Ep. 34: The Dos and Don’ts of submitting music to publishers (Dave Black, Part one)

Episode Description:

Today I have the privilege of welcoming percussionist and composer Dave Black to the podcast for the first of a two-part series.  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 talk about the do’s and don’ts of submitting music to publishers.  Next week we’ll 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.*

Today, I have the privilege of welcoming percussionist and composer Dave Black to the podcast for the first of a two-part series.

He is the former vice president of Alfred Music, where he served 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 2 million units.

In today’s episode, we talk about the do’s and don’ts of submitting music to publishers.

Next week, we’ll take a step back and talk more generally about the state of the sheet music publishing industry.

Dave Black, welcome to Selling Sheet Music.

How are you doing?

I’m doing great.

Thank you so much for having me.

Looking forward to this.

I’m really excited to have this conversation.

So let’s jump right in with submitting music to publishers.

You worked at Alfred for 35 years, including as their Editor Chief for School and Pop Publications.

So I don’t know if you’ve kept track, but I’m sure you’ve seen thousands of submissions.

Can you walk us through just sort of the basic do’s and don’ts?

Yeah, that’s a question obviously that’s come up a lot over the years.

And we’ve even, you know, over the years I have put together kind of a sheet of the kind of do’s and don’ts.

I mean, one of the obvious things is, and you’re going to laugh when I say it, but it seems obvious, but people do it is, you know, do your homework and find out which companies are music publishers and which are not.

I mean, I remember getting a submission sometime that, and I opened it up, it was a book and the title of it was My Family and the Mafia.

And so I thought, okay, well, this person is obviously not doing their homework.

They’re just finding a list of publishers and blindly submitting that publication to everybody that’s on that list, rather than taking the time to find out, okay, what publishers are interested in that kind of material?

Is it a music publisher?

Is it a children’s publisher?

I have to ask though, did you read the novel?


No, I mean, I laughed and of course it made the rounds around the office and stuff.

Because when we get things like that, it’s like, come on people, let’s be real here.

I mean, you do have music in the name for what it’s worth.

Yeah, but it just goes to show you that people just don’t really do that kind of homework.

Are they a music publishing?

Are they strictly a school book publisher?

Are they a kid’s publisher?

Are they an owner’s manual kind of publisher?

So the first thing to do is find out the publisher, then the audience that you’re looking for.

And then most publishers have publishing guidelines on their website.

I would suggest that somebody look at that first and see it.

First of all, if the company is accepting unsolicited manuscripts or not, and then kind of go from there.

You know, it’s helpful to talk to somebody at the publishing company or to approach them at a convention.

There’s always editors there and staff to answer questions about submissions.

So that would be the first thing.

And then, you know, to go on that publisher’s website, if it’s a music-related thing, see, scroll at the publications or the pieces that they have and see if it’s already in existence.

Now, you may write a concert band piece.

Now, there’s a million concert band pieces, but is it of an original piece?

Is it of an arrangement that you don’t see listed on the publisher’s website?

If it’s a method book of some sort, go on their website and see, does that method book exist?

If it does, how is it different than the one that you’re submitting?

And so those are the very first steps of submission, is just doing your homework first, making sure that you’ve got the right publisher for your material, do your due diligence to see if anything exists, and then go from there.

And usually there is a web address or an address where those can be sent.

In our case, and in a lot of publishing companies, there’s a fictitious editor that you send it to.

I won’t give you the name of the one at Alfred because it’s still used.

And that is the person that, you know, the general public will send their manuscripts to for submission.

Now, I got a lot of those.

There’s another person that got a lot of those who did the initial kind of read through or whatever and then passed it on to the appropriate editor in the company.

If it went that far, it passed the first step, which was me or somebody else.

How many submissions do you typically get in a year?

Quite a lot.

It could be a couple of hundred or more.

But the thing is, is that the other thing I should talk about in terms of the major publishers is that most major publishers have their kind of stable of writers that write for them constantly, year after year.

