written by Conrad Asman, composer and founder of Black Dot Press, an independent new music publishing company based in London

“Any choral music?”

A question I’ve heard a number of my published composer colleagues say that they’ve received from their respective publishing houses. A fair request, indeed. But how fair, and for who?

I would be lying if I were to say that no publishing house, including my own, are keen to publish choral music, as it is in my opinion, one of the easiest and most lucrative genres of music to publish. The vast majority of non-opera choral music exists in one layout (that is to say, there is only one type of score; one with no individual parts for players or reduced scores for producers, stage managers, crew etc.). One layout means only one score to edit, with the added benefit of not having to check consistency through all other parts, since, well, there aren’t any.

From a hiring perspective for larger works, the majority of choirs stem from amateur and community groups, who will naturally take longer to learn this aforementioned choral piece than their professional counterparts. Therefore, a longer (and more expensive) hiring fee would be necessary. Finally, it makes financial sense too, especially since choirs, by definition, require a group of musicians to sing as a collective. This collective, which can often be 20, 30, 40 or even hundreds strong, still involves individual musicians, each of whom needs his/her/their own individual score in which to make markings, notes and marks of musical expression and interpretation. Thus, a publisher is far more interested in selling many scores of one type to an ensemble than, for example, a highly complex work with lots of editorial requirements on various different layouts.

However, this publication preference may not necessarily be in line with those of the composer. Composers, whether through experience or lack thereof, know that their art is not generated through the same processes that propel a business. This does not necessarily mean that composers do not make money or do not intend to make money from their art, and there are countless examples in the film, TV and gaming world that can attest to this. Similarly, there are plenty of examples of concert music composers that were and are able to gain financially from their art, with and without the help of publishing houses.

The question for me, reader and potential fellow musician and composer, was if a business model could be constructed where a published composer could contribute to the publishing preferences of a publishing house, whilst still relying on the publishing house to execute these preferences?

Langqing Ding, ‘I Remember…’ (2019), performed by the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra.

Those with publishers have access to two of arguably the best assets to any composer: production assistance and marketing. Production assistance can be anything from copyists, who historically were responsible for duplicating each and every part for the musicians required for the composer’s work (and yes, that used to mean rewriting 20 individual string parts, or 40 choir parts). Thankfully this job is now replaced by modern printers or just PDF copies on an iPad, but copyists still play an invaluable role in music publication today: they are often the ones who formulate, create, check, correct, recheck, recorrect and so on, for all parts and layouts of new commissions and other works deemed for publication. This is often the step that composers who self-publish will undertake themselves. Whilst this indeed makes financial sense, these composers do lose the benefit of having another set of eyes (or several thereof) for proofreading.

So the benefit of having music published means that there won’t be any errors in my score? Not so fast. Even the most resourceful and dedicated publishing houses make mistakes in their published music. In fact, most houses keep and even request ‘errata sheets’ – lists of possible misprints made by those who handle the music for its performance(s). Often music librarians, who all heroically serve as the one of the final opportunities for any last-minute proofing before this piece of metaphorical bread is served, and hopefully seasoned, to its audience. Furthermore, even if the piece is performed with so called ‘mistakes’, the composer may not deem them as such after hearing this work live. Self-published composers, ideally, can choose to change whatever they like in the score for any future performance, whenever they like. This process can be more challenging when published traditionally, as one may find when a PDF entitled ‘no, these are actually the final FINAL changes, I promise!’ is sent to one’s editor.

Okay, so everybody makes mistakes. But what about marketing? How can composers get their music out to the world without any sort of promotional assistance? Traditional publishing houses have the upper hand here: Most large publishing houses have separate teams of people whose jobs are specifically to promote as much music (which may not necessarily be your music) of the house as possible in order to generate the most traffic towards their respective media and sales content. Indeed, you can always run your own website and sell your own scores online, as many successful composers do, but as a composer you will simply not have enough time to achieve the amount of throughput that any marketing and/or social media team has. After all, you have pieces to write, and maths don’t lie.

You might be thinking at this point that it’s time for you to go out there and find yourself a publisher. And you might be in luck finding some potentially appealing offers from some, but be warned: it is crucial to have the ability to distinguish whether you as the composer are actually being treated fairly in any proposed publishing deal.

David Nunn, ‘étude ‘circlets” (2020), performed by George Xiaoyuan Fu.

