Publishing, Promotion and Profitability
Computer technology has given composers access to high quality
music notation and simplified the process of producing scores and parts,
and made it cheaper too. So does a composer need a publisher? Ideally,
yes, because the status afforded to a composer through association with
a well-known publishing house still carries considerable weight with the
musical establishment, and a publisher can provide promotion and publicity
on a scale way beyond the resources of even the most energetic self-promoting
When a music publishing company offers to publish a composer’s works,
whether they are critically acclaimed or virtually unknown, it believes
(or more modestly hopes) that its ‘artistic’ evaluation of the
music will be accepted by future generations and that this will in turn
lead to financial rewards for the company. Music publishers are commercial
organisations and as such must be geared to profitability, and yet one
of their most high profile activities, the publishing of new music, does
not lie comfortably with the limiting objectivity of spreadsheets and
business plans. Can one even measure the value of a musical work in terms
of bums on seats, the length of the applause, what the critics say, or
whether some influential arts directors approve? No, the fact that more
and more individuals and organisations appear to fall in line with a publisher’s
artistic judgement is no proof of a prophecy fulfilled. Only time can
tell. Choosing to publish a composer is a high-risk enterprise.
With the introduction of copyright legislation at the beginning
of the last century publishers acquired the right to receive income from
performances and recordings. The financial rewards were much greater than
had previously been generated by sales of sheet music, and hence the industry
came to believe that the copyright income it received from successful
works should be re-invested in publishing new music. But over the last
twenty years it has proved difficult for publishers to sustain their role
as ‘patrons’ of contemporary music and most of them now adopt
a more strictly commercial attitude to all new publishing ventures.
The main reason for this has been the loss of confidence
in the new concert music of the last five decades which, it must be admitted,
has not provided income for publishers on anything like the scale generated
by early twentieth-century works. And publishers have not been helped
by the gradual weakening of copyright protection caused by the multiplicity
of new media for music’s dissemination (control and legislation are
always several steps behind the technological innovations); or by the
Performing Right Society’s move towards logging only selected venues
and sampling, and the abolition of the Classical Music Subsidy; or by
the conservatism of the recording industry and
the appalling state of funding for new music performance in Britain; or
by the fashionable ‘art for all’, anti-elitist mentality reinforced
by successive governments’ populist agendas for the arts and music
So, as publishers look to music that offers a more immediate financial
return (music for film, television and the stage generally known as ‘media
music’), what will happen to the sort of music that takes time to
gain favour, music that initially only plays to small audiences, music
that it exists outside the mainstream, receives scant media attention
and is therefore non commercial? The BMIC’s initiative, New Voices,
designed to provide practical assistance and greater visibility for 25
young unpublished composers, is one inspired example of a response to
the current situation.
Also, it seems likely that many of the tasks traditionally associated
with music publishers’ promotion departments, such as the negotiation
of commissions and the introduction of new works to performers and concert
promoters will in future be handled by independent agencies working directly
for composers. Certainly if the publishers limit further their interaction
with such a vibrant, diverse and relevant sector of our musical culture,
new and imaginative ways of ensuring that the creativity of today’s
composers is nurtured and recognised are bound to come into their own.
Graham Hayter was Head of Promotion at Peters Edition
1979 to 1999. He is currently working independently on behalf of composers
Brian Ferneyhough, Roger Reynolds, Richard Barrett, Rebecca Saunders and
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