Ep. 35: The Landscape of the Sheet Music Publishing Industry (Dave Black, Part Two)

Episode Description:

Welcome back to Selling Sheet music and Part 2 of my interview with percussionist and composer Dave Black. He is the former Vice President of Alfred Music where he worked for 35 years in a variety of roles including Editor-Chief of school and pop publications. He is also one of the best selling percussion authors in the world with combined sales of over two million units. In today’s episode we take a step back and talk more generally about the state of the sheet music publishing industry.

Featured On This Episode:
Dave Black

Dave Black is the former Vice President of Alfred Music where he worked for 35 years in a variety of roles including Editor-Chief of school and pop publications.  He is also one of the best selling percussion authors in the world with combined sales of over two million units.

Episode Transcript:

*Episode transcripts are automatically generated and have NOT been proofread.*

Welcome back to part two of my interview with composer and percussionist, Dave Black.

Last week, we were talking about the do’s and don’ts of submitting music to publishers.

This week, we’ll be taking a step back and talking more generally about the current state of the sheet music publishing industry.

Let’s kind of switch gears and talk more about the landscape of the sheet music industry and how things have changed and what composers trying to get into the business now ought to be doing.

I’ve had a lot of conversations with veteran arrangers and composers in the publishing industry, and they all usually say some variation on, oh, I’m glad I don’t have to get started today.

It was so much easier back then.

But I wonder, is that really true?

I mean, it was always highly competitive to get published.

And back then, you didn’t have the internet to promote yourself.

I mean, if we’re going way back, you didn’t have email, you didn’t have midi recordings.

I mean, I guess what has changed and what hasn’t?

Because it’s always been a highly competitive field.

I have to agree with him.

I’m glad I’m not starting out now, truly.

I think back in the day, I mean, I’m almost 65.

So I started in junior high bands and stuff in the early 70s and stuff.

So I was kind of, I mean, I consider from the 60s up through that point or whatever, like the golden age of concert band music and school band stuff, when it was just exploding and there was wonderful composers and band music and stuff.

I think that the Internet and everything else has made it harder and harder for people to get through whatever, because you have so much junk out there and so much stuff, even if it was good stuff, it’s just thousands and thousands of uploads.

If we take a step back and talk about the pop market or the song market, I was co-teaching a class at Chapman a couple of years ago on music publishing.

And the statistics of these young artists, you know, writing their own songs and putting them out there, is daunting.

I mean, first of all, they’re taking beats and stuff and creating these tracks and stuff in their bedroom.

And then they release them on TikTok and everything else.

And I read some statistic like there were tens of thousands a week that were being uploaded to those platforms for sale and downloads and everything else.

And the moral of the story there was, how in the hell could anybody possibly make a dime or whatever when you’ve got tens of thousands uploaded every week?

How do you weed through all that to find the good stuff?

It’s actually worse than that.

I think Spotify is up to 100,000 tracks every day now.

And these are people that aren’t songwriters, that don’t know the art and craft of writing and stuff like that.

So I would use that analogy in somewhat the school market, certainly not 100,000 a day or whatever.

But the same kind of thing is happening.

I think the fact of the matter is, and we haven’t even talked about the scanning and the digital PDFs and stuff of books and stuff that are going out that have heard all of our sales.

But let me address that later.

But I mean, to your point or whatever, I think it is different.

I think that there’s so many people out there.

There’s so many young composers who are good that have their own publishing companies and stuff and they try and they struggle or whatever.

But it’s not enough to make a living when you’re having to do all that yourself.

And so they end up, and I won’t mention companies or names or whatever, but they end up now partnering with an Alfred or whatever.

Oh, now so-and-so is part of Alfred Music or so-and-so is part of Hal Leonard.

But just to push back on that a little bit, partnering with a major publisher isn’t enough anymore either.

Because Alfred’s not going to take more than one or two pieces every year from me, and that’s not enough to make a living off of either.

So I feel like self-publishing is the only way to survive these days if you’re a composer.

I’m not saying I’m against traditional publishing.