Okay, time to get personal. I am a composer. I write music. All different types, but mostly music that is performed on some sort of stage (concert, opera, chamber, Eurovision arrangements etc.) with the odd short film or video game here and there. I am fortunate enough to have had some success in the business and am pleased to say that I still compose today, for money. I have had a number of different publishing offers from different, mostly smaller music publishing houses, all of which I have never accepted. This is because all of these offers included at least one of three 30 Rock Liz Lemon-styled ‘dealbreakers’ that I have used and tweaked from chats with colleagues, friends and composers from around the world, at different places, and at different times in my life. They are, in decreasing order of severity:

(1) The exclusive transfer of copyright

(2) The ‘pay to publish’ gimmick

(3) The lack of either production assistant or marketing

A quick word on all three points:

(1) Copyright is everything. Copyright is what grants you, the composer, the sole right to decide which crotchets change to minims, which dots get sharpened, which bars get cut. Stravinsky’s The Firebird is just one example where the composer was ensnared in a legal battle over copyright issues, due to different publishers holding the rights of different versions of the work. When he sold the rights to an American company, they released an unauthorised jukebox arrangement and falsely claimed that Stravinsky arranged it. This led to Stravinsky suing the publisher in 1947.1

The fact that music publishers can have this power over one’s music has always unsettled me as an artist, as it has others. However, issues like this can be overcome where copyright can be transferred but with a clause stating that the publisher must receive written consent from the composer. Bottom line: get a lawyer to read any contracts anyone puts in front of you and ask if you’ll still be in control of the music’s copyright (not necessarily the same as the graphic copyright of the score).

(2) This has grown in popularity over the last few years with publishers (big and small) offering composers the ‘opportunity’ to have their music published under their name and use their printing, distribution and storage facilities in exchange for a set fee which is paid by the composer to the house for the privilege. Some are even brazen enough to offer their name and marketing for such payments. This is problematic not only for the aspiring new composer, who will quickly see financial loss in this arrangement, but also for those already published by the publisher (potentially those who were not offered such monetary ‘opportunities’). Publishing houses rely on a mystique that they are selective, exclusive and focused on finding and publishing music supposedly for the music’s sake. This is entirely undermined when the right of entry relies on the size of one’s wallet.

(3) This last point is the least ‘dealbreaker’-y ones of them all, but is still important to consider as a composer as it forces one to ask the question, “What am I actually getting out of this deal, then?” If a publisher wants your work, but isn’t prepared to do any actual work on developing, refining or promoting it, how does this benefit you and your career?

Jaein Hwang, ‘변성암 Metamorphic Rock’ (2019), performed by Eun Kyul Cho and Gyu-Chang Hwang.

After a while, I decided to try my own hand at it. During the pandemic in July 2020, I jumped on the bandwagon of self-determined starter-uppers and founded Black Dot Press: an independent new music publishing company, run for and by the published composers themselves. The aim of the publishing house is to provide a digital platform upon which their composers can exhibit their compositions on a global scale. In turn, Black Dot Press allows music seekers from across the globe to explore a host of cutting-edge musical compositions from composers of different backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures. Our independence allows us to put our composers first: Alongside fair contracts and composer-majority royalty percentages, all our composers retain 100% of their creative copyright (see dealbreaker 1), do not pay anything for our service (2) and are provided production assistance, engraving proofing, marketing, legal and other music publishing services (3).

Now I’m not going to tell you, faithful reader who has made it to the final paragraph, that we are the best in the business and that we want YOU to join us NOW (where’s my Uncle Sam poster?), but if you are interested in our publishing house, do feel free to get in contact and submit work. We run occasional call-for-score opportunities, but also always try to find time to consider all our unsolicited submissions. And, just in case we are unable to offer you any publishing opportunities, our music printing and distribution services are available to all composers for any performance, anywhere.

Whichever route you choose, whether it be self-publishing your scores at the local printer’s, using online publishing services to help distribute your first hit, entering a call for scores for potential publication on a piece-by-piece basis, or ambitiously striving for all your music to be taken on exclusively by one of the publishing giants, my only plea to you is this: Look after your money, broaden your choice options and above all, protect your musical right of ownership.

Learn more about Black Dot Press at:

All music featured in this article was composed by artists signed with Black Dot Press – learn more about these composers:

References:

  1. Paul K. Saint-Amour. Modernism and Copyright. Modernist Literature & Culture. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011: 114-115

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: