Letter to Cypress Composers

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A letter to Cypress Choral Music composers – reflections from Dr. Larry Nickel (owner and editor).  This letter is composer to composer – peer to peer. I’ve been through the gauntlet with choral music publishing since the 80’s.  (little did I realize that I’d be a publisher one day.) I’ve tried to retrieve my copyrights from 12 publishers over the last nine years – and keep them with Cypress. One publisher asked for six thousand dollars for the copyrights.

How did Cypress get started?

In 1989 Diane Loomer became enchanted with Allister MacGillivray’s “Away From the Roll of the Sea”.  She and her husband, Dick, were on the east-coast and peddled out to Allister’s home in Cape Breton for a meeting. They worked out an agreement with a handshake. Diane arranged the piece for her two choirs; the Chor Leoni men’s choir and Elektra women’s choir. These fine choirs toured widely and Diane received many requests for her beautiful arrangement. Upon request, Diane mailed out copies of her hand-written scores to directors across the country. Dick said, “Why don’t we print the piece properly?” Long story short; they created a publishing company and named it after the street they lived on – Cypress.

Dick and Diane had a huge heart for Canadian composers and wanted to provide them with a way to reach choirs. Over the years, an enterprise that began as a money-losing hobby became a significant publisher of Canadian choral music. Eventually Dick (a foot surgeon) and Diane, each leading very busy lives, needed someone they could trust to take over the company – and they treated me for breakfast one morning in 2009! I was singing with the Vancouver Chamber Choir at the time but I had written and arranged many pieces for Diane’s choirs.

Dear Diane passed away in 2012. Watch this tribute video if you are interested.

What can Cypress do for a choral composer?

There are close to 300,000 choirs in North America (watch this video) and choral singing is becoming more and more popular around the world. (e.g. China, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and Korea). Cypress seeks to give exposure of your music to thousands of choir directors. You might know of choirs and directors for us to contact and add to the mailing list. 

Musical Resources is a key distributor for Cypress Choral Music based in Toledo, Ohio. They print our scores to our standards. They send out sample packs of new Cypress music each year to many distributors. They set up display tables at major choral events including the ACDA conventions. (American Choral Directors Association)

Headquarters for Cypress is in Yaletown, Vancouver, by the sea-wall. I gave choral clinics to 63 choirs in 2013 (at music festivals, competitions, conventions, etc.) I am personally acquainted with many choir directors and music distributors across Canada – and Cypress music is presented at reading clinics each year. (e.g. Provincial Music Teacher conventions, Podium – Choral Canada, Long and McQuade, JW Pepper clinics, ACDA conventions, St. John’s Music, Leading Note, Leading Note, etc.)

Every two years Cypress is involved with Choral Canada’s big choral extravaganza called Podium. The National Youth Choir sings the award winning composition (Cypress publication) at the gala concert. We give reading clinics. Long and McQuade and other music retailers display our new publications on their tables.

Cypress Choral Music is unique is several ways.  We print on high quality, full size (8.5 x 11), off-white (cougar) paper – which is twice the expense of white paper. (This reduces glare reflection when singers are under hot lights – making the music easier to read.) We publish the work of Canadian composers (only) and regularly turn away submissions from outside the country. We allow directors to see the complete scores online – while most other publishers reveal only a page or two. In my experience, directors really want to see what the ending is like before committing to an expenditure.

What can Cypress not do for a choral composer?

Cypress cannot control which pieces are selected for choral reading workshops. Also, Cypress can do little about unscrupulous choirs copying music illegally. While we do our best to promote music, we can make no guarantees about the sales of any piece.

I always feel bad and even somewhat guilty when a piece does not catch on. Cypress loses money while the composer will surely be disappointed. Yet I believe that good music does not grow old. Music is our catalogue never goes POP (permanently out of print).

Low sales figures for a particular piece do not mean that the music is low in quality.  Reversely, high sales figures do not necessarily mean that a choral piece is high in quality. (MacDonald’s sells many burgers but that might not correlate with the food quality.) How wonderful it is when a well crafted piece of music sells well! Our website is being discovered by more and more directors – and by singers who recommend our music to their director.  I’m hopeful and encouraged. People often tell us that they love to explore our website for hours at a time; listening to good recordings while they view the complete scores.

Thoughts Regarding Successful Publications

Cypress has music in the catalogue that has sold over 100,000 copies. Cypress also has music in the catalogue that has sold less than 20 copies.

Christmas music: Did you know that many choirs give a Fall concert in late November and then try to pull a Christmas Concert together in one month? So polishing up the tried and true standards is a logical choice, considering how little time there is to rehearse. An audience doesn’t mind enjoying the traditional standards year after year. This is one reason why new Christmas compositions are difficult to sell. Likewise, music that is designated for any specific annual event has a small window of opportunity each year. On the flip side there is music with a timeless theme that can be sung any time of year and for almost any occasion. This piece by JD Martin (for example) has been performed at Christmas programs, graduations, Remembrance Day programs, at church, at school, etc.

