Fair Trade for Sheet Music

In a world that increasingly relies on the economy of free, it’s important to establish that some things aren’t free, and in fact have an actual dollar value associated with them. I sincerely believe that we, as a society, can’t claim to value something—be it an object, a service, or our culture in general—if we refuse to ascribe an actual price to it or to some part of it.

Written By

Dennis Tobenski

I’m an entrepreneurial composer. I’ve never shied away from the fact that I have good business sense, and I’m always looking for ways to use that sense to further the cause of my music and of new music in general. Over the years, I’ve owned and operated eight separate businesses, most of which relate to music, all of which have had significant impacts on my career, and seven of which I still run.

In my currently active businesses, I act as composer, publisher, engraver, vocalist, web designer, retailer/distributor, and writer. As a vocalist, I specialize in 20th and 21st century art songs since I love performing new works and feel a deep commitment to helping promote the music of my peers. I’ve been designing websites since 2005, and it’s partly through running this business that I’ve come to learn what I have about conducting my musical businesses.

In 2010, I founded a company, which is a digital retailer/distributor for self-published composers. The site is intended to be a centralized hub for composers to be able to sell their works, and for performers to find scores outside of the traditional publishing system. The service currently represents 25 composers and over 300 of their scores. Right now I’m in the process of redesigning the site and attempting to more fully automate the ways that I accept new composers and new scores.
I’m fascinated with the business aspects of the arts, and a new and exciting business idea is just as likely to keep me awake late into the night as a new and exciting musical idea is.
Creating an Economy

Deep Sea Food Chain

Deep Sea Food Chain by Bruce Mahalski. Photo courtesy of Pieter Pieterse on Flickr.

I’m really excited to have put a new pricing structure into effect on my website because it allows me to place a value on my scores that I can feel confident about. In a world that increasingly relies on the economy of free, it’s important to establish that some things aren’t free, and in fact have an actual dollar value associated with them.

I sincerely believe that we, as a society, can’t claim to value something—be it an object, a service, or our culture in general—if we refuse to ascribe an actual price to it or to some part of it. As my web design business grows, I realize more and more that those clients who pay a higher design fee inevitably value my time more, and treat me with more respect. And so must it be with what we do as composers and performers. We must know our worth, relative to any given situation, and be prepared to ask for what we deserve. Or, in those instances when we charge less than we should, make it clear that we’re working at a discounted rate.
This isn’t to say that we should never do anything or give anything away for free, or that we should always charge the highest fee possible—on the contrary, it’s to say that we must know when free is detrimental to our growth and the growth of other composers. Giving a score to a performer friend, or writing a little birthday ditty for free won’t break the bank, and it’s not going to cause the world to walk all over us. But to allow large institutions—or even small venues—to continue to bully us into accepting “exposure” or “experience” as payment has to stop. So, too, must the practice of organizations and ensembles offering us the vague half-promise of a performance if we pay them so much for their consideration, send them a free score, then—on the off chance that our work is selected for performance—provide parts free of charge, and cover the complete costs of our own travel, lodging, and food because the organization requires our attendance as a requisite for performance.

There are times when free or discounted are appropriate; and there will be times when each of us takes on a project or participates in a festival or series of workshops where we’re not paid for our time or reimbursed for our expenses, but we get something larger out of the experience. But in the long run, we have to accept the fact that artistic fulfillment doesn’t pay the bills. It’s possible to be artistically fulfilled and still get paid: one does not preclude the other.

We also need to accept that the concert music world is a micro-economy that is comprised of a number of smaller sub-economies (orchestras, chamber ensembles, opera companies, new music concert series, etc.), and that it also overlaps with other, often larger, micro-economies (academia, film, advertising, etc.). Our micro-economy, like so many others, is fairly fragile while at the same time remarkably robust.

Fragile, because our contributions to society/culture/education/community are often seen as either unnecessary or frivolous—luxuries that can be foregone when people decide they don’t want to pay for them anymore. Or, as is more often the case, provided gratis when people can’t or don’t want to pay for them anymore.

Fragile, because we’ve made ourselves almost completely dependent on the largesse of the moneyed few rather than forging our own financial paths and bolstering our micro-economy with solid financial planning and institutional/administrative dynamism (as opposed to what Terry Teachout’s has described as “administrative sclerosis”).

Yet robust, because our community is made up of individuals and organizations that want our art to survive and flourish, and are willing to do whatever it takes to make that so.

Unfortunately, it’s what makes us so robust that ultimately leads to our fragility. We’re willing to work for free…so why should anyone pay us?

Our reliance on granting organizations and the privately wealthy to maybe give us some funding—almost always with strings attached—has crippled our industry. We’re also crippled by the ridiculous fact that most of us refuse to see concert music as an industry in the first place. The court of the Esterhazys is gone. We’re on our own now, and government and institutional funding is dwindling because we’ve allowed ourselves to be marginalized, internalizing the ideas that a) what we do is not truly important in a global sense, and b) we’re above thinking about money because we’re Artistes and should not trouble ourselves with such mundane and vulgar matters.

We’re not above it, and we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we are. We’re each surrounded by people who value what we do, and it’s those people who can help us to rebuild and reshape the industry of concert music into one that values itself and stops apologizing for needing to be paid. We need to be an industry whose practitioners go out into the world with a confident sense of purpose and cultural relevance, who don’t rely solely on long-shot institutional or government funding or alms from the rich, and who aren’t either terrified or disdainful of basic business practices.
We can spare a little of our creativity and a little of our time to forge new paths to revitalize this industry that people keep saying is dead. Concert music will never die, but wouldn’t it be nice to get it off of life support?

Fair Trade


Photo courtesy of Keith Fahlgren on Flickr.

While our cultural/educational/societal/whatever-al contributions are too often seen as unnecessary luxuries (that people are unwilling to actually forego), we also live in a society in which a significant number of people value fair trade coffee and are willing to pay more so that workers in that industry are paid a living wage (or close to it). It is not my intention to belittle the efforts of fair trade organizations, or to put the well-being of coffee pickers and traders (and workers in other fair trade industries) beneath that of composers living in the First World, but rather to point out that it’s worth the added expense of a score or a concert ticket if the composer or performers are paid fairly. In fact, we should be proud to pay composers or performers what they’re worth instead of continually shaming them into accepting a lower fee—or no fee at all—because we can’t bring ourselves to budget properly, or to actually place a true value on the efforts of these highly trained artists.

I’m curious to know what would happen if an organization advertised the fact that it pays its artists and collaborators fees that are respectful of the artist’s work. To me, it would demonstrate a deeper commitment to the arts than any mission statement ever could.

What We Can Learn from Novelists

Lots of Books

Photo courtesy of zimpenfish on Flickr.

I follow the book publishing industry very closely and am a devoted reader of several blogs written by authors who are in the vanguard of self-publishing, and I can’t help but see the parallels between our industry and theirs.

Traditionally published (or legacy published, as is the common nomenclature amongst “self-pubbed” writers) novelists receive the bulk of their income from advances. An “advance” is a payment against future sales (technically: an advance against future royalties), and sometimes covers more than one book. The advance is, on one hand, technically a loan to the author that assumes a certain volume and velocity of sales of the books under contract (this loan is rarely called in if the book doesn’t sell well); and on the other, it’s a gamble on the publisher’s part that the books will recoup the publisher’s investment and earn additional royalties. The majority of legacy-published authors often don’t earn much beyond their advance, and the book goes out of print after the first run. Historically, rights eventually revert back to the author, who may then either find a new publisher for the book or publish it themselves.

Traditionally published composers receive the bulk of their income from commissions. Or teaching. Or anything but score sales. Traditionally published composers receive no advance against sales because music publishers are unwilling to guarantee a single sale. Composers receive $1 upon signing a contract with a publisher because contract law stipulates that there must be some monetary “consideration” involved in such transactions. Awesome.

Legacy published novelists retain many rights when they sign contracts with a publisher—all non-North American rights, translation rights, and movie/TV option rights remain with the author upon signing a contract. A novelist may license her work, or some part of it, to publishers in other countries or to production companies for a limited time to possibly turn her work into a movie or TV series. (If the production company fails to create a movie, etc., within the stipulated timeframe, the company must re-license the work, often for a larger fee.)

Composers, upon signing with traditional publishers, usually hand over worldwide rights to their work. In perpetuity. Royalty rates for print sales are stipulated in the contract (typically a measly 10%, with many contractual opportunities for the publisher to pay less), but no other rights reside with the composer, including the right to arrange the work.
Self-published novelists earn no advance. The bulk of creative income comes from book sales, though they, too, have licensing options, and production companies are increasingly seeking out self-published authors because they’re easier to work with than legacy publishers.

