Episode 6: Self-Publishing for Composers
by Lori Archer Sutherland · Published · Updated
Hear about some of the sites now available for composers to self-publish their music. Learn about my own journey with publishing and find out if this route is an option for you. If you’re not a composer, please consider visiting one of these sites for your next music purchase and support an independent composer. We’d truly appreciate it!
Episode 6: Self-Publishing for Composers
Hello and welcome to Tonal Diversions. I’m your host, Lori Archer Sutherland, and this is my journey as a multifaceted musician. I’m a composer, clarinetist and more who is navigating the world of is classical music, and I’d love to share my adventures with you.
Welcome to the show. Today, I’d like to chat about self-publishing for composers. Things have changed so much for us over the past several years, which is fantastic. And so similar to authors, we’re no longer reliant on getting in with a publishing company to make our music widely available. Sure, there are pros and cons, just like with anything, but self-publishing has definitely helped me out.
My Path to Self-Publishing
Some background to start. Back in around 2001-2002, I actually found a publishing company that took unsolicited publications. I sent in my clarinet quartet called, “Little Suite,” and they actually wrote back and said, “Yes, we’d love to publish it.” I was so ecstatic because it was just so cool to think that I was going to be a published composer! Unfortunately, it did have some strings attached, which is par for the course. And I was ultimately not satisfied with the representation or honestly, the lack thereof, of my piece compared to what they said they’d do for it. Plus, they were the copyright holders, not me. And that’s typical with publishing companies. I didn’t do much about it for years.
As I’ve talked about in other episodes, I was working on my Master’s Degree in Library Science, and so I really wasn’t doing any composing whatsoever. I definitely wasn’t trying to prep any of my other pieces for publication. Consequently, “Little Suit” just languished on the publisher site, not getting any sales beyond the few copies that I bought myself. It didn’t help that the site only listed a piece title, the composer’s last name, instrumentation, and price. There really was no other information that would truly help inform someone who wanted to go buy music. It was more of a hey, if you know what piece you’re looking for, we can sell it to you. And so I don’t blame people for not buying my piece. I don’t think I would have because frankly, “Little Suite” is not a very creative title, and without any other information to go by, who wants to buy that?
I eventually got my copyright back from the publisher, as I noticed in my original contract that if after five years you wanted to get it back, you could. So I requested it back and basically got a letter back in the mail saying, “Okay.” Nothing that said any, “oh, we’re sorry to have you go,” et cetera. And I realize I didn’t have an actual true relationship with this publisher, but still…
With the rise of self-publishing for authors since then, I really hoped something would come along for composers beyond trying to sell things on your own website at the time. Trying to do that took a lot more time, effort, and knowledge than it does now with all the tools that have come out. But it still takes work. And also, if you don’t really have an audience, no one is necessarily going to just stumble across your page and say, “Oh, hey, look, she is music for sale.”
Dipping My Toes In
My first foray into self-publishing was thanks to New Music Shelf. Dennis Tobenski created the site in 2010 to help composers share their music. I joined in 2012 and had a few pieces up there and even sold a few copies of things. While the focus of the site has changed a little over the years and I’m no longer on there, it’s still a quality site and I’m really grateful that that gave me a chance to dip my toe into self-publishing and see that it was possible for me.
The next major player to appear that I knew of was Sheet Music Plus. I joined them in 2014 and have used them as one of the main two ways I release my sheet music ever since. And I’ll go more into detail with them in a bit. They definitely opened another door for me.
The famous music retailer, JW Pepper, they started their MyScore service a few years later. I didn’t sign up until January of 2021. I’d planned on joining earlier, but there were a few things that held me back and I’ll talk about those later as well. But now I’m happy that I’ve signed up and it’s the other main outlet I use to sell my music.
Two Main Sites
Sheet Music Plus/SMP Press/ArrangeMe
Now I’ll get into the nuts and bolts of each of these sites. Sheet Music Plus’s self-publishing arm, SMP Press, is going through a transition to become ArrangeMe. I haven’t been transferred over yet, so all of this right now is based on my experience with SMP Press, and new composers can sign up via ArrangeMe. I imagine I can do another show later that will talk about what the whole change to ArrangeMe entails and et cetera.
SMP offers digital orders only, and they pay 50% on original and public domain arrangements. This got bumped up from 45% about a year or so ago, and I think it’s due to competing with other companies, but I’ll take it.
A big plus for them is that they offer the chance to upload your own arrangements of copyrighted songs. They have a huge catalog as they’re a Hal Leonard company, and if anyone knows music, they know Hal Leonard because it’s just a behemoth of a corporation. These arrangements only pay 10%, but it beats having to ask and to pay for permission to arrange and publish on every song that you want to do.
I’ve paid money for the privilege of getting to arrange a song like “The Muppet Show Theme” for clarinet quartet, and that didn’t even include any publishing rights. I never really looked into getting the publishing rights for any of these arrangements that I did because it just seemed too complicated, and they wanted to know stuff about initial print run and what retailers and stuff like this. And that was just way too intimidating and confusing to try to do as a self-publisher.
Now “The Muppet Show Theme” is on ArrangeMe, so I get to sell that arrangement that I did finally, and it has sold several copies. Quite a few, actually. That program has also let me arrange “Bohemian Rhapsody” for clarinet choir, “Killer Queen” for horn choir, and even “Take On Me” for bass clarinet (or bassoon) quartet, plus quite a few other things.
The interface for searching for a song to use is very clunky. It’s really pretty bad, and sometimes it’s truly difficult to figure out if hey, that’s really the song I’m looking for. Especially when you get into some classical composers who are still under copyright, but they have somewhat vague titles which, I mean, that’s how music was titled for a long time, but making sure that you’re getting the right waltz from a certain composer can be a little tricky. Overall, I feel like it’s still a worthwhile program, and I just appreciate that I don’t have to go searching for a song’s copyright holder and beg for permission and then pay $50 to $100, if not more, just to arrange it and not even get a chance to sell it. So I’ll take that measly 10% over having to fork out money to actually arrange it.
The upload process is pretty straightforward. You put everything in one PDF—cover, score parts, et cetera, and that’s how it’s delivered to the customer. On the site, You can add a YouTube link or an MP3 for reference so that the customer can hear what they’re getting. I highly recommend putting even MIDI audio up. No, it’s not great, but it’s better than nothing. I do try to put up live recordings when I can.
A preview of the PDF also shows up, and how many pages people get to see depends on how big the file is. There are checkboxes for instrumentation, genre, difficulty, and a few other things, and those are helpful a couple of times. They are a little confusing when it comes to genre, you know, contemporary classical versus 21st century versus neoclassical, and I just kind of make my best guess on what I think my music fits into.
Another thing I really like about their upload process is that edits are very easy to make afterwards. So if you have a typo in your description, or if you realized that you had a mistake in your PDF, you can so easily just change any of that.
Now let’s look at MyScore from JW Pepper. A big plus to Pepper is that they offer both print and digital copies, and by offering print you can get stuff like 9”x12” band parts, and you can do coral octavio size, and you have some other options in there, which is so nice to have that availability. For digital you get 50%, and on print you get 25%. A downside, and honestly, it’s one that kept me away for a few years, was that you do have to pay a $100 signup fee. While I could afford the fee, that actually wasn’t as big of a deal to me, it was just the thought of trying to sell enough to recoup that I wanted to make sure my catalog was big enough and that I wasn’t relying on, like, two pieces of music to try to recoup my investment. When MyScore first started, they actually had an additional, I think it was $40 per year fee. And if you sold enough, then it took care of that fee and you didn’t get charged. But that was another barrier to entry because I just wasn’t confident that I could sell enough music, and I figured I’d be paying $40 each year. I’m happy to say, though, that they’ve gotten rid of that additional yearly fee. And if you’re looking to sign up for them, keep a watch on their website, because they do often have a 20% off code, so use that and bring your signup fee down to $80 instead of $100. Just keep a watch out for that code before you sign up.
And because they’re not affiliated with Hal Leonard, there are no copyright options, in terms of arranging a copyrighted song. You can only upload original works or public domain arrangements. However, a lot of schools still heavily use Pepper for all their purchase orders, and so that means your music can be ordered by teachers and directors. And to me, that’s worth getting it on Pepper.
The upload process is more complicated than SMP, but there are things I really like about it. I’d love to be able to take the good things about each system and combine them into one amazing upload process. The scores and parts are uploaded separately. I actually like this a lot is then I can specify how many of each part are in a set, especially for the paper copies. For scores, you really should aim for your total pages to be divisible by four, even if that means inserting a page at the end that has your logo on it or something, and that’s for the sake of print copies. For parts, you’re not limited to that because you have options of designating how many pages there are. So you can say, hey, this is a single page part. And for things like three-page parts, you can actually tell it where the page turn is going to be. So do you want both pages, first and second, page facing out? And then you flip after page two? Or do you have more of a booklet form where you have page one, and then you make a page turn and do two and three. And you can set it for each part. And so I love the control over that, because sometimes for a three page part you want the page turn in one spot, and sometimes you want it in a different spot. And I know for my own music, there are times where some parts only have one page, but other parts have two pages.
The cover art is uploaded separately. I do take time for both platforms to actually create covers because I figure it’s kind of like shopping for books on Amazon or another online retailer where, if all you saw were thumbnails of blocks of text, it’s not that exciting to shop for it. And I kind of feel the same way about blocks of music. So you can use a cover to really promote and make your work stand out.
So between some of these different upload issues for each site, I have had to rework some of my scores in order to upload them on Pepper. And while it’s a little bit annoying having to do extra work at the same time, it’s been nice to tidy some things up and make some corrections and do that kind of thing. And sometimes I end up re uploading to SMP as well, just because the finished product looks a lot better.
