Why You Don’t See More Songs In Print Form

Why You Don’t See More Songs In Print Form

The sheet music industry has pretty much dried up, but choral music is still strong.

Recently, I decided to see what it would take to get permission to arrange and sell an SATB anthem. These typically retail for $1.89-$1.99 each, but many choral companies give a discount of 10-15% if you buy in quantity for a choir. 15% gets it down to $1.59-$1.69. Subtract printing costs and royalties, and there should be a halfway decent profit left, right?

Well, it depends on that royalty.

I submitted a request to the biggest name in the business, Hal Leonard, on August 13. I included the name of the song, the writer’s name, the publisher name, the anticipated retail price per anthem ($1.99), etc. I’ve never seen a choral version of this somewhat popular song. If I had wanted to record this song, there would be a fixed rate per unit of 9.1 cents. ThereĀ is no set rate for print music. Each license must be negotiated. I didn’t know how much the royalty would be, but I was expecting something in the 15-20 cent range, since anthems typically retail for 50% more than recorded songs.

Boy, was I wrong.

I finally received a response from Hal Leonard on September 19, more than five weeks after I’d submitted my request. This was their response:

Your request below has been assigned to me for processing. Because of our minimum per composition licensing fee requirement, the minimum number of copies we would be willing to license to you, if your request is approved, would be 101 which would result in a fee of $100.50. We do require payment up for a specific number of copies. Once you have sold that number you must submit a request for permission to sell more, pay a new fee, etc.

$100.50 for 101 copies computes to 99.5 cents PER UNIT, or a 50% royalty! I have no problem paying a fair price, but that is just outrageous. Now perhaps, if I was willing to pay for 1000 copies up front, it would be a good bit less per copy. I don’t have the patience to wait another five or six weeks to find out, and they didn’t bother to provide any other pricing. Even if it was less, there is no guarantee I’ll sell ANY copies. Hal Leonard wants all their royalties up front regardless of how many are sold, which means it could actually work out to a whole lot more than a 50% royalty per unit sold.

I read complaints all the time about songwriters and their publishers being done dirty by streaming websites like Pandora, Spotify, and so forth. Well, publishers aren’t entirely innocent either. Who can afford to take the risk to create a fresh product based on one of their songs if they want half of the retail selling price?

One reason you don’t see more songs in print is simply because the market dried up.

Another reason is junk like this.

They’re really working to help make money for you, songwriters! Perhaps your songs would be exploited more to a wider market if you self-publish and make your own print deals…just something to think about.

David Bruce Murray

David Bruce Murray is a church music director in Ellenboro, NC. He is the author of Murray's Encyclopedia Of Southern Gospel Music and the owner of both SGHistory.com and MusicScribe.com. David plays piano for Southern Sounds Quartet and the Foothills Community Choir.

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