Music Publishing

By Sturm, George | Notes, March 2000 | Go to article overview
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Music Publishing


Sturm, George, Notes


Music Publishing. The art of bringing a musical product to a public. What could be more obvious? But in order really to understand music publishing, one must be clear on the meaning of these three simple terms.

My choice of the first term is almost playful. Is publishing an art or just a business like any other? It probably has elements of both. It involves, first of all, a deep understanding of and respect for music and its makers, composers, and performers. Ideally, it should also suggest the sustaining of several simultaneous relationships, each as unique as the personality of the composer who freely chooses to entrust his or her career to the care of a publisher (or more often, a particular personality on a publisher's staff). These relationships must be based on mutual trust, with both parties reserving the right to speak their minds, knowing that ultimate decisions are the composer's prerogative. (The composer can always terminate a relationship and switch to another publisher.) In that sense, publishing is as personal and discreet as state diplomacy. Once the composition has been created, the business dimension arises with a sizable agenda that includes expertise in engraving, copying, and computer-setting; editing, marketing, and distributing; such administrative skills as contracts, royalties, and copyrights; and the related enterprises that keep the music industry afloat.

The musical product, of course, is the commodity being marketed and ranges widely from hymns, anthems, and other church music, to methods and other educational music, to jazz, pop, blues, rap, rock, folk, show, and ethnic, to that many-splendored blip on the charts known as concert music. While recent trends in the writing, publishing, and distributing of printed music seem to show a vague coming-together of disparate elements, compartmentalization is still more the rule than the exception: people do their own thing and have little connection with or interest in areas outside their own competence.

Which leaves the final and, in some ways, the most important of the three terms: the public. Which public? It takes no deductive brilliance to observe that there are many publics making up the market for printed music. It is incumbent on each publisher to determine what products are best suited to the market with which it is most familiar.

And here is where the history of music publishing should be considered. When it all began in eighteenth-century Europe, some enterprising music lovers put their tastes and talents to the task of satisfying a mounting musical appetite among a steadily growing army of middle-class amateurs. Everybody sang or played, and the experience of teaming up with others was enormous fun. Composers were more than happy to oblige by writing music that was within the grasp of these amateurs. Moreover, since cities were far more isolated from one another than ours are today, each urban center was more or less autonomous and self-sufficient and had its own musical amateurs (in the best sense of the word) who hungrily clamored for access to whatever the local tunesmiths were providing for their particular instrument or ensemble. Did you want to hear what a new piece sounded like?. You sat down and played it, either in the original version or in one of the myriad arrangements brought out to fill popular demand. No wonder then that a profusion of Kleinmeister evolved to become the minions of countless parlors and salons. And on the music stands was the printed music turned out by a new breed of publishers--such as Breitkopf & Hartel, the firm that "organized the trade of music along modern business lines, keeping a large stock of printed and manuscript scores and issuing periodical catalogues remarkable for their thematic indexes." [1] Music publishing, in the modern sense, had begun.

It was the same Breitkopf & Hartel, almost two hundred years later, that was to show the way in America by opening a New York office in the 1920s, soon to be joined there by a convocation of other music publishers who foresaw the gathering storm clouds over Europe and wished to safeguard their property by having inventory and doing business in America.

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