Tag: digital distribution

Online Score Sales for Self-Published Composers

Empty Staff Paper with staple

“No one’s going to buy your music if it’s sitting on the shelf at your house.” So says Kurt Knecht, composer and co-founder of MusicSpoke, a sheet music distributor focusing on choral music. And it’s true! So, composers: how can you get your music in front of the right musicians in a format that makes it easy for them to purchase, download, and start practicing your pieces right away?

This article will provide an overview of options for self-published composers to sell their PDF (and sometimes, physical) scores and describe the typical audience for each of these methods so composers can evaluate which option might be the best for you and your music. It will also discuss methods for selling your music on your own website, via Bandcamp, or by creating a composer’s collective. Finally, it will explore an alternative path: not selling your music. All of the distributors in this article share two similarities, with a few exceptions for special series or publishing arrangements you can opt-in to. First, composers retain the copyright to their work. Second, these distributors are non-exclusive: composers can sell on other sites.

All of the distributors in this article share two similarities, with a few exceptions: composers retain their copyright; these distributors are non-exclusive

And, a note as we get going: the legacy of systemic racism and sexism is apparent when one browses the distributors in this article. Many of the owners and operators of music distribution services are white men and the catalogs represented on these services often have a large proportion of white male composers. The work to amplify the voices of women, LGBTQ, and BIPOC composers must continue.

Let’s talk about two large distributors first: J.W. Pepper and Sheet Music Plus (SMP) Press. These distributors have name recognition, come in high on internet search results for sheet music, and serve large numbers of customers. However, they offer smaller payments per score (45-50% of list price) to composers, and do not share information about who purchased your music (name, contact info, etc.) with you.

J.W. Pepper’s My Score

Logo for My Score


J.W. Pepper is one of the largest distributors of educational music in the United States, selling everything from method and solo books to ensemble works. K-12 music educators are familiar with the website and often have purchasing accounts already set up and ready to go. My Score is J.W. Pepper’s distribution service for self-published composers. “People know the J.W. Pepper name,” says Isaac Brooks, who heads up My Score. “The My Score composer can be found in results along with traditionally published pieces.” Composer Karlyne Félix works as a music educator and first encountered My Score when she was looking for music for her students. Now she uses it as the sole music distributor for her own works. “It’s very easy to use, accessible, and well-known among the music education community,” she says. The audience of educators also attracted composer Garrett Hope to the service. “I’m focusing my efforts on educational music,” Hope explains. “A big part of marketing is knowing your audience and knowing where they go.”

“A big part of marketing is knowing your audience and knowing where they go.”

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

Signing up for My Score costs a one-time $99 fee. Composers receive 50% of the list price for every digital copy and 25% for every printed copy sold, paid quarterly. There are minimum prices for your sheet music starting at $2 for choral works up to $45 for a full orchestral work. For choral works, a minimum of 5 copies must be purchased, to avoid illegal copying. There is no evaluation process for composers, no quality standards, and no guidelines on notation to follow.

PDF or Print Scores?
Works sold on My Score can be purchases as PDFs or printed scores.


“All digital copies sold by jwpepper.com are watermarked and made available for print through a customer portal called My Library,” Brooks says. “The product can also be viewed through our on a mobile device. The end-user has 3 attempts to successfully print the product, after that it will only be viewable electronically through their account.”

Isaac Brooks in a tie and jacket playing a cello outdoors.

Isaac Brooks, who heads up J. W. Pepper’s My Score

Additional Benefits:

J.W. Pepper has a presence at music conferences, and often offers My Score composers the opportunity to stand at a booth. They offer Webinar training for their composers. One benefit that makes My Score stand out: every work is available as a digital score or a physical score through their print-on-demand service. Professionally printed and bound scores will be fulfilled within 3 days.


“Neutral themes and music of hope are very good to have at any performance.”
Karlyne Félix holding a glass globe

Karlyne Félix

Félix suggests that composers considering My Score keep in mind who they are selling to: music educators and their (often young) musicians. “Neutral themes and music of hope are very good to have at any performance,” she explains.  She says it took a little work to get the hang of uploading music, but that My Score’s team was helpful. “I have been contacted by their support team, at the beginning of my journey with them, to clarify a few edits before the site made my music public,” she says. “I appreciate that, especially being new to the system.” Hope wishes that the editing process for scores was less cumbersome. After scores are added, any changes must be requested via email. “I would love to be able to login and see my catalog and make edits,” he says. However, Hope agrees that the customer service team is responsive, usually making changes within 24 hours. Brooks explains that one reason composers must submit edits through email is that My Score prepares a printable file for every score submitted. “One difference between My Score and SMP Press is that we are preparing the item for physical distribution,” he says. Brooks says that a portal for composers to edit their current catalog is “in the works.”

Sheet Music Plus (SMP) Press


Sheet Music Plus calls itself “the world’s largest sheet music store.” SMP Press is their distribution arm for self-published composers to sell PDF scores. The site caters to K-12 music educators and ensemble directors, private music teachers and their students and individual hobbyist musicians. Composer Juhi Bansal (https://juhibansal.com/) appreciates the popularity of Sheet Music Plus’s site. “It’s a place people are already going and looking for music, so you are exposed to a much larger audience,” she says.

Composer Juhi Bansal

Composer Juhi Bansal

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

SMP Press is free to join. Composers earn 45% of the list price for original compositions and public domain arrangements and 10% on arrangements of their copyrighted song catalog. Commissions are paid monthly once you hit the $20 minimum for payment via Paypal or $40 minimum for check payments. SMP Offers guidelines (not requirements) for how much to charge for scores. They provide guidelines for scores, such as margin sizes and reducing ink on the cover (since customers are printing these out at home).

“I don’t know too many orchestral institutions willing to print and bind the conductor’s score and parts, with their numerous varying page sizes.”

