Thoughts on the Music Publishing Industry – Part 2

Before I go any further in this series, I think it is important to note that I am an “end user” in this industry. I have done some arranging, and I have also prepared some larger works (public domain) for use with choirs. I am very familar with Finale and Notion, and am growing more familiar with MuseScore. For the most part, Finale and Sibelius are the major tools that music publishers use to finalize a piece. Many hours can be spent “print setting” a piece. In choral music, the process is generally straightforward, as the biggest concern is printing all parts in an octavo (smaller page size) format, whereas instumental music offers many challenges in both a master score and individual parts. Most composers compose directly to MusicXML, and software of nearly any kind can print both scores and parts. But creating a published piece requires much more finish work, as well as cover art, composer notes, and anything else included in the final printed masterpiece. Then of course, there is marketing, audio recording (samples), printing, storage, shipping, and all the other overhead costs of a piece.

I honestly don't know the cost distribution of a music publisher, but my guess is that the composer/arranger receives 10% or less, and that the license fees of a pop song are perhaps 25%. I believe that music is sold to music stores at a discount of 25% (75% of MSRP), leaving somwhere between 65% and 40% of the cost of each piece of music to the music publisher. When the sale moves to the online format of the music publisher, they may make between 90% and 65% of the cost of the music–with the purchaser often picking up the shipping (the website costs are negligible, perhaps an extra 3% of overhead with credit card fees. Normal website costs are part of doing business these days).

So, with that in mind, let me express some of my frustration with things as they stand and how they can be addressed:

  1. Music purchased in a digital format should NEVER cost as much as paper. At certain times of the year, I can purchase sheet music from a local music store for 20% off with free shipping. If I order a digital copy, it costs the full cost PLUS shipping (and my local music store doesn't see a cent).
  2. I “get” that some people love paper music and hate digital music. I can only assume two things when this occurs. First, they haven't tried apps like forScore or unrealBook tied with an AirTurn foot pedal. Second, digital music is paper music digitized, not music optimized for a digital screen. So that said, have the engravers tweak the digitial music you are paying more for to specifically work on the screen of an iPad (with hundreds of millions sold, that's a good start), which will then scale well to the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 (which still lacks a good PDF music reader) or future iPad “Pro.”
  3. That said, any printed music that makes staves miniscule should stop the process. Earthsongs and Oxford…some of your scores are horrendous to read if you are over 40.
  4. Storage of paper music stinks. Collection of scores after a performance and distribution is a challenge, and some kids fail to turn things in until the very end of the year. Sorting scores (in instrumental music) is a pain. Digital music can solve all that (after the piece is used, it is deleted or recycled). An online database could easily track what a school (not a director, as those change) has purchased, allowing that school to redownload and print as necessary.
  5. We (educators) can photocopy cheaper than you can print. Covers are pretty, but are not needed with digital music. We want the first page to be music, with “extra” materials at the end. For a digital score, pages should be re-numbered. Save the money and do away with the fancy covers that end up dating the scores in five years anyway. So if your school isn't 1:1 iPad or Surface (or a future Chromebook tablet), you can still photocopy. Remove the cost of printing, stapling, handling, storage, and shipping from the cost of the music, and make it less expensive for all of us. Make digitial copies we can print the standard.
  6. With that digital copy, be bold. Include the MusicXML file so we can convert songs easily to rehearsal files. Include rehearsal audio files (like Carl Fischer).
  7. Make a way for us to “trade in” printed music (or simply recycle) for the number of copies we have (thus showing those copies in our school's databae), either for free or a ridiculously low cost (covering the cost of the person who has to enter the data). Help us remove our sheet music storage rooms. Paper is terrible. It becomes brittle, gets abused by students, is suceptible to water, fire, and insects (the school where I taught in the Dominican Republic lost all of its music to termites. My father's male chorus had their music library flooded), and even professional drying didn't save all of it).
  8. Rewrite the terms of your copyright agreement to allow for things like creating “keepsake” CDs for students, posting on YouTube and SoundCloud. Encourage people to share those recordings. Also modify your copyright terms to allow directors to revoice music as needed.
  9. Change copyright to require each SCHOOL to own the music, and make sharing or lending illegal.
  10. Obviously, allow schools to use purchased digital music in lieu of printed sheet music in 1:1 situations.
  11. Never, EVER, sell us a piece that is in the public domain without letting us know that it is available in the public domain. Help us to use our limited money to buy music that supports living compoers. Some teachers may still want a printed copy–if so, fine. But most teachers would appreciate the customer service.
  12. Offer schools the ability to buy a set of music versus indvidual copies. In choir, treating a song like a band score, authorzing use from 1-25, 1-35, 1-50, 1-75, and unlimited. Those price points could change (increase) from year to year, but once you buy the set, they stay with your school. With band scores, allow owners to use as many copies as needed for their school.
  13. On a related note, if schools consolodate, their libraries could legally merge.
  14. Never, EVER, let anything go out of print. Ever. Always make it available. If I can reasonably recreate a piece in a couple of hours, so can your engraving experts. They might even correct original mistakes in the process.
  15. That said, when there are errors in your music, and they are reported, update the scores, and upload the refreshed versions to the overall database, with a note that errors were corrected! Furthermore, if you are updating scores, update fonts and beaming at the same time. Just because the original printing plate was horrible doesn't mean that you can't make it better today.
  16. Stop with the practice of developing your own app for every publisher, where music has to be locked into the app or printed. This is complete DEATH in a rehearsal (“Okay, now open the Alfred App. Now the Hal Leonard App). Everything should be in an unlocked PDF.
  17. You know all those workers who handle all your music in your warehouse? They can become compliance experts, traveling to schools and checking that the music being used is legally purchased and owned. Don't sue those who are not in compliance–bill them for the cost of the music. This could also be passed on to the independent music stores who are getting cut out of the action.
  18. I would love to see a Pandora of music, a site where all publishers made their works available, and schools could register to use “x” number of copies per year at an annual fee. You would have every song at your fingertips at a cost that could be defended to administration and budgeted. Furthermore, use would be tracked, and then payments would be sent accordingly to both the composer/arranger and (if necessary), the performing artist/song writer (pop music).

The world has changed, and paper resources are on the way out. It is time for music publishers to embrace the new paradigm, and in fact, to profit from it. There has to be a realization that school budgets are shrinking, and that schools are simply not going to be able to buy music as they have in the past. There are ways to sell digital music (such as Graphite Publishing and BandWorks) that make it possible for schools to afford music and use it digitally, while still paying the composer and the publisher. I know that change is scary–but right now, the music publishing industry–even with its attempts at some apps–is out of date with the changes in technology and funding that we are seeing in our schools.

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Posted on May 23, 2015, in General Musings. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Thoughts on the Music Publishing Industry – Part 2.

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