Music publishers losing ground to the unauthorised web

(N.B. The Google searches referred to in this post were conducted on Sunday 10 July 2011, using google.co.uk. Your mileage may differ.)

This post began as I was conducting some background research for writing an entry on the composer Rebecca Saunders for the Oxford Dictionary of Music. Saunders is still young enough that most of the reference books that I have to hand are not much use, so I turned, as you do, to the internet. And when I searched for “Rebecca Saunders” on Google, it didn’t bring up her publisher website on the first page of results. In fact I couldn’t find it on the first five pages. I know it’s there, which is the only reason I clicked even this far, but I decided to change tack rather than wade any further.

I know who Saunder’s publishers are, so I could have gone straight through their website I suppose – but why try to remember that URL when Google is almost always quicker. Yet even more remarkably, a search for “Rebecca Saunders Peters Edition” also didn’t score a page 1 result. In fact Saunders’ page at Peters didn’t appear until halfway through the second page of Google results. (And then it is the German page at http://www.edition-peters.de.) Even setting aside the unbeatable page rank of Wikipedia and Facebook, a search so specific for a composer’s publisher website should yield better results than this, surely?

And the problem isn’t confined to Rebecca Saunders who, let’s admit it, has a relatively common name: although she is the dominant “Rebecca Saunders” on Google, several hits on the first few pages of my search concerned other people entirely. But how about Brian Ferneyhough?

Incredibly, much the same thing happens again. The first Peters hit for a search for “Brian Ferneyhough” is on page 3 of the Google’s results, and is for a pdf of their life and works brochure for the composer. Very useful, but not the page itself. On page 8 we find a pdf of Ferneyhough’s programme note for Allgebrah. Finally, at the top of page 13, we get there: Ferneyhough’s page at Edition Peters USA.

Unless artists choose to represent themselves online – which is of course fine –publishers should be their first line of public representation. The publishers are, after all, the managers and promoters of that composer’s output, and thus responsible for their front of house presentation. Anyone who might have heard Rebecca’s music and is intrigued to find out more can do so through the internet, but is going to have to pass the attractions of many unauthorised sources (Wiki, blogs, YouTube, filesharing forums, etc) before they reach the authorised information put out by the publisher themselves. (Assuming they get that far at all.)

I don’t know if this is a problem exclusively confined to Edition Peters. I’ve done a few tests with searches for composers of other websites with mixed results. But Ricordi and Boosey & Hawkes have to be pretty pleased with this first page from Google:

So despite the relative weight of YouTube etc, it can be done (although Wikipedia seems undefeatable on almost searches these days). The question is, if publishers really do want to do the best for their composers, shouldn’t they be doing better at this? Some urgent instruction in SEO may be needed. As things stand, publishers risk losing Google ground – and therefore authority – to unmanaged, unauthorised and even unlawful alternatives. This doesn’t serve either them, or the composers they represent, well.

Update, 20 July 2011: Marc Dooley of Edition Peters responds: “Firstly with regard to SEO – we know, it’s broke. We have already been working on a fix and I hope you’ll see better results soon.” He’s been good enough to expand much more in the comments below; do read.

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29 comments

  1. A couple of years ago I wanted to buy a couple of scores by a quite famous german composer from the catalogue of an international publisher: I was so surprised to find out that they just weren’t interested in selling them at all! It took me many emails (apparently bothering them) insisting in the fact that the scores were indeed in their catalogue and I would of course pay for them, to get their blessing for me to give them my money for their products!

    • Pedro – I can quite believe that. Some publishers are better than others (some much better), but as the gatekeepers and copyright holders for so much contemporary music I am becoming increasingly concerned at how little they appear to do in return for that power, particularly when it comes to public access and information. This is only the first of several posts I have planned on this subject.

  2. Thanks John.

    All my searches were via google.co.uk, which I’ll clarify at the start of the post.

    I knew about the English language Saunders page of course, but that registers even further down my results: the German page was simply the first one I got to when searching UK Google. (Which is stranger still.)

  3. I’ve worked quite hard to make sure that the composers I represent come up high on google rankings, and almost all of them come up on the first page, or at least http://www.uymp.co.uk does. Different publishers have different priorities. In some cases uymp.co.uk is not the first link that I want people to find: if someone doesn’t really know about a composer, it’s quite good if they find youtube first, or a composer’s personal website, as long as it’s not impossible for them to then find the publisher (or, in UYMP’s case, our distributer musicroom.com).

  4. See, I WOULD suggest they don’t deserve the 50% they get in most (all?) countries. They seem to do little or nothing to promote, other than answer a phone if it rings, which most composers, despite our obvious social failings at times, can be motivated to do if there’s money or performances on the line, and still manage not to drool or curse into the phone. SEO isn’t rocket science, with little (no) special effort or tricks, I own the first several results on google with a website, facebook fan page, bio page, etc. On his blog, John Mackey makes a far more convincing case for self-publishing than I can.

  5. and now, this article will top the goggle charts for the keywords you mention. isn’t it the composer’s responsibility to have a good, heavily referenced web site? i mean aren’t the revenues shared by the publisher and the composer?

  6. Good post Tim – and something I think about a lot – it baffles me that so few composers have their own personal websites still (even those like me of the “internet” generation) – but there lies the problem I think – Older editions like Peters just don’t seem to have got their head around the importance of online presence and the idea that you need more than just the website itself to generate internet traffic and promotion. However on the plus side it does leave the market wide open for bright young things to take over… (looking at you UYMP)

  7. Going back to Rebecca Saunders’ (and B Ferneyhough’s case), they both have Graham Hayter (formerly of Peters London) as their agent who takes care of promotion, commissions etc. This is all about personal contacts with orchestras, festivals etc rather than online promotion and traditionally is one of the key roles of the music publisher. In the US especially, it’s difficult to access the world of orchestras and other big institutions without a publisher.

    • I agree totally, and this post certainly isn’t meant to diminish the good work of Graham Hayter and others like him. But I do think that online representation needs to be a substantial supplement to the traditional face-to-face work that goes on: it’s the best way to inform/promote to an audience outside those already in the know.

  8. It seems as though music publishers, like much of the rest of the “old guard” of classical music, is really terrible at using new media. If publishers really provided the best and most useful information in a clear and engaging way, they would get more incoming links, which in turn would cause them to do better under Google’s Page Rank algorithm.

    You say that you were doing research, but I would guess that results that came up earlier in the Google listing would have been more helpful. I understand that you were looking for a specific page that you already knew existed, but for research, the algorithm is “right” to give you the best information. I agree, though, that the publishers should try a lot harder to be the site that has the best information.

  9. The funny thing about the Edition Peters page and their disastrous SEO work is you find in the footer a link that says:
    Ardent SEO Surrey.
    They have done a terrible SEO work, but with this link, Peter’s page is giving pagerank to the company so badly improved their web optimization.
    For anyone interested in the matter, every page on the works of the composers should have, at least, a scan of the cover of the CDs, and a brief description of the pieces.
    Empty fields, like “Details:” or “Content:” are a terrible symptom to Google, who starts to believe it is dealing with an automated content generated website.

  10. I agree with the points made in the article, and am happy to report that here at Universal Edition we are very happy with our search results (page one if not position one for most if not all of our main composers). Of course, the more historically significant, the more difficult (Stockhausen, Berio etc.), but that’s life. It’s important for us to introduce people to Mauricio Sotelo, Vykintas Baltakas, Luke Bedford etc.

    The philosophy of our new website (launched in March 2010) was very simple: publish interesting relevant content regularly, well formatted (both visually and technically). Google has obviously rewarded us for this. It’s hard work, and we still have a long way to go, but it works. Traffic has increased dramatically.

    Google is becoming a little problematic in the way that it presents personalised search results by default, so my results are different to yours, based on our previous activity (whether signed in or not). My No. 1 could be your No. 11. With some fiddling, we can work round this.

    Wikipedia is one of our strongest referrers, so we welcome their high position in the results.

    It is the way forward. We still have a huge amount of excellent material locked up in cardboard boxes here, so we’re going to be at this for years. And yes, we’re on Facebook and Twitter too.

    Liza: Many thanks for these encouraging words. Any suggestions for improvement are of course always welcome.

    • Dear Jonathan – thanks for the reply. I didn’t happen to check any UE composers while putting this together but that’s just because other names sprang to mind first. But I agree with Liza – UE’s new website should be applauded, and I’ve got a lot of use out of it recently. (I’m a personal fan of the ‘Ensembles that have played this work’ detail that’s on the page for each piece.) I’m glad to hear it’s getting you results.

      I’d forgotten Google’s personal search thing, which probably does unbalance these results somewhat.

  11. Thank you Tim. We appreciate it. I’m glad you like the “Ensembles that have played …” thingy. It was a bit of a leap, but it works, and it’s completely automatic.

