Fit To Print: A “Hyperhistory” of the Current State of American Music Publishing

Fit To Print: A “Hyperhistory” of the Current State of American Music Publishing

John Robinson
Photo by Melissa Richard

The English verb “to publish” is derived from the Latin verb publicare, meaning “to make available.”

Most people think that music publishing is similar to book publishing, and many aspects are parallel. Selection: Publishers of both books and music employ editors who sift through countless submissions by aspiring writers and composers, trying to identify a unique and compelling voice to make available. Production: Publishers have throughout history been at the forefront of printing and engraving technology, and were for many years the only avenue for a writer to share his art with a larger public, and achieve a certain immortality or permanence. Martketing: Both books and sheet music are sold to consumers in retail stores (and increasingly over the Internet).

However, there are other aspects to music publishing that have no parallels in book publishing. Score rentals: With large-scale works for orchestra or large ensemble, publishers make the scores and parts available on a rental basis only. By promoting interest in performances of the composers from their catalogue, a music publisher can generate a large proportion of its revenues from this area. Performance fees: Another stream of income for music publishers comes from recording royalties and performance fees which are collected from radio stations, performing arts centers, and other venues for the public performance of music by ASCAP, BMI and SECAC.

Advancements in the technology of music printing have brought the ability to publish music to anyone that is interested and can afford a modest investment in a computer and a laser printer. Frog Peak Music, a composers’ collective located in New Hampshire is just one example of a smaller company that has taken advantage of the new technology to help composers make their music available in high quality editions. These developments have also forced many larger music publishers to re-think and expand their role in connecting the composer with the audience. Boosey and Hawkes, for example, now offers a new media department concentrating on linking composers and new works with TV and movie producers, choreographers and designers of websites. G. Schirmer, an early advocate of the Internet as a marketing tool, has licensed its print division to an outside distributor and is concentrating on career development and international copyright exploitation for a core group of composers it publishes on exclusive contract. In recent years, there has been a greater emphasis on long-range planning and career counseling.

When asked how they can afford to make significant investments of time, energy and money into the careers of unknown composers, each publisher had a slightly different response. For Carl Fischer, the commercial success of the educational and popular catalogues gave the concert music division the freedom to invest in the future. Peer Music Classical is linked to a strong popular music division. European-American Music Distributors Corporation recently entered into a joint venture with the popular music conglomerate Warner-Chappell which should provide even greater resources for the concert music they represent.

There is no popular music catalog to help support the concert music catalog at Thoedore Presser Company in Bryn Mawr (PA) or ECS Publishing in Boston although ECS gave a lot of the credit to a single piece of music, Randall Thompson’s Alleluia, which has been enormously popular over the years. In the case of CF Peters, the tone poems of Richard Strauss offered a financial stability that allowed them to invest in the controversial music of John Cage in the 1960s. Now it is Cage’s catalogue that supports the hunt for the next generation.

Where will the next genius come from? How will we know? How do we find this genius? More than one top publisher interviewed for this page mentioned David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet as someone they spoke with on a regular basis for his valuable insights. They also mentioned conductors or well-traveled artistic administrators as important sets of ears on which they rely. Robert Thompson of Universal Edition, New York, said he was “amazed at the number of composers coming out of places I never imagined they would, like Lebanon, Mongolia, or Kazakhstan. It’s an amazing outpouring of music.” Occasionally, as in the rare case of Tan Dun, who developed his gift in relative obscurity in China, a composer will burst on the international scene, achieving meteoric success both from a critical and a commercial standpoint. More often, it takes years for the recognition to come, and the praise is often bestowed on a (sometimes posthumous) body of work rather that on a specific work. Let us hope that music publishers will continue to invest heavily in the future, and that those responsible for the bottom lines will support this important work.

It is always impossible to cover everything we would like to cover in NewMusicBox. If you have any additional information about music publishers in the United States that you would like to share with our readers, please contribute your comments to our forum.

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NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

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