Self-published composers walk the line between traditionally published composers and self-published novelists. On the one hand, they make the bulk of their income from commissions, but have the option to earn income from sales, although they’re unlikely to have anything near the sales volume or velocity of a self-published novelist, who has the Amazon/Kindle/B&N/Nook/Kobo/Sony/Smashwords/etc. platforms at her disposal. Self-published composers need to do significantly more work to stay afloat than indie writers; but compared to traditionally published composers, they earn a significantly greater income from significantly fewer sales.

One need only look at Alex Shapiro, John Mackey, or Stephen Paulus—to name but a few—to see a self-published composer who belongs to the industry of concert music: excellent artists who aren’t afraid or disdainful of doing business. So in that spirit I’d like to share my own thought process on how I price my music.

Coming Up With a Viable Price Structure for Sheet Music

Cash Register

Photo courtesy of Cheon Fong Liew on Flickr.

As a mentioned at the beginning of this essay, I recently put a new price structure into effect for my music. This past fall, I redesigned my website, as I do every few years. One of the biggest changes I made was to remove the “Store” page in favor of emphasizing commerce on the “Works” pages themselves. Every piece that I have ready to be printed and shipped, or at the very least downloaded, has a picture of the score cover with pricing information, links to buy print and digital copies, and sample pages.

Along with the reworking of the site came a necessary reworking in my pricing structure. My former price structure was…well…completely unstructured. I had based my prices more on a feeling of what I should charge than on anything concrete or measurable, which led to near-paralysis for days and weeks on end as I agonized over pricing every piece. For years, I didn’t put a dollar amount on a lot of scores, leaving them instead to be dealt with later.

I’d known for years that I should base my prices on what it costs me to print them, but that meant that I had to figure out my printing solution. Was I going to invest in the equipment to do it all myself and figure prices according to my supplies and time, or was I going to farm it out to an existing print company and base my prices on theirs? The former would cost much more up front, but would save money in the long run. It also would take considerable time, especially learning the processes on the front end. And every mistake would cost both time and money. Plus, the equipment and supplies would take up room that I just don’t have in a New York City apartment, which I share with my partner (also a composer with lots of gear) and our three cats (one of whom loves paper more than any other plaything). In the end, I decided to go with an outside company. In various areas of my life, I’ve become increasingly predisposed toward saving time and aggravation by letting experienced professionals do work that I may not be able to do correctly, or that may take far too much time to learn to do properly. Even though the costs may be somewhat greater, the peace of mind is well worth it.

So I sent out a request for quotes from a company I’ve worked with before and went to town on a new spreadsheet to calculate costs and profit based on the estimates I received.

A little over two years ago, I posted a little essay on my own blog on taking a practical approach to pricing. I stand behind the sentiment, but the math is a little complicated. I’ve since simplified (and in some cases, corrected) the math, which I’ll share with you below.

Now, mind you, this is for print scores—we’ll deal with digital later on.

Component Parts of Our Equation

There are a few things we need to consider when pricing scores:
1) What it costs to print each score
2) What discount we need to offer distributors
3) How much we want to make on each score, after the distributor takes their discount

Overhead costs are the simplest to figure: it’s a fixed amount given to us by our printing company. Or, for those who print and bind their own scores, it’s what it costs us in supplies per score, plus a rate for time spent. And because we likely want our scores to be sold by various retailers/distributors, we need to offer them a certain percent discount, which is standard practice. This discount is typically around 40% (give or take 10%), which will work perfectly for our purposes. We need to build this amount into our prices because a) we don’t want to have to reprice everything once we find an interested distributor, and b) we don’t want to be caught unawares and be forced to give a discount that causes us to sell scores at a loss, and c) we can’t undercut a distributor’s price.

This last point is incredibly important. While it may seem natural in a world driven by competitive pricing to offer the most attractive price on your own site and to price lower than your distributors, in this situation it’s not only misguided, it’s quite simply unethical. Distributors (I use the term loosely here), including brick and mortar retailers like your local music store or digital retailers like Theodore Front or SheetMusicPlus or (shameless plug) NewMusicShelf, are not competition—any sale that you make through a distributor is not instead of a sale that you could have made on your own site, it is in addition to any sales that you may make on your own site.

