HomeBlogsDekeSharon's blogSheet Music and the Big Brick Wall

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Every week, without fail, I get an email from an eager young arranger, wanting to publish their music.

And week after week I have to let them know there is no easy opportunity for them, and tell them the following story:

Back in the early days of the a cappella wars, if you'll allow the expression, circa 1993, I approached Don Gooding and John Neal, who were then partners in the only a cappella mail order catalog ("Primarily A Cappella," better known now as "singers.com") with a desire to start publishing sheet music.

There was beginning to be more variety in a cappella repertoire, but still too many groups sang the "Lion Sleeps Tonight" and "Kiss Him Goodbye", each with their own nearly-identical yet laboriously derived arrangement. My reasoning was that a songbook of the most frequently performed a cappella classics would make it easy for new groups to build a core repertoire then move quickly to the next phase where they start to develop their own sound and style.

Seems pretty obvious now, but try as I might, I could not convince them. They were assured that CDs were the future, and sheet music was a non-starter.

Remember, there was no contemporary a cappella in print. You could find a couple King's Singers charts, maybe some out of print Singers Unlimited or vocal jazz from a collector, and that's about it.

Determined, I went searching for a small publishing company that would be interested in taking a chance on a songbook. And at the same time I went searching for a good music editor.

The partner I found was Anne Raugh, in whom I continue to trust all my printed sheet music to this day, and the company that finally decided to take a chance was called Voices Music Publishing in Texas.

Long story short, the first book ("The CASA Songbook") spawned a sequel and a Christmas book as well... and then the company went bankrupt. Ironically, the only books they had that were selling were ours, so Don Gooding, who at that point had seen the enormous desire from his customers, bought out the company and a 3-way partnership was formed: Contemporary A Cappella Publishing.

Side note: less than a decade after the first book was published, Sheet Music accounted for more than half of all sales through a cappella mail order catalogs, and now is the vast majority of sales.

All's well that ends well, right? Not so fast.

Don, who was handling the paperwork and legal side of things, wrote a letter to renew licenses for the books via the new corporation, and the answer he got from Hal Leonard, who controlled most of the songs, was "no."

Wait, what?!?

We didn't understand, so Don called, and was told that we were selling too many copies and they didn't have to renew our licenses if they didn't want to.

Too many copies?!?

Here's where a little context is needed: Compulsory licenses exist for recorded music, dating back to monopolies over songs by the companies that produced piano rolls, but that never extended to sheet music, so whoever controls Michael Jackson's sheet music can say no to whomever they want.

And in today's day and age of corporate consolidation, there are only a handful of companies that buy up the rights to just about all pop music, and the Coca Cola of sheet music publishers is Hal Leonard. They publish sheet music in many different forms, and make a profit in part by being the only people who publish the Beatles, et al.

If you want to legally make a few copies for your group, they'll send you a form, and you can even sell a few copies. But they're not interested in having you use their licenses to start a company.

So, yeah. Crestfallen, we considered all our options, including anti-trust measures, and then we got another phone call, this time offering to have us be a part of their family.

They liked our arrangements, and had nothing like it, so they'd open our catalog to us, so long as we would print the books through them and sell the books through them. They make a profit on printing, they take a cut of every sale... and we're the ones taking all the risk.

Ok, sure. Better than nothing.

Oh, and one other thing: we could only publish songbooks.

Choirs and school groups will often purchase individual sheets for each singer, but when it comes to songbooks, the bottom line was often buy one and make copies.

That's still the case today - I come across xeroxed copies of my music more often than legal copies. Little do the directors and group members know that burns me twice: as an arranger AND as a small business owner. Of course, I'm flattered, but flattery doesn't pay for my kids schooling.

Anyway, for a long time we were on a very short leash: 10-song songbooks, then we could do 5-song songbooks, then 3-song songbooks, then finally, after a decade we could start printing octavos... but only a couple a year.

During this time, pretty much every penny we made went back into the business, and on top of that we took business loans. Few business owners would have stuck it out, but this. is. WAR. And eventually the battle turned, and we began to make a profit.

Ironically, our profit has come at a time where the sheet music industry is stumbling if not crumbling, along the lines of the rest of the music industry. More than ever, people approach music in all forms as if it should be free, so they don't pay for it. "Buy one copy and xerox" is rampant, and coupled with a recession plus massive school music program cuts, it's not pretty. But we're hanging in there, as a cappella's ongoing growth has kept interest increasing (even if, alas, it's only one copy per group).

So, where does this leave you, eager young arranger?

Don't bother calling the folks at Hal Leonard (who are quite nice, BTW). If you do, they'll politely send you to me. And I'll tell you it just isn't worth it for me to jump through the hurdles to publish your song. CAP publishes other major group's sheet music (Rockapella, Sweet Honey, Anonymous 4, Blenders, etc)... but between the contract hassles, editing headaches, small margins, additional accounting and payouts it has just not proven to be worth it. Heck, I've personally got a backlog of over 2,000 arrangements, and I'm only releasing a dozen new charts a year, as it's about all that makes sense financially and logistically.

Where does that leave you? Should you start your own company? If you're looking for an industry with a high entry cost and have deep pockets, then you certainly can try. But here are a couple of questions you might ask yourself before trying

* Have groups been knocking down your door to get copies of songs you've already arranged?

* Are groups frequently stealing your arrangements - either by transcribing them or making xeroxes and singing them with other groups?

* Are you seeing your arrangements on many groups albums, on YouTube?

* Are you great at arranging in a way that will sound good for a variety of group sizes, ages and experience levels, not just your own ensemble?

* How are you planning to distribute your arrangements around the country and/or world? Choral directors already receive several catalogs with hundreds of pages and slick multi-CD packs with demo recordings.

* Are your arrangements highly marketable (just 4 parts, no solo), or are they dense, complex, and likely to be sung mostly by college groups, who most certainly will only buy one copy for their group?

And that's the rub: if you're not going to sell 3,000 copies of your song at bare minimum, it does not cost justify. And that's to say nothing of the amount of capital you have to have tied up in physical songbooks.

If you want further deterring evidence, consider Hal Leonard: they could do what CAP is doing, yet don't. Their pop choral department has been focusing on mass market: taking a song from Glee, creating versions for SA, SSA, SAB, SATB, etc, then selling it with a CD so it can be performed with piano, band or CD by a showchoir. MUCH larger customer base, and even there the margins are also slim. Their full-time staff arrangers might do one a cappella tune each per year, and Hal Leonard will usually have me do one or two as well. That should give you a sense of the size and profitability of the market in the hands of the undisputed industry leader.

So, yeah. That's the deal.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, in part for the history, in part to save having to explain this over and over, in part so people don't think I'm a jerk for not publishing their songs or trying to protect a monopoly (let the record show I've gone out of my way for 20 years to help others make money in a cappella, including teaching arranging... plus I did just explain how to start a publishing company. What am I, stupid or something?!?)

It's just a giant brick wall that I have smashed my head against for the past 15 years, and recently created a small hole.

Music publishing might change in the future, via compulsory license, digital download, who knows. (yeah, we do sell via digital download now, but the numbers are still very small).

Until then, I recommend everyone just keep on keepin' on. And if/when things change, I'll be the first to sound the trumpet, as I'm no dummy, and would like nothing more than to turn Contemporary A Cappella Publishing into a giant corporate monster. Perks will include free concerts in the courtyard at lunch.

Thursdays feel like a good day for the Real Group, don't you agree?