely pay, and they receive a link to download the score and parts. WooCommerce also has built-in search functions, so people can find all the pieces for their instrument.

Distribution and marketing

Your website is the central place to find your music. But not everyone is going to stumble upon you. It might be worth finding a distributor or placing your music on a larger website.

Sheet Music Plus. This website is huge, and they carry many independent publishers. They retain 55% of the sale price. That may sound like a lot, but it is much less than a traditional publisher. I have many pieces on SMP as well as my site.

Distributor. I have several pieces distributed by Brass Arts Unlimited. Why I chose to do this is because they travel to conferences and have booths to sell horns and sheet music. I receive royalties on these sales, which wouldn’t happen otherwise. Since I have several pieces with horn, Brass Arts and I can work on developing a following in the horn world.

Giving it away

You might find, as I did, that giving your music away might be the best practice. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I started selling my scores. 

A few reasons you might consider giving away your music for free:

  • You’re early in your career, and don’t have many pieces completed: Build a small catalog first. This shows that you are serious about your craft and have a track record of pieces/performances. 
  • Performances matter more than sales: Maybe you don’t have many pieces and performances yet. It might be a good idea to get your music in front of people to build interest.
  • You have a piece for an odd instrumentation: I have elected to give away a few of my pieces. For example, 5th W was written for loadbang (baritone voice, trumpet, trombone, bass clarinet). If anyone besides that group decides to play that piece, I would be elated! So I have it on my site for free.

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