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Business of Music

February 2022 post “Orchestration 2”

January 2022 post “Orchestration”

December 2021 post “Music Manipulations”

November 2021 post “The Instruments of an Orchestra”

October 2021 post “Orchestra Types”

September 2021 post “Soloists”

July 2021 post “Programming”

June 2021 post “Good Performance/Bad Performance”

May 2021 post “Good Music/Bad Music”

April 2021 post “Meaning of Music”

March 2021 post “Hearing 3”

February 2021 post “Hearing 2”

January 2021 post “Hearing 1”

December 2020 post “What to listen for in music”

November 2020 post “Early History of Conducting”

Music Business images

Is this an oxymoron??? Isn’t music about creativity and freedom of expression? Well, yes it is. But in today’s world, Music is also a commodity, requiring many forms of protection and control. And thus… “the Business of Music”!

So, at what point in time did music become a “business”? I guess, you could go all the way back to court jesters and musicians – hired artists to please nobility. We certainly have record of musicians being paid, notably in the Church (the Mother of Music). Musicians of the highest level were contracted to work for Kings and Bishops. Later, when travel developed, musicians could “hit the road” on tour.

The point, though, of this article is to highlight the many ways that “business” impacts music and music impacts business in today’s world. Let’s begin with copyright.

How business impacts music

This is a large topic, deserving of several articles on its own. However, in short, this is the story. U.S. Copyright law began in 1790 and gave creators of “intellectual property” control over their own work – but not forever. Many revisions of these laws took place over time. We are most interested here in the changes that occurred in 1976. While there are many complications to these laws, on a simple level, the changes of 1976 increased the protection of “intellectual property” to either 75 years (total) OR the life of the author plus 50 years.  Previously, the protection would often run out, even when the composer was alive. So, some business-savvy composers would make slight alterations to one of their works which was about to lose copyright protection (and therefore placing it in “public domain” (PD) where anyone could use it for free). Igor Stravinsky did this to several works, which begs the question “Which version is THE definitive version”?

Copyright laws

Copyright laws can cover the way music is physically printed (for piano, voice, guitar, bands, orchestras…) exactly as the composer composed it, as well as physically printed music of these same pieces “arranged” by people other than the composer but with the permission and approval of the original composer.

Copyright laws also cover the way music is performed (royalties, which are paid to the copyright owner), both live and broadcast (live streaming via various media) performances (each with their own laws). Copyright laws also protect composers’ rights when music is recorded for sale (CD, Cassettes, Vinyl, DVD, etc.)  Think of how often you experience music that has been previously recorded for your enjoyment: “elevator” music, movie soundtracks, and radio. All of these require specific laws to ensure that creators of intellectual property receive proper remuneration for their work.

It goes without saying that, sadly, copyright infringement is rampant, and that various industries and lawyers need to be engaged to police and adjudicate these violations of copyright law. Licensing agencies such as BMI and ASCAP allow frequent users of music to purchase various licenses, including single “one-time” use or an annual “blanket” license (each is carefully crafted to meet the needs of a particular user, based upon size of hall, size of audience, ticket prices, size of budget of the organization, etc.).  


The business of music also includes all types of formal contracts. These contracts can be for short-term hire (a one-night “gig”) or a “full time” job (as with professional orchestral musicians). Unions often come into play, regulating working conditions. In my formative years, I was working with the “Music Under the Stars” program here in Milwaukee County. Most concerts were outdoors. Our administrative office had to be in close communication with the Milwaukee Symphony union steward regarding rain, temperature and even spraying for pests. Obviously, expensive musical instruments need to be protected.

Further, with the complexity of the music business, “managers” make their living by acting as agents on behalf of their musical clients. It is no secret that, for the most part, musicians are not well-suited to the business world. Good managers can protect their clients from financial ruin and offer a stable working environment.

Large recording companies have been created to create LPs (Long-Play vinyl records) and CDs (compact discs).  These businessmen (and women) routinely seek out talent and set up recording contracts, betting that they will make a lot of money on some “unknown” talents.

Largest Print Company

Locally, Milwaukee can boast being home to the world’s largest print music company (I DID say “world’s largest”) – Hal Leonard Publishing. The company began in Winona, Minnesota and moved to Milwaukee in 1985 under new ownership. Many local musicians have worked (and still work) at Hal Leonard. I spent over a decade as editor and arranger there.  

Music Careers

Think also about how many music talent shows are on television: “The Voice”, “America’s Got Talent”, and so on. These businesses make money by attracting and identifying big talents which can then be marketed for profit. It can be win-win (for businesses and for performers), but I think we know who makes more money in these shows.

Think also about how much music is used to support and sell things, like movies, TV shows, cartoons, commercials, “hotel and doctor waiting room” background music, and more.

I taught at a college for over 25 years. We taught music to musicians. Only recently did we consider offering information about the business of music. Some music schools now not only offer courses in the business of music, but even full degrees in the field! The world of “Music Business” is here to stay!

© Copyright 2022 Michael Kamenski, Milwaukee, WI. All Rights Reserved.