Self-Published Composers Explain What They Do and Why Jennifer Higdon

Self-Published Composers Explain What They Do and Why Jennifer Higdon

Jennifer Higdon
photo by Patented Photos

I basically do everything that an established publishing house does: I take orders from customers, print scores and parts, do the binding, mail the music, do the billing, report performances to ASCAP, and negotiate contracts for commissions.

The duplication of music is not that difficult – any copy place can aid in this endeavor. I do my own binding; I bought a $100 binder, which is easy to obtain, from an office supply store. The mailing process is straightforward, as long as you make sure that the music won’t be damaged in shipment (padded envelopes are great for this). When I first started, I created a standard bill on the computer which I still use today. And I’m able to fill requests for program notes, bio information, or a photo much faster than a big publishing house (this has been a consistent experience – substantial delays from the publishing houses!). I find that sometimes people need things FAST…I’m able to turn it around within a couple of hours, which is important. This way, I can make sure the order is correct and meets my customers’ requests.

The one thing that I don’t do, is advertise. I don’t have an advertising pamphlet to distribute, but then I’ve found people don’t perform music based on a piece of paper with a bunch of facts on it. They either have to know your name, have heard your music, or have been recommended by someone that they trust – no pamphlet will convince people to program your music without them having heard from a known source that your music makes an impact. I realize this may sound strange, but I depend on word-of-mouth advertising for my music to get to the public. Musicians are the best advertisement in the world. If they like a piece, they will approach you for more. If they hear a piece that excites them, they will tell others about it. I’ve been fortunate in that this method has worked successfully for me both in getting subsequent performances and in getting commissions.

In the various stages of my career, I have considered going with a publisher, but the more I thought about it, it seemed absurd to me to have to give up the copyright to my own creative work. Something about this idea has always bothered me. I understand the need for a large publisher to cover expenses (they are large, they have a lot more expenses), and sometimes they feel that in order to cover their costs they want to own the copyright. I, however, do not like the idea of giving up ownership of my work and I don’t want to have to buy copies of my own works.

I’ve also found that, as a performer and a conductor, I’ve had way too many experiences of having to wait too long to get music from the established houses. I don’t want my music to be so inaccessible. I don’t want my orchestra pieces to be too expensive for orchestras with small budgets (I ran across this a lot when I had a regular conducting gig)…the music should be affordable to anyone, from the poorest student to the small university chamber orchestra to the biggest budget groups around. This is not to say that I sell myself short by charging little or no money – a composer should be fairly compensated always. But I do make considerably more than I would if I were receiving a small percentage of the cover price or rental fees that are the standard of established publishing houses. I believe that composers should be paid, and I believe they should be paid fairly: 10-20 cents on the dollar is not my idea of fair compensation.

Finally, no one is going to represent me better than me. No one is going to be able to stay on top of things that need to get done better than me. I don’t want to have to check on others to see if they’ve mailed an order or filled a request; having to check can often take as much time as doing it myself.

Self-publishing aids me in being able to make a living as a working composer. This occurs because I collect my own publisher royalties and I have the revenue from music sales. Philip Glass once told me that if I want to make my living as a composer, I should keep the rights to my own music; I think that may have been some of the most valuable advice that I’ve ever received. That extra income definitely makes it possible to set my own hours and have more time and energy to write more music. With the incredible technologies available today, it is quite feasible to be your own publisher and artistic representative.

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