Hello and welcome to SELLING SHEET MUSIC a podcast created to help composers, arrangers, and songwriters learn the ins and outs of self-publishing sheet music. I’m your host, Garrett Breeze, and today’s episode is all about how to develop a strategy. Self-publishing isn’t easy, nor is it a “get-rich-quick” scheme. If you don’t have a plan you can end up wasting a lot of time spinning your wheels without getting anywhere. On the other hand, selling sheet music is a great way to generate passive income while promoting your business and building an audience all at the same time. I’ll share my eight-step plan to do that, and more, after the break.
Alright welcome back everyone. Let’s start with some of the changes that have happened over the last 10-20 years the as the world of sheet music publishing has undergone this seismic change from the development of the internet and digital sheet music. There’s a lot of parallels between that and recorded music: customers started ordering music online rather than going to physical scores, then it became possible to download the music and print it at home. Now it’s becoming more and more popular to read sheet music directly on a phone or tablet. And there’s parallels with some of the more negative things too, like illegal downloading and photocopying.
Anyone with a laptop can create sheet music to a song and upload it to websites like JW Pepper, Sheet Music Plus, and Musicnotes.com, much in the same way that somebody could record a song and upload it to Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, or one of the streamers. So, from that perspective it’s a great time to get in to the business.
But before we dive in to how you develop your strategy, I think it’s worth taking a look briefly at what it means to be a self-publisher. Under the traditional print model if you were to publish a new piece with a company like Hal Leonard or Alfred you would be immediately signing over 50% of the copyright or the ownership in that composition. In exchange, the publisher would assume all of the costs for printing, distributing, and marketing the music, therefore assuming all of the financial risk involved. In exchange you would get a percentage, or a royalty, of the sales, normally somewhere around 10%. Could be more, could be less, just depends on the circumstances.
Now let’s be clear about something, this is a podcast about self-publishing but I’m not against the publishing model. Having your work published gives you a certain amount respect, it gives you instant credibility. Many publishers come with a loyal customer base. So, depending on your scenario traditional publishing might be the ideal situation, you know, maybe you have a full-time job already and you don’t want to deal with the hassle of promoting your music. After all, most of us become musicians to write and to perform, not to market and to strategize. And as a general rule, anytime somebody else wants to put in the work of promoting your music it’s worth at least considering.
That being said, traditional publishing has its drawbacks, the most obvious being the loss of ownership. If you own 100% of the copyright, then you also get 100% of the profits. Traditional publishing typically has a long turnaround time from when you submit a piece to when it actually hits the market. As a self-publisher you can publish as much as you want and on your own schedule. And finally, most publishers are limited in the number of pieces they can print every year, so you’ll find that most, if not all, of the composers you see in print catalogs also have music they self-publish.
Now I know not everyone listening to this is going to be a full-time, professional musician. But I’m going to talk to you like you are, because even if self-publishing is just something you’re doing for fun, to be successful, you’re going to have to compete with those of us that are doing it full time.
Alright, let’s talk strategy, and let’s start with how selling sheet music can integrate with or support what you’re already doing musically. Because sheet music sales are a secondary source of income. Very few people are able to make a living solely on royalties, and those who do have either built it up over a long career or they’ve had success in other areas which has spilled over. But the money isn’t really the point, at least not on today’s podcast. We’ll get there in future episodes. What I want to focus on right now is how sheet music can fit into a larger career plan.
For me, my primary source of income is commissions from choral groups like show choirs that want me to arrange something for them. But the reason many of those choirs hire me is that they’ve performed something of mine that was already published. So, it’s a two-for-one. I get to earn income on the thing that’s advertising my business. And I got paid to create the thing that’s advertising my business.
So, think about your situation. Maybe you’re a songwriter and selling copies of sheet music at a show gives you another way to connect with fans. Maybe you teach private lessons and instead of having students buy someone else’s book you can compose and arrange the material for their lessons and have them buy it from you instead. Maybe you’re a band or a choir teacher and you have music you’ve written or arranged out of necessity and now it’s just gathering dust on a hard drive somewhere. Maybe you’re a YouTuber—you can post sheet music that links to your videos and videos that links to your sheet music.
