Music Publishing

When I talk to composers who are still in college, a lot of them are of the belief that the big goal for a composer is to become published.  “How did you get your first piece published?” they want to know.  “I want to publish my new percussion ensemble piece.  Where should I send it?”  Oh man, what a kettle-o-fish this is.  I tend to be overly opinionated when I speak to student composers about anything, and I’m worse about this topic than just about any other. Below is what I tell them.  This post is going to be mega-wonky, and if you’re not interested in the business side of being a composer (or you think “business” and “composer” should never go in the same sentence together), you should skip this entry.

When I was really young — high school age — I thought it would be amazing to be published. My dream was to be published by G. Schirmer, because that was Samuel Barber‘s publisher, and Barber was my favorite composer. (They currently publish John Corigliano — my teacher at Juilliard — Bright Sheng, Tan Dun (one of my favorite composers), David Lang, and their various divisions handle Eric Whitacre, the young composer Nico Muhly… the list goes on and on.) I figured that if I could be published by Schirmer some day, their stamp of legitimacy would mean that I was a Real Composer, and people would climb over each other to play my music! It was a perfect plan!

I never actually submitted any material to Schirmer, though, or to any other publisher. When I was 19, I got a commission to write an orchestra piece for the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra, and I learned that if I joined a performance rights organization like ASCAP, I could collect performance royalties for that performance. But here’s the thing… If you have a performance that is licensed by ASCAP (just about every live music performance of “classical” music is licensed — and therefore paid), the composer gets 50% of that performance royalty. Who gets the other 50%? The publisher.

I didn’t want 50% of the performance earnings go into the ether since I wasn’t published, so I registered a publishing company with ASCAP — Osti Music. (I came up with the name “Osti Music” because when I first sent music to John Corigliano, he complained that my music had way too many ostinatos, or, repeated phrases. Clearly, not much has changed.) I became both a writer and publisher member of ASCAP, and I copyrighted that first orchestra piece with the Library of Congress under the publisher name Osti Music. Eventually I got an ASCAP check for the performance royalties for that premiere performance — my writer royalty check. Then, a few weeks later, I got another (equally tiny) check, for the same amount — my publisher check.

This is an important thing to remember: a publisher gets 50% of just about everything (not just performance royalties — they get half of CD royalties, half of DVD royalties, half of music rental fees, and half of all license fees, like marching band licenses), and they own the copyright. The composer does not own the copyright; the publisher does. That means the publisher controls all of the rights for the music. Yes, they give half of the earnings to the composer, but they also call the shots.

Let’s say that you write a piece that’s very personal to you — for the sake of this example, we’ll say it’s a choral piece that you wrote for a close friend. Your publisher, who owns the copyright, is contacted by disgraced beauty queen and breast-implant recipient Carrie Prejean, who, fresh from her successful performance at the Del Mar Racetrack, has decided to record an album about the evils of the homosexual lifestyle, and has requested permission to sample your choral piece in her first single.  Your publisher, seeing dollar signs, agrees. You, who are so liberal that you think even straight people should have to get gay married (if nothing else because the weddings would be FABulous!!!), are horrified — but powerless, because you don’t own the copyright. If you self-published your choral piece, though, you could prevent this.

What does a publisher do for you? I mean, what do you get for that 50% that they keep? It depends on lots of things, like the size of the publisher, and the number of composers they represent. (It goes to reason that if a publisher handles a lot of composers, not everybody will get the same amount of attention.  If you publish only only one person — yourself — there’s no shortage of attention.)  A major publisher who is enthusiastic about one of their composers can definitely help that composer to gain exposure and potentially help to secure performances. The publisher can pick up the phone, call the Artistic Administrator of the Chicago Symphony, and say, “we have a great new piece by Jonathan Newman. You guys should give it a look” — and the orchestra might actually give the piece a look. If I, on the other hand, send a piece to the Chicago Symphony, they won’t care. (Trust me; I’ve tried it.  But that touches on the whole “band vs. orchestra” thing that I’ve blogged about before.)  Orchestras get stacks of unsolicited pieces every year. Why would they look at a piece by a composer they haven’t heard of, particularly when they play essentially no music by living composers anyway? There’s something to be said for having a trusted middle man like a major publisher. Publishers also negotiate contracts (commission contracts, license fees, etc.) and maybe most importantly, they print the music and get it into the hands of retailers and performers.

The Internets have made a lot of this very easy to do on your own, and I would argue that with a lot of work and some luck, you can do fine professionally, and much better financially, without a publisher. Can you put up a website with score and audio samples? Yes, and that’s already more than most publishers would do for you. Can you attend music conventions and promote yourself and your music? Again, yes, and since you only have yourself to promote, you can do this more efficiently than a publisher who is at the convention pushing 60 different composers.

Can you print the music yourself? Of course you can. I still print every “Strange Humors” score, and all of the sets of my chamber music, myself. It’s a hassle to print each set, then fold those parts in half, then staple them, then ship them, but here’s the difference: publishers keep 50% of royalties, but if a composer is published and the printed music is sold, the composer will see 10% of the retail price.

I’ll say that again. If you are a published composer, you keep 10% of the list price on a set of music. When I told this to somebody in Hollywood once, the reaction was, “wait, that’s backwards. The agent gets 10%; you get 90%.” Not in music publishing. A very established composer might get a great deal and see 12% or maybe even 15%, but that’s unusual. Granted, the publisher doesn’t get all of the other 90%. The music store keeps 40-50% of it.  But the fact is that if you publish a piece through a standard publisher and the retail price is $10, the music store gets $5, the publisher gets $4, and the composer receives $1.  But if you’re self published and you sell the sheet music directly (rather than through a music store), you get the full $10. Even if you sell it through a music store, you’ll see $5, which even by my music-school-level math education, is better than $1.

Is that difference of 400%-900% worth the time it takes to print, fold, staple, and mail a set of parts? To me, the answer is yes, but to a lot of composers, the answer is no. All of this takes a lot of time, and a lot of composers, understandably, would rather just compose and not worry about the business aspect of it.  They just want to write the music, give it to a publisher, and not think about it anymore, and whatever income they collect, no matter the amount, is just a nice bonus.  Most of those composers probably have other jobs — like teaching — or wealthy families to make that possible. I like to think of it like I also have a “day job,” and my day job is publishing my own music.

The biggest challenge is running the business side and still finding time to do the most important part, which is to write the music itself. Speaking of that — I have some work to do.


Steve says

Amen. I think you can't stress the copyright aspect enough. Another consequence of giving up copyright is that the composer would then have to get permission to arrange / transcribe his or her own work! I find that surreal. The thought that anyone else could determine how your music is used, or even whether you were allowed to reuse or reshape it, is utterly unacceptable to me. Even if a publisher approached me with some amazing $$ deal, I would never consider it unless I retained copyright control.

But maybe I'm just a control freak?

Mark S. says

Well that answers 3/4 of my publishing questions.

Now, to find a format that actually makes my music readable on Finale. I might try a larger paper size.

Kevin Howlett says

John, you are a funny guy. One of these days we gotta get together for drinks or something.

Mark, I'm a big fan of ledger-size paper (11" x 17") for larger ensemble works. Staff sizes can be quite small but are still legible on paper that size.

As per Jonathan Newman's suggestion, I've started making parts to music at a custom size of 11" x 14". The parts are prepared by being printed on ledger size paper, and then the excess is cut off.

Beauty part of ledger paper is that it's easily available at any office supply store worth their salt, in a variety of stocks and weights.

Not to sound like a shill for them, but Staples carries ledger paper in regular, card, and cover stock, and can print, bind, and cut scores and parts quite cheaply. Only thing is you kind of have to coach them about score production, since they aren't musically inclined.

Austin says

I think it's a great idea to have complete control of your music, as long as you have the time for the business aspects.

Some composition competitions have a monetary award coupled with a publishing offer. Would you stay away from competitions like this? It seems like it would be rude to turn down the publishing offer in favor of doing the publishing yourself (and in some cases it might violate the terms of the competition).

David Lovrien says

Thank you John for this entertaining and truthful post. I went the same route myself a couple of years ago - I even bought back most of my works from my publisher so I could start self-publishing. And along the way I've picked up many other composers' pieces where (as you said) they are happy to leave the printing, shipping and distribution headaches to me. But I split 50/50 with them, not 90/10.

The Interwebs is fundamentally changing publishing as we speak! Now if we can just whittle down that 50% the distributors want...

Eric Rath says

Now that made sense! So, I guess all of the band pieces I've written but haven't bothered to try to shop around to various publishers can just be considered "self-published!" And it's not like the stuff I do have published is bringing in the bucks (or sales...).

Costas says

Think if I email Corigliano he'll say something derogatory about my music that I can transmute into a good ASCAP publisher name?
Damn indecisiveness.

Daniel. Y says

Hi mr Mackey,

I was just about to try to get a piece published (if anyone would even want to anyway) and i happen to chance upon your blog.

Initially i was afraid that if i did it myself, it would not be performed ever, however, i guess that opportunities can be chanced upon of or created!

thanks for this mega-wonky but informative entry!!

Robert Douglass says

I'd be interested in hearing your decision to offer some pieces for rental only:

What factors go into that decision?



Alessandro Perini says

People, what about publishing like this:

on the internet?
people can see the score but not print it, then they'll have to ask you for rental/sale.
This may be good way to make your way through the new technology's era, who knows, without uploading a PDF that *everyone can print*.

But surely this is not intended for large ensembles who would result in bad quality video.

Jack Curtis Dubowsky says

Thanks John.
I've had many conversations about this.
It has been my understanding that performance royalty income (collected through performance rights societies) exceeds proceeds from printed sheet music. Please correct me if I'm wrong. (It could also depend on the type of music, for example choral music vs. orchestral rentals vs. chamber music.) I would enjoy more details on that.

