A Niche Market for a Savvy Music Publishing Company

 Composers are at a loss as to how to get their music into the right hands to get it performed.

Right now, most composers are self-performed/self-published, which means there's a market for someone to exploit

Book publishers have a organized and effective system established for soliciting and reviewing book submissions. My wife, who is an author of YA Fiction, has a clear idea as to what the process is for getting her books published.
A first time author seeks out agents via a query letter. The letter might include a short sample from the book, usually just 10 pages. Some agents don't even want a short selection unless the query letter created enough interest for them to ask for more.

Agent addresses are well publicized via numerous books, websites and magazines which how to publish your novel. Along with address are descriptions of exactly what type of literature these agents handle. An agent who covers Adult Crime novels won't necessarily cover YA fiction, so there would be no need sending a query letter to them; they wouldn't be interested.

Once the author has an agent, the agent does the leg work of contacting the publishers. The agent will already have established relationships with editors and publishers and knows exactly what types of books each are interested in handling.

If a first time author is not successful in getting an agent, they can then attempt to contact the publishers directly - but again, this is done through a query letter and only to those publishers that actually publish the kind of literature the author has written.

Composers have nothing similar to this. The big music publishing houses aren't interested in your music until you're established. Music agents aren't interested in representing you until you're established. So, basically, until they have a relatively guaranteed profit (based on a percentage) they're not interested in new composers. There are some minor press houses that will consider publishing new works, but they still leave it up to the composer to find the market.

There are competitions, or "Call for Scores" out there -- ensembles wanting to perform new music and willing to host a competition to find the "right" piece. However, there is no guarantee the committee will pick your piece, and generally the guidelines as to what they're looking for are too vague to help. So, while a composer might have a really nice piece, if it isn't quite in the style the group was looking for, or didn't match the other pieces they were already planning to include in the concert, the composer with the nice piece is out of luck.

Another option is for composers to "hock" their pieces to groups or individuals who might be interested in a given style. This "unsolicited" sending of scores to people often doesn't come with any feedback. Did they receive the score? Did they like it, but they're not looking right now? Was it not right for the direction their own career is taking? Was it a technical issue (the score was unreadable or the midi realization/recording the composer sent didn't sound good enough). Or (heaven forbid) it was just not very good?

Composers get frustrated with the "lack of process" and dearth of feedback. As the industry stands now, there is now way for a composer to learn whether their efforts are headed in the right direction, or if by making small changes their music would start bearing the fruits of performances. This frustration can result is angry forum postings for seemingly small issues - as happened this month with the Society of Composers, Inc. A "Call for Scores" didn't find a score among the submissions they wanted to perform. Since no score was selected (but the right to not pick one wasn't mentioned in the outset), a host of angry emails were bantered about the SCI forum.

The organization has apologized for the oversight (not mentioning up front the right to not select a score), and the email tirades have calmed considerably. Still, it wasn't really the small entrance fee that made composers upset. The real root of the problem they were lashing out against was yet one more instance of no feedback and no performance. When a competition selects a winner, the non-winning composers can look up the winner on the internet, review other pieces they've written and get a sense as to the sound the "call for score" committee was looking for. Sometimes it helps relieve the pain of not winning; it certainly provides an outlet for the frustration.

Nothing in the educational process (certainly not mine) provides any assistance in getting performed outside of the University system. There is lots of talk about working with performers. In Getting Heard: What it means in a modern digital age I talk about the struggles of getting performances for a new composer. Just having friends from college doesn't mean they'll play your music. Often times they'll (justifiably) want compensation, particularly after graduation when their school loans are due! If they were one of the really good musicians who auditioned successfully to be part of an orchestra, how much time will they have for your music now? Very little. Ultimately this process is reliant on the composer being able to not only self-publish their scores, but self-publish their performances. It is a 'not what you know, but who you know' paradigm.  

In today's age of e-publishing and social networking, some savvy publishing company might come along, hire a bunch of good (but starving) musicians over the summer, take in a collection of scores, record and market them. Someone might see the opportunity to create an on-line platform for new music that can become a clearinghouse for Music Directors, Conductors and Chamber Groups to find new works and order scores. I would imagine that Composers are likely to have to pay something initially for this service and probably won't see any royalties on the first few performances. BUT, should someone be willing to take the plunge and actually create a method for new music composers to get their music (recordings and scores) into the hands of people who would really be interested in them I think they'd find a real gold mine.


Anonymous said…
Right now it is very easy and inexpensive for the individual composer to set up a virtual net label and self-publish .pdf scores and post mp3 or other electronic realizations of their works. The advantages to this over the existing 'paper' system and traditional publishing houses are compelling.

But getting feedback and ultimately performances are still a challenge. In the age of electronic social networking one way forward has emerged - the virtual composer community. At ImprovFriday (http://www.improvfriday.ning.com) a group of composers post their latest improvisations and works in progress each week for others to hear and comment. The sharing and support - and the incentive to create something each week - make such communities an ideal place for composers to experiment, exchange ideas, influence and be influenced.

It may also eventuate that in the 21st century the obstacle course of getting a piece performed live will be eclipsed by simply posting (increasingly better) realizations for direct listening by a worldwide audience. Many of us are already writing pieces that are not designed for performance or are simply unplayable. And given the stress level most performing organizations are under today, it may be that the forces of musical natural selection are already operating against the long term viability of performed music.
Chip Michael said…
Paul -

I'd like to hope that live performance won't be replaced by electronically generated music - as I love live music. ImprovFriday also sounds like a great idea, but it doesn't solve the problem of getting performances of pieces.... and just having a bunch of composers talk about their pieces doesn't solve the problem of getting pieces actually played. Neither does self publishing.

The difference between the book publishing industry and the classical music industry is huge, where the book industry works well to get the product from author to public, while composers really have nothing at all similar. Even self-published electro-acoustic composers don't have a good medium of getting their music to listeners. That's the problem.

But... keep the ideas coming. Someday there will be a viable answer.

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