On the contrary, I think everyone ought to give a go at both of it, but that’s the problem, I think, with the way the old system is set up.

You’re only doing, what, 30 pieces a year, and you want to diversify.

That’s in one genre, though.

Fair, but don’t you think composers need to put themselves in sort of that genre box in order to be successful?

So let me ask you this question.

You’re doing your own self-publishing out there, whatever, how are you doing in terms of making money off of the stuff that you’re selling on your own?

So where I make the money is from commissions.

And I have enough music out there that it sort of serves as, you know, my body of work speaks for my ability to arrange future pieces, right?

And so people, either they hear somebody else performing my music or they see it on my website, and then they’ll come to me and they’ll ask for a specific song.

That’s usually how it goes.

And that’s where the majority of my income is made.

I view the royalty sales, I mean, I sold just shy of 10,000 copies last year of my self-published music, which is-

Now, was that download or printed copies?

Download, yes.

And so if people weren’t scanning, that’d probably be more like 30.

You’re right.

But my point is, that’s not enough money to live off of either, but the music itself sort of functions as the advertising for the custom work, which is enough to pay the rent, if you will.

Right, okay, and I’m sure you’re a good writer and all that kind of stuff, but multiply you times tens of thousands of people who are doing the same thing that you are.

How does somebody even begin to search for whatever it is they’re looking at with all the options and all the composers and all the individual sites?

That’s really the thing, unless it’s word of mouth, unless somebody else says, oh, I’m using this composer’s work, I really like this person’s work.

Then that person can go to a specific website.

But if you’re starting out and you’re publishing your own stuff and you’ve got your website, how do you make it stand out to the tens of thousands of others that are out there?

Well, I think the answer is to be really specific with the type of music that you write.

Focus on a really niche, underserved market.

I’m curious to see if you agree with that or not.

Let’s take woodwinds, for example.

I think you’re more likely to have success focusing on a particular instrument than writing for all woodwinds.

Or with choral music, writing for a specific voicing or a specific style, contemporary acapella or vocal jazz, or narrowly focusing on a difficulty level and then just really hitting the pavement and promoting yourself as hard as you can to the places where those types of people are going to be.


And the follow up question is that you’re doing that and you’re doing obviously a good job, but how many other people are doing the same thing and the same, hitting the same markets that you may be hitting for the same reasons.

I mean, the other thing is just you have band directors, choral directors, whatever, doing their own things for their own ensembles.

They’re not necessarily going out and buying a lot of music.

First of all, because school budgets.

Secondly, they can do it themselves.

And play their own pieces.

I mean, the whole industry has just completely changed in that way.

There’s just so much out there, whatever.

I don’t know how anybody can weed through the amount of stuff and find what they’re looking for.

Which is why somebody, a director of some kind, or whoever usually focuses on a particular company, whatever, and a particular set of composers or authors that they like, that have proven worthy and or helpful to whatever that band director or teacher is looking for.

So to break through, yeah, you can do a million email blasts and stuff like that, but how many thousands of those do all band directors and teachers get?

I mean, how do you weed through it?

That’s the challenge.

Well, you’ve already said that you’re glad that you don’t have to, but if you were a new composer trying to break into the industry today, what would you do?

What would your approach be?

Knowing as much as you do about the landscape, having all of that experience that you have, what would your strategy be?

My strategy would be, are you talking about if I wanted to start my own business or if I wanted to approach a major publisher?

If you were a composer fresh out of college and you wanted to make a living composing music, what would you do?

Switch my major to something else.

Ha ha ha ha ha.

Or a dual degree, no, I am kidding.

That’s a great question, but I am almost 65.

I grew up in a different era where it was.

I don’t know if I was starting out now how I would approach that.

Obviously, I’d have to have a different skill level.

I’d have to be more proficient at engraving software and MIDI stuff because writing is different.

I did everything with a pencil and a piece of manuscript paper.

It was all done by hand and going to the keyboard and playing things and stuff.

I didn’t have the opportunity to put things in a computer and hit a button and have it all played and stuff.

