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Of Composers and Their Publishers

Has there ever been anything more maddeningly ambivalent than the relationship of authors/composers and their publishers? It has often been compared to a marriage, and for good reason. Truly symbiotic in nature, the coupling is as professionally imperative as matrimony is biologically promising. Only the order sometimes differs: the composer's offspring arrive before he enters into a semi-binding relationship; men and women generally defer spawning until they have reached some semi-binding understanding.

Readers with a bent for music biographica have been relishing such compilations as Composers on Music, an anthology of composers' writings from Palestrina to Copland edited by Sam Morgenstern, An Encyclopedia of Quotations about Music compiled by Nat Shapiro, and that outrageous Lexicon of Musical Invective assembled by Nicolas Slonimsky whose lexicographic hand has guided Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians through three of its seven editions. But the time may be at hand when some intrepid researcher would wish to offer us a volume on Composers and Their Publishers. Such a study, if realizable at all, would doubtless illuminate the personalities and agendas of consenting partners, and bring into focus a bonding which is sublimely intimate, personal, and susceptible to change.

But let's begin at the beginning by reviewing just what it is that music publishers do. Put in a nutshell: they produce, promote, and distribute music. This is what music publishers have done since they began fulfilling a need on the 18thcentury European scene brought about by an increasing involvement in music making on the part of lay people. True, emphasis may have changed with wider technological options and a shift of accent from distributing printed music ("paper") to exploiting the various dimensions of copyright ("rights"). And, of course, the people buying and using this music ("market") have changed, too. But changes not withstanding, composers have required publishers to produce, promote, and distribute their music.

There is, however, one other aspect to the historical music publisher which must not be forgotten: it is his unique receptivity to the creative personality of the composer and a pipeline to the reservoir of enthusiasm of an unknown, unpredictable, but palpably present public. This is a qualification which gives the music publisher his unique profile and which, like fingerprints, is not transferable to heirs, successors, or assigns, let alone to conglomerates seeking to make a quick buck by skimming the musical cream off a catalogue. Receptivity — not to be confused with adulation — is a personal property of an individual, usually a proprietor, sometimes a director of publicatons or editor, which attracts composers to entrust their work to the particular firm with which that individual is associated.

If you are interested in seeing just how dynamic, ongoing, and personal a relationship between composer and publisher must be, read Ludwig Strecker's extraordinary Richard Wagner als Verlagsgefahrte (Richard Wagner as publishing companion) (Schott, Mainz 1951). It leaves little doubt that the substance of the connection to composers is not with corporations or institutions but with contact persons of high authority in a publishing house. Only professionals with such calibre can cope effectively with the highly diversified questions of the creative personality on the one hand, the pressures and requisites of economics and the market place on the other, thus maintaining the delicate balance between the interest of the composer and those of the publisher.

And make no mistake about it, sometimes those interests are adversarial in nature. What happens, for instance, when a composer expects a certain type of publication, an "engraver-quality" score, say, or vocal score or piano reduction; and the publisher knows that, with the enormous cost of production today, he could never stand even to defray his costs, let alone recoup his investment or make a profit over the entire period of copyright, now "life plus 50"? What happens when the composer expects a certain class of representation from his publisher and fails to get it? What happens when a composer, perfectly satisfied to collect his commission for writing a piece, leaves the publisher holding the bag by failing to provide for the expenses in preparing the performance materials? What happens when the composer insists on writing in media and styles for which the publisher sees little or no demand?

While some composers happily give all their works over to a single publisher, others form new alliances with astonishing frequency, and still others, after many years of being affiliated with a given firm and being considered truly faithful house composers, suddenly announce that they are changing base. What brings about such upheavals?

Sometimes, of course, promises of material rewards: advances, royalty benefits, more and finer publications. Mostly, however, it is a question of quality interaction between two personalities. And time. Composers' requirements change as they attain more widespread success. Publishers' staffs change; pivotal people retire or die, to be replaced with newer, younger people whose expertise and enthusiasms lie elsewhere. The annals of music publishing are a compendium of unfulfilled expectations.

No music publisher has ever made or broken a composer. In the long run, only a composer's own music will bring (or fail to bring) him into cultural consciousness. A music publisher's success may be measured solely by his effectiveness in bringing a musical product to a performing and listening market. What with today's sophisticated resources, the dissemination of music (information) poses no great problem. A far greater problem is to induce people to use this information widely and vitally, to choose to reserve their precious time and energies for an active involvement in the musical experience.

As our millenium winds down, many questions are being asked and agonized over concerning the place of music in our lives. Composers, performers, listeners and, yes, music publishers are going back to square one in divesting themselves of notions that may have been valid decades ago but seem to have little true relevance today. No one can know what the ultimate consequence of these inquiries will be. Shall we make music a basic component in our world, hear it in our homes, teach it in our schools, include it in our leisure? If the answer is yes, we need not fret about directions. An informed public will make its tastes known to composers and their publishers.

Husbands and wives are beginning to look to the world (sometimes painfully) for new options and real values. Composers — and publishers — must search for answers from a public which is elevated enough to need them, love them, and use them.

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