  12. I’ve noticed these issues myself when casually trying to look someone up – trying to find info on performers can be similarly frustrating. One point on Wikipedia though, it’s pretty likely that an article there will use publisher/agent bios as a reference or they’ll be linked to under external links. Certainly the case for Rebecca Saunders. This can be one of the most convenient things about Wikipedia, however stubby the article, if it hasn’t been deleted there’s likely to be a highly relevant set of links embedded within it. Though looking further, I see the link is broken in the case of Saunders…

      • I don’t think it will actually as I believe Wikipedia links are tagged “no follow” to make it hopefully a less valuable target to spammers (though many of them are so dimthat they don’t realise this).

  13. This is a troublesome subject; I think Liza(Lim) has a very realistic handle on the subject, since, after all, this is a matter of business and most importantly, a composer’s livelihood. Unfortunately, the notion that a publisher is the face and rep. of a composer is a very outdated (by about 15 years now). With technology today most composers, including composers of a ‘certain stature’ are self-published, frequently in part if not entirely.

    I know many composers who have played the major leagues in publishing for years and are refusing to continue with the old stand-bys – BooseyHawkes, Peters, et al, because those consistently fail to extend their catalogues to customers. From the performance perspective, many customers can’t afford the price of a score or rental from the “Big League” publishers, so the works go unperformed in favor of attainable scores. In some cases performers are able to get updated scores for less money direct from the composer – which is a better situation for the music itself anyway. A publisher who is unable to provide a reasonable service is nothing short of a detriment to a composer’s livelihood.

    What’s more, as pointed out above, publishers frequently don’t have any idea what is in their catalogue. A friend of mine researching Kagel found that Universal lists items they claim Peters has and vice versa – in the meantime those scores have gone entirely lost and neither agency seems interested in the items, even though their loss means those works go unperformed (i.e. no income for the publisher), never mind the musicological horror of missing works. I used to manage a well-known US composer’s library; he himself assumed that publishers would be the repository for his work, but when the US Library of Congress asked for a full-copy of his library, the publishers not only didn’t have scores they advertised and claimed publishing rights to, my mentor had to spend the time and money to track down copies himself. In some cases, these scores simply weren’t to be had. And the publishers didn’t really seem to care. I can’t express the overall anguish we all went through realizing that seminal works from this man’s career simply no longer existed.

    My feeling is that music publishing on the large-scale serves a certain purpose, and for some composers may work well. But more and more avant-garde and contemporary composers are publishing their own work and retaining the full rights to their scores, performances, and publishing rights – and in the meantime controlling (in a positive sense) their output.

    In any case, if a composer is living, it makes the most sense that the composer’s website should be the first hit, and the publisher would be linked to that. AFter all, isn’t the most valuable resource a primary resource?

  14. Nicholas – thanks for the extensive reply. I agree with a lot of what you say, but I think I see the chicken/egg situation the other way around. In other words, if there is any justification at all for publishers’ existence (and the fact that they hold and control the copyright on many composers’ works means that the public is entitled to seek such a justification), it should be as representatives, public face, etc.; the fact that some of them are failing in this responsibility is an indication that they need to buck up, not, I think, an indication that the idea of music publishing per se is redundant. As you and others have pointed out, there’s still a lot of value to be had as a composer by being published by a venerable house.

    The stories of inadequate cataloguing etc are still more disturbing, since essentially this indicates that copyright ownership (and the gatekeeper role that goes with that) + administrative incompetence is leading to the loss and neglect of cultural heritage. Say one thing for the pirates: they never fail to match supply to demand.

  15. Pingback: Copyright vs curatorship: music publishers and the cultural commons | The Rambler

  16. I think Michael’s point is important here: it’s about generating a number of points of contact, such that they are mutually supportive. The chances are that between a personal website, a publisher website, wikipedia, an agent, twitter, facebook, turning up to things and generally making an effort your work will get out there and people can find it. I agree that it’s partly an issue of control over what is available, and that an expansion of a composer’s presence can create problems with consistency, but if the main resources are regularly maintained, then it should work OK.

    I’ve just recently switched to a WordPress site in an attempt to improve my knowledge of who is looking at the information I post. So far it’s working well, and the tracking is helping me develop some new ideas about representing what I do online. I seem to have been vying for #1 on Google with the playwright for whom I am a namesake for sometime now (give it a go!) – I do regularly get requests for information about my plays even though the other JS died in 2004! This switch was largely motivated by hearing Tim and Felix Ford (thedomesticsoundscape.com) talk at an event in Oxford last month – it made me realise what a static personally-hosted website misses in terms of engagement with visitors and interaction, hence the switch.

  17. Pingback: Copyright vs curatorship: music publishers and the cultural commons | The Rambler

  18. Hello Tim,

    Thank you for your post and to others who have commented here as well.

    Firstly with regard to SEO – we know, it’s broke. We have already been working on a fix and I hope you’ll see better results soon.