These are people who have been known to be successful composers, arrangers who can produce the product at the required grade level and so on and so forth.

So it’s very hard, I should say, for an unsolicited manuscript to get even to the publisher and to a point where it gets published.

I would say maybe three to five percent of unsolicited manuscripts are ever published.

Most of it is all in-house or, like I said, a stable of already successful composers and authors who do that kind of stuff.

Every once in a while, especially, you know, I was solely in charge of the drum catalogue, is that, you know, I would get something that I would like or I knew people because I’m a drummer and that was what I did.

So if there was something that I wanted to write or co-write or something that I thought somebody else could do, I could also reach out to them and say, hey, you know, I’m looking for a book of this nature.

You know, would you be willing or want to write it?

So it works that way too, but unsolicited manuscripts, just so everybody knows, is less than probably 3% accepted.

It’s a pretty small percentage.

So can you think of any examples of an unknown person sending you music that got through and what they did to be able to sort of break through that?

I don’t want to call it a barrier, but there are a lot of obstacles to getting your music published by one of the big publishers.

Can you think of any standout examples that maybe might illustrate the things that you need to do to be successful?

Yeah, I can name actually one person and he’s no longer with us, unfortunately, but his name is Mark Williams.

And he was one of our biggest concert band composers that we ever had.

And he was also the co-author of the band method Accent on Achievement.

Publisher, when they come out with a new release, they send a CD back then or a cassette with a brochure that lists all the compositions, the grade levels, ranges, a blurb about it, and then an audio recording of it.

And used to be band directors, choral directors, string directors would get those packages, listen to them, and then make their selections and go to their dealer like JW.

Pepper or a local dealer and order those compositions or choral pieces from that dealer or directly through the publishing company.

Mark was one of those high school band directors who used a lot of Alfred materials and he wanted to try his hand at writing.

And so he had written a piece, and I forget the name of it, but it was an Irish piece.

And he had written it and he was going to submit it.

And his wife came into the office and I believe she found the manuscript in the garbage, something like that.

And she pulled it out and said, what are you doing with this?

Why aren’t you going to submit it?

I don’t think it’s good enough.

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

So I don’t remember.

I think he sent it eventually.

And it got to us and John O’Reilly, who was the editor-in-chief at the time, looked at it and it was a great piece.

And it was, I think, our biggest seller in concert band that year.

And that led to having Mark come on as kind of one of our major concert band writers and then eventually writing the band method.

But here was a band director who wanted to try his hand at writing.

He wrote this beautiful Irish piece, didn’t think it was good enough, put it in the trash, his wife found it, and made him kind of submit it, and the rest is kind of history.

Now, the thing that makes, I think, people who have been band directors, choral directors, string directors, percussionists are the fact that they know what that student’s ability is at that particular age level.

They know the pitfalls, they know what they can play, what they can’t, what makes them sound good.

And so typically, those kind of editors or teachers make the best kind of composers because they know exactly who they’re writing for and for that particular range and ability.

And Mark fit right into that because being a middle school, high school director, he knew what worked and what sounded good and he published many, many, probably two, three, four hundred pieces with us in books.

But like Sally Albrecht and Jay Althaus and Andy Beck are the current choral editors there.

They were all choral teachers and grew up in that thing.

Robert Sheldon, Bob Phillips, his string, Bob Sheldon, his band, they were all very successful school band and orchestra directors and stuff.

And so they made really, really excellent composers and arrangers as well.

So clearly publishers are looking at the experience of the person submitting.

They don’t necessarily have to have a compositional background.

But for those people who are active composers and submitting, are you looking at, I don’t know, the size of the following?

Are you looking at previous performances?

How much does the notoriety of the composer matter?

Or is it really just about whether or not the score is a good fit?

I think the notoriety of the person is not even really in play at that point.

Because like I said, Mark was a middle school, high school band director and choral directors, their notoriety is within their community or within their school program.

They’re just trying to be the best band and choral and string directors that they are.

So they don’t know whether they’re going to be successful as a composer or arranger.

