Devilish Publishing Blog

Publishing your Own Sheet Music

by James McFadyen | Published: March 2019

Publishing your own sheet music has been a viable option in music for quite some time. It brings with much it freedom and control, but is all this control a good thing? Self-publishing may seem rosy and fulfilling, but many fall into traps which sink their dream and everything spirals out of control.

As the owner of Devilish Publishing, an enterprise I started in 2002 primarily as a self-publishing venture, has now grown and matured into a credible but small independent music publisher. These 17 years have taught me a lot; I’ve been thrown many curve balls, endured quiet months (yes, months!!) but I would like to impart some words of experience thus far. I take an unapologetic look at how you can make a success of publishing your own sheet music.

Advantages of Self-Publishing

  • Total control of all aspects of the publishing chain, process and licencing.
  • Freedom to release music other commercial publishers may reject.
  • Fast route-to-market; get your music out there quicker.

Disadvantages of Self-Publishing

  • Lack of market penetration/contacts.
  • Lack of expertise; commercial, music editing, B2B negotiation, licensing, SEO strategies, and much, much more!
  • Too much work, so little time.

Don’t be Complacent

The lists above are in no way exhaustive but paint an overview of the main points to note. The sharp-minded of you will have worked out that the benefits listed above are also disadvantages.

Having total control may seem like the ideal prospect, but you will need to be honest with yourself; you must be comfortable with total control and be able to make sound commercial decisions in a way that is far different to being an employee. Not everyone can "be their own boss", even though they might make great employees!

The freedom to release any music you want is an immediate perk. But be careful, you may end up spending money and time getting a piece of music to market that may not sell at the moment. You may need to think about your timing and to prioritise which of your pieces should be published at a given time. Suffice to say, you will need to market your current catalogue with the same appropriation.

Getting your music out into the market place quicker may mean that you are not spending enough time and resources marketing other music. Sooner or later, you will need to pull in the reins and remember you are not a big commercial publisher with teams of people doing dedicated tasks. Think about the big picture.

Lastly, too much work, so little time. Publishing your own sheet music will eat your time. If it isn’t, you are not doing it properly and should definitely work with a publisher instead of doing it yourself. Be sure to think about how much time you have to give to your new venture.

One thing I see from time to time is what I call self-distributing. You should be establishing yourself as a publisher, so it’s important to know the difference between publishing and distribution.

Owning Sibelius is Not Enough

This is a particular problem in music publishing. Composers who have software such as Sibelius or Finale believe that they can be the next publishing tycoon, or at the very least think, “how hard can it be?”.

For starters, music engraving and editing is a highly specialist art and it is very unlikely that you have the complete skill right now to produce a professional product to sell. It is one thing to run off copies for local bands to run through, but yet another to produce a full sheet music product.

You will need to spend much time learning music typography, learning the general rules but also – and more importantly – gaining a highly acute eye for detail. Books will get you so far, but music engraving is art of the eye. If you think you are a perfectionist, you are probably not in reality. In fact, being a perfectionist can get you in a bit of a muddle!

Humans will read over the same mistake over and over again. Don’t believe me? Wait until you have spent a generous amount of money having music printed only to find a silly but important mistake. It happens! And it happens because people can be careless; humans follow the path of least resistance, but you must learn to be meticulous and diligent. You will need to be honest with yourself every step of the way. I cannot stress this point strongly enough.

Publishing is a Long-Haul Game

There is no doubt that you need to think far into the future. You are in it for the long-haul and some music takes time to mature. Music released this year might not gain traction until next year or maybe even 5 years. Don’t be surprised if it’s 10+ years for some pieces.

Publishing is a notoriously commercial enterprise. Like it or not, it’s often about supply and demand. Self-publishing is often the direct opposite; you create both the supply and the demand. Don’t be fooled however, this way of doing things is not backwards at all. It is actually very smart. In fact, very, very smart. Steve Jobs didn’t go around asking people what they wanted from a phone. He made the phone people didn’t know they needed!

Think about it, how many publishers do you know that are supply-and-demand? Exactly. There’s a lot. Far too many. You won’t stand a chance against their way of doing things. If you focus on creating great music, you will build better credibility. Publishing your own sheet music puts you in an ideal position to be doing music for music’s sake. It will take time but it is worth it; this is the very essence of self-publishing. Music without the BS!

Top Tips to Get You Started Today

  1. Create interesting music. Be an ambassador for your idiom and set your own standards.
  3. Get your infrastructure sorted; a unique, snappy and memorable trading name (always check the .com web domain is available!), a website, Facebook page, YouTube channel, Google Analytics account, a business bank account and a PayPal business account. You will need infrastructure to start publishing your own sheet music properly. If you go into it half-hearted, you won’t last 5 minutes in this business.
  5. Don’t print the music yourself. I see some people do this in self-publishing ventures. The printing process is your manufacturing process and you will need to work with a professional printing company so it is done properly. But learn to be a printing and publishing guru; know your gutters from your margins!
  7. When proofing your music, you will need to do your main proofs in hard copy. By all means, be kind to the environment and print on low resolution settings, but it is not recommended to proof solely on-screen.
  9. Arrangements of music which is in copyright will sink your ship quickly if you are not careful. Publishing is about ownership of rights. If you acquire a licence to print your arrangement, you own nothing. You are not a publisher, just a distributor. Focus on owning copyrights! If you are lucky, you can licence those rights to third parties, for recordings, broadcasts, performances, adaptation print licences, etc.
  11. Go! Do it! Not tomorrow, not next week. Tomorrow never comes. Don’t wait on anything, don’t make excuses and don’t just put one foot in. Go in with both feet and start today. Keep it simple to begin with so you don’t get overwhelmed.

One Final Tip

Don’t succumb to the impostor syndrome. Everyone starts from the beginning. The people who succeed are the ones who never give up; you are worthy, you just need to be proactive and go for it, because no one else is going to do it for you.

About the author

James McFadyen is a prolific composer of instrumental music, including a sizeable catalogue of works for brass band.