Ep. 36: How to Self-Publish Sheet Music

Episode Description:

This week’s episode is a refresher on how to self-publish sheet music for those wanting to learn how to do it on their own! If you’re a student or new to the podcast this is a great place to start!

Featured On This Episode:
Garrett Breeze

Garrett Breeze is a Nashville-based composer, arranger, publisher, and the founder of Selling Sheet Music.  His credits include film, television, video games, Broadway stars, major classical artists, and many of the top school music programs in the U.S.  Visit garrettbreeze.com for more information or to book Garrett for a commission or other event.

Episode Transcript:

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

Hey, everyone.

It’s Garrett.

Today, we are going to do something we haven’t done in a long time, and that is a solo episode.

We don’t have a guest.

It’s just going to be me talking and rambling and sharing my thoughts about the business.

We are close to the two-year anniversary of the podcast, which first of all is amazing.

But I thought that it might be a good idea since we’ve picked up a lot of new listeners along the way, to just kind of do an episode that overviews the whole process beginning to end of how you self-publish your sheet music, be it arrangements or original compositions, just like what is the basic process.

Especially if you haven’t gone back and listened to the first couple of episodes, this will catch you up on a lot of that stuff.

Although, I still recommend you do go back and listen to it because there’s a lot of good stuff in there.

But also, I’ve learned more since I’ve been doing this show.

And so hopefully, for those of you that are long time listeners and followers, you’ll still get some things out of this episode that will be helpful to you.

So let’s start briefly by talking about why you would want to sell sheet music in the first place.

I’m assuming that if you’re already listening to this show, you probably don’t need to be convinced.

But to me, there’s three main reasons.

The first is that it’s an opportunity to make more money.

Sheet music royalties might not make up a huge part of your income, depending on the music you write, but it’s still going to be better than the royalties you would get from streaming services like Spotify, because at least we’re talking about dollars, you know, as opposed to fractions of a cent.

The other thing sheet music does is it gives you another tool that you can use to market yourself and promote your music or your services, right?

If you’re a conductor, you can use that sheet music to promote yourself as a conductor.

If you’re a songwriter, obviously the songs that you write can be turned into sheet music to demonstrate your abilities and so on.

You know, I think ultimately video is still king right now.

I mean, that’s what’s getting the most attention online, but you can turn sheet music into videos too.

So, like I said, it gives you lots of visual opportunities to display your music, to show your music.

And not only that, and this might even be the most important thing, because in the eyes of the Internet, it is a product, quote unquote.

That puts it in a different category for search engines and SEO optimization.

And when you have your music available for sale on multiple sites, it makes you look more relevant to the algorithm.

When they see that you have a song on, you know, 20 different sites that are all well-respected, the link backs from that and the credibility that that gives you is important.

And finally, you know, the third reason is more intangible, but I think it’s still worth considering, and that’s for your fans.

Having the sheet music makes them feel more connected to you.

It gives them the tools to experience your music in a different way and make it a part of their life.

I mean, it’s a little sentimental, but when you’re talking about building a fan and building a relationship with a listener, you know, I think it has the potential to really help with that.

And not only that, if somebody buys your sheet music and then goes and performs it, that’s creating further opportunities for people to find you and find your music.

And so it’s this sort of self-sustaining, continuing, like, wheel of promotion.

I mean, it’s kind of weird to think of it in that way because, you know, it’s music, and it’s something we’ve created, and we’re not doing it to be little marketing gurus, but I think having sheet music out there, having performances out there, is going to do a lot more than sort of the cold call, you know, post a meme, and, hey, click on my link, you know, that kind of stuff that we kind of fall into the trap of doing most of the time.

All right, so you’ve decided to sell your sheet music.

What do you do?

The obvious first step is you have to get it notated.

That might mean tabs or lyrics with chord symbols.

I think for the most part, it means using notation software to actually write down the music.

There are four main software programs that are used by professionals.

In no particular order, they are Finale, Sibelius, Dorico, and MuseScore.

They all have their pros and cons.

We’re not going to get into that today, but they will all get the job done in a professional manner.

If you are not interested in notation, if you don’t want to put in the time to learn one of these programs, just like other aspects of music production, you can hire somebody to do this for you.

There are people who make their entire living as an engraver or a music preparer, and they can take your recordings or your MIDI files or your tracks or whatever they have.

They can transcribe it, and they can make it look the way it should.

They can make it look up to publisher standards.

Depending on how complicated your music is, it could get pricey, but the rates for a music engraver or a music preparer are not going to be any more expensive than the rates you’re already paying for an audio engineer or a mixer or a producer or something like that.

So I see them very much in the same category.

It’s a support role for the artist.

They’re behind the scenes, but they’re critical to the process, and they do a lot that is underappreciated.

So I’m on sort of a personal quest to convince artists to make their sheet music available.

So maybe you’re an amazing songwriter, have no idea how to notate this stuff in a computer.

Find somebody who can help you get that done, and your fans will thank you for it.

Now, even if you are an experienced user of notation software, you know, if you publish something with a traditional print publishing company, they’re going to use their own people to prepare that final manuscript more than likely.

So it might be worth reaching out to somebody else.

Even if you do know what you’re doing, just show your scores to somebody, get some feedback, have a different set of eyes looking at it.

It’s hard sometimes to pick up mistakes in the music that we do because you just get used to how things look and how things sound.

The other thing you want to do is just look at other scores that are already published in your area.

You know, if you’re writing piano music, take a look at piano scores and see what are the detail things in the sheet music.

You know, how big are the staves, how big are the note heads, what are the margins, you know, all of those different things.

Just kind of get a feel for what different people are doing and decide what you like.

This might be overthinking it, but once you’ve successfully notated your song, there might be multiple versions of that song that could be useful, right?

You might want to have a piano version where the melody is in the right hand, but you might also want to have an accompaniment version that can be used with a solo singer or a solo instrument.

You know, maybe there’s an easy version and a hard version.

Maybe there’s one that’s a note-for-note transcription of the recording and another one that’s a little more simplified.

You know, however you want to look at it.

But think about who is going to be using the music.

Who is the audience for that?

If it’s sixth grade piano students, then you have to write it at that level.

If it’s for the diehard listener who wants to be able to recreate it exactly the way it is at home, you know, then give them that.

So that was a bit of a tangent, I think, worth thinking about.

But back to the issue of notation.

Once you have finished inputting everything into your notation software of choice, once it looks the way you want it to look, the final step is to convert that to a PDF file.

At least if you’re self-publishing, that’s what you would do.

Maybe working with a publisher, there’s different steps involved.

But you want to print to PDF or export to PDF or however they call it in your program of choice.

You want to do it at the highest resolution possible because it’s going to be used on screens.

Obviously, you want as much detail to come through as you can.

But also if people are going to print it, you want them to start from the highest resolution possible.

I don’t think this part of the process is very difficult.

Both Mac and PC have built-in PDF printers, or you can use Adobe or one of the other gazillion options out there.

Of course, you may also decide you want to have physical copies of your music to sell.

Maybe you want to have them at a merch table at your next show, or maybe you want to actually ship them to customers that order through your website.

You can take that PDF file and go to a UPS or a FedEx or a music print shop, depending on where you live.

If you’re in a place like LA or Nashville or New York, there’s probably options specifically for musicians.

The trick there is deciding how much music you think you can sell, right?

Because if you print more, it’s generally going to cost less.

And so it’s more efficient if you buy in bulk, so to speak.

This topic of printing physical copies and shipping them and how you do all of that, that’s something that I unpacked with Philip Rothman a few episodes ago, actually, not too long ago, beginning of 2024.

So if that’s something you’re interested in, definitely go back and check out that episode.

But really, there’s no right or wrong way to do it, as long as the music looks professional and your customer is getting it in the time promised.

You know, it’s like that first monologue Jim has on the office.

You know, I talk to customers about paper and how we can supply it to them and how much it will cost and, you know, those sort of basic things.

Now, the notation is arguably the hardest part of this whole process, but once you’re done with the music, there are a few other things that you do want to have, primarily to help you market the music.

You’re going to want to have a cover page.

You’re going to want to have a demo recording, and you’re also going to want to have a description of the piece that you can use in marketing materials.

So kind of going through those one at a time.

The cover page, obviously, you want it to look professional because for hundreds of years, music publishers have been putting cover pages on everything.

So your music will need to stand up against that.

But also, now that everything’s gone online, that cover page is typically what gets used as the thumbnail or the product image when people are searching for your music.

So I do think you want to look at it from both sides.

You know, how does this look when I print it out on a piece of paper and hand it to a musician?

But also, how does it look online when you shrink it down?

And does that stand out and does that represent the music well?

I use a website called Canva to make all of my cover pages.

There’s a free tier and a paid tier.

It’s basically Photoshop for Dummies, right?

So you can tell it the size of the image you want, and then you can put in text, you can put in stock photos, you can put in patterns or different elements.

But the main reason I like it is because you can resize it to fit a different format if you need to take a cover page, but then turn it into a square for Instagram, for example.

But I also like the fact that it’s really easy to export or convert it to different file formats.

So if you have a cover page, obviously you want it to end up as a PDF to go with the notation.

For the final product.

But you also probably want to have that cover page as a JPEG or a PNG file to use as the image online.

So and different websites might have different file type requirements.

You know, some people prefer JPEG over different file types, and it’s just easier to be able to have one image in the Canva account.

And then if somebody needs it in a different file type, you know, you just click a button and you get it in whatever format.

And that’s just what I use.

Ultimately, as long as you end up with something in the correct file format that looks good, then it doesn’t matter how you create it.

A lot of people do their cover pages in Microsoft Word, you know, and that’s fine.

Maybe they go full Photoshop and learn how to use Adobe and all of that, you know, more power to you.

But I would approach it by thinking about what is the easiest way for me to get this in the file format that I need, you know.

And what I do is I have a couple of different templates for different types of music because I’m an over thinker and I publish a lot.

But I have like a cover page template that I use for, you know, show choir pieces.

And that way, whenever I have a new piece, I don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

I can just go save as and create the next one.

As far as a demo recording goes, you don’t technically need it to sell music.

But the truth is that absolutely no one is going to take the time to look at your score and figure out if it’s right for them if they can’t hear it first.

That’s just the standard nowadays.

Obviously, a live recording with human musicians is the preferred.

But as long as it sounds high quality, you can use MIDI instruments and synthesizers and or even a combination of the two.

A lot of times for my demos, I will use MIDI accompaniment tracks.

But then since I’m doing choral music, I’ll have individual singers record the vocal parts on top of it.

And obviously, that costs money.

And depending on your situation, you might not be there yet.

But I think it’s worth the investment.

And even if you’re not able to spend the money to get a proper recording, you know, having something is better than nothing, right?

So just do the best that you can, get something out there.

If it’s right, people will recognize that even if the recording isn’t the most amazing thing that they’ve heard in the world.

But a true recording, you know, a performance of a group performing a piece or a video of somebody performing your piece, like that goes a really long way.

You know, and then the final bit of preparatory material is that product description.

Frankly, I don’t think musicians care one bit what you write in that.

They’re going to look at the demo of the score.

They’re going to listen to the audio recording and they’re going to make their decision.

That being said, if there is something unique or interesting about a piece that isn’t obvious from the score itself, this product description is a great way to include that.

You know, maybe there was a notable performance that you want to mention, or maybe the background of where the text came from or the spark of the idea that led to the piece is really compelling.

You know, you can work that into your product description.

But for the most part, it’s just going to be two or three sentences of the basic who, what, when, where, why kind of stuff.

The thing that makes it really important, though, is the fact that search engines, which are almost exclusively text based, are going to be crawling through that description to find those key words to decide whether or not to show a piece to somebody.

Maybe in the future they will, but right now, I don’t think the algorithms are smart enough to listen to a piece of music and go, Oh, that’s a piano piece.

I’m going to show it to, you know, this Jimmy over here because he plays piano, right?

So you want to make sure your name’s in there.

You want to make sure sort of those basic keywords about the, again, it’s the vibe of the piece, right?

It’s an upbeat, fast tempo, rhythmic, you know, whatever happens to be.

All right, so at this point, you have your finished score.

It looks beautiful.

You’re so excited.

I’m so proud of you.

You have all of your marketing materials, your cover pages, audio recordings, videos, product descriptions, all of that supportive stuff ready to go.

The next step is to figure out what to do with all of it.

You got to figure out how much to sell your music for, and you got to figure out where to sell it.

I think the obvious place is to put it on your website, especially if you’re an artist or a band.

But there are also a couple of options for you to distribute your music onto third-party platforms.

It’s very similar to how in the recorded music side of things, CD Baby or Distro Kid can take your recording and then put it all over the different streaming services under your name, and then they take a cut of the profits that come back through you.

They handle sort of the royalties and the distribution of that money on the back end as well.

On the sheet music side, there’s three main companies.

Hal Leonard has a program called Arrange Me.

JW Pepper has one called My Score.

And then musicnotes.com also has one.

There are some pretty significant differences between the three, but the general concept is basically the same.

It’s that you upload the music, it goes for sale on their platform, they take a cut of the royalties and send the rest back to you.

You keep control of your copyrights.

If you write a song and you sell it through Arrange Me, that does not stop you from also selling it on your own website or on other places.

And I don’t usually talk about these three companies at the same time because they are competitors and they are serving different markets.

And there are some pretty significant differences between them and the way they operate.

But the main principle, I think, is that you as a self-publisher, you as a composer or a songwriter or an arranger trying to get your music out there.

If you’re going to be competitive in the digital world, having that reach is really important.

I mean, if you look at anything published by a major print publisher, they’ve got it in stores.

They’ve got it online.

They’ve got it on distributor websites.

They’ve got it on their competitors’ websites.

They’ve got it on social media.

I mean, it’s everywhere.

And so for you to come into this and have the mindset of, you know, I’m just going to put it on my website, you know, I don’t think that’s realistic, at least if you want to reach the maximum number of people you can.

And yes, that does mean that you are going to have to share those royalties.

And for a lot of people, that can be hard.

But that’s just the nature of the business.

You know, putting your music in more places does not reduce the number of sales.

It increases them.

And the main reason for that is different types of people go shopping for music at different places.

So just briefly talking about some of the specifics.

Arrange Me.

arrangeme.com is actually not the place where the music gets sold.

That can be a little confusing for people at first.

arrangeme.com is the platform through which arrangers upload their music.

That’s the website where composers or arrangers, they can log in, they have their dashboard, they see their sales results, they can manage their catalog through the ArrangeMe website.

Where it actually goes for sale is on sheetmusicplus.com and sheetmusicdirect.com, which are two different music retail sites that are both owned by Hal Leonard.

The other big difference with ArrangeMe is that they have a list of about four million copyrighted songs that they have pre-cleared for people to do arrangements.

They’ve already handled the licensing.

So if you want to do an arrangement of a pop song that’s on the radio, you can go to arrangeme.com, check that list, see if it’s on there.

If it is, then when you arrange it, it gives you the copyright info to put on the bottom.

You upload it through the portal, sell it, and it’s legal.

And they handle paying the original artists, the songwriters, and you.

Now, the royalty splits are different.

If you’re selling an original piece of music, you get 50.

Hal Leonard gets 50.

If you’re selling a copyrighted arrangement, then your royalty is 10%, and then the original writers get the difference.

With JW.

Pepper, it’s a similar model, except for they don’t allow for arrangements of copyrighted material.

So it has to be either arrangements of public domain music or compositions that you’ve written yourself.

The big difference with Pepper is that they have a print on demand option.

So customers can choose to have Pepper print the music and ship it to them, as opposed to just downloading the PDF file and printing it themselves.

With the print on demand, you get a 25% royalty instead of a 50.

So again, there’s all these different scenarios and all these different splits and all these different numbers, and I think it’s just important to not get caught up in all of that, right?

Because at the end of the day, like 25% of something is better than 0% of something, right?

And if the goal is to reach as many people as possible, you’re not going to reach them all in the same way.

And then musicnotes.com, they’re a digital only retailer.

They’ve also got a really cool app that you can download and access music that’s been purchased through them on.

They have something called the MusicNotes Marketplace, which lets you upload music and sell it through their site.

They do have some copyrighted music available on that.

They’ve also got something called the Signature Artist Program, which is designed for more established artists.

A lot of people on YouTube are also a signature artist, and they’re using that program as a way to clear rights, to cover songs and that sort of thing.

And so if you’re somebody that has an online presence, and especially if you’re publishing videos of your arrangements, it might be worth reaching out to them and seeing if they can help with the custom licensing and clearing.

They can do medleys and different things that require sort of a more hands-on approach.

And all of these platforms have differences in how you upload the material and get it actually into the system.

There’s little quirks to each of them that you figure out as you go, but the basic concept is the same.

You upload the PDF of the score, the MP3 of the recording, you put in the description, you choose the categories it should belong to, you set your prices, you know, all that stuff.

And again, I do think you should also be selling on your personal website, even though chances are you are probably not going to see a lot of sales from that.

Because unless you’re really active and engaged with your audience, you’re just probably not going to get a lot of views onto that homepage.

But it can serve as a really nice hub for all of your music, especially when you have certain songs on different sites.

You know, it gives you one place where a listener can find everything that you’ve done.

If they get one piece off of Pepper and they think, oh, what else do they have?

It’s your resume.

It’s your demo reel.

It’s your calling card.

When you’re meeting people out in the world and they ask what you do, you can send them right there.

Boom, everything’s in one place.

Now, that being said, if you are not able to create a website or host a website, if you’re not at the point where you can afford that, these platforms like Arrange Me can sort of substitute for your website because you can link to those on social media.

So it gives you an online presence without having to create a website if that’s not something that’s realistic for you in your situation.

So now that everything’s successfully uploaded and available for sale, how do we get people to find it?

How do we market it?

And you know, it’s really interesting because I sell a lot of my music on all three websites and my personal website, and I have it on social media.

I put it in as many places as I can.

And it’s funny, I have pieces that have sold like hotcakes on music notes that have sold zero copies on JW Pepper, you know, and vice versa.

It’s really about, you know, getting the right piece of music in front of the right person at the right time, you know, which is actually really hard.

But I think sometimes we overthink a lot of this stuff because it’s art, right?

And we’re so attached to it emotionally.

And if you don’t know what you’re doing as a marketer, if you’re not sure where to start, back towards the beginning of the podcast episode, episode five, I actually brainstormed 100 different ideas of things you could do to market and promote sheet music.

So take a look at that.

See if there’s something in there that strikes a chord.

Pun intended.

You know, like any product, it’s going to take time to build up that brand awareness.

I think sometimes because it’s so easy to publish the music, you know, the upload process to these sites is so fast.

I mean, with Arrange Me, you upload a piece of music, it’s available online within an hour.

You know, so it’s easy to get the music out there fast, but then it doesn’t always sell really fast.

And that can really deflate the balloon, so to speak, and kind of kill the enthusiasm.

So you just have to give it time.

And if you’re consistent about what you do, and if you’re always improving what you do, you’ll figure out where your place is.

And I think, you know, you’ll find your little corner of the music industry where you can be successful.

And the really beautiful thing about all of this is that there’s essentially zero overhead.

I mean, there’s very little cost to creating and publishing sheet music.

Unless you have to pay somebody else to create the music for you, really the only thing it costs is your time.

And so from a business standpoint, like that’s really fantastic that you can get all of this stuff out there, that it’s promoting yourself, that it’s creating a name for yourself.

And unless you’re going and printing thousands of copies of every song and spending all that money on paper, there’s very little risk of it coming back to bite you.

So I know this episode has kind of been just a brain dump of information.

It’s a lot to take in.

I think it’s one of those things, though, that sounds really complicated when you’re not familiar with it.

But then once you’ve done it a couple of times, it becomes easy.

I’ve gotten to the point where I can prepare all the stuff in advance, and then I just put a show on Netflix and upload a bunch of songs, and I don’t really have to think about it that much.

If I have all of the product descriptions written out beforehand and cover pages made beforehand and all that stuff.

But you just have to keep in mind, sheet music is a very different type of business than most things.

It’s not like selling T-shirts, where anyone in the world can buy it.

It requires a lot more targeted marketing, which makes it difficult.

And yes, compared to other types of business, sheet music is a much smaller scale business.

But there’s still hundreds of millions of people out there that are using sheet music every day.

It’s not an insignificant number.

And the thing that makes it most rewarding to me is to think about how much it means to the people who are buying it.

Musicians really care about their music.

It really means something to them.

It’s important to them.

And so I personally get a lot more satisfaction off of a sale of sheet music than I imagine I would get from, I don’t know, milk.

I mean, that’s a bad example because I love milk.

But the point is, music is really important to people.

And it’s really cool to be a part of that.

And we are in a time of significant change in this industry.

I mean, this level of self-publishing didn’t really exist 10 years ago.

I mean, it was possible to put up a website and that sort of thing.

But there wasn’t this sort of support from major players creating these platforms.

And I think it’s just a really exciting time to get involved with it.

And I think we’re going to see a lot of growth in this area.

I mean, I don’t know if I’ll be doing the podcast 10 years from now, but I think 10 years from now, looking back, we’re going to see a lot of really cool things.

And I don’t know.

It’s hard because there’s a lot of doom and gloom in the industry and a lot of things to be concerned about.

And I share much of that.

But personally, I feel optimistic about where things are going.

All right, I’m going to leave it there for today.

Thank you for listening.

We’ll be back next week with another interview episode.

In the meantime, check out sellingsheetmusic.com that has recordings and transcripts of all the episodes up to this point.

It’s a really easy way to sort through everything and find the episodes that are most relevant to you.

As always, you can reach out to me if you have questions about the business.

My email is garret at breeztunes.com.

So thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week.