Would Beethoven Have Given Up His Copyright?

by Edna Landau

The following column was prepared with the kind and generous help of a few wonderful friends and colleagues whom I would like to thank and acknowledge: composers Derek Bermel, Jennifer Higdon and Alex Shapiro; Kristin Lancino, Vice President, G. Schirmer, Inc., and Mary Madigan, President, Madigan New Music.

The excellent question below was submitted by Steve Danyew, an accomplished and entrepreneurial composer, as well as the editor of the new Polyphonic on Campus section of Eastman School of Music’s widely read Polyphonic.org.

Dear Edna:

As a young composer, I’m wrestling with the decision of whether to pursue publication of my works through a reputable publisher or to continue to self publish. I’m leaning towards pursuing a publisher because of the distribution and marketing reach that many publishers have. As a self-published composer, it seems difficult to reach all the ensemble directors and musicians who may be interested in my music. At the same time, I’m not entirely sure where to start when thinking about publishers – which organizations would be the right fit, if this is the right point in my career, etc.     –Steve Danyew

Dear Steve:

I understand from the composers I have been speaking to that hardly a day goes by that they are not asked the very question you have posed. Not unlike young performers hoping to attract a manager, chances are that a composer in the early stages of their career will find it difficult to attract interest from a “reputable publisher.” Much will depend on the quality and volume of their work, record of past performances, and opportunities to hear their music in concert. Recommendations to the publisher from respected colleagues can also have great impact. Until such a time is reached, composers are advised to learn all the skills of self-publishing, as you seem to have ably done.

The next big question is, if you can succeed in attracting a reputable publisher, can you agree to the terms of the proposed agreement which typically include ceding control of your copyright and sharing revenues from sales, rentals, performances, and other uses of your music? Presumably you would only want to do this if you felt that you got a great deal in return. In addition to editing and preparation of score and parts, managing and negotiating agreements relating to the copyright and processing all orders, this could include substantial marketing and promotion and a targeted strategy to introduce your music to a well-established (possibly international) network of contacts, potentially enhancing your chances for new commissions. There is no doubt than an association with a major music publisher also carries with it a certain amount of prestige that can have incalculable effects on your career.

Do bear in mind that as with almost everything in life, nothing is absolutely black and white. Most deals have the potential for negotiation, especially if you are at a point in your career where you have some leverage. Some composers have succeeded in working out co-publishing agreements where the publisher may assume only some of the responsibilities mentioned above and the composer may retain partial ownership of (and greater revenue from) the copyright. Others have retained ownership of their copyright and passed along some activities to an independent entity such as Bill Holab Music, “publishing agents” for an impressive group of composers.

In choosing the right fit, it makes sense to study the catalogues of individual publishers to see if they include the type of music you compose and whether you admire, and maybe even know, the composers who are represented. This allows you to inquire what type of experience they have had. You might also want to get a feeling for whether the focus of the publisher’s activity is domestic or international. You will certainly want to research the level of music organizations with whom they regularly do business; check whether they are staffed adequately to provide the marketing and promotional support, as well as individual attention, you are seeking; find out whether they meet regularly with their clients and travel to key performances and premieres, and who would be your primary and regular contact. It is important to feel a good chemistry with that person and to sense that you would be a priority for them, not unlike a good artist/manager relationship.

In making a final decision, you need to weigh the benefits and financial realities of a publishing relationship against the time spent on maintaining total control of your business and growing it to higher levels. I suggest you speak to as many composers as possible about their personal experiences. In the end, the answer may lie somewhere in the middle.

© Edna Landau 2011

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