It’s very bad business practice to undercut the prices that you yourself have set for a distributor by offering scores at a lower rate on your site. It is also wildly unprofessional to publicly discourage people from making a purchase at a distributor’s site instead of on your own. You might offer a “value add” to purchases made on your site (signed copies, discounts on pieces not offered through the distributor, etc.), but to discourage sales from other vendors is a no-no. Every store or site that offers your works is additional visibility for you, and could lead to sales and a wider knowledge of your work. If you start behaving badly toward your distributors, they will—and should—stop selling your work.

Finally, we have to decide how much we want to make per score AFTER the distributor’s discount. This means that if we sell 10 copies to Such-And-Such Music at 40% off, and we’ve already spent $4.00 per score for printing, we need to figure out how much we want to have earned from this sale. It also means that if you sell the score yourself, you’re getting both your regular profit AND the 40% that you would otherwise lose to a distributor.

This minimum profit amount can be a fixed amount or a percentage.

Maybe you want to make $4.00 per score for short song sets, $10.00 for medium-length chamber works, or $0.75 per copy of each choral score. These numbers are a little arbitrary, but I chose them because I find $4 to be generally appropriate for a “short” work, and $10 to be appropriate for a “medium-length” work.
Or you could say that you want to make 25% of the gross price. On a score that sells for $10.00, you’d make $2.50.
Whatever you charge, the amount should be enough to be fair to you, but not so much that it makes the overall price prohibitive to customers.

The Math
So for those of you who paid any sort of attention in algebra class, you know that this is a simple matter of solving for X.
Cost + Distributor Discount + Profit = Price
C + D + P = X

We know what our cost is going to be because we did our homework with our print company. For our example, printing and binding totals $4.00 per score. We also know that our distributor discount is 40% of the final price (40% of X). Which means:
4 + 0.4X + P = X
OK, we can already simplify this to:
4 + 0.4X + P – (0.4X) = X – (0.4X)
4 + P = 0.6X

Now, depending on which sort of profit you’re going for, the way we solve for X changes. There are two equally viable ways to approach this equation.

1. A Fixed Profit Approach
If we want to make $5 on this piece, then:
4 + 5 = 0.6X

9 = 0.6X
9/0.6 = 0.6X/0.6
X = 15
Which makes our discount $6.00
Cost (4) + Discount (6) + Profit (5) = $15
So to figure your price, simply add your printing costs and your fixed amount profit and divide by 0.6.

2. A Percent Profit Approach
If we want to make 30% on each sale, then:
P = 0.3X
4 + 0.3X = 0.6X
4 = 0.6X – 0.3X
4 = 0.3X
4/0.3 = X
X = $13.33
You profit is $3.99, and your discount is $7.99
For good measure, let’s just round up to 13.50 so that:
Cost (4.00) + Discount (5.40) + Profit (4.10) = 13.50

The percentage route is the easier way to calculate. Essentially, all you do is add up your two percentages – 40% and your profit percent, subtract both from 100%, then divide your cost by the remaining percent. (With a 30% profit, 40% + 30% = 70%, meaning that your cost is 30% of the overall price – divide your cost by 0.3)
Then I prefer to round up to the next quarter, because, really, thirty-three cents is silly.

Postage and Digital Delivery

Mail at JFK Airport

Photo courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Flickr.

Postage is another area that requires a little bit of thought. As with printing and binding, there are multiple elements to consider: postage costs, supplies, and the time you’ll spend putting everything together and standing in line at the post office. While some composers may feel as though they don’t want to add any more onto what people are already paying them, these aren’t expenses that you should just eat. Any time you incur an expense in the process of making a sale, that expense gets passed on to the customer in some manner. Either you build that expense into the price itself, or, as with postage and handling, you tack on an additional fee to cover your expenses. Always remember the second part of that phrase: handling.

Digital delivery and all digital payments also require solid consideration. You won’t spend an hour standing in line at the post office with digital scores, but, unless you’ve automated your web store, you’re going to spend time fulfilling the order, following up to make sure the file arrived, and possibly sending it again if something went wrong in transit. And whether you use PayPal, Square, Intuit GoPayment, Google Checkout, or any other digital payment solution, you’re going to encounter transaction fees. As with postage, you shouldn’t eat those fees. You can build them into your prices, or you can add a surcharge for digital payments. There are some great tools out there to help.

Pricing Digital Scores

The accepted wisdom for pricing digital downloads of scores is to halve the price of a printed score. And for once, I’m not going to buck tradition. Shocking, I know. There are a few cases where I think that half is a little off, and I’ll adjust accordingly; but mostly, I think that half is fair. Another option, however, is to remove the print cost from your print score price, which can knock off between 30% and 40%.

Check Your Work

It’s really easy to be uncomfortable about putting price tags on your work. It can feel like you’re asking way too much one second, then far too little the next. The thing that’s kept me sane is comparing my prices to those of other self-publishers, and to traditional publishers as well. As I figured out my formula, I could check if I was missing the mark by seeing where I fell compared to works of similar instrumentation and duration.
In the end, I think I’ve found a very happy place—not least because I’ve managed to keep the subjective elements fairly limited.

For Performers

For any non-composing musicians who’ve managed to stay with me this far, you can see how prices are what they are for concert music scores. A 28-page score that costs $5.30 to print can cost you $17.50 because of the various considerations along the way. And printing is not always this cheap, especially when the composer/publisher insists on using higher quality materials and knowledgeable printing/binding services.

Remember that everyone in the chain needs to come out ahead at the end of the day. A 40% discount for retailers/distributors allows your local music shop or services like SheetMusicPlus and Theodore Front to stay in business. And a 20-30% profit per score for a self-published composer isn’t all that much—about $5.20 in the case of the $17.50, 28-page score. Given the average composer’s sales velocity…let’s just say that 30% won’t pay the rent.

Moving Forward



Some important resources that you should keep as close to your keyboard as manuscript paper. Photo by Dennis Tobenski.

What my formula does is to remove the consideration of how hard I worked on the composition of the piece or any subjective notions of the value of the music itself with objective, concrete numbers based on the real costs of paper and ink and staples. The formula takes your actual costs, and figures in profit for you and profit for the people you do business with: the printer gets paid, the distributor gets paid, and the composer gets paid. If any portion of that seems unfair or wrong to anyone, they need a radical realignment of their values.

Meanwhile, those composers who give all of their music away for free, or who purposely undercharge severely for scores and/or commissions, need to realize how much damage they’re doing to the rest of us who intend to make a real go at being a composer for a living. We’re not living/working in a vacuum—we are all part of a community, and we each have real responsibilities toward one another. One of those responsibilities is to not damage another composer’s livelihood. By acknowledging your responsibility to your colleagues and peers and placing a real value on your work, you train performers and organizations to value others’ works accordingly.

The fact that we can’t reasonably unionize puts us at a severe financial disadvantage in many respects. Experienced, talented film composers who used to be able to make a living on a solid handful of films each year are being driven from the field in droves because so many—typically young and inexperienced—composers are undercharging (often because they’re bullied into doing so, or because they want to get their foot in the door). Increasingly, filmmakers think that “exposure” and a “credit” make up for seriously underpaying a composer to score a 90-minute feature. A troubling number of ad agencies feel no embarrassment when asking for free music for a campaign that they’re being paid to create. By taking these jobs, all that these composers are actually doing is vying for first place in the race to the bottom. Only the top few can command any sort of reasonable fee, while everyone else suffers. Filmmakers, ensembles, performers, and organizations learn quickly that they don’t have to do as much fundraising, they don’t have to budget as much for artists, they don’t have to value our work…because we don’t value it ourselves.
So I challenge you composers to revisit what you charge for scores and commissions, and make a point of thinking of yourself as part of a larger community toward which you have a number of important responsibilities. Stop offering all of your works for free. Stop being disdainful and/or terrified of basic business practices and put them to use. Learn how you can use those practices along with your abilities as a creative person to advance the cause of the music that you write and the cause of new music in general.

We’re all in this together.


Dennis Tobenski

Dennis Tobenski, photo by Kaity Volpe

Dennis Tobenski is a composer, vocalist and web designer living in New York City, as well as the founder of and the writer of The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business. Only Air, his 20-minute work for high voice and orchestra that memorializes the LGBT teens who have taken their own lives due to bullying was premiered in April 2013 by the Illinois State University Symphony Orchestra, and will be presented again in March 2014 by The Secret Opera in NYC. On February 18, Dennis will be presenting a program of love songs by gay American composers with pianist Marc Peloquin as a part of the Composers Now Festival.