PDF or Print Scores?

SMP Press sells only PDF scores at this time.


Customers receive downloadable, watermarked PDFs.


Bansal finds SMP Press easy to use. “If you’re just starting out and you want to put music up, it’s a good platform to do it. You can have one place where you sell your scores, and direct people to it.” Composer Arthur Breur agrees. “You create your company name, upload PDFs, you can include preview pages, a video or recording, description, select your price, and 24-48 hours later, your piece is approved and ready to sell,” he explains. “Making changes are easy and then it will take 24-48 hours to update.” “SMP Press is a great option for artists who enjoy a ‘set it and forget it’ method to distributing their music,” says composer Brian Nabors. “It definitely gets the music into the hands of the musicians instantly.” He does wish that SMP had an option to sell physical scores and parts, especially for large ensemble works. “I don’t know too many orchestral institutions willing to print and bind the conductor’s score and parts, with their numerous varying page sizes.” Because of this, he binds and ships his orchestral music himself, often using another music distributor, Subito Music Distribution. To enhance search on the Sheet Music Plus website, Breur suggests including the instrument or performing forces in the title field of your piece when you add it to your catalog. For example: “Dance – Piano Solo” rather than just “Dance.” In his experience, this helps customers find your piece when they search the site.

Composer Brian Nabors

Composer Brian Nabors

Next, let’s talk about four smaller, composer-run distributors: MusicSpoke, NewMusicShelf, Graphite, and Murphy Music Press. These distributors offer a higher payment to composers (50-70% of list price), and share information about who bought your music with you, so that you can get in touch with musicians and ensemble directors.


The Logo for Music Spoke


MusicSpoke is a marketplace for music by living composers, with a strong emphasis on choral music. “Our primary customers, in this order, are K-12 choral, university choral, and churches,” says Kurt Knecht, co-founder. Composers are welcome to sell other genres of concert music on the site as well. Juhi Bansal sells her vocal music on MusicSpoke, in addition to selling her music on Sheet Music Plus. “It is more specialized,” she says of MusicSpoke, “mostly choral, a few piano works, and art song. I don’t think it’s a great place to sell string quartets, opera, etc.”

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

There is no fee to join MusicSpoke. Composers receive 70% of the list price, with some slight variations for rare physical copy sales or promotional offers. The vast majority of MusicSpoke’s sales are PDF scores. When MusicSpoke works are chosen for state repertoire lists requiring physical scores, MusicSpoke works with Black Ribbon Printing to print and bind hard copies.

Kurt Knecht in front of an organ.

Kurt Knecht

The process to join MusicSpoke is unique. “We evaluate composers, not pieces,” says Knecht. MusicSpoke has a one-on-one dialogue with each composer to see if they are a good match for distribution on their site. They do not evaluate individual pieces (as a traditional publisher might), but rather add composers to their service and let composers list as many or as few pieces as they want. Knecht says that they do prefer that you have a recording available for any piece you want to sell.

PDF or Print Scores?

Music Spoke primarily sells PDF scores, with the rare option to print scores when works are chosen for state repertoire lists.


Customers receive downloadable, watermarked PDFs, or (rarely) physical scores printed through Black Ribbon Publishing.

Additional Benefits:

Bansal appreciates the reputation that MusicSpoke has built among conductors. “People know it’s a good place to look for contemporary choral scores,” she says. She also like that they don’t have a minimum purchase requirement. “If you want to check out a copy of a score, if you want to teach from it or share it in class, there are no minimums,” she says. That can be an advantage if your goal is getting your music in front of a conductor. MusicSpoke maintains a presence at national conferences, with options for composers to join them at their booth. They are continuously developing a network of composers and conductors to promote the music of MusicSpoke composers. In addition, they curate several series with renowned conductors such as the Charles Bruffy, Derrick Fox, and Joseph Ohrt, and MusicSpoke composers are eligible for these. One note: these special series have an additional three-year exclusivity contract with MusicSpoke due to the special promotional services they receive.


New Music Shelf logo


NewMusicShelf sells and distributes PDFs of concert music by living composers, with a particular emphasis on music for collegiate and professional performers, ensembles, and chamber groups. “I believe chamber, vocal, and choral music work best on this platform,” says composer Jennifer Jolley, who sells her music on NewMusicShelf as well as through Murphy Music Press and ADJ•ective New Music. Composers are welcome to sell educational music, but that is not its primary market. Of the composer-run distributors discussed in this article, NewMusicShelf is unique in the breadth of its catalog across instrumental and vocal ensembles.

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

There is no fee to join NewMusicShelf. For scores sold, there are 2 fees per transaction: a payment processing fee from Paypal or Stripe, which is typically 2.9% plus $0.30 per transaction, and NMS’s 30% distribution fee. This leaves the composer with slightly under 70% of the list price. Composers set their prices, with a minimum of $2 per score. Digital scores sold through NewMusicShelf must be priced less than physical scores sold elsewhere and identically to digital scores sold elsewhere.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for a gatekeeper to talk about ‘quality’ because that is very subjective.”

Of the composer-run distributors, NewMusicShelf is the most inclusive. Founder Dennis Tobenski does not curate based on style or perceived quality. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for a gatekeeper to talk about ‘quality’ because that is very subjective,” he says. The most important criteria for acceptance is the engraving quality of your scores and parts. Tobenski suggests comparing your scores to professionally engraved music or seeking advice from a composer whose scores you admire before submitting. That said, he will provide feedback if your scores are not up to his standards—it is not just a blanket rejection.

Dennis Tobenski

Dennis Tobenski

PDF or Print Scores?
NewMusicShelf sells only PDF scores at this time.


Customers receive downloadable, watermarked PDFs.

