Leveling Up, Part 1: The Business of Sheet Music
Music is an art form and defies boxes and labels, but leveling music makes it easier to sell.
As I am wrapping up a recent commission for high school concert band, I am reflecting on my experience composing for educational instrumental ensembles. Writing music for these ensembles is deeply rewarding—primarily because they are eager to perform freshly composed music and are willing to try new things.
Writing music for younger players also has its challenges. Chief among them is writing within the constraints of students’ developing technique. How do you communicate your musical idea if the players have limited ranges? If the music must stay within a small set of keys? If the players are still learning to sub-divide the beat and can’t read music in asymmetrical meters?
But as I started writing pedagogical music the most vexing problem of all for me was leveling the music. In the world of educational instrumental music, each work receives a grade, typically on a scale of 1–6. This makes sense. It’s a simple way for a director to sort through music to find the pieces appropriate for his or her ensemble.
The rub is that there is no consistent definition of the levels! One publisher’s Grade 3 piece is another’s Grade 4, or maybe even Grade 2. Some states publish their own leveling guidelines that are different from the publishers.
Plus, it’s big business! Every year schools spend significant amounts of money to purchase sets of scores and parts. Composers who write for educational ensembles need to understand the leveling system so they can better write for younger players and promote their finished scores in a market hungry for new music.
This post will look at the business of educational instrumental publishing and why leveling matters. In subsequent posts I will examine the leveling system more carefully and provide some best practices for writing for elementary, middle, and high school bands.
The Business of Sheet Music Publishing
Educational music is big business and there are incredible opportunities for composers to impact the lives of students, create art, and generate income. To paint a picture: according to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 24,053 secondary (middle and high school) public schools in the United States in the 2013–2014 academic year. Not every school has a music program, but most do. Another study published by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2012 says that in the 2009–2010 academic year 94% of elementary schools and 91% of secondary schools had music programs.
With a very conservative estimate that directors have $100 to spend per ensemble per year on purchasing new music for their libraries (which amounts to between one and two new pieces with score and parts, on average) that means between $2.4–10 million is spent annually on purchasing new music for public high schools per year.
These numbers aren’t exaggerations.
Some schools have up to four or five ensembles that all need music. In reality, the number is probably even larger because I am not including private schools (33,619 in 2013–2014 according to NCES), elementary schools (67,034), and degree-granting institutions (4,724).
The hard truth is that educational instrumental music publishing is a $25 million industry minimum and probably has sales in excess of $100 million annually.
And there’s choral, solo instrumental and method books, chamber music, pop and rock tune arrangements, and sacred music on top of this, but it’s not the focus of this article. Just know that as an educational ensemble, choirs can spend just as much as bands and orchestras when purchasing new music every year and that nearly all students who study privately are required to purchase method books and solo literature continually.
Once we add in all ensembles and instruments, the sheet music publishing industry is nearly three times larger. Some estimates peg the sheet music industry at $1 billion dollars.
Don’t be quick to dismiss leveled music for degree-granting institutions, either. Outside of large music programs, most small, regional, and liberal arts college and university bands and orchestras consist of non-majors who have a passion for music. When I was conducting a string ensemble at a highly selective East Coast liberal arts college, most of the members of my group were pre-med and science majors. The literature we played was in the grade 3–4 range. It was the same for the concert band. It’s also the same for thousands of degree-granting institutions across the country. But it’s worth noting that, for better or worse, all band music (and even most orchestral music) has been leveled by this point.
To be clear: ALL band music and most orchestral music is leveled, and it is a big business.
Show Me The Music
Leveling of music plays a critical role in both the business of sheet music publishing and in classroom pedagogy. For the music publishers, independent self-publishers or the major publishing houses alike, leveling the music makes it easier to sell. For the ensemble director, leveling provides a quick way to sort through the many hundreds of options and track skill development and artistic growth of an ensemble over time.
The leveling system was created by publishers who desired to promote music differentiated by skill and difficulty, and by state band programs to create a handicapping system for competitions, festivals, and juried performances. It is a system that works well, despite the nebulous nature of defining the grading scale.
At this point, composers writing for educational groups know that they are working within the leveling system and often, in collaboration with the commissioning ensemble, aim for a specific grade level based on a set of parameters. The next article in this series will examine the grade levels and what they mean more closely.
Composers who write for educational ensembles have the unique opportunity to take this information and use it their advantage. If you can find the most appropriate level for your composition, you can then more easily get it in front of the people who would be the most likely to purchase it and perform it. While doing that, you can describe how the piece works specific skills and which outcomes the director can expect to see with their ensembles.
Imagine the following scene: a 75,000 square foot showroom floor where the largest booths are those of publishing houses and music distribution companies. As a band director shopping for scores, how do you quickly sort through thousands of pieces to find the ones appropriate for your band? Your first step might be to begin with bins marked at the level your band typically plays.
Likewise, unless one is searching for a specific piece or composer, the easiest and most expedient way to sort through music online is by sorting by the grade level. Give it a try yourself sometime.
The Grades Aren’t Everything
As any composer with extensive experience writing for younger players will tell you, the levels aren’t everything. In fact, sometimes they get in the way.
One reason for that is because music is an art form and defies boxes and labels. Another reason is one I listed above: the defining of levels is a challenge and although there is a lot of overlap, each publisher (and even some states) classify the music differently. In the next article we’ll begin to look more closely at how leveling works and how you can write music within that system.
 The $100/ensemble number was derived from an informal survey of my band directing contacts on Facebook that live across the U.S. and serve diverse communities. Depending on the district, school, and community this number could, in reality, be lower (some directors have a budget of $0) or much higher.
 The music publishing world is still battling the problem of private instructors photocopying repertoire and ensemble directors copying parts. Both activities are nearly always illegal. At most county and state solo and ensemble competitions, the student and director are required to have original parts and multiple original copies of the score. This is not true for NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing) state, regional, and national competitions. The illegal copying of art songs (primarily for the accompanist and also to avoid the student having to purchase a large volume for the sake of one aria) is rampant.