Why is Sheet Music So Expensive (Sometimes)? - SchoolofComposition.com

Why is Sheet Music so Expensive, Sometimes?

The cost of sheet music and music books can be a surprise to new musicians. Not only do we have to save up for instruments, equipment, lessons and other devices but we also need to factor in the cost of books – especially sheet music. 

So why is sheet music so expensive? Sheet music is expensive because it costs a lot of money to produce. Many people are involved in the publishing of sheet music and they must be paid at every stage. Composing, engraving, editing, publishing, printing, shipping and selling at stores drive the cost of sheet music up.

Often there must also be money left over to cover ongoing royalties, too.

Making sheet music isn’t as simple as scribbling your ideas on a piece of notebook paper. Whether you are trying to buy sheet music or sell it to make a profit for yourself, there is a lot to consider. Today, we’ll break down the logistics and the cost so you can be better prepared for your sheet music purchases or your composing career.

So How Much Does Sheet Music Cost?

Now before we delve into the business of sheet music, let’s look at what kind of prices we are exactly talking about here.

How much does sheet music cost? The prices of sheet music range from a few dollars to hundreds of dollars. For example, this popular piano piece by Debussy is available on MusicNotes.com for $5.50.

Why sheet music is expensive - schoolofcomposition.com
Debussy’s ‘Clair de lune’ on MusicNotes.com

On the other hand, this music book featuring a collection of Hans Zimmer’s music arranged for Concert Band is at $77 over at JWPepper.com.

Why sheet music is expensive - schoolofcomposition.com
A collection of Hans Zimmer’s pieces arranged for band, at JWPepper.com

And just to show you how diverse the business of sheet music can be, you’d need to apply for a license from Universal Edition to access these written pieces:

Why sheet music is expensive - schoolofcomposition.com
Arvo Part’s 2 Lullabies over at UniversalEdition.com

These big differences in the pricing of sheet music depend on the nature of that music. With the Debussy piece, there isn’t that much work to be done. Since the composers died in 1918, his music is in the public domain. What you’re paying for there is a little bit of editing (copying the music and making it look nice to read) and online delivery.

With the Hans Zimmer collection, however, many more people are involved. Not only is the composer a contemporary one but the arrangement is for band. That takes a lot of time and skill from a professional arranger (who, like the composer, is also living and has bills to pay). That price is further justified because it includes all the parts – that’s all the separate sheet music for every individual instrument. You’d also be getting a physical copy so there are printing costs involved.

So the world of sheet music can be really diverse. Let’s take a deeper look at the logistics and understand why sheet music is expensive, sometimes.

The Cost of Creating Music

As a composer, it will be your job to create new and unique music for others to enjoy. Aside from people listening to your music being played, there will be musicians itching to buy your sheet music to learn the songs, too. You’ll need to be paid for your hard work if you want to make composing and songwriting a career. And that starts with the creation process.

Some composers are paid by the hour, but this isn’t typical. Hourly pay for songwriters is generally reserved for the very well-known and proven talents in the composing field. More commonly, composers are paid by the completed and accepted piece. This is a good way to get your name out there.

Since most people will be paid per finished piece, that means you will basically be working for free until the composition is completed and accepted by the publisher or client. It’s in your best interest to work quickly to maximize your profits, but you also must balance speed with care. A shoddy, clumsy piece will not sound very good when played, which means less money made from royalties and sales of sheet music. Remember you want to build a reputation for great work. 

When considering the cost of actually creating the music, composers must also think of the time it will take them to complete the work, what the costs include (such as electricity for recording equipment or powering instruments), and the cost of living during this time. If the price of the music doesn’t make them a profit, it will be a very short career.

Reading and Playing Sheet Music: Why Sheet Music is So Expensive? -SchoolofComposition.com
Reading and Playing Sheet Music: Why Sheet Music is So Expensive?

The Cost of Creating Sheet Music: The Physical Goods

Once the music is composed, it’s time to turn it into the official sheet music itself. This can be done in a few ways, but the easiest and cheapest for most composers is to sell it to a publisher. 

Selling Your Music to Publishers

If you decide to sell your music to publishers, they’ll do the rest of the work for you. That means it’s hands-off for the composers once a publisher steps in. This is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that your job is done and now you get paid.

The curse is that not all publishers are trustworthy. Publishers can do whatever they wish once they buy the rights from a composer. That means your music may end up edited and significantly changed from what you first sold them.

On the flip side, you no longer have to worry about the continuing costs of getting the sheet music out into the world. The publisher will be responsible for editing, printing, shipping, distribution, and then paying you royalties. You don’t need to worry about anything at this point except making more music and selling it to the next publisher.

Self-Publishing Sheet Music

If you choose to publish the sheet music yourself, you will be required to pay the costs yourself. Depending on your intended audience and your ability to reach far-off clients, you may be in for a huge bill or a small one.

