Thoughts on the Music Publishing Industry – Part 1

It is mid-2015, as as much as technology has impacted our lives, as musicians, one area where technology has had little influence is the music publishing industry.

While there are still hundreds of music publishers, many exist (distribute and print) under a larger “umbrella” of a handful of publishers (Hal Leonard, Alfred, and Carl Fisher, to name a few). As a choral director, I saw the average price of new scores raise to $2.25 per copy. Meanwhile, education is in the process of eliminating printed resources and using public domain or group-sourced textbooks authored by their own teachers. Ultimately, this means that schools can place more money into technology devices and delivery systems than curriculum (paying teachers is far less expensive than purchasing books).

Where does this leave music, where most educators are consumers and not composers?

The quick answer: not in a very good place. I do not know many schools that have an increasing “music” budget each year–and in fact, I know many schools that receive less funding today than they did ten years ago. This means that schools are unable to purchase as much music as they did in the past, meaning that they have to turn to four solutions: using existing music, borrowing/lending, public domain, or photocopying.

There is nothing wrong with using existing literature, but this means that you aren't buying the most recent pieces by today's composers/arrangers, and you are also not buying pop music that kids want to study. I'm not saying you have to program a lot of today's music, but you should probably be programming some of today's music. Additionally, your existing music may be missing copies or the copies may be in poor condition. The end result? Publishing companies sell less music if you aren't buying new music.

I have no problem with borrowing/lending, but in some sense, it seems that borrowing/lending is also a breach of copyright. Think about it: someone's purchase of music was an agreement, I believe a non-transferrable agreement, between you and the publishing company to have ensembles learn and perform that music. The copyright does not allow you to arrange the music, rearrange the music, re-voice the music, make take-home copies of the music, record the music, make a CD of the performance, share the performance via Google Drive, or share a video recording of the performance on YouTube. Since the copyright is intended to be between the purchaser and the publlisher, does the purchaser have the right to lend music with others? Probably not. And in the end result, publishing companies sell less music if you are borrowing/lending music.

Let me add an additional thought here: having students share a single copy of music between two or three students is also against the spirit of Copyright. The concept is one legal copy for every user of the music. This includes solo and ensemble literature–you are not supposed to make photocopies of music for students to practice at home and then use the same two printed copies for every student that competes on contest day. Under copyright, every student should be using their own purchased printed copy, if the piece is under copyright. And if something is out of print? If it is under copyright, you still need to pay for the ability to use that music.

The public domain is a wonderful source for music, but you need to make sure that the piece is truly in the public domain. Furthermore, there is no editor of public domain literature, so some scores provided by well-intended arrangers are full or errors. And you should find no “pop” music in the public domain, as you know that the original pop artists and song writers will not be receiving any income from public domain publications. The use of the public domain will cause publishers to sell less music.

Photocopying music is illegal, unless you have either purchased the music and it has not yet arrived (at which point you need to destroy the photocopies) or you have contacted the publisher, paid to make legal copies of an out-of-print but under copyright piece. You can also make a photocopy of up to 10% of any score for educational purposes–but you can't photocopy all 100% and distribute it in 10% chunks to your students. Obviously, if you are photocopying music, music publishers sell less music.

Arranging music yourself, unless you are using public domain resources or freshly composing new material, is also against copyright. If you make an arrangement of a song that is on the radio, you have to get permission (and likely pay royalties) to do so. I one made an arrangment for Women's Choir and orchestra of the song “Requiem” by Eliza Gilykson, and receieved written permission from Ms. Gilkyson to make the arrangement but not to publish it (later, Craig Hella Johnson made an arrangement for SATB and made a lot of money on royalties, which I did not). If you make an arrangement of an existing piece under copyright, that is also against copyright. Generally, composers and publishers don't want you to mess with their stuff, even if it means revoicing parts for a boy with a changing voice. Chances are they aren't going to “hunt you down,” but you need to understand that arranging existing is generally against copyright.

Let's be honest here…musicians and music educators break Copyright with near reckless abandon, and only use Copyright as an excuse when they are fighting against new approaches or concepts. There isn't a teacher alive that hasn't re-worked a part, made a photocopy so that a student can take a copy of the music home, or shared an audio recording. Many more have either posted videos of their ensembles on YouTube or have allowed parents to post their own recordings (yes, we could be considered accountable to ask students and parents to remove illegal recordings of our groups on YouTube and SoundCloud). Even more troubling? School districts airing concerts over public access are also in breach of Copyright unless written permission is granted for every song! You can make an audio recording or video recording for your own educational use (e.g. playing back for students afterwards), but you are not automatically granted permission to share. The positive news is that the music publishers seldom go after people who break copyright (even the mass photocopiers who clearly only purchase a few pieces for groups of 50). But as economics in music publishing continue to slide–perhaps they will start doing so to get income back!

I will conclude my thoughts in the next post. In that post, I highlight problems with the current system and offer solutions that would not only give education better tools, but also help the music publishing company ensure that they were “getting paid.”



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