    My contacts are: marc.dooley[at]editionpeters.com / 020 7553 4034 (dd). I’m happy to talk to anyone about any issues they have experienced with our service. I would take very seriously indeed any communication to a customer that something we hold the rights to is unavailable, unless there is a good reason for it not being available at a particular moment.

    If you’ll allow me to expand more generally on the Peters web situation. The Peters corporate structure was until recently nightmarishly complicated with some annoying practical results. Few people realize or (understandably) care that until late last year the Edition Peters Group was comprised of three entirely independent companies with three different shareholder groups but linked by mutual trading agreements. (There is a fascinating story why this is the case – I recommend Irene Lawford Hinrichsen’s “Music Publishing and Patronage – C.F. Peters 1800 to the Holocaust” to give the background to this.) Operating as we did with separate lists and, because of the legal structure, often necessarily competitively, we each invested in individual websites. But the web landscape that informed their development has changed profoundly and we are abundantly clear that a new resource is needed. The most crucial step in this direction has been the completion of a 25-year project to unify the Edition Peters Group as one company under a single shareholder group and a single management. For your interest the shareholders of this new unified Group are a mixture of Hinrichsen family and the Hinrichsen Foundation (which is the majority shareholder). The Foundation invests all the profits that it receives from the company back into more or less exclusively contemporary music projects (there is a very occasional music scholarship project as well).

    What we are now developing is a new web presence for the Group which I hope will address many of the things you raise. It is a large project and requires substantial investment. UE has been rightly praised for the work they have done to get their website to the high standard it is – it took them some time too, and they didn’t have the background complexity in terms of company structure.

    In the meantime we have taken steps to improve access to the wonderful music we are proud to publish. For example in the following web pages relating to Peters composer events which offer completely free access to important scores (anyone can sign up to our newsletter and receive regular updates on Peters composer activity and be directed towards such resources via e mail. Send a note to: newmusic@editionpeters.com)

    http://www.editionpeters.com/london/ferneyhoughtotalimmersion.php
    http://www.editionpeters.com/london/ninerivers.php

    You can expect more of this kind of thing in the future as we have already made investments into new services that will be implemented in due course. I hope this might demonstrate an ongoing commitment to making available the works we represent in an accessible way.

    You know where I live, so if you want to talk to me about this – the door is open.

  19. Just like to take this opportunity to say that Marc and his team have been nothing but helpful on a number of occasions when I’ve needed information on their composers, and have phoned or emailed for clarifications. Even when I was an undergraduate student, they took the time to answer just about all of my questions so thank you! As much as I love researching on the internet, sometimes you just have to pick up the phone.

  20. I’m not a composer or performer or academic, but as a audience member, looking for basic performance information can be aggravating.

    I like to travel to hear rare operas and orchestral pieces. To use UE as an example (I’m not picking on them, this happens at Schott and B&H too): starting in February each year, I look up Boulez, Birtwistle, Janacek, Schoenberg, Schreker, Szymanowski and Zemlinsky and go to the “Future Performances” page.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen an announcement of a production on an opera company’s website and it will take 3 months to show up at the UE site, *if it shows up at all*. That it should take 3 months for an announcement when opera productions are planned years in advance is crazy. When it does show up, often time each performance has its own listing, so if there’s 9 performances of “House of the Dead” in Bern, you get 9 listings. It makes the pages cluttered and tedious to search through.

    German opera houses are just as bad. The season starts in September and they don’t announce the new season until almost July (hello Stuttgart!). Or they do list it in April, but the productions only have the first night date listed or the overall calendar has only the next month listed.
    Since a lot of German companies will spread out performances of productions over many months and not in short runs, this can be maddening.

    • Hello Henry,

      I rather think you answer your own point by mentioning that some German houses don’t publish their new seasons until the summer (think of the notoriously late Proms for example).

      To be honest, I’m delighted to hear that people use the UE performance database like this; it’s certainly encouragement to continue entering all our performances.

      We currently have 1505 future performances listed on our website, which I think is pretty good going. We receive the season brochures from all opera houses and concert halls, and dutifully enter all the performances of our works we come across. In addition, we enter every performance for which hire material has been ordered. We simply cannot afford to pro-actively hunt for performances on the internet, so rely on the programmes we get sent (we do however keep track of the programmes we’ve received and chase those missing). Of course, when we come across something on the internet, we do try to make a point of adding it.

      Yes, you will see nine entries for an opera if there are nine performances. That’s by design, to make sure every performance is mentioned. I’m afraid that we have no plans to change this.

      Apologies if we’re not always as fast as we would like to be, and do feel free to nudge us if something is conspicuously absent, or if you have any other suggestions.


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