Before sheet music can be sold, it will need to be edited. Sheet music editing is a highly specialized skill. It’s not the same as text editing, such as you might see for novels or articles online. Music editors can be quite expensive. If you don’t already know an experienced music editor, this part of the process can eat into your potential profits.

The next cost would be the layout. These professionals are like typesetters in the book world, but with music instead. Again, these typesetters and layout artists are specialized and will cost a pretty penny. You may be able to learn this skill on your own and save yourself some money. However, many DIY composers make the mistake of thinking they can do layout and typesetting on their own, only to find the result is subpar. Don’t undertake this task unless you have a good teacher and are confident in your skills.

The next thing to consider when pricing sheet music is the cost of printing the physical sheets. This could be as cheap and attainable as printing at home or hitting the local print shop. However, these home-produced sheets are generally not of high enough quality to net composers a good enough profit. You’ll need to contact printers who specialize in music and then choose which paper, ink, and print methods work best for your budget and your vision. This can be extremely pricey, as many printers require a “short-run” on each item. That means a large quantity printed all at once.

The problem with the short-run method is that you’d have to sell literally hundreds or even thousands of copies to make your money back. If you can’t sell them, your unsold sheet music will need to be stored in a dry location that won’t let the sheets be damaged.

You will also need to factor in a book cover. A great book cover is a great marketing tool so don’t underestimate this part. Unless you do it yourself, the price of professional covers range from a few hundred dollars to beyond!

Shipping and Distribution

A hidden but big reason why sheet music is so expensive comes in the form of shipping and distribution costs. We’re in the age where you can go online and buy anything, anytime, almost anywhere. Most people don’t think about the logistics behind that kind of shopping.

Just like DVDs, books, or the latest kitchen gadget, sheet music for sale online has to be stored somewhere. This may be a warehouse, a music store, or even just a composer’s own garage. No matter where it is, storage costs money. It also costs money for someone to get the sheet music you ordered, package it, bring it to the post office or delivery people, and then to cover the cost of the trip.

All of these hidden costs are then added back into the final price of the sheet music. 

The Print-on-demand Route

There is of course, the option of print-on-demand. That means that a book is printed as soon as it is ordered. While this saves money on storage, there still needs to be people who process the order and the printing. As we said, anyone who is involved throughout this process needs to get his or her share. 

Sheet Music Books

One way around the high cost of sheet music and the expenses of making it is to buy or create sheet music books. These are the most economical way to make and distribute sheet music for composers. For musicians, buying a whole book can be far cheaper than buying individual pieces. Sure, you may end up with songs and pieces you don’t want or need right now, but the discount you’ll likely receive for buying the whole book is worth it. Besides, you may end up playing some of the other songs and like them anyway.

Sheet music books can be mass-produced much faster, easier, and cheaper than individual pages or pieces. This has more to do with the printing world than the composing, so we won’t go into the details here. Suffice it to say, if you’re a composer planning to sell your own sheet music to musicians, consider making an entire book and not just individual songs. It’ll cost a lot less money, which means more profit for you in the long run.

A Word on Sheet Music Royalties

One other hidden aspect to the cost of sheet music has to do with copyrights, royalties, and everyone getting a little something from the sale. 

Many composers who sell their rights and their songs to publishers will sign contracts that state they will receive royalties—or a small piece—from every sale. In order for publishers to make any money at all on sheet music sales, they’ll need to add that promised royalty to the cost of the sheet music in the first place.

In simple terms, if you’re paying $20 for a sheet music book, only a fraction of that is actually going to the composer in the form of royalties. The vast majority of this money goes to the publisher and the printer if you can believe it!

Rarity

Up until now, we’ve been speaking mostly of new and modern sheet music and the associated cost, but what about classics? Some of the rarest sheet music can go for hundreds of dollars. Even music that’s in the public domain and well out of copyright restrictions can cost an eye-watering amount.

If you’re a lucky composer, you may find that one of your songs becomes so highly coveted that you end up paying your rent with just those sales! But this is rare and it tends to take decades for songs to reach that level of popularity and rarity.

Online Free Sheet Music

Thanks to the internet, pretty much everything is available for free online somewhere. That includes free sheet music. While it’s nice to find exciting new music to play for free, it’s important to see where the sources are. Was this music put online by the composer or publisher? Or is it pirated and shared illegally?

This matters because composers and musicians already make such a small amount of money for their work, it’s really not okay to steal from them. If you find free sheet music online, please do some research to find out if it’s stolen.

Conclusion

As a musician, it can be frustrating to see the rising prices of sheet music. As a composer, it can be disheartening to see just how little profit you could make if things don’t go so well in the market. It’s important for both sides of the sheet music world to understand the other. Musicians need composers to make music for them to play, and composers need musicians to buy the music they make. When we all understand the view of the other, it’s much easier to accept the high cost of sheet music.