So I forget the question.

What was the…

What would your strategy be to try and break into the industry?

My strategy would be to do the research.

If the goal was to be a published composer, an author, to look at who’s doing what or whatever and to reach out and talk to those people and really make them feel like I’m interested, that I’m really dedicated to making this work and stuff.

And everybody likes to be asked for their opinions.

So I would try and befriend somebody at a publisher and say, hey, is it okay if I write you every once in a while with questions, can you look at something that I’m doing, can you tell me what I need to be doing in terms of what’s the best way to approach something, what are you looking for as a publisher in terms of the kind of writers, the kind of publications that you’re looking for, what’s the best way to get started.

I think if it’s done sincerely, most of us are flattered that somebody is seeking us out and asking good questions and are serious about getting in this business and what to do, that most people will be more than willing to sit down and let you know what their thoughts are and the best way to go about it.

I also think that one of the things to do is if you like a particular composer or if a composer is with the publishing company, ask that person if they give private lessons or stuff like that because I think that’s a great way to get your foot in the door.

If you’re studying with somebody and they like you and they see that you’ve got talent and stuff, there’s a shoe in right there or whatever because they’re in a position to recommend that person saying this person studied composition with me for a long time.

He’s a really good up and coming writer.

So not only do they get that person’s recommendation, but there’s a good chance that that student will write something or whatever that that editor or teacher or whatever is in a position then to either publish it or send it to a major publisher saying, this is a student of mine.

I think his stuff is really good.

I think this is something that would fit nicely in your catalog.

So my whole thing with any music industry thing is befriend the people that are in there.

Don’t be a pain in the ass and ask stupid questions or call them all the time, but it’s okay for you to want to sit down and talk to them.

Hey, look, I’m getting into this.

I really love your opinion on how this works.

What do I need to do?

People love that.

Can I study with you because if you’re studying with somebody and they know what they’re dealing with and what you’re capable of, obviously you’re going to be the one that they’re going to recommend.

So that is a wonderful way to get in any kind of door.

When I started at Alfred, it was in the marketing department because that was the only thing that was available and I knew somebody there.

I didn’t want to be in marketing, whatever, but I said, okay, once my foot is in the door, I can kind of network.

They can kind of know where I want to go.

I can kind of maneuver myself.

And that’s exactly what happened.

I started off there, then went into editorial, which is what I wanted to do.

So the other thing I would say, if somebody is looking for that kind of thing, start with whatever it is in the company because most companies will want to promote from within.

If you prove yourself to be a good employee and bright, once you’re in it, you kind of make it known that this is what you’re real interested in.

They’re going to want to promote from within rather than going outside of that because you’re now a known entity and stuff.

And the same thing with composition.

Befriend somebody who’s an editor there.

Say, let me take you out to dinner or whatever, lunch.

I want to pick your brain and stuff.

That kind of thing shows a lot about somebody that they’re serious, that they’re dedicated, that they’re willing to do what it takes to learn the ropes and stuff.

And it’s flattering to the editor or composer or whoever else it is that you’re wanting to talk to or have lunch with.

Let’s just assume that a composer’s music is all great.

For purposes of this question, all of the pieces are good.

Do you think it’s better for a composer to have two or three at a time and really focus on marketing those, or is it better to have that larger catalog to present to people?

Well, I think maybe a little bit larger catalog.

I mean, I think you want, if you’re going to publish a few things or put them out there, whatever, it should be a representation of your work that shows a variety of skills.

Maybe a beginning piece, maybe an advanced piece, something like that, so that somebody can see the range in which you can write that, oh, he can write really good with six notes or whatever, or he’s really good at this, whatever.

It’s just you want to try and, like I said, cast that net as wide as you can and get what you can get.

But it’s all about being well-rounded and offering enough variety to appeal to band directors that either have full ensembles or limited ensembles or whatever their situation is at school that you have a product or a solution to help them with whatever situation that they’re teaching in.

So in 2016, Peaksware, which is the company that owns Make Music, acquired Alfred, and we’re talking just a few weeks after Muse Group acquired Hal Leonard.