Additional Benefits:

“There is a guide to help us figure out how much we should charge per copy of our music. That is a game changer right there,” says Jolley. She appreciates the service because it helps composers sell their music online even if they “have no idea how to implement this on their own website.” NewMusicShelf is Tobenski’s self-described “one man operation,” but he still makes sure to have a presence at conferences, particularly in conjunction with the publication of their print anthologies of music. His mission is to build a community of composers and new music performers.

Jennifer Jolley standing near a lake

Jennifer Jolley (Liz Glen Photography)


Tobenski recommends that composers provide a lot of information to potential customers when they upload their scores to the catalog, including a perusal score or sample pages, program notes, links to recordings, and information on who commissioned the work. “Give people too much information,” he suggests. “That’s what people are buying the score based on.” Jolley hopes to see more options for educational music on the platform in the future. “Once they expand, they can make it so their musical offerings are sorted by grade level,” she suggests.

Murphy Music Press

Murphy Music logo


Murphy Music Press is a distributor of composer-owned music for saxophones and wind ensembles, run by composer and saxophonist Sean Murphy.  The site sells everything from solos to chamber music to large ensemble works, at all difficulty levels. Composer Evan Williams distributes his work through Murphy Music Press and ADJ•ective New Music (more on ADJ•ective later). “Both Murphy and ADJ•ective have wide markets,” he says. “Some works are educational and some are collegiate/professional.” Murphy aims to sell to customers seeking a curated catalog. “We sell to the kind of person who buys an espresso coffee versus Folgers,” he explains.

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

There is no fee to join and composers selling through Murphy Music Press set their own prices and earn 50% of the list price. Murphy Music Press pays for printing and binding out of its half of the sales. Composers are paid twice a year. The site includes around 200 composers at present and Murphy is always looking for new members. Composers interested in selling their music on Murphy Music Press can contact Murphy through the web form on the website, and when invited, submit a piece. “I listen to the piece and follow my heart,” he says. “If I think there’s potential I say yes, and if not, I say no.”

Sean Murphy

Sean Murphy

PDF or Print Scores?
Murphy Music Press sells primarily print scores but can also sell PDF scores. The choice is left up to the composer.


PDF scores are watermarked.

Additional Benefits:

Twice a year, Murphy Music Press provides composers with a record of who purchased their music so that composers can follow up about performances, etc. However, they sell a large number of scores to large distributors like J.W. Pepper, and from there, they cannot track sales for composers. Murphy Music Press maintains a presence at conferences such as the Midwest Clinic. Williams appreciates the time Murphy Music Press and ADJ-ective put into marketing. “The biggest benefit for me is not having to dedicate time, effort, and money toward printing, binding, and shipping scores and parts,” he says. “Distributors can also market your music online and at conferences, reaching a wider audience than you could yourself.”

Evan Williams standing near a wall

Evan Williams (Photo by Eric Snoza, SnoStudios Photography)


“Composers can be so bad at communicating. Answer your emails!”

Murphy vets potential composers by researching their presence online. “Be nice!” he urges. He also pays attention to how easy it is to stay in touch with composers. “Composers can be so bad at communicating,” he warns. “Answer your emails!”  Murphy prefers submissions with a score and a performance recording. “It’s hard to market something without a recording,” he says, but acknowledges that with the pandemic, a MIDI rendition may suffice on occasion. He advises that it is easier to sell a piece if it has already been performed, because it adds legitimacy to the piece and creates interest from buyers.

Graphite Publishing

Graphite logo


Graphite Publishing, run by composers Timothy Takach and Jocelyn Hagen, is a considerably more discriminating option for established composers of primarily choral music as well as art song. There are two arms of Graphite: a tightly curated distribution catalog of composer-owned works and an even more select publishing house. They sell primarily secular choral works of all levels, particularly for high school, collegiate, and advanced amateur choirs. While they do distribute some music that is suitable for a church choir, it is not their primary market.

Timothy Takach

Timothy Takach

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

There is no fee to join.  Composers receive 60% of sales for composer-owned scores distributed on Graphite Publishing and 40% of sales for Graphite-published works. To keep overhead low, they sell only PDF scores. There is an open submission process on their website, and scores are reviewed 1-2 times a year. Graphite curates with a philosophy of finding what Takach calls “a balance between excellent craft and innovation of scores and the accessibility of the scores. We’re looking for things that are different, things that enhance the choral experience and our catalog.” So a piece setting the same Sara Teasdale or Emily Dickinson poem that everyone at your graduate program set is likely not be what Graphite is looking for. There is a high bar, and those who are chosen are typically composers who have an established catalog that is already selling. “The gate is open,” Takach explains, “but it’s open just a crack.” “I really appreciate their quick and helpful responses to any questions I have,” says composer Dale Trumbore, who distributes her music through Graphite. “Setting up with any new distributor takes time…but overall it’s a pretty straightforward process.”

Dale Trumbore standing outside near a tree

Dale Trumbore (photo by Lucas Hausrath)

PDF or Print Scores?
Graphite sells only PDF scores at this time.


Customers receive downloadable, watermarked PDFs that include their name, organization, and the number of copies that they are allowed to make.

Additional Benefits:

“I appreciate how Graphite Marketplace has composers rate their pieces in difficulty level on a 1-5 scale, so choral conductors can use that plus the perusal scores to assess whether a piece will be a good fit for their ensemble,” says Trumbore. “There’s a wide variety of music within Graphite, ranging from simpler pieces for children’s chorus to challenging works for advanced choirs.” Graphite maintains a presence at ACDA and NATS conventions and periodically organizes consortiums for groups of their composers. Their model is to “build trust through adjacency,” says Takach. Trust in one composer’s excellence leads conductors to trust the music of other Graphite composers. Trumbore is grateful for this presence at conferences. “That can lead not only to them promoting your work there [at conferences], but to them potentially sponsoring all or part of your registration fee and/or offering times for you to meet conductors and performers face-to-face at their booth,” she explains.

