Between 1994 and 1997 my choral works were rejected more than 50 times by nearly every major choral print publisher in the USA. Then, one day in 1997, at long last, I received that beautiful letter in the mail, informing me that my work would soon be published. Success! Finally! Now, more than 20 years and 700 published choral titles later, I want share with you part of my journey. Maybe you’re an aspiring composer, or maybe you are simply interested in taking a ‘peek behind the curtain’ of the print music world. Regardless of your reasons, please enjoy the following as I share with you my perspective based on my own journey as a choral music composer.
How much money do composers make?
The answer to that question is both simple and complex. Simply put, most composers (in most cases) make 10% of the retail sale price of their music sold by the publisher. I only know of a few exceptions to the 10% royalty rule, and that’s in the digital publishing world (Easychoirmusic.com pays its composers a 50% royalty rate). The current average print for a single piece of printed choral music is $2.25. That means the composer(s) will realize a total of $0.225 per copy sold. Now the complex part.
Not all composers work on this 10% split. Some of the more notable composers may have as much as a 15% take of the net sales price. In the scenario above, at 15%, the composer would realize $0.3375 per copy of their music sold.
How many copies of a single published piece of music are typically sold? Again, the answer to this question can be a little complex. The majority of choral print music publishers today will tell you that a piece selling 5,000 copies is very solid and that 10,000 copies is phenomenal. So, given the general 10% royalty rule, the composer(s) of a piece selling 10,000 copies at $2.25 per copy, will make $2,250. If the work has two compositional contributors, each contributor would be paid $1,125.
Many choral print publishers rarely see sales numbers anywhere near 10,000 units. For instance, if you are writing choral music for a collegiate print publisher, you are probably seeing sales numbers like 1,000 to 3,000 on a strong selling piece of music. There are exceptions to this, but they are extremely rare. See: Eric Whitacre and John Rutter.
Let’s go back to our royalty formula to figure out what a good and active choral composer might expect to make per year. Let’s say I’m able to compose 25 new choral works per calendar year. That would be just about one new choral work every other week, which would be very difficult to achieve. Let’s also suppose that my average work sells 4,000 units over its shelf life. Let’s also suppose that I work with a lyricist. Now my royalties are divided in half. 4,000 copies at $ 0.225 per copy = $900, split between composer and lyricist would be $450 per writer, per song. Consequently, each contributor would make about $11,250 per year in royalties as they produce 25 new works each calendar year.
I have contracts with 20+American publishers and their subsidiaries and a total of right at 700 choral titles in print. The most I’ve ever received in royalties in one calendar year was between $40,000 and $50,000. My highest selling choral work is “Nothin’ Gonna Stumble My Feet” (Gilpin/Parker) which has sold 150,000+ copies. I have one other piece, “To Love Our God” (Hayes/Parker) which has also sold well over 100,000. But, for every amazing seller like these two, I have 10 more choral works that have sold under 1,000 units.
One of the things we've fought for from day 1 of ECM is a higher level of compensation for our composers. 50% of every dollar spent here ends up right in the pocket of whomever authored the piece of music you bought. Let's take a look at what the math looks like if you publish your music with ECM.
Let's say you have the same 25 songs published with us, instead of traditional music publishers. Instead of 4000 copies at $2.25 a piece, let's assume you sell each piece to 160 choirs of 25 members each, since ECM sells pieces at a flat price to each organization rather than per copy.
Each License is $39.95 x 160 choirs
That means every piece would earn $6,392, with a 50% split of $3,196 going to the authors of the piece.
If you were to sell 25 pieces with ECM to 160 choirs of 25 members each (a general estimate to match the 4,000 copies we calculated for traditional publishing revenue splits), here is how the payment would be split:
Food for thought as you consider setting out to make a living as a composer - you better have other sources of income. There are very few making a living strictly as a full-time choral music composer. Most composers are also teachers, clinicians, church musicians, and concert artists.
But, it is getting better every day through lower-overhead methods such as digital distribution and self-publishing. If writing/composing is your passion, there are lots of ways to make it work; whether you're looking for part-time, supplemental income or a new career.
John Parker is a composer and lyricist who has had nearly 700 works published over two decades in the choral music industry. If you have any questions about composition, or being published through ECM, don't hesitate to contact us.