Chris says

As a self-publisher how to handle the 9x12 or Octavo sizes for sheet music?

Cesar Aviles says

As a composer I was told this same information but never as complete and convincing as in this article. One should get involved in the business as well to gain as much possible from your music!

Jim Colonna says


Reread this at a time that I needed to. Publishers also make odd requests. Recently one told me they would consider publishing the new work, but they wanted a loud ending. I disagree, totally, it is fine the way I struggled with it as I continued its architecture. So no publishing....big problem for to promote my music to the expected audience for it. That can be costly. Would be cool if you talk about this. Your ability to network is stunning.


Keep on creating!

Jesse says

You talk about "self" publishing. So what does that entail?....calling up a serious tv show or symphony and ask them to play it? That is a one in a million shot. Giving up the 50% is way worth it. Go for non-exclusive deals. Hell, go even for exclusive deals. You need someone working on your behalf! Life is short. You can't hold out thinking you are the next Beethoven. Jeezus! Get any exposure you can while you can!

Richard Zola says

Wow, that really changed my aspect on self-publishing. Great post! I did not know how greedy the publishers were. And think, I showed a publisher some of my music at Midwest this year. Your post, my friend Zach Plata, and Steven Bryant's video on self-publishing makes it actually seem alot more creative. I am also a painter besides composing, and when I submitted a score to a publisher with my design on it, they would not publish it till I took it off. The only problem with self publishing is the copyright. Is it hard to do that with Congress?

J.R. says


Great post! As a 19-year-old composer who is starting to write good enough stuff to try to sell, I want to see all my options, and this definitely sounds like a good one. While I hate selling myself and running around telling everyone, "My music is awesome," I think that the physical aspect of assembling a score would be great during my creative troughs and enable me to make more money in the future.

However, I do have a few questions...
Where can I go for help in prettying up a score and its parts? I have Finale right now, though I'm debating switching to Sibelius. I KNOW I need to use a bigger paper size, though I'm having trouble with formatting.
What do people expect in terms of audio sample quality on a website? Professionally recorded in a studio, midi, or somewhere in between?
What is expected in terms of self-published scores?
What's the best way to self-promote concert works? I write comfortably for band, orchestra, and other ensembles.
How expensive is it to copyright with the government? Is it cheap enough that anyone could do it, including a poor college student?

I know that's a lot of questions, but I'm new to the industry and newly an ASCAPer, so I'm trying to learn as much as I can.

Again, great post, and thanks for the explanations.

Dorian Kelly says

Hi John - great article on self-publishing! I came across it via the ChoralNet site. There's much debate about this subject on there at the moment so your advice, as someone who has gone down that road and is obviously succeeding, is much appreciated!

Regards - Dorian Kelly

Jacob Barbour says

It's great that you've shared this informtation, especially for those of us that are aspiring working composers. It make the best choice very obvious, I do have a couple of very brief questions:

I know now that financially, being self published makes a vast difference as opposed to being published by a larger company. But is being self-published more fun? I know it brings a lot more freedom.

and lastly, how much harder is it to be noticed and to have your music promoted?

Harriet Harding says

A huge thanks from Australia! This article is really helpful as I embark on self-publishing my music for schools.

Thanks again!

Edward J. Madden says

Right on John! After some of my band music was published by several prominent companies out of New York and elsewhere some years ago which brought me a small measure of notoriety in the band world I had the following "enlightenment:"

A famous university commissioned me to make a new arrangement of the Star Spangled Banner. At a very prominent performance at a major music convention by the band, three publisher's "reps" accosted me to get ahold of the arrangement. Before being stupid enough to select one of the publishers, On the spot I sold 4 copies of the piece for 25 bucks each. Then gave it to a prominent publisher who sold about a hundred copies (+/-) at 6 bucks a copy. My first royalty check @ 10% of the selling price came to about 60 bucks. BUT I MADE 100 BUCKS selling it myself!!

Dennis Sinnott says

I think the argument for publishing your own music - is definitely the way to go.

When a publisher takes the rights in your song - you're immediately competing against thousands - sometimes hundreds of thousands of songs already in their catalog.

A few years ago - the notion of starting your own music publishing would have been out of the question for lots of people - mainly because of costs (office, staff, general overheads). The really good news today - is that digital has annihilated overheads so you can reach organizations anywhere in the world. I know lots of songwriters (producers & manager, too!) licensing music globally from their garage and studio basement - by sub publishing to companies (and sub licensing their recordings, too) around the world - France, Germany, Italy, Australia, South America and so on. Remember, you own the rights in your songs - throughout the world. Anyone with a computer and internet, can make a lot of headway.

Gary A. Edwards says

I started composing 49 years ago. I even took 1997 off just to write music. altogether, I have had 36 music publishing contracts. Guess how much money I've made off these contracts? $36. I've made a lot more self-publishing.

Add comment

Your comment will be revised by the site if needed.