What if you want to be fully in charge of your catalog and sell and distribute yourself? Bandcamp is one way, and selling your scores directly on your website is another. These methods require the composer to take on the work of building and maintain an online store and getting PDF or print scores to their customers.


Bandcamp logo


While many of us think of Bandcamp as a way to listen to and purchase music albums, composers like Sean McFarland use it to sell their scores. “It’s an excellent place to pair your audio work and physical work together,” he says, “and for me, the communities that I’m most interested in connecting with are doing a lot of their listening in Bandcamp already.”

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

McFarland appreciates how easy it is to get set up with Bandcamp, and the fact that there are no gatekeepers evaluating you or your music and deciding if it is worthy. “All you need is an email, and that’s it!” he says. Composers can sell their sheet music in the “merch” section of their Bandcamp page. Bandcamp is free to set up, and charges a 10% fee for all merchandise sales plus transaction fees of 1.9% + $0.30 for Paypal or 2.2% + $0.30 for credit card payments  (https://get.bandcamp.help/hc/en-us/articles/360007802394-How-much-are-transaction-fees-for-digital-sales-).

PDF or Print Scores?
It’s up to you. If you sell print scores, you will have to print, bind, and ship them yourself.


Bandcamp is not set up for automatic downloads, which McFarland views is a plus: “It is more personal and connective anyway,” he says. He emails scores to customers after they have made a purchase.


McFarland find the organization of information a little “clunky.” “The platform is not exactly meant to sell scores, so you have to get creative with the track organization to make it look reasonable,” he explains.

Selling Scores on your Own Website

There are as many ways to sell your music on your own website as there are composers.

There are as many ways to sell your music on your own website as there are composers. To give perspective on ways this can work, I spoke to Reena Esmail through her assistant Melanie Eveland, Jennifer Wagner, Alex Shapiro, Stephanie Ann Boyd, and self-described New Renaissance Artist Elizabeth A. Baker about how they each approach selling their scores and other materials and services.

Why sell your music yourself?

A major reason to sell your music on your own site is to earn your full sales commission. “I like to keep my money,” says Baker, who sells her compositions, recordings, books, and consulting services through her website. She also emphasized the importance of retaining creative control of your work. “We live in a time when you can self-publish your albums; you can self-publish your own work. You don’t need other humans to put your stuff in a warehouse and take a big percentage of the pot.”

Elizabeth A. Baker holding a small object in front of her face.

Elizabeth A. Baker

Another aspect that came up with every composer I spoke to was the ability to build relationships with customers.  “A significant benefit for composers handling their own score sales is the direct contact they will have with the people who purchase the materials,” says Shapiro. This often leads to future collaborations, commissions, and residencies. Boyd adds, “If they are exploring contemporary music, they are probably someone who wants to ask questions of a composer.”

Logistics, Fees:

Esmail and Wagner design their websites on WordPress and use the WooCommerce plug-in for sales. WordPress’s ecommerce sites begin at $45/month, with no additional cost to add WooCommerce. WooCommerce charges 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction for U.S. credit and debit cards, and an additional 1% for non-U.S. cards. They both do their score delivery and licensing individually, separately from the website transaction. “We like to see the orders that come in and provide a personal level of service to musicians,” says Eveland, Esmail’s assistant. Wagner sells both PDF and print scores, and works with a reliable printer with a fast turnaround time for physical scores. In some ways, she wishes customers could automatically download scores, but on balance, she likes the connection made by sending the email. “It allows me to personally thank them for their purchase and wish them a lovely season with their students,” she explains. She uses MailChimp “sparingly” to let past customers know of new works of music or particularly special opportunities.

Reena Esmail

Reena Esmail (photo by Rachel Garcia)

Shapiro sells physical and PDF scores. She uses a PayPal shopping cart on her website and charges one set shipping and handling fee for print and digital scores. PayPal charges a 5.4% + $0.30 transaction per transaction, but there are no monthly fees or set up costs. Shapiro’s customers receive a custom email with a private web link to download their PDFs. She prints chamber music in house and outsources larger ensemble works to be printed. Shapiro’s works are also available through many distributors and retailers, giving her publishing company a far larger domestic and international footprint than it might otherwise have were her scores only available through her website.

Boyd designs her composer website and store, Femoire, on Squarespace and uses their built-in ecommerce functionality, which includes a score preview function and the option to sell downloadable PDFs. Squarespace’s Business plan costs $18/month plus a 3% fee per transaction. For users selling more than $3200 annually, they offer Commerce Plans starting at $26/month with no transaction fees. After customers purchase music on Boyd’s site, they can automatically download their music.

Stephanie Ann Boyd

Stephanie Ann Boyd

Baker uses Square and appreciates the business management tools the platform offers. “Square is like accounting software,” she explains. “It offers scheduling, it offers online booking, inventory management, and it helps me with invoicing. I can print out very coherent reports which allow me to work with my financial planner.” Square stores begin with their Free option which has no monthly fee and charges 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction and offers additional features at Professional ($12/month), Performance ($26/month) and Premium ($72/month) options.


To reduce illegal file sharing, Shapiro embeds metadata into every digital audio file, always watermarks her digital perusal scores, and often watermarks her PDFs to reflect who purchased them. Boyd and Wagner watermark the score previews on their sites but not the purchased copies. Baker takes a different view on preview scores altogether. “All these quick view perusal scores nonsense is giving too much away,” she says. “I am heavily against it. I know a lot of specifically white male conductors and composers are going to say, ‘No, we need this, because I need to know your stuff.’ No. I have a website, you can clearly get a better picture of someone through a walk through their website than a single score.” Baker’s music is not notated in standard notation so she does not watermark purchases. “I make things that are unstealable because people stole my stuff in the past,” she explains.


Of course, if you are selling yourself, you really are going at it alone. Shapiro warns, you’ll be administering your catalog, hold your engraving to a high standard for print and digital scores, deal with printing and binding, purchase materials, and process and ship orders—all by yourself. She suggests hiring others to help you with some of these tasks so that you still have time to compose.

Alex Shapiro in front of a collection of computer terminals and electronic keyboard instruments

Alex Shapiro


Esmail has found that score sales are only one, smaller part of her income streams. “We have noticed that score sales are a lagging indicator—not a leading one,” says Eveland, Esmail’s assistant. “It has not been our experience that a concert composer can set up an online store and hope to build an income that way without already being known through other sources.”

Shapiro suggests setting up Google Alerts for your name (in quotes) and each piece in your catalog (the title in quotes as well). This allows you to track performances you might not be notified about otherwise. Boyd’s emphasis is on reducing what she calls “consumer friction.” “Think about how you shop online, pay attention to the brands whose shopping experience you enjoy, and try to re-create that,” she says.

“If you don’t have an organized way of managing inventory and shipping, you won’t be productive.”

Baker advises composers to choose a method that helps you stay organized on your end as a seller. “It’s not about having the most sleek website, it’s about what’s going to work on the back end: delivery of content. If you don’t have an organized way of managing inventory and shipping, you won’t be productive.” She also urges composers to get set up like a business: create articles of incorporation, assign successors (especially now, during a pandemic), and work with a lawyer and a tax professional who is also a certified financial planner. “Set up everything the right way and put in the initial investment,” she says.

Wagner reminds composers to keep their customers in mind as they write, especially for those writing educational music. “If you are going to self-publish, you need to be on the cutting edge of what teachers need,” she explains. “If you supply teachers with the tools to be successful, then profit will come organically.”

Jennifer Wagner outside

Jennifer Wagner

A hybrid model that combines aspects of a small music distributor with selling your music yourself is to create a composer collective such as ADJ•ective New Music.

Composer Collectives: ADJ•ective New Music

ADJective New Music logo

Composers can band together and create a collective of like-minded colleagues to sell and cross-promote one another’s music. This is the model of ADJ•ective New Music, a publishing and distributing company begun by composer-performers Jamie Leigh Sampson and Andrew Martin Smith. “The idea from the beginning was that a rising tide raises all boats,” says Sampson. “If one composer does well, then people will come to our website and see the works of others.”

Composers should create their own collectives.

ADJ•ective’s roster currently includes 14 composers and has a model in which they expand every other year and only with a few composers, by invitation, at a time. “We don’t have the capacity to have an open call for new members,” Sampson explains. Rather than wait for their next period of expansion, Sampson suggests composers create their own collectives. She shared how ADJ•ective works to supply a potential model for other composers.

Jamie Leigh Sampson

Jamie Leigh Sampson


The ADJ•ective website features a store for score purchases and rentals. ADJ•ective composers retain their copyright, can choose to sell or rent physical and/or digital scores, and receive 50% of the net profits of sales and rentals. Sampson and Smith invested the profits from the first several years of the business into purchasing printing and binding equipment and industry-standard paper at various weights. They print and bind physical scores in house. ADJ•ective shares information about who purchased works with composers.


At this time, ADJ•ective does not watermark PDFs, partly because their volume of PDF sales is fairly low.


“ADJ•ective is special because we are a composer’s collective, so we advocate for each other and are often involved in group commissions, projects, or festival appearances,” says composer Evan Williams, who sells his scores through ADJ•ective and Murphy Music Press. ADJ•ective composers have pooled resources to share booths at conferences such as the Midwest Clinic and ADJ•ective has a podcast, Lexical Tones, which is hosted by collective member Robert McClure and which features guest musicians involved in contemporary music. “Collectives help bring legitimacy,” says Sampson. “We have the old guard thinking if you’re not published, you aren’t legit.” A composer’s collective, she says, offers the best of both worlds: artistic ownership and control with the power of a group advocating for your music. They are planning to expand this partnership to include performers in the future.

One Final idea…What about NOT selling your music (most of the time)?

Because I love to rock the boat, I asked composer Melissa Dunphy to share her “radical” (as she puts it) approach to score distribution with me. Dunphy, best known for her social justice-inspired choral music, makes all of her self-published scores free to download on her website. Trusting in an honor system, she asks anyone charging admission to their concert to get in touch with her for an invoice and she charges them $1.50 per digital copy. For free recitals and church service performances, her music is free, provided she is informed of performances so that she can list them on her website and online and report them to ASCAP.

“It makes no sense for me to create ‘artificial scarcity’ by placing a barrier on the distribution of my sheet music.”

“The vast bulk of my income comes not from sales of scores, but from commissions and performance royalties,” Dunphy explains. “Given this situation, it makes no sense for me to create ‘artificial scarcity’ by placing a barrier on the distribution of my sheet music, such as a price or copy protection. Rather, I should want my music to be distributed as widely and easily as possible, to create more opportunities for performances and commissions. I should especially want music students, many of whom will become music professionals and educators (and many of whom don’t have a lot of money, as I know from experience), to have free and easy access to my sheet music.” She feels her career has benefited from this model and that it is “particularly well-suited to choral music because choral directors on the whole are social creatures and born networkers and very game to try new music from living composers.”

Melissa Dunphy

Melissa Dunphy

While she does feel that instrumental music has to be approached a bit differently: “more direct marketing, more specific networking to individual performers,” she also points out that “for solo or chamber works, you’re only selling a single copy or a few parts, so the potential revenue to be gained from putting a price on your sheet music would be even smaller.”

Dunphy’s sacred choral music is not available for free. It is published with a traditional publisher because of their connections to churches and religious communities that aren’t in her network, and she feels that her publisher works hard to market her music, which she appreciates.

Even More Options:

Score Exchange is an online music distributor with no fee to sign up, and no editorial criteria to pass to be accepted. Composers retain their copyright, and Sibelius users can take advantage of their built-in “publish on Score Exchange” function. Composers earn a percentage of the list price, beginning at 45% and increasing as your monthly sales exceed $200.

Black Tea Music describes itself as a “boutique music promotion, publishing, and management representative for composers and new music-inclined artists.”

Subito Music Distribution is a service that allows you to sell or rent your works while retaining copyright of your music. One benefit is that they will print and bind parts at industry-standard sizes. There is a $50 fee to join and $50 annual fee subsequently. Composers begin with 5 titles in their catalog and may add 10 more during the year. Composers receive 55% of retail sales.

Other options to take payments online include Stripe which charges no set up or monthly fees and a 2.9 % + $0.30 per transaction fee, Sellfy, which charges $19/month and no transaction fees for up to $10,000 in sales per year, and Shopify which combines website creation and ecommerce and begins at $29/month plus 2.9% + $0.30 per transactions online.

Empty Staff Paper with staple


“Working with distributors rather than publishers has allowed me so much more freedom for future projects.”

So composers, is your music sitting on a shelf at your home? Are you ready to change that? As you evaluate options, Tobenski suggests, “Composers should genuinely ask themselves, what do I do, and where does it fit? Don’t try to shoehorn yourself into some place.” And you can take advantage of the non-exclusivity of many of these distributors. “I like using several methods because the audience for the different genres of music varies greatly,” says Jolley, who distributes music through NewMusicShelf, Murphy Music Press, and ADJ•ective New Music. “Working with distributors rather than publishers has allowed me so much more freedom for future projects,” says Trumbore. “Freedom to make arrangements of existing works or even withdraw works from my catalogue if I feel they aren’t representing my best work anymore. The tipping point in deciding to use a distributor came when I started to resent that score sales were pulling time away from my creative work. Freeing that time back up is well-worth the cut that a distributor receives from my sales royalties.” And of course, choosing a distribution or sales method is only the beginning. Arthur Breur reminds readers:  “You have to market to let people know about your music.”

My hearty thanks to everyone who contributed their voices for this article: Kurt Knecht, Isaac Brooks, Karlyne Félix, Garrett Hope, Juhi Bansal, Brian Nabors, Arthur Breur, Dennis Tobenski, Jennifer Jolley, Sean Murphy, Evan Williams, Timothy Takach, Dale Trumbore, Sean McFarland, Reena Esmail, Melanie Eveland, Alex Shapiro, Stephanie Ann Boyd, Jennifer Wagner, Elizabeth A. Baker, Jamie Leigh Sampson, and Melissa Dunphy.

Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.

ASCAP Foundation Logo

David vs. Goliath

I spent all of Friday attending the annual meeting of the Music Publishers Association, which is proud to call itself the oldest music trade organization in the United States. It was founded in 1895. This year, the MPA’s long history was much in evidence—even the printed program, as well as all the name tags for the attendees featured an iconic-looking old logo.

MPA Logo

History screams from the Music Publishers Association’s logo printed on the program for their 2012 annual meeting.

After the announcement of the MPA’s 2012 Paul Revere Awards, which honor graphic excellence in published music scores, a lifetime achievement award was given to Frank J. Hackinson, who has been in the music publishing business for seven decades. Highlights of Hackinson’s CV include popularizing the mixed song folio (now a standard publication format for pop music), signing the Beatles to their first print music contract in the United States, establishing Columbia Pictures Publications (whose roster included Henry Mancini, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, and Whitney Houston) in 1971, and, in 1988, the FJH Music Company which specializes in repertoire for concert band and educational music publications.

Bryan Bradley

Bryan Bradley shows MPA attendees some facts and figures about the state of music publishing.

What was particularly heartwarming about this gathering was how deeply personal it all was. At one point during the meeting, there was a memorial to MPA members who had died during the past year, including, in most cases, brief archival video footage of conversations with them. Seeing the faces behind the names throughout the day, both of people who are now longer with us as well as those who very much are, helped me to understand how this particular industry—unlike most in our nation—is very much one that has been molded by individuals rather than by large corporations. Bryan Bradley, the chief operations officer of Alfred Music Publishing who moderated a panel in the afternoon, acknowledged that this “industry is very mom and pop.” And many of these individuals have also been and or continue to be composers or active performing musicians in addition to their work on behalf of other composers and interpreters.

Yet in the minds of many people, publishers are monoliths—giant, impenetrable entities that control the copyrights of others and draconically police their usage. And in the era of the internet, many people have taken an alternative view of intellectual property. Some believe that anyone should be able to disseminate any and all information to whomever they want to freely and at any time, and most believe that the duplication of intellectual property is not the moral equivalent of stealing a physical object. But people who create music in particular are, of course, well aware that this form of creation, though it can never be corporealized into a car or a diamond ring, can be far more valuable than either. And if there is no way to protect this kind of non-physical creation, the ability to make a living from creating it, which has always been tenuous at best, becomes even more of a pipe dream. Ironically, of course, many of those same folks who believe that intellectual property does not require financial remuneration spend loads of money on technological equipment, as well as on online connections, which would have considerably less value for them if these pieces of equipment and services did not supply them with that same intellectual property. As a result, companies like Apple, Facebook, and Google (which owns YouTube in addition to controlling how most people surf the web) are now catastrophically huge corporations, far bigger than any publisher. So much for monoliths!

Digital Big Business

One of the many slides that raced by during Viacom’s Stanley Pierre-Louis’s address at the 2012 MPA Annual Meeting

One of the most poignant observations about this phenomenon that I’ve yet heard was a comment made during the MPA meeting by attorney Kenneth B. Anderson. Anderson has recently been retained to serve as legal counsel for a new anti-piracy initiative launched jointly by the MPA and the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA), the other member organization for music publishers based in the United States. (Anderson, whose other clients include the Beastie Boys and the Dixie Chicks, is no stranger to a challenging fight. I imagine that representing the Dixie Chicks during the radio boycott following comments made by members of the band that were critical of then President George W. Bush must have kept him busy.) Anyway, during an updated Piracy Report given by Anderson, he exclaimed, “The concept that the entertainment industry is a Goliath and that the internet industry is a David is a 180 degree reversal of reality.”

Of course, whether or not Anderson can help the MPA and the NMPA change the climate of today’s digital environment remains to be seen. But if these mostly small organizations have anything going for them against giant corporate interests it is ultimately history. The NMPA, though not as old as the MPA, dates back to 1917. Together these organizations have been around for over 200 years and presumably have weathered a great number of challenges before the internet.

Bryan Bradley perhaps had the clearest vision of how the industry needs to move forward: “You need a specific knowledge to use the products we make. We’re not selling iPads that anyone can use. If we’re to survive, we need to create more customers. We’ve got to create more musicians, people who are passionate about music. If we don’t inspire that passion, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.”

On Record – An Overview of the State of Contemporary Music Recording (Part 3): The Digital Domain

[Ed. Note: This article is the third and final installment in a three-part series exploring the state of contemporary music recordings. Part one is a survey of U.S.-based labels who still regularly release CD recordings featuring new American music; part two examines the current economic realities of the business.]

Is the CD format dead? Not at all, according to the label managers contacted for this story. It’s not even on life support, they said. Still, nobody is ignoring the increasingly important realm of digital downloads.

Contrary to some perceptions, new technologies don’t frighten record companies, at least not the little ones. Certainly the internet has become a lifeline for the business of selling CDs of contemporary music. Websites allow customers to search out obscure composers and browse deep catalog in a way never before possible, even when big record stores were still around. And email has tremendously eased communication with foreign distributors.

Without exception each label manager contacted for this story has some or all of his or her catalog available for download, often at a number of different sites. The plethora of online venues out there—iTunes, eMusic, and Amazon are just the beginning—has led to a new middleman in the business. Digital distributors sign record labels and provide their recordings to websites, where they can be sold for download, in the same way that old-fashioned retail distributors are the go-between for labels to reach retailers. Probably the leading digital distributor is IODA, the Independent Online Distribution Alliance, which provides tracks to several dozen sites, including Classical.com, Rhapsody, Zune, and Verizon Wireless, to name but a few.

If the final days of the CD are not eagerly anticipated by label managers, it’s still a topic for contemplation and ongoing discussion.

Earlier this year, James Ginsberg of Cedille was asked to speak on a panel about the future of recorded media at a Chicago conference of the Music Library Association. There was nothing particularly bold or newsworthy when Ginsberg said to the group, “In the next decade, the CD will become to downloading what the LP became to the CD in the 1980s.” But he hastened to add, “Our production practices won’t change at all. We’ll continue to produce recordings of the highest quality of which we are capable.”

Such statements may be self-evident at this point, but a lot of details remain unsettled. Ginsberg’s colleagues express a wide variety of insights and concerns about the current importance of downloading and what needs to happen before it becomes the dominant or exclusive vehicle for sales and distribution of contemporary music.

The website for Mode Records is as graphically compelling as their CD covers, but the site’s merchandise remains physical CDs.

Brian Brandt at Mode says that downloads have grown but “are not quite making up the slack in CD sales” brought about from the disappearance of stores. Al Margolis, who manages Pogus, XI, Deep Listening and Mutable Music, agrees and says, “Early on digital was extra money, but now (those funds) are needed.”

Margolis says he has artists who swear by downloads but also insist upon having a physical CD of their music. While expressing a bit of nostalgia himself, Margolis looks forward to how downloading will alleviate the difficulty of maintaining inventories of slow-selling product and also solve the regularly occurring dilemma of whether or not to repress older titles when stock gets depleted. “What do you do with titles that are 10, 11, 12, or 15 years old and finally selling out? Do you let them go out of print or make another 1,000 pieces?”

“Two things still have to happen” for digital downloads to become the norm, says Susan Bush of Albany. The first, she says, is greater acceptance of the technology. “There are people who don’t know how or don’t want to know how to use a computer. But that’s almost always a function of age and will decrease over time. The other thing is that downloads must improve in sound quality and speed. That will make the shift to digital complete. But we’ll probably still do some CDs, just one at a time.”

Becky Starobin at Bridge also notes the continued need for hard product and expresses concern about sound degradation.

“CDs are still very important, not only because of the actual physical sales which are holding steady, but also because it’s useful for composers and performers to have physical product available at concerts,” she says. “And it’s important for people to hear, especially in particularly complex music, a format that gives the full palette of sound. It works against the music to hear it in the diminished quality that you get by lower resolution and listening with ear buds.”

It’s the loss of liner notes and photos that concerns Charles Amirkhanian of Other Minds. “We need to find a way to have booklets and other printed materials downloadable and easily printed. It’s no fun to sit around and download and print these materials (the way it is now). It’s cheaper and easier to buy them as a kit. I think that’s an age thing and an intellectual thing,” he says. “Everything on my label is available on digital download and the income from that goes up each year, but it’s still not substantial. There may not be many brick-and-mortar stores, but people are still buying CDs all over the world.”

