I’ve written this guide as a resource for aspiring composers and arrangers who want to explore career pathways in creating new music, particularly for band and choir. You’ll notice that it is fairly straightforward, and particular to my experience. I hope to keep this as a working document that can be updated as the markets shifts and changes over time and new avenues open, and as I can include insight from other composers and arrangers. My goal is to share what I’ve learned so that others can create music more freely, pursuing and achieving their goals, including making a living from writing music.
For a bit of background, I began writing music as a senior in high school in 2002. My first composition for wind ensemble written in 2005 was published in 2009, the same year I began teaching band and choir at a middle school outside of Kansas City, Missouri. In 2011 I began writing and arranging music for my students, leading me to compose music for choir as well, which is where I spend most of my time writing currently.
To date, I have 7 works in print for Wind Ensemble and 14 works in print for choir. The works for wind ensemble are exclusively published by a traditional print publishing house, and the works for choir are exclusively published by my own sheet music publishing company called Ryan Main Music LLC. I used to refer to this as self-publishing, but I find a stigma still exists among many who view some forms of publishing to be more legitimate than others. I now simply say that my choir music is published, just like my band music. The difference between artist-owned publishing and traditional publishing is that my choir music makes up almost the entirety of my income, while my wind ensemble music amounts to a small royalty twice a year.
Why is that? Because a composer or arranger can expect an average of 10% of the selling price of music that is published through a traditional print publishing house. This number can vary depending on a number of factors, but tends not to rise above 15% in the best case scenarios. If you write music for band and the score costs $70, you can expect to make $7 per sale. If you write for choir and the score is priced at $2.15, 10% on a set of 30 scores would earn $6.45. On the other hand, a composer who owns their own publishing business can make anywhere from 50% to 100% of the sale, depending on whether you work with retailers, offer printed scores (meaning there are printing costs), and if you sell digital scores online.
There are four primary strategies for publishing music
These publishing pathways are, at their root, tools to achieve an outcome. Different tools will achieve different results, so clarifying your goals can go a long way toward making the right decision. The excitement of potentially being a ‘published composer’ leads many - myself included - to rush to agree to a traditional publishing model without thinking about the desired outcomes. When the inevitable first royalty check comes, the reality also sets in about what you have given away for the sake of being published.
Below are some common goals of music directors and composers. If these don’t apply to you, that’s just fine, but hopefully this can help in clarifying what your goals are:
You’ll notice that being published is not listed as a goal, because that’s not actually the goal. We get excited about being published because we view it as a milestone, a career step, a door-opener. It can be those things, but which goal above is most important to you, and how do the publishing pathways relate to these goals?
Traditional publishing houses
Undeniably, traditional publishers carry clout. While difficult to quantify, having your name side-by-side with some of today’s most celebrated composers in print catalogs, reading sessions and publisher websites will increase name recognition and potentially lead to festival invitations, commissions, and supplemental income. These publications can be listed on your resume, and depending on the piece, can potentially generate royalties. If a $2.10 score sells 10,000 copies in a year (a popular piece), that would equal $2,100 in royalties for that year. This can be a helpful supplement for a teacher or college student, and having wide distribution of your music can often lead to commissions for new works.
Unfortunately, the cons are significant. The example above is a higher-end estimate for a year and, outliers aside, print publishing sales tend to decline year after year, making it a poor long-term investment in the intellectual property itself… while traditional publishing might be a good career step, one composition or arrangement cannot make up a significant portion of a full-time living. In fact, it would take 15-20 published pieces selling at full potential to reach the beginning salary of many first-year teachers. Additionally, there is no guarantee that your publisher will push your music in reading sessions and print catalogs to the same degree as other already popular composers. Many composers are surprised to find they still need to do a lot of self-promotion even when they are traditionally published (in fact, there is almost no publishing path that will free you from self-promotion).
Most publishers will require that they own the copyright for the music before publishing. Unfortunately, this means they have total control over the availability of the piece. There is no shortage of composers and arrangers whose music has gone out of print and cannot be legally recovered, even to print it themselves. In other words, the intellectual property no longer belongs to the artist. You are selling the actual music for a share of sales over the lifetime of that music.
Marketplaces such as MusicSpoke and Graphite
MusicSpoke and Graphite offer much higher royalty rates than traditional publishers, likely because they focus on digital sales, which requires much less overhead than print music. Their operations appear to be leaner, and their overall volume of publications is lower than most traditional publishers. For most, being published through MusicSpoke or Graphite will be seen as equally prestigious as traditional publishers, and these companies have increasingly published the works of excellent, popular composers.