So I think that that builds as they write stuff, they put it out there, band, orchestra, choral directors respond to it in a favorable way.

And obviously, sales are a huge part of that.

And all of those people that I’ve mentioned have produced massive sales over the years.

So, you know, publishing is a business.

And yes, it’s about publishing good material, good educational material, but it’s also about, you know, making money for the publisher as well.

So, there’s got to be a happy balance.

Well, let’s dig into that business side for a little bit.

So, obviously, the suitability of the piece matters a great deal.

You’ve already mentioned that, having it be at the appropriate skill level and all of those things.

But when you’re in that sort of first meeting, you know, okay, it’s the beginning of the new year, we’re looking at what we want to publish.

How are you breaking things down?

Because you want to have a variety of grade levels.

You want to have, I assume, a variety of styles of music.

Is there like a quota?

You know, we need two up tempo pieces and two slow pieces.

And how are those decisions made?

That’s made by the actual editor who’s heading up that particular division.

I mean, over the years, you kind of get to know the pattern and kind of the right balance of material.

But you’re exactly right.

You know, I would ask the editors that were under me, okay, it’s time for the new year.

It’s time to submit your budgets.

Let me know how many pieces you want to publish.

What’s the recording budget?

How many of the non-performance music, the book kind of publications are you planning on doing?

Is there CDs that go with it?

You know, all those kinds of things.

And so I think over the years, Alfred and most companies kind of have a number that feels good to them year after year in terms of what is the right amount of new material, maybe 30 new pieces, 30 to 40, and, you know, it just varies.

And you also want to do a variety of grade levels.

You’ve got, you know, a certain number of grade 1s, a certain number of grade 2s, and then by the time you get to the upper level, grade 4s and maybe even 5s, those are specialized.

You only want to do one or two of those because of the number of bands that are, or orchestras that are, first of all, willing or can even play it.

And they’re much more costly to produce because they’re much bigger scores and number of parts and stuff.

And you’re going to sell less of those because of the grade level.

And so you want to weigh it so it’s predominantly younger band music and less upper band music.

That all makes sense.

It sounds like it’s pretty flexible.

I mean, like if you get three amazing pieces, but you’re only planning on publishing two, do you save the third for the next year or do you go ahead and put it out?

It works both ways.

If it’s somebody that’s been with us for a while and it’s a good piece, we’ll hold it for next year.

If it’s somebody that is maybe not one of our core writers, maybe it was an unsolicited manuscript, we may likely either send it back or contact that person and say, look, our release this year is kind of already full.

We’ve got the number of pieces that we want.

We are interested in your piece if you’re willing to let us hold on to it until next year.

No, most people will, unless they have another publisher interested, will say, no, I want to do that.

I mean, Alfred is a huge, huge company.

They and Al Leonard are the two biggest in the world.

So obviously, you want to try and get with one of those two publishers.

Do you see the self-publishing side of the industry as being competitive with the traditional publishers?

I mean, do you see those composers as taking sales away from Alfred and the other publishers?

Or do you see them as serving a different market or something else?

I think it’s a combination.

I don’t know, to be honest, how much they’re going to take away from major publishers because what a major publisher has is, first of all, as you know, they have the ability to go to all the major shows, NAMM, Midwest, the Percussive Arts Society, you know, all that to show those new publications or all of them to have the composers and the staff there to answer questions and so on.

Most individuals don’t have that kind of thing.

A major publisher has the ability to purchase those lists of teachers and stuff from every school across the country, and we have that in our database, and that’s cleaned up every year.

Duplicates are mailed out, you know, are thrown out.

New lists are added and combined.

So an individual doesn’t have the ability to record the pieces, to either in those days make CDs and put a booklet together of all the new publications with descriptions and then mail them out to 30,000, 40,000 middle schools and high schools across the country.

It’s just impossible for an individual to do that.

What you’re hoping is that if you’re an individual trying to do that, that somebody’s going to go to your website.