It seems that certain Cypress publications just take off like a rocket while others languish. If a fine choir tours with a piece of our music, we invariably notice a boost in sales of that particular piece. (poor performances can have the opposite effect) The popularity of good music grows exponentially, from one listener to the next.  Jonathan Quick’s arr. of “Loch Lomond” has been Cypress’s biggest seller for many years. One needs to consider that Chor Leoni once gave an astonishing  performance of the piece at an ACDA convention – in front of hundreds of choir directors. It was like a seed that bore plentiful fruit immediately. Sixteen years later Cypress is still receiving orders for that piece from Australia, New Zealand and European countries.

Serendipity and lucky breaks; the right place, the right time, the right singers – This is one of my personal lucky breaks.

Successful publications keep a publishing company alive. Therefore – the temptation for a publisher is to target the “user-friendly” market. (see the pie-chart below) One of my own publishers told me that “We do not publish a piece of music unless the board is convinced that the piece will sell at least 5 thousand copies.” I do not concur with that approach. Since Cypress now prints on demand, we can afford to publish pieces that are intended for a narrower part of the choral spectrum. So, for example, the easy and popular Hockey Song (SATB) gives us the freedom to publish the more challenging Winter Sun (SSAATTBB).

Cypress desires to present quality options for all levels of choral singing; from singers who have never studied music in a formal way (and learn by rote) – to university choirs and professional ensembles. Singing, at any level of knowledge or ability, is one of the most worthwhile life affirming activities any person can do at any age.

Thoughts About Money

Caught your attention? There was a time when publishers needed to print 5,000 copies of a new piece to reduce the cost per item – and then make significant sales just to break even on the investment. As a result of that process, there are boxes and boxes of unsold sheet music wasting away in storage rooms and many publishers have gone out of business. I was told that the warehouse at Hal Leonard Publishing looks like the closing scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

A royalty of 10% of retail (for the composer) is standard among choral music publishers. (I have ten publishers and know this to be true) Allan Petker, owner of Pavane Music, told me that when one factors in the cost of recruiting/discovering composers, the audition process, editing, typesetting, design, printing, shipping and handling, advertising, traveling to conventions, renting display tables, etc. the publisher nets about the same percentage (10% of retail) from each publication. 

The contract we asked our composers to sign is quite standard for all choral music publishers. Note that we keep things short and simple. We want to be transparent.

Note that retailers normally keep 35% of the retail price. Cypress currently distributes to over 50 retail outlets. Also note that music retailers are in the business to make money.  So, the selections that they choose for choral reading sessions are generally very “user-friendly”, targeting community choirs.

SOCAN – the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada

Are you registered with SOCAN? I’ve visited with Terry O’Brien (the SOCAN CEO in Vancouver) several times. It’s possible that choral composers could get paid – not only for sheet music royalties – not only for radio play (should a station like CBC broadcast your piece) – but also for choir performances. In effect, a composer might be entitled to a small percentage of ticket sales from a choral concert. SOCAN is generally concerned with radio and television play. However, many choirs are now registering properly with SOCAN – performing in “SOCAN venues” – and paying annual fees, which SOCAN is required to distribute to composers. Terry told me that there are millions of dollars in unclaimed royalties waiting in the SOCAN accounts. This idea has been a long time in the making and there are many conditions that we can’t control.  However, if you are registered as a member, then Cypress can register your piece properly.  See your Cypress contract.  Who knows what the future holds? register here if you haven’t already. Please choose ASCAP (not BMI). The Cypress member number is 7645309.

Music Which is Ideal for Publishing

Ave Verum Corpus – the exquisite motet by Mozart – is user-friendly (in fact, my grade ten Junior Chorale performed it) – yet it is so well crafted that the finest choral groups in the world do not hesitate to program it. It is a three minute choral masterpiece.

Seemingly simple music can be very difficult to perform and seemingly complex music can be easy to learn and perform.  The secret is in the craft of voice leading.

What I’m trying to say: a fine composer does not need to lower standards of artistic integrity to write user-friendly music. It takes great skill to write an SATB choral gem which is accessible to most choirs.  One needs to be well acquainted with how the voice works and what intuitive voice leading is all about. Cypress looks for well crafted, very singable choral music that has something pertinent to convey.

“A flea on a hair on a wart on a frog on a bump on a log in a hole at the bottom of the lake”  might be a really fun song to sing, given particular circumstances. Fun and even silly music has its place in a concert and Cypress has lots of such music in the catalogue. We specialize in Canadian folk song. However, most music which survives the test of time deals with the profound questions of our existence. Nothing comes from nothing so why is there something? How did we get here? Do we have a purpose? These are the fundamental philosophical questions that composers have been exploring for centuries. Choral music is the most effective transcendent metaphysical way of exploring the possible answers or just expressing the wonder of it all. Music celebrates being alive and, according to Dr. Keith Hamel, good music benefits the community in many ways.

I recently gave a seminar to a room full of young composers at UBC.  Here is one of the handouts – “So You Want to Succeed as a Composer?”  Take a look, if you wish. It’s somewhat controversial, but I know of one composer who has it pinned on the wall above his piano!

The privilege I have of promoting your music is like a dream come true and I thank God for it. I’ve shared a meal with most of the Cypress composers. Please come over for a visit if you have the time and inclination.

my 5 cents worth – with gratitude, 

feel free to write me with your thoughts: larrynickel@mac.com

Dr. Larry Nickel

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