Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Music Publishing: Looking to the Future

Music publishing is an exciting and fast-paced industry touching all our lives, whether as performers, composers, or music lovers listening in the car or in our favorite movies. Music publishers provide the conduit, the link, through which a composer’s or song-writer’s inspiration travels, allowing musicians and audiences to discover and explore different works. It’s a publisher’s job to disseminate as widely as possible the songs and the symphonies, the jingles and the jazz that we all so enjoy. 

Embracing the technology 

Publishing music has always been driven largely by both technological development and consumer behaviour, particularly in the multifarious ways through which music is delivered and consumed. Looking back, it is clear to me, for example, how publishers in the early twentieth century needed to respond (quickly!) to the mechanical reproduction of their music in then-new devices such as gramophones and pianolas. How were publishers and their composers to be paid for such use of their music? A new legal ‘right’ was the answer—the ‘mechanical reproduction right’—and from that rapidly followed infrastructures and processes to license and collect income from the soon-to-be ubiquitous availability and use of recorded and broadcast music. Oxford University Press, in the 1920s, was fast to embrace those new technologies commercially, issuing guides to ‘pianola repertoire’ and radio broadcasts, teaming with the BBC and Radio Times, and including gramophone records as components within some publications. Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, and we find ourselves still running that same race, keeping up with technological change and with the ever-hungry blanket consumption of music of all genres. There’s a near-constant need to find new solutions for delivering, monetizing, and protecting the music that we publish and into which so much inspiration, effort, and finance is invested. 

Image: public domain via Pexels.

My role as Head of the Business Operations team at OUP entails understanding and embracing new technology and maximizing opportunities, whether through licensing, new partnerships, or perhaps reviewing our back catalogue for materials that we can refresh and supply in different ways and formats, always ensuring that we have the required legal rights: copyright drives our work, but equally important are our agreements with composers, authors, and partners. Publishing music is a collaborative business. 

Music today flourishes in a digital environment. Composers create their music ‘manuscripts’ as digital notation files and, from these, publishers work to produce printed scores, orchestral parts for hiring, and new files which can be distributed and sold (and even streamed) online. Sound recordings are now made, stored, delivered, and consumed in digital formats. The joys of ‘digital’ are many: its durability, flexibility, and accessibility are all key advantages for music publishers and for the communities which make music. A conventional printed choral music anthology, chunky and possibly heavy for singers to hold, provides comprehensive access to a wide range of content in a fixed and immutable form. But, because the ‘content’ used to create that anthology is digitally based, it is now possible to split this up and easily supply individual items from such anthologies, allowing choirs to choose repertoire from the larger collection, in formats suitable for those choirs’ (or even for the individual singers’) needs. We as publishers informally call this process ‘atomization’: breaking the bigger publication down into its smallest useful components. 

‘Atomizing’ the collection

To give an example, in 2023 OUP issued the collection The Oxford Book of Choral Music by Black Composers (compiled and edited by Marques L. A. Garrett) as one of a select group of special publications marking OUP’s centenary as a music publisher. This celebratory collection is ground-breaking in its new and diverse content, and it also looks forward in opening accessibility to that content: a handsome printed anthology, yes, and many choirs continue to purchase it in that format—but of its thirty-five separate items, twenty-seven have also been made available separately to purchase as digital sheet music downloads. And of those twenty-seven, twelve are additionally available as printed sheet music ‘leaflets’. Much of the content is available, too, to browse and peruse free of charge on the Yumpu platform, making choice and selection a simple matter. In parallel, all of this is backed up by equally accessible sound recordings of twenty-five of the anthology’s titles, available (again ‘digitally’) as streams through Spotify—these tracks can be used for repertoire selection, for learning, or simply for pure enjoyment.   

The digital provenance of this anthology’s text and music notation files and of the audio recordings has clearly enabled the transformation of the Oxford Book of Choral Music by Black Composers from a traditional ‘single anthology’ concept into a flexible, convenient, accessible, and multi-component resource. Choirs are now even able to customize their own ‘collections’ from the bigger collection! As did our OUP predecessors with their pianolas and their gramophones, so today’s publishers embrace the new and the emerging technologies, working with platforms and partners, to ensure the widest possible availability of the music which we publish. In the digital environment that presence and access is now only ever a few seconds away—from anywhere in the world.

Looking ahead 

OUP Music’s centenary allowed us to reflect on the profound changes that truly impacted on the shape and the content of our catalogue—not only technological, but social, political, and attitudinal change, wars and conflicts, and (most recently) the immediate and wide-ranging effects of the Covid-19 pandemic (music publishing was first bowed by this, but then rose splendidly to the challenge of delivering and supporting music in new and creative ways). 

But what of the future? The next one hundred years? All that is certain is that the ‘technology race’ will continue, as will societal and other developments, and that music publishers will have to (and surely will) keep up. Artificial Intelligence is merely the latest technology development, but it’s already challenging creator communities in terms of both content and its use, and the underlying copyright (as did those pianolas one hundred years ago, which essentially used ‘artificial intelligence’ to create live piano performances in real time, the same performances over and over again). The sophisticated digital supply routes with which we increasingly engage—and whatever may replace them in the future!—will mean that the old distinctions between ‘selling’ and ‘hiring’ and ‘licensing’ music will probably disappear or become blended. Solutions will be found and will be designed to continue delivering, in the best possible ways and to multitudes of users, the increasingly diverse and always exciting music created by our writers—across the globe, and possibly beyond. 

Feature image by Kelly Sikkema via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *