Wendy Stevens recently wrote a very informative post at ComposeCreate.com about the financial realities of being a freelance composer. Generally, the composer earns only 10% or less of the retail price of the music. For a piece of sheet music that costs $3.50, the composer earns a whopping 35 cents per copy sold. A thousand copies would earn around $350, which is still not much considering the time invested in the composition and the additional time invested in negotiating with the publisher. It blows my mind that a degreed professional is offered so little for their creative work, and yet this is also true for writers. Spend a year writing a book that sells for $12 per copy, and you'll be lucky to earn $1.20 per copy sold. In order to earn as much as 20K for your year of work, you'll need to sell 16,666 copies. You'll invest additional time doing most of your own marketing, and then you'll lose a healthy chunk of that 20K to taxes.
Of course, this raises the question of whether it's worth it to go through a publisher at all. These days, self-publishing has lost the stigma it once had and technology makes marketing and distribution much easier. On the other hand, the music publishing industry provides a valuable service to music distributors and consumers by sorting through the tons of available material and endorsing those that are worthwhile. Imagine how difficult it would be for a music store owner to select their inventory from a million different freelance sources. It's a tough call. I don't want music publishers to go out of business. But, neither do I want composers to be so discouraged that they don't even bother trying to compose, much less publish.
So, what can you do to keep a composer in business? Don't photocopy. When you get complimentary copies of music, use them for your personal library and have your students purchase their own. And, send some encouragement to a composer! They obviously work for love, not money.
Photo by Darren Hester.