January 29, 2011
Music Publishing part 2: audio
Back in 2009, I wrote a blog post about why (and how) I self-publish my own music. In short, it’s because a music publisher takes anywhere from 50-90% of a composer’s income, and that’s a terrible business model for any composer who is able and willing to do that same work themselves (and today, most composers can do that same work even better). Then I wondered: Did the same apply to the publishing of recordings? Could a composer successfully distribute a recording without a record label? If so, is it worth the trouble? This blog entry’s text is pretty dry, so I will liven it up with unrelated photographs of Loki.
I just released my first recording directly to iTunes (via CDBaby, as true “indie” artists can’t actually distribute directly through iTunes). It’s the recording of “Harvest: Concerto for Trombone,” as recorded by Joseph Alessi with The West Point Band, conducted by LTC Timothy Holtan. This same recording is freely streaming on my website, and will continue to be available that way, but if somebody wants to purchase a copy to keep and listen to when they aren’t online, it’s now on iTunes.
For those interested in how album releases normally work, and how this approach is different, read on.
Let’s say I write a piece. (I know, it’s a crazy idea.) A university band records the piece, and then they give (literally give – no money changes hands) that master recording to one of the recording companies for distribution. There may be exceptions, but I don’t know of any school that ends up getting any back-end earnings from that recording. The recordings are typically made for publicity purposes, so all the school wants in return for releasing the recording is for people to hear the recording and think, Damn, that’s a hell of a music program. So, the school is happy.
By law, the music publisher — that is, the owner of the copyright for the recorded work (in this case, me) — receives a mechanical license fee. For the “world premiere recording,” the publisher can ask any fee they like, or they can flatly refuse the release of that recording. (According to legend, this is what happened with most of the music of Warren Benson — he simply refused permission to release most recordings while he was alive.) So, the publisher has absolute control of the first — but only the first — recording of a piece.
Once there’s an existing recording, though, the publisher loses the right of refusal, and the right to name the royalty rate. For every subsequent recording, the publisher only receives the mechanical statutory license rate for each sold recording, and that license rate is mandated by law. How much is that? I mean, it must be, like, a few dollars per CD sold, right?
Not at all. The current statutory rate — applicable for all recordings after that first recording — is $0.091 cents per copy for every track 5-minutes or less, or, $0.0175 per minute for tracks over 5 minutes. So, taking a track like “Redline Tango,” the statutory rate due to the publisher is :
track length of around 9:30, rounded to 10 minutes= 10 minutes X $0.0175 = $0.175. So, $.17-and-a-half cents per sold copy.
In theory, at least. Major labels like Naxos are vigilant about paying the mechanical royalties, but a lot of very small CD labels neglect to obtain licenses, or, even after securing licenses, fail to pay the royalties until somebody catches them. Unfortunately, it’s entirely up to the publisher to police this, and few large music publishers take the time to do so. (Needless to say, I do take the time, because time spent looking for license infringements is much easier than time spent actually writing music.)
But let’s give everybody the benefit of the doubt and say that for every download of “Redline Tango” that iTunes sells, $0.175 goes to the publisher of the piece (me). I don’t think I’ve ever sold 500 copies of any recording on iTunes, but for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that I sell 500. So…
500 copies X $0.175 per copy = a grand total of…
Wait, wait, wait. The publisher of a 10-minute piece of music could sell 500 copies of that piece (and 500 is nothing to sneeze at — that’s a lot of copies for a recording of a piece of “new music”), and make less than $90? Yes. And if the composer has a standard publisher agreement (sigh), the publisher takes half of that, and the composer receives the other half, for a grand total of $43.75.
Clearly, Loki does not approve of this pittance.
How much money was there to begin with?
The track was $0.99. iTunes keeps roughly 30%, leaving $.69. Then the record label pays the mechanical royalty of $0.17 to the publisher, leaving $0.52 for the record label. But they must be paying a bunch of that money to the recording artist, right?
That depends. With a college band, no, the band doesn’t get any back end, as I said earlier. So the label retains $.52 — roughly three times more than the music publisher receives. And again, if a composer has a standard publisher agreement, the music publisher keeps 50% of that $.17, so the composer actually only gets about $0.08 per download/album sold. That’s 8 cents per track to the composer, compared to 52 cents to the record label.
This model makes sense when you think of the expense of printing, marketing, and distributing hundreds of physical CDs. But when was the last time you bought a physical CD? I honestly can’t tell you when I last bought a physical CD, but just two days ago, I bought a digital album on iTunes. (If you’re curious, it was the Esa-Pekka Salonen recording of Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos 2 & 3, with Yefim Bronfman and The Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s fantastic, by the way. I know it isn’t super edgy for a composer to admit, but I love that 2nd Rachmaninoff concerto. That guy could write a damn pretty tune.)
As the publisher of my own music, what do I get in exchange for that $.52 that is retained by the record label? Admittedly, if the recording is on a label like Naxos, you probably get a little publicity and the greater chance that the recording will be reviewed, but moreover, it’s prestige, both for the composer, and for the ensemble on the recording. It’s a big honor to say, “I have a piece on the Naxos label,” and Naxos has invested a lot of time and expense on getting their label to that position, and that’s worth something. But if the piece is on, like, “Jimmy’s Hot Trax,” or some teeny-tiny vanity label that doesn’t have the marketing machine to help publicize your recording, what’s the point — at least from a financial perspective? (Now, I’m speaking only as a self-employed composer. I’m not speaking for ensembles, or their directors, or composers with university jobs who need to publish in order to receive tenure. Those are whole other considerations, and I’m not getting into those. And let’s be honest: I can’t even get a teaching job, let alone deal with what it takes to keep one.)
I think the current record label system, just like the music publishing system, is antiquated, and with some work, a composer can do this on their own, and multiply their (admittedly small) earnings by a multiple of four (and any amount of money is improved by multiplying it by four). If I have the distribution rights for a recording of my own music, why not put it on iTunes and other digital sites myself, and retain something closer to $.60 per download, rather than $.17?
Here’s another example. Let’s say I sell 500 copies of an album with my Soprano Sax Concerto. How would the income compare for a traditional release, vs. a “direct” release by the composer? It’s a 25-minute piece. The statutory mechanical royalty would be 25 minutes X $0.0175 per minute = $0.4375 per purchase X 500 copies = $218.75. Not bad!
But if I distribute it myself, figuring 5 tracks at roughly $.60 net each = $3 per purchase X 500 copies = $1500. That’s roughly seven times more than the statutory mechanical license rate on its own. (If you thought multiplying an amount of money by four was a good idea, multiply it by seven. Or, do what I did, and ask your much-smarter-wife-who-got-1570-on-her-GRE to do the math for you.) Figure on a portion of that going back to the school, and to the soloist, and it’s still a much better arrangement for everybody. Plus, the composer can promote the recording personally, rather than allowing the recording to become buried and lost among the dozens of recordings a label might release that month.
In the case of this recording of “Harvest,” the master itself is public domain, because it was made by a United States military band. The military itself is prevented from selling these recordings for profit, but as the owner of the music copyright, I have the right to repackage and sell the same audio, provided that I pay that statutory license fee required by law (a fee which goes to the music publisher: me). So, I’ve re-released the same recording, but via iTunes, on my own label.
The plan is to release a series of digital albums via iTunes. With few exceptions, my favorite recordings of my pieces — what I consider the “reference recordings” — are not from CDs, but from live performances that I have edited together with dress rehearsal recordings from the same ensemble, recorded while I was in attendance. Those recordings (Sasparilla, Turbine, Turning, etc.) stream freely on this website, but why not make them also available for purchase if somebody wants to keep a digital copy on their iPhone or whatever to listen to when they’re not online?
Plus, I know that I’m receiving the correct royalties, as I’m not having to trust another record label to pay those to me — I’m collecting them nearly directly.
(It’s not really “directly,” as iTunes won’t even respond to your inquiry if you’re a true “indie” label. In this case, I’m releasing everything through CDBaby, who keeps 9% of net, in addition to a per-album registration fee. I researched this a lot, and CDBaby seems to be the best option. Stay away from TuneCore, who can’t even tag your music as “Classical,” nor do they ask you who composed the track. That’s right: a TuneCore-registered track can not be in the “classical” genre on iTunes, and it will not show the name of the composer. Composers, stay away.)
Now I’m just waiting to hear from the legal departments of these universities, hoping they’ll grant me permission to distribute their recordings. (You know what doesn’t move quickly? University legal departments.)
For the most part, we’re still talking about pennies, only instead of making 17 pennies on a download, by skipping the record label, a self-published composer could make 60 pennies. Sell enough downloads, and it’s… well, if you’re lucky, it’s beer money. And who doesn’t want beer money?