What do you think we should read into the fact that the two major publishers, which by all accounts are doing well financially, were acquired by tech companies?

What do you think that says about where things are going in the future?

Well, I think what it says is exactly what you and I have been talking about.

That we’re in the digital world now, and the digital component of it is huge, whether it’s digital sales of books or performance music or anything else.

But I think the bigger thing is just the teaching component that the digital aspect allows, because as you know, with Make Music, they have the component where, you know, it’s a laid out curriculum thing where, you know, a teacher can go in and put a curriculum thing in and a piece of music, student can play it at home or whatever, and it grades, you know, the notes are green that got right or the notes are red or whatever.

It’s sent to a teacher with it already computed, and scored and stuff.

So I think it’s combining what is print music, but applied to a digital thing.

What Peaksware has done or make music has taken the concert band things, the method books and stuff that are all continuing to sell as hard copies or whatever, but making them available digitally.

Not only so that somebody can play along with them at home, but it’s got a grading component for teachers.

They can do a lesson plan.

They can have an assignment where they’re to play one line or two lines or whatever, and then the software has the ability to grade that performance.

It’s just another great tool to give a teacher whatever in the whole scheme of things.

And especially when the pandemic happened and everybody was at home and there was no live band music and stuff, it was an awesome opportunity for students and teachers to still be able to interact and to continue that education.

And so I think that that’s where it’s going.

It’s just another dimension.

It’s not to take the place of printed music or live bands.

I think it’s just another element to the performance thing that adds another layer of…

It’s another option.

It’s another option, yeah.

And it’s got the components for, like I said, for the teacher to be able to grade, to evaluate.

A student is able to do it at home on their computer.

So it’s kind of fun because you see what you’re playing.

You see what you get wrong and stuff.

So it’s good in that respect.

But the good thing is, is it’s not really replacing printed music because most of what’s on smart music or whatever are existing band pieces and band methods and method books that are on that platform or whatever.

So they’re using existing publications and stuff to do that.

So yeah, I think it’s a win-win situation.

Do you see the instructional and performance sides of the industry diverging in the future?

You know, you have the music that’s designed to teach you how to play an instrument.

That’s sort of a separate category from music that’s written for ensembles, choirs, bands, orchestras that are more focused on performing.

No, I think they go hand in hand.

I think you have to have the first one, which is the method books and stuff.

You have to learn how to play the instrument, how to finger, how to get a good sound, how to learn how to read music, how to hold the sticks or whatever.

That all has to come way before you can play an ensemble.

You have to develop the skills and become good at playing the instrument first before you can be in an ensemble.

So no, I don’t think that will ever go away.

You have to have one before you can have the other.

You have to learn the instrument and become proficient enough at it before you can play in ensembles.

Does that make sense?

Yeah, I’m just wondering how far this interactive music education component is going to go.

Because that’s getting really advanced and it’s really cool.

And I could see a universe where, you know, ten years from now, every kid has their assigned classroom iPad and it has the app on there that they use to learn their instrument and they don’t really need method books anymore in the same way that they would maybe need sheet music for a concert or performance.

I agree.

Who knows what’s going to happen?

I mean, we haven’t even talked about this, but the AI component of composition and everything else, I think, is going to be a huge challenge and a problem because people now can sit there.

I don’t know if you’ve worked with those programs or…

A little bit, yeah.

And then you say, okay, I’m going to write a pastoral kind of a concert band piece or whatever and my influences are, you know, Aaron Copeland and this and this and this.

And then you hit a button and it kind of combines those elements and stuff into something that sounds pretty damn good and stuff.

So that’s my biggest worry moving forward is that that’s going to be able to take the place in some respect of composers and everything else.

And, you know, we’ll continue to see a decline in published music or anything else because AI will be able to do that.

Do you think AI could have the solution to the copying and the illegal downloading and the file sharing?

I don’t know.

What do you mean in terms of recognizing that it’s copied or whatever and either banning it or alerting the company to it?


