Back in high school, I was in an earth-shatteringly pioneering rock band unfortunately called “Macaroon Bisque.” Perhaps you haven’t heard of us.
It was the 90s, the internet had not, shall we say, developed (AOL CD ROMs, anybody?) so getting the word out about our little consort was word of mouth, and cut and paste xerox copies of posters on brightly colored paper.
The biggest deal we could think of was to have a CD. CDs meant business – and you could send a CD to a radio station, or a label as a demo and it would attract attention, because it meant, in the glare of that technologically prescient decade, that you had your shit together enough to come out of the cave, leaving behind your 4-track cassette recorder with your two mics, and the eternal bounce-down conundrum. It was also INCREDIBLY expensive to produce a CD in those days, so it also meant that your band had some kind of financial backing, and Bisque did not.
With the wide angle lens, I feel that our inability to produce a CD will be a determining factor in the band eventually being overlooked for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Zooming in, this was my first experience with the publishing myth.
The myth is two-fold:
1) Being published is a cornerstone of success – both professional and financial – for composers. It may have been at one point, but it isn’t anymore. It is a stepping stone, but only one, and leads (quite like my Bachelors Degree in Psychology) to nothing, in and of itself.
2) The market, the internet, and expediency demand that you can, and should, do it yourself. Unfortunately, for me, (and, I suspect, many other young composers in the early stages of their careers) getting published was an obsession that vacillated between Quixotic romanticism and begging for attention. What came out of rejections became the puffed chest of “self-publishing,” which I did for nearly a decade and still do, to a certain extent. Sure, you can keep all your royalties, own your copyrights and be your own boss, but no one will know who you are and it still won’t be an indicator of the quality of your work. This is not to say that self-publishing in and of itself is a dead end – there are plenty of composers (Higdon and Whitacre come to mind, but I know there are others) who have succeeded and can serve as models for the endeavor, but their efforts in this realm are not the only thing that propelled them, and the awareness of their work.
About this time last year, I sold out. I handed the rights of about 75% of my output to a single publisher. My original composition teacher, knocked some sense into me, laying it out thusly: 1) You will never make any money through publishing so get over yourself. 2) Your self-publishing schemes – even with a robust online presence – will never be able to match the distribution and marketing machines that established publishing houses already have in place. 3) Both of these combined means that a publisher will increase the likelihood of your music getting into the hands of performers, which can lead to performance royalties and commissions, which is how you will make any money, if you will at all.
So, I started sending out scores, a little bit at a time, got a little nibble, and then felt a huge tug and reeled in a really big fish – a major, established publisher of choral music who was so interested in my body of work for that medium, that they offered to take the entire catalogue, and then some. A year later, we have just completed the last of the proof corrections and they have started rolling out my pieces complete with professional recordings. My friends and colleagues send me photos of my works showing up at reading sessions of choral and liturgical music conferences.
I haven’t seen a dime yet, but I don’t actually care – it’s no longer a prerequisite for my professionalism as a composer. Plus, in addition to the exposure that I’m receiving, I can take that entire body of work off my plate – it’s spoken for, it’s out in the open and available for all to see – and actually focus my attention on other things. Also, my publishers are great people who provide feedback, and council about aspects of the music business with which I have no experience.
Finally, I’ve been very fortunate to have people I respect – almost all of them performers – in my corner, championing my work in their circles of influence. However, my publisher’s enthusiastic validation of the quality of my writing – so much so that they took it all – makes me believe that the decade of trench work was not wasted time.