Like with SMP, you can upload an MP3 and a YouTube link, which is good because, again, the customers want to hear a preview as opposed to just looking at it. The nice thing is you can generally use the same content for each site, so there’s no weird upload rules for those.
Some things aren’t immediately clear, like what to do for duets. And most of the, well, pretty much all the duets that I write, both parts read off the same music. And I did find out that you treat those like a score and you upload it as a score, and then you ignore the part about parts.
One big downside to me is that all edits have to go through an email process. They do have a handy form where you can get the ball rolling right from your product page, and that definitely helps. But there are some things I really wish I could just change myself and not have to bother someone else about it, especially if it’s something silly like a typo in my description. I feel actually a little bad having to email them for that. With that said, though, I will say the staff has always been just incredibly nice and helpful and great to work with, so big shout out to the staff of MyScore. They’ve been really patient with me as I figure some of these things out on my own, and I bombard them with either questions, or corrections, or both.
Some of the categories are a bit different compared to SMP, and so you have to kind of decide what best is going to work for you. Like they don’t have just Christmas, they have Christmas sacred, but then they don’t have Christmas secular. I have an arrangement of “Up on the Housetop,” which is absolutely a Christmas song, but I’m not going to put it down as Christmas sacred because it’s not a sacred song, so I kind of wish they’d update some of their categories.
One thing I do love is that all of the voicings of a certain piece can be grouped together in the catalog. So for a lot of my beginner pieces, I have them written for multiple instruments. So I have “The Troll Arrives” for clarinet and piano, and I have “The Troll Arrives” for flute and piano, etc. So I have several different versions for a lot of these tunes. I’m glad I can group them together and have just one title of “The Troll Arrives,” and then underneath that you get to see how many instruments it’s available for. And I really like that over with SMP where there you basically just have to put your instrumentation in the title. This is my public library catalog hat coming on where grouping things together that are alike is a really good way to do something. And so that’s where I do think that SMP falls a little flat compared to Pepper.
Other sites have sprouted up as well where composers can self-publish. Most, if not all of the sites, including SMP and Pepper, have non-exclusive agreements. That means you can publish on multiple sites without any issue at all. The main exception is that you can only put your copyright song arrangements on ArrangeMe.
Like with any site, there are pros and cons for each one. Each one has its own procedures for uploading items, and some of them are easier than others. And while I have some music on a couple of these, and on one of them I signed up and I’ll confess I never ended up uploading anything. I do still want to mention them here because they could be a good fit for someone else, and I’ll link to everything in the show notes.
So the main ones I already mentioned earlier was New Music Shelf and they’re still going strong.
Then there’s also Sheet Music Marketplace out of Australia. I know that Kate has been doing a lot of work to improve her site and try to make it really good.
Music4Gigs is, I think, a fairly new one, and I haven’t explored that one much yet. I did sign up and then honestly, I never got around to uploading anything because I was focusing on other things.
And then ScoreExchange, I think that one might be the most well-known out of these four. And I do have a piece up there, and I think I even sold a copy, but that’s about as far as I’ve gone with it.
For me personally, I find it’s better to focus on one or two outlets instead of trying to have my music everywhere. It’s really tempting to want to publish in all the places because it’s just one more chance for someone to see my music. If I could outsource all the grunt work of formatting and uploading and all that kind of stuff, it might be different. But as it is, I already have two outlets with two different sets of requirements. I think it’s a much better use of my time to actually work on writing more music for those two outlets Instead of re-editing, et cetera, my current stuff to put on four more places to publish. Maybe if you don’t have a large catalog, or if you already have a really good, streamlined process for some of these things, then it might be good for you to get your music in as many places as possible. But for me, I just don’t have that system in place. And I’d rather work on writing other stuff.
Some Final Thoughts
So to finish this out, self-publishing has been great for me. Not only has it gotten my music to people beyond my little local sphere, but it’s gotten me to write more. Most of us create and perform music in order to share it with others, and it’s nice to have a place where I can share this, and hopefully other people will like it. I’m not nearly where I want to be yet in terms of output or sales, but it’s not nothing, and it’s been enough to help propel me forward. But now that I’m focusing on music as my job, I plan to continue growing my catalog this year.
I’m not opposed to working with a traditional publisher, however, I think they still have a long way to come in terms of royalty amount and who owns the copyright. I’m not interested in assigning my copyright to a publishing company, no matter how good of a company they are or how noble their intentions. I’m the one who created the work; I want to keep my copyright. And frankly, hunting for a place that takes unsolicited submissions and that would also be a good fit for me, it just doesn’t seem like a good use of my time right now. If a publisher reached out to me, sure, I would absolutely talk with them and give them a chance to pitch themselves to me. But I’m not going to go hunting for them.
I’d love to hear what people are using for their sites. Are they sticking with one of the big two? Are you using sites that I didn’t even mention? Are there any others that you just like? And even from a shopping experience, are there some that you go to more than others? And how do you look for self-published music? So I would love to hear your thoughts on all this and feel free to contact me at podcast@tonal diversions.com. Until next time!
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