What we’re really talking about here is finding your niche, and that’s step one of my eight step plan to starting a self-publishing business.
Step One: Find Your Niche
The music business is kind of funny because your clients will expect you to be able to anything and everything for them, but they won’t trust you to do anything for them unless you’ve proven yourself in a specific area first. It’s almost the opposite of med school. In med school you start general and then you specialize later on in your residency. In music you start with one specific thing and then you can expand to other areas.
So rather than throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, focus on one area that makes the most sense for you. Use what you’ve got! If you’re a church musician, write church music. If you love acapella music more than anything, write acapella music. If you teach piano, write piano music. You can always branch out to other areas later, but first you need to establish yourself.
Step Two: Learn the Music
Once you’ve chosen your niche, the next step is to learn everything you possibly can about it. Listen to as much music as you can, study scores, ask questions, and hone your craft. Make sure the style music is something you CAN do, and more importantly, make sure it’s something you WANT to do. Authenticity is really important because to be successful at publishing you’re going to have to do a LOT of it, and you shouldn’t get into publishing a style of music that you don’t find personally fulfilling in some way.
Step Three: Figure Out Your Business Model
Now that you’ve learned the music you need to take a step back and learn as much as possible about the community surrounding your niche. Who are the major players? When are they buying music? Where and how is it performed? Put on your entrepreneur hat and look for needs that you can fill. It’s not about trying to crush the competition; it’s about bringing something to the table. Ultimately, you’ve got to figure out if there’s a way you can make money from this niche. If not, then you’re back to step one.
Step Four: Write as Much As Humanly Possible
Now you’ll notice I didn’t say PUBLISH as much as humanly possible. It’s important to maintain high standards and you don’t want to put anything out into the world that is subpar. But chances are, the more you write, the better you’re going to get at it. So, how much you publish, and when you publish, that all depends on the needs of the group that you’ve chosen.
Step Five: Establish Your Presence Online
People don’t typically shop by composer. Think about the kinds of search terms you would put into google if you were looking for a piece. What that means is that most people will encounter a piece of your music before they encounter you before they know who you are. If they like your music, they’re probably going to look you up online. And what they find needs to do two things: it needs to show them that you’re serious, and it needs to guide them to more music.
Step Six: Build Relationships
Just because our music is digital doesn’t mean our relationships need to be impersonal. If anything, the opposite is true. Get to know the people in your niche. Ask questions, be genuine, do what you can to help others, and just in general be a good human.
Step Seven: Get Better
After a few years, you should start seeing real results. When this happens, make sure you’re keeping your foot on the gas. Keep getting better and keep trying new things. Selling sheet music is a long game, but it’s also exponential. Once you get the snowball rolling it just gets bigger and bigger. Once you get a performances of a piece of music that tends to generate more performances. You build up some organic word of mouth and some buzz and some popularity and everything keeps spreading and growing. But as negative as it sounds, music is highly competitive and there’s not a lot of room to slack off, especially when you’ve built a reputation for quality music.
Step Eight: Decide What Comes Next
At this point, you’re well established, and you can decide to start over if you want in a different niche. Only this time the steps will move much faster because you’ve got credibility, you’ve got reputation. You’ve put in the work. Or maybe you decide you keep things going the way they are. But even if you stay in the same niche, it’s probably good to go back and repeat the steps again because your competition has probably been watching you and upping their game, so things aren’t going to be the same as when you started.
Good Music Will Always Find a Home
I want to close with something that’s been drilled into my head over and over by Sam Cardon, who is a dear friend and mentor and someone that I’ve worked with for a long time. And it’s this: “Good music will always find a home.” Yes, you want to be strategic with what you publish, you want to make sure it’s accessible, you want to make sure it’s useful, but you also don’t want to censor yourself. Music is a creative activity, and everyone has different tastes, and you might have an idea for something that you don’t think anyone’s gonna care about. But you never now, you might be surprised, and if it’s good quality music, if it’s well constructed and produced, then there’s no reason to hold it back. So let that weird idea play out, try that new combination of instruments, there’s already so much normal music out there, the publishers are full of normal music, we’ve all got normal music, so if you want to stand out don’t be afraid to say something new because good music will always find a home.