So You Want to Be a Published Composer?

Are you interested in being a published composer for school band and orchestra? Let me start out by dispelling a myth right now. Getting music published does not equal getting rich! There are very few composers that I have ever known that can make a solid living just on getting music published for school bands and orchestras. Most, like me, have other jobs as well, or they write a lot of freelance arrangements, or they write commissions or books, etc. So, if you were intrigued enough to read this article because getting published interests you, then I will give you some insights based on my 22 years of experience as an editor for two major music publishing companies.

Let me also state that I am not looking to increase my submissions by writing this article, as I receive hundreds of manuscripts each year from people who want to have their music considered for publication. What I would like to do with this article is to help folks who were like me when I was starting out, and didn’t have a clue as to how to get started in the process. I was fortunate enough to be rejected when I was a young composer (in the nicest way possible) by composer/editor/publisher John Edmondson. He didn’t accept my music, but he told me what to do to get it published eventually. I have always appreciated that, and I hope that this article will serve to pay forward the wonderful advice John gave me those many years ago.

The first thing you need to do to get your music published is to do your homework. You must listen to and look at a lot of published music, with a critical eye and ear. Try to figure out why you think these pieces have been published. What makes them worthy? Better yet, find out on sheet music dealer websites which pieces are selling well (many post top seller lists), and try to figure out why. Once you go through this process, then you will have a better understanding of what each of the publishers are looking for, which leads me to my next point.

Figure out in which publisher’s catalog you think your music will fit best. It doesn’t make sense to submit grade 10 symphonies for band if that publisher doesn’t publish difficult music! Or, don’t send your music if it doesn’t seem to be the type or style of music that publisher accepts. Each publisher is a reflection of the person or people that select the music they publish. Each has their own musical tastes, and that is based on the editors who make those decisions, so choose wisely where you decide to send your music.

Once you determine where to send your music, make sure it fits into their parameters. Every publisher has grade level series and instrumentation idiosyncrasies that are unique to their company. Most companies have guidelines of ranges, keys, rhythms and other technical limitations for each series that you can get – you just have to ask. When you get those guidelines or study your potential publisher’s pieces, adapt your piece to fit their guidelines and instrumentation.

Next, you must prepare the score you are planning on submitting in a way that looks professional. Using a notation program today is an absolute must. Publishers really can’t afford the cost or time to “engrave” your piece from a handwritten manuscript any longer. Make it look as good as you can before you send it in.

A recording is an absolute must! This can be a MIDI realization from one of the notation programs, but make sure that the MIDI playback shows your piece in the best light possible. Obviously, a high quality live recording is best, but for many that is not possible. I receive many MIDI recordings a year, so I am used to it, but I must say that some of the playback from some of the software is terrible and does not help the piece – at all! I suggest you don’t try too hard to make the MIDI sound “real”. I sometimes receive MIDI recordings that have so much reverb added that it is impossible to hear “inside” the piece. Do your best to send a recording (live or MIDI), that you feel best represents your music.

The big question is – who do you send your music to? It is imperative that you do not send the music unsolicited to generic places like “Publications Review Committee” or “Band/Orchestra Editor”. You must take the time to find out to whom you should send the music directly, in order for it to get reviewed. I believe it is important to network anyway, and a great way to find out the decision maker at each of the publishers is to meet them at conventions or through your other colleagues. People that take the initiative to do this are going to have a better chance of getting the attention of the decision-makers.

Now that you know where to send your music, what should you send? This is simple – send one piece at a time. Do not send your whole life’s work in one package. Send your best piece first. Then you must be patient. As stated above, major publishers receive hundreds of submissions a year, and most of the time we can only devote a certain time of year to reviewing unpublished composers. This is another reason to network and try to talk to the decision makers. You can ask them the best time to submit, so that your music will arrive at the optimum time to get reviewed in a timely manner. But, it still can take a long time to get a response, be patient. The other thing you can do when networking with the editors is to find out how they would like music submitted. Each publisher has their own way of doing things. Some like old fashioned mail with a score and CD, some like email, others have ways to upload PDFs and mp3s to them directly through their website. Again, do your homework and find out what they want.

Expect to be rejected at some point in your career. It happens to all of us. It is important that you write music for your our creative needs first and foremost, and if other people like it or it gets published, that is a happy coincidence. I can’t stress that enough. You must write music for yourself first and foremost! Getting published is certainly nice, but it ultimately should not be the goal. Creating art should be!

If you are fortunate enough to get a piece accepted, get used to the fact that the editors of publishing companies may ask you to make changes. This is an important part of the process, as the editors have to make suggestions to make the piece better fit the needs of their catalog, the grade level or series and to try and make the piece the best it can be. If you don’t want to make changes/edits to your pieces, then I suggest you don’t send your pieces to a publisher at all. Editors are going to edit – that is what they do – and their sole purpose is to help make the piece better. They are not doing it to ruin your work of art. If you are not willing to be flexible or easy to work with, then you will not get your pieces accepted for publication.

If you have gotten past this point, then you need to understand that publishing companies that publish school band and orchestra music need music for all grade levels. If you want to continue to be published for the long haul, then you need to have the skills to be able to write music for all ability levels. If you are not a teacher, then you need to study what students can and can’t do on their instruments at certain levels, and be prepared to write music that will fit their educational needs, but that will also be of a good quality for use in instructional purposes.

Finally, believe in yourself and your abilities. If composing is something that you aspire to do, then study hard and write music, everyday, and get better. Rejection is not fun for anyone, but keep an open mind and try to get better from it and move forward. Not all good music gets published. It sometimes doesn’t get to the right people at the right time. Keep trying! As I stated above, write music because you love to write music, it fulfills you, and makes you happy. If it happens to be successful, then that is merely a bonus. Good luck!