But you’ve got thousands and thousands of people now that put stuff online and stuff.

It’s absolutely impossible to try and read through all that.

So I think most people tend to go with a major publisher for all the reasons that I just listed.

I mean, the other thing with individuals writing, there are some that are quite good, but there are some that aren’t really well-versed in teaching instrumental music, choral music, the pitfalls and stuff of a younger age.

They’re sitting at a computer and writing what they think sounds good and all that kind of stuff, and it may be, but they’re kind of oblivious to ranges and can a grade two piece or that grade level or whatever, can they even play what you’re writing?

It may sound good coming out of a keyboard and whatever, but can somebody at the grade level that it’s being written for actually play it technically?

All those play an important part, and that’s the advantage you get with a major publisher who have people who know all that stuff, who’ve been in those trenches, who have taught that grade level to make sure that those pieces are accessible to the grade levels that they’re geared towards.

So we’ve been kind of dancing around this subject for a little bit.

The advice that I get most frequently from people in the industry is to write easy music because that’s what has the most demand and because that’s what has the most proven track record of sales.

But I think that if you’re an unknown composer, it’s very difficult to get noticed with easy music.

That’s not going to generate the excitement or generate the word of mouth buzz that a more creative, well, I shouldn’t say creative, because easy music can be creative, and I want your thoughts on that too.

But it seems like a contradiction because the most common response that I hear from publishers is, this is good music, we already have this.

And so those things seem to work against composers trying to break into the industry because if they’re told to write easy and they do, but that’s what the publishers already have the most in their catalogs, like what are we supposed to do?

Well, it’s an interesting question, but I mean I have some pretty solid answers to why that is.

First of all, just for your audience, book ones far outsell book twos by a landslide.

Book twos of anything, whether it’s a band method, a drum method, or anything like that, only sell maybe 20% of what book ones do, because everybody starts off on a book one.

Oh, I want to play clarinet.

Oh, I want to play drums.

Oh, I want to do this, this, and this.

So everybody has to start off with a book one.

But after that year or whatever of studying, then all those students either decide, okay, I don’t want to continue studying.

I don’t want to be in music or I want to try another instrument.

But everybody has to start with a book one.

Now, there’s a misconception about writing young band music versus, you know, harder music.

Young band music is actually can be quite hard to write because you’re limited by the range, you’re limited by the rhythms that they can learn at that age and stuff.

And so we call them like six note wonders or whatever where you’re using, you know, six notes or a certain number of rhythms and you can’t go above the staff at this level and stuff.

Now, with that constraint or whatever, I beg anybody to say that that is easier to write than a grade five piece where the sky’s the limit because there is no restrictions on range and instrumentation and the amount of notes and the kinds of rhythms and odd time signatures and everything else that you can’t use at a grade one or two level.

Does that answer your question?

Yeah, it does.

And I guess what I was trying to say before, but not very successfully, what I have found to be the most successful marketing for my music as an independent composer is that word of mouth from directors, either performing the piece, sharing the piece, talking about the piece.

And so, with those restrictions put on that you just mentioned, how do you make the music creative?

How do you make it stand out and seem different from all the other pieces that share those same set of rules?

Well, that’s the big challenge with everybody.

It’s, you know, how do you do that?

Even the best composers and stuff.

Do you know how many thousands and thousands and thousands of pieces that are already out there?

I mean, are you a band director or were you?

So I played trombone for 20 years and then became a choral arranger.


Well, that’s a big leap.

So I’ve been in both worlds, yeah.

So you know that any band director, whatever, has a whole library, and, you know, they have years and years from former band directors, choral directors, whole libraries with stuff that is new to the class that they’re teaching that year.

If it’s something 10 years ago, 20 years ago, it’s still new.

So that’s the challenge of writing, not only at any level, but at a young level, is how do you take the six notes that you can use or whatever and make them sound musical and fun to play?

But to your question of just how do you get it sold and stuff, that is the major, major, I guess, dilemma that even the major publishing companies are facing because there is the ability for individuals to write their own music and sell it.

It takes a small piece of that pie away from all the major publishers.

Even if it’s 20 copies of this and 20 copies of that, well, that’s 20 copies that’s going not in the big publishers’ pockets, but in thousands of other people who are taking little bits and pieces from it.

But again, somebody in your position who writes music and sells it on their own, I don’t know whether you have the capacity or the finances to go into a major studio with a professional concert band or choir or whatever and do those recordings.

I don’t know if you have the ability to be able to get a booth at all the major conventions so that you can have your scores there where people can come and listen to or that you have the ability to mail recordings of your pieces or whatever to every choral director in the country.

You know, that takes money.

I mean, the pieces may all be good, but you have to get them in the right hands.

That kind of answer your question?

Yeah, no, it does for sure.

Before we switch gears and talk about some of the bigger picture industry stuff, I thought we’d do just sort of a quick lightning round of questions to wrap up the subject of submitting to publishers.

So to start off, how many pieces should I submit at a time?

I wouldn’t submit any more than one or two, probably your best pieces, just because it gets overwhelming if an editor is having to sit there and not only listen to that many pieces, but decide, okay, here’s a new submission from somebody I don’t know.

They’re sending me five pieces.

It’s a crap shoot as to what they listen to.

So my recommendation is you pick the one or two that you think best exemplifies your talent, your skill level, and let them look at them.

The other thing to remember is just because a publishing company doesn’t publish something doesn’t mean that the piece isn’t good or publishable.

It may be that they have an excess of pieces in that genre or that level and stuff, but I would send one or two or whatever and let them get back to you.

Somebody would say, this is good, but we already have some things.

No, I’m interested.

Yeah, I like your writing.

Do you have anything else that you could submit?

Then you’re free to submit more.

The other thing that I would say related to that is that I would be very careful or would discourage people from sending the same piece or pieces to multiple publishing companies at the same time.

And the reason may seem is obvious to me, but it’s not to most people.

Most people say, well, if I throw out a wider net, then I have a better chance of maybe getting something published.

But the problem is if you do that and Alfred says, oh, I really like this piece or whatever, I’m interested in doing it, and they contact the composer.

The composer says, well, I already heard from Barnhouse or whatever, and they’re interested.

Well, Alfred’s going to be not too happy that they took the time to listen to it.

They want to publish it, and you send it to everybody else, and you’re going with somebody else.

That kind of spoils it from then on out for that composer to continue publishing or submitting to that to Alfred or somebody like that.

Does that make sense?

Yeah, absolutely.

Next question.

Is it better to send a high quality MIDI mock-up of the piece or a recording of a live performance even if it might have mistakes?

I think MIDI is fine.

I think most of us who are in that role are good enough musicians to be able, you know, MIDI recordings are quite good nowadays and stuff.

And we ask that they also send obviously a score in.

So a MIDI thing is fine.

I mean, I think most people can get a good idea of what it’s like just by looking at the score and or hearing it.

So, yeah, I don’t think it makes a difference in that case.

Remember, there was a time, you know, 20 years ago that there was no MIDI or recordings or whatever.

People submitted manuscripts and stuff, and all of us took the score or whatever and went to a piano and kind of played through it and stuff.

So the advent of MIDI recordings and stuff is fairly new considering the long history of music publishing.

So if you have competent editors and stuff there, they should be able to look at anything, including just a score and a piano and be able to figure it out.


And then finally, how much information do you want in an email that comes with the submission?

Do you want to know the backstory of the piece?

Do you want to know biographical information or is shorter the way to go?

I think just enough to introduce yourself and what your background is, is enough.

I mean, you can certainly say, I’m a middle school band director in this district or this state or whatever.

I’ve been writing music for my band for a number of years, and I’ve been encouraged by several people to approach a publisher to see if there would be any interest in some of the things that I’ve written.

And you could talk a little bit about the piece and the grade level and stuff, and kind of let it go with that.

I mean, just the music is going to speak for itself.