Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Breaking Up Is...Not That Hard, Actually

I suppose I should be a little bit angry.

A couple of weeks ago, I received one of those thin envelopes in the mail. Typically, these kinds of envelopes contain disappointing news concerning the results of a score call, contest or other opportunity. Normally, when I see the thin envelope, I’m mentally prepared as I slowly open it and read the predictable content. However, the thin envelope that came the other day was not from any contest or score call. It was, rather, from a publisher who has carried my music for the last 20 years. It’s not unusual to receive hard copy mailings from time to time so I thought nothing of it. In fact, I don’t think I even opened that letter first. When I did finally get around to peering within the envelope, I read a lot about mergers and acquisitions, marketing plans, ideas of promotion and the making of…uh-oh…difficult decisions. Then the punch line – I was being dropped from the catalog.

Is this where they are storing my scores?
There was, at once, a flood of thoughts as I put the letter down. Was I really being rejected after 20 years? How would this impact my career? Would this loss tarnish my professional standing or reputation? Then, I was seized with anger. However, this anger was short-lived and was soon followed by absolute calm. I began to honestly question the ways that the publisher had really helped me over the years. This particular publisher carried two of my orchestral works in their catalog. One had moderate success and the second was never sold or rented. As I no longer held the copyright to this second work, I could not send out the physical score to orchestras, score calls or other opportunities on my own. I helplessly observed that the promotion of this piece was relegated to just another name in a long list of names, buried in an index using a very small font type. I began to feel that my work had been crated and stored in some nameless warehouse in much the same way as the Ark of the Covenant was at the end of the film, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I suppose I should be angry…

Yet, the more I think about it, the more I realize that this is actually a blessing in disguise. This news has allowed me to shed the final vestige of an older 20th Century model for music publishing, promotion and distribution. It occurs to me that I will now regain control over these works. It is also not lost upon me that I have sold more physical copies of music on my own, through my own website and as my own ASCAP registered publisher in the last five months than had my publisher sold in the prior five years.

Just as I finally gave up on hand calligraphy for music notation in the early 1990’s - putting away my rapidograph pens, vellum paper, straight edges and ink and embracing computer notation programs – so now I need to finally give up on the notion of the traditional music publisher and embrace the freedom to publish, promote and distribute my own work in ways that work best for me.

Of course, as a composer who works within academia, being dropped from a publisher might have been more devastating news; especially had it occurred while I was still untenured and at a junior rank. As it stands for me personally, this is a bullet that has been dodged. My task now, within my institution at least, is to be sure that administrators understand that the old “publish or perish” paradigm no longer works for composers. Nor is it even in our self-interest anymore. The obvious trend is toward self-publishing. There are already many notable examples of high profile composers within the field already engaging in this activity. There once was a time when “doing it all yourself” made no sense. Now, however, with the rise of social media and a more powerful world wide web, the hurdles of promotion and distribution are greatly eased.

Now naturally, it’s never good news to learn that you are rejected and yes, I should be a little angry. The truth be told – I am. However, I’m angry not because I was dropped from a music publisher’s catalog.

I’m angry because I didn’t drop them first.