When or if CDs disappear, there will still be a need for record labels, according to Paul Tai of New World. “Anybody can set up a shop on the web and hock their stuff,” he says. “But there’s hundreds or thousands doing that already, so how do you make yourself heard? Labels provide the platform. We still have a certain authority and people will pay attention if you’re on New World or Bridge or Mode or Albany.”


Perhaps the largest platform for recordings of American music is the Naxos American Classics line. But it’s a relatively minor subset within the 22-year-old company founded by German-born Klaus Heymann, who lives in Hong Kong. A multi-million dollar behemoth, Naxos is nevertheless known as a “budget” label, since its sales price is $8.99 for CDs (or $5.99 for album-length downloads at iTunes).

The Naxos Music Library makes available to subscribers more than 492,600 tracks of music culled from over 34,610 CDs, with 500 new CDs added every month.

Composer Sean Hickey is the national sales and business development manager for Naxos’s U.S. operations. Working out of his home in Brooklyn, he supervises a sophisticated online marketing apparatus for new releases and is part of an international committee that decides what’s to be released on the American Classics imprint. Begun 12 years ago, the series features about 300 titles, including big orchestral recordings of Adams, Glass, and Corigliano, as well as Harris, Ives, and Thomson. But there are also discs of chamber and solo music by Paul Moravec, Roberto Sierra, and Leon Kirchner, plus band music of Sousa, piano works of MacDowell, and on and on.

“We look for things that will sell and things that will augment the catalog in a meaningful way,” says Hickey of the American Classics line. “We also want relationships with ensembles or composers or artists who are able to help spread the message of the release. We develop a ton of marketing materials, none more so than with the American Classics.” These include the weekly Naxos podcast, which Hickey says is the most popular classical music podcast, plus “interactive e-cards,” basically emails about new titles with links to streaming videos, sound samples, and the like.

Besides having a variety of in-house series, like American Classics, Naxos is a distributor in both retail and digital realms, and it maintains the Naxos Music Library. The latter provides subscribers with access to more than 450,000 tracks of music from more than 30,000 CDs, the majority on Naxos but also from other independent labels as well. (The tracks are available for streaming, which in contrast to downloading prevents the user from saving the recording on a hard drive or burning it to a CD.)

According to Hickey, The Naxos Music Library has a subscriber base of more than 1,200 institutions, most of them colleges and universities. Students from these schools are allowed full access to the library—bringing the total individual users to around 100,000. Frequently professors provide playlists as part of the curriculum for music courses. Such penetration to young listeners has meant that Naxos’s reputation as an online provider has largely overtaken its once dominant presence in stores.

“I’ve been in this business 16 or 17 years now and came to know Naxos through record stores and those seas of white covers,” says Hickey. “But now people in their 20s don’t have that reference. At this year’s American Library Association convention, the Naxos Music Library manager had a display of compact discs and three different people come up and said, ‘I didn’t know you did CDs.'”

DRAM, a subscription service available only to institutions, offers tracks from 2,300 albums from 15 independent labels.

A corollary to the Naxos library that began with an exclusively American music focus is DRAM. (Originally an acronym for Database of Recorded American Music, its purview of material has expanded beyond the United States since its founding in 2001, and so the name is simply DRAM.) It is administered by New World Records and subscriptions are available to institutions only, whereas the Naxos library also makes subscriptions available to individuals.

Comprised of 2,300 albums, DRAM includes the full catalogs of New World, CRI, and a dozen or so other independent labels. In April, DRAM added to its holdings for the first time a complete archive of one composer’s music—that of electronic music composer Jon Appleton, through an agreement with Dartmouth College.

As the DRAM website states, the idea of a streaming library of digital recordings allows institutions “to free up storage space, reduce collection costs and labor, ensure against damage or loss and increase accessibility to materials.” These are benefits that surely will appeal to an increasing number of consumers over time.

Net labels—record labels with no records, so to speak—actually already exist in profusion in the realm of ambient/electronic music. It’s a natural place for such a movement to start, since electronic music doesn’t require costly recording sessions with pesky live musicians. The composer is the performer, and the composition and the master are the same.

Disquiet is an online portal for electronic music disseminated via mp3s.

Marc Weidenbaum, a San Francisco writer and editor is an avid follower of this cyber scene, which he chronicles on his blog Disquiet.com. “Net labels are an amazing expression of enthusiasm for making content and sharing what you do,” he says.

According to Weidenbaum, some net labels do charge for downloads but streaming music for free is the norm. “With mp3 files you have to put them on a device, but now I can stream things on my iPhone or on the Android Phone, so the difference has become moot,” says Weidenbaum. “A lot of record labels have essentially become radio stations because you go to their websites and they’re streaming audio of their hits. They think of it as marketing, but at some point they may realize it’s providing an experience.”

The “cover art” for the album Drone Level Orange by improvising ensemble Glissando Bin Laden, which has been released only as mp3 downloads made available to listeners with or without a donation on Carrier Records.

Weidenbaum’s thinking goes even further, but his vision of completely free access to music may provide little solace to composers or label managers. “Truly outward bound artistic expression is usually not financially rewarding,” he says. “People learn that the music they love does not lead to fortune. Once you take money off the table, it becomes a more open opportunity.”

“I interviewed John Zorn when he left Nonesuch, about 17 years ago,” continues Weidenbaum, “and he said there’s a difference between loving music and loving records.”

That’s a distinction that all of us will soon be confronting.


Joseph Dalton
Photo by Timothy Cahill

Joseph Dalton has been covering the arts scene in New York’s Capital Region since 2002, primarily writing for the Albany Times Union. Many of these essays have been collected in the book Artists & Activists: Making Culture in New York’s Capital Region, published in 2008. Dalton is the former executive director of Composers Recordings, Inc. (CRI), where he produced about 300 recordings of contemporary music. He was also director of a research project on the effects of AIDS on American music which was published in an online report by the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS.