How a piece of music goes to die: a case study.

One of the most preposterous aspects of publishing music is the issue surrounding copyright. When you get your first contract, it is very exciting. That contract arrives in the mail, and you tear it open. You read down the paper and stop suddenly because you see a clause that says that you will sign over your copyright to the company that is publishing the work. As in, once you sign the contract, you no longer own the music that you wrote. You can’t use it for another purpose without permission. In book publishing, the author still retains his/her copyright. In music publishing, it is non-negotiable. You either sign over your copyright, or the piece doesn’t get published. Sometimes, this can result in the death of the piece.

I was the rehearsal accompanist and assistant to a very fine University Chamber Choir. I decided to write a very adventurous arrangement of a spiritual for them to sing. The arrangement was rhythmically complex and harmonically challenging. The group sang the piece very well. At one of our concerts, a friend who is a nationally prominent conductor and editor heard the work. He asked for a copy.
About two years later, I ran into him at a convention. He said, “Hey, Kurt. I think we are going to publish your spiritual arrangement.” I said, “Why would you publish that? It’s too hard. There are probably only about 10 college choirs in the country that would even attempt it.” To my surprise, about 6 months after that, I had a contract from a publisher for the work. So, I signed it and sent the files to the copyist. The files were approved, and then I got the phone call from my publisher.

“Listen, we just heard from the people at Hal Leonard. They said, ‘Why do you want to publish this? It’s too hard. There are probably only about 10 college choirs in the country that would even attempt it.’ The thing is, we have a signed contract, and we are supposed to go to press on Monday. Is there any way you can revise the work and make it easier? We need it by tomorrow.”

So, I dutifully wrote a new arrangement that night. I retained a little of the original work, but it was stripped of all inventiveness. It was much more singable, and much more plain vanilla. I turned it in knowing that a piece I wrote in one night wasn’t my best work, but I met the deadline.  The piece was published, and as I expected, it didn’t sell very well.

Recently, someone wanted to perform the piece. They tried to order copies and found it was on “back order”. They asked me what they could do to get a copy. I honestly said I had no idea. The publisher doesn’t want to do another run of 500 copies because they know they can’t sell that many. I can’t send the conductor copies because I don’t own the work anymore. I signed away my copyright to get it published.

So now, it is basically dead.  I’m quite sure that they could work our some sort of deal with the publisher to photocopy the work. That is not the point. The point is that it is preposterous that I don’t have the right to control a work of my own creation. At this point, I probably don’t even have the right to use the original work because sections of it are used in the published version.

At MusicSpoke, we are working to build a new model of music publishing where the composer retains the copyright and control of their own work. This will also mean that you don’t have to split mechanical rights with us. They will all belong to you. We don’t want to own your music because we find that model morally reprehensible. We just want to help you sell it and promote it. Visit our site, sign up, and receive updates, articles, and limited beta invitations.