Well, I mean, I think you could teach the AI what to look for.

You know, you could upload your piece as it’s released and then it could sort of much faster than humans crawl the Internet and make sure it’s not out there.

And I don’t really understand all the all the NFT stuff.

But from what I have read, I mean, it does seem like there is some ability with technology coming down the pike that you could track PDF files or just any kind of file and what happens to them.

You could see if a file is getting copied or if a file is getting shared when it shouldn’t have been.


AI could identify that and the company can go after it or whatever.

But somebody is going to come up with another way, another URL address or whatever to keep it going.

So, you know, we talked a lot about this at Alpha or whatever.

You know, there are so many things that, you know, could be proactive or something that could detect this or whatever.

But it always comes down to, and I think it’s a good thing to let people know, is that when you take something like that, it’s personal to the person who wrote it.

So somebody might think, well, I’m copying this or whatever.

I’m not hurting anybody.

This is a major publishing company that makes millions of dollars and stuff.

If you personalize it and say, well, you’re not only taking from the company, but you’re taking away from the person’s royalty income who created this and stuff.

So think of the person behind the music or whatever, rather than the corporation.

And then, you know, put yourself in their position and stuff.

Maybe that’s another way to address the problem, so that somebody knows that they’re not stiffing just a big corporation, but they’re stiffing an individual who’s already struggling making a living just in music, and this is taking away their livelihood.

And all you can do doesn’t mean that somebody’s going to listen, but that’s the biggest argument for it.

Not only the person who’s written stuff, but the company who may be publishing it.

You deny them the ability to stay in business or to not be able to publish as many things, etc.

because they’re not making the money they used to because it’s all being given away free.

Let’s end on a positive note.

What do you think is the most hopeful thing about the industry right now and where things are going?

I have to think about that.

I mean, there are a lot of things.

I mean, I think that the thing that I like the most is that publishers, the major publishers, are still sticking with their basic goals, and that is to teach people how to be good musicians, to create the best kind of books and music so that the experience for the students starting out or somebody who’s been a musician for a while continue to grow and to get satisfaction from doing what they’re doing.

Music is not necessarily a way just to make a living, but there are many people who are lawyers and plumbers and everything else who enjoy music for music itself.

They get something out of it.

It’s relaxing.

It’s something that pulls at the heartstrings.

It’s emotional.

It’s a form of entertainment.

So my hope is that publishers continue to publish for that reason.

It’s for the joy of making music.

That’s really the bottom line.

Whether you become a professional musician or not is beside the point.

I think music for everybody is healthy.

There’s been studies that show that music improves our attitude, our mental capacity, our emotions, and stuff.

And I think it’s good just to have music in your life or whatever, whether you make a living out of it or not, because it’s something that just brings everybody together.

What would a movie be without music?

What would ET be without that score?

I mean, that’s what music does.

And look at what it does to the general public, who know nothing about music, but Star Wars, ET, all that, without that music, the films would be nothing.

So it’s important just, if you’re just a novice or whatever, music is important for the soul.

You know, it’s important to engage in.

It’s a getaway.

It’s all those things.

Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me today.

You’ve been extremely generous with your time.

And this has been a really fun conversation to have.

Real quick before we go, where can our listeners find you?

Anything you’d like to share about what you’ve been up to personally?

I would say, you know, anybody who’s interested in, you know, what I’m involved with or what I’m currently doing can certainly go to my Facebook page or my website.

And I usually keep that pretty up to date and stuff.

And there is, I do have my email posted there.

So if anybody has any questions regarding, you know, submissions, careers in music, how to get started if you’re frustrated, if you want advice, I really love to do that.

And so I would encourage anybody who has questions to feel free to reach out to my email address.

And I’ll be happy to try and answer any questions that you may have or offer any kind of advice or just be a good ear to listen to.

Well, thank you again.

This has been a really great session getting to talk to you and getting to know you and learn from your expertise and all that you’ve experienced during your career.

It’s been really fascinating and a lot of fun.

So thank you.

Thank you.

I appreciate it.

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