Like traditional publishers, marketplaces have an increasing presence at conferences and (most importantly) reading sessions. Like traditional publishers, these publications can be listed on your resume, and depending on the piece, can potentially generate significant income, with royalty rates in the area of 50%-70%. If you run the math on the same example used for traditional publishing, you can see how much of a difference this can make. Additionally, any music published outside of the traditional model has the potential to increase sales over time. If you have written quality work, there is a good chance that directors will tell other directors, and word will spread.
The drawbacks to this approach are that despite a lot of good work, these companies are still somewhat niche, and many directors still do not feel comfortable with download only music. While that number will undoubtedly dwindle over time, the print music market is still surprisingly significant, and actually makes up the majority of my own sheet music sales.
Most print music sales happen through JW Pepper and local retail stores.MusicSpoke now sells print music through JW Pepper, while Graphite does not. I am unsure how they handle local retailers, but the possibility exists that a director who wants your music will be unable to get it if their school district or business office will only purchase music through a brick and mortar sheet music store.
This publishing method has the greatest potential, and also comes with the greatest learning curves and investments of time and energy. The good news is that this can be spread out over time, and all you need to get started is music notation software and a website. This method takes patience, relationship building, and an interest in do-it-yourself projects. Results will vary, but it would be difficult to overstate how much fun it can be to build a business and grow your incentive to create high quality literature. The art does not just benefit the business, the business also benefits the art.
Of the goals outlined earlier, owning your own publishing can potentially rival or surpass other methods on every count, except perhaps name recognition and reach, at least in the first few years. However, if you write great music, directors will come to know about it. Exactly how long that takes depends on a lot of factors, some that are within your control and some that are not. What you can control is the quality of your music, the energy you put into building relationships with directors and retailers, and your patience with the process of adding elements to your business over time.
Another benefit here is that, as the copyright holder, you can always move your publications to another publishing model. Even music that you have already published is still open to be published elsewhere, should that begin to look like a better way to go.
No two situations are the same, so specific recommendations are likely to be unhelpful here. Instead, consider your goals, your level of patience, and your personal strengths to reach a decision that is right for you. Remember that in most cases, no one piece of music can accomplish every goal, and that continuing to create is your greatest asset as an artist. Finally, know that choosing one publishing pathway for one title does not lock you into anything. A publisher wants nothing more than to publish a great piece of music, so write great music and as many doors as possible will stay open to you.
To do list
Finally, if you have decided to give artist-owned publishing a try, below is a not-necessarily-ordered to-do list to assist in the startup process.
This should always be your first step. Look around at lots of websites and, if you can, purchase sheet music from a few different stores to try to understand the full user experience you want to create.
2. Create a website with an option to sell digital or physical items in an online store
I have used weebly for some time now, but it does not have all the tools I need now, and I am in the process of moving to shopify. Both have a similar monthly price. You can start with a free site, but my opinion is that you should not. One sale per month will cover the expense of a site that looks and feels professional.
All of these options are CMS (content management systems), meaning that you won’t be building a website from scratch. Don’t waste time and energy trying to learn to code and build a site from scratch, get through this step as quickly as possible then go back and improve later. You may also need to register a domain, I have used this company for years.
3. Engrave your music using Sibelius, Finale or Dorico
Any of these options can allow you to create a publication quality score. Free options will make this very difficult, if not impossible. Rather than using free software, consider trying to qualify for an educational discount at https://www.academicsuperstore.com.
4. Create a cover and inside cover
This falls under the category of something that should be consistent across pieces that you publish, but that can be improved at any point. Simple text, artfully laid out, plus a logo can work. This can be done in Word, but will be easier in photoshop or equivalent software.
5. Combine the covers with the sheet music
I like Adobe Acrobat for this, as it also has easy to use watermarking and password protecting tools.
6. Upload the music to your website
Be sure to include a preview score (missing a page or otherwise preventing theft), and the best quality recording you can. If you do not have a recording of the piece being performed, make this your next highest priority - it matters a lot.
While there is plenty more to do, this is all it takes to get started. Taking this first step will make the ones that come after seem less daunting, more realistic, and more rewarding. I will post a more in-depth guide in the future, but feel free to reach out in the meantime.