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Discovering Those Grammy Winners

Milwaukee’s Hal Leonard Makes Learning Songs Easy

Feb. 6, 2013
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Larry Morton
Milwaukee was once a city of breweries and heavy industry, but in the 1970s, as the old factories began to close, Milwaukee became the mecca for a different kind of commerce—sheet music. Although originating in Winona, Minnesota, Hal Leonard's corporate offices are here in town, and a company of modest origins has grown into the world's largest sheet music publisher. If their field sounds like a vestige from the era of parlor pianos and family sing-alongs, Hal Leonard president Larry Morton easily refutes false perceptions by pointing to a multi-million dollar business with hundreds of employees and worldwide reach. And Hal Leonard keeps growing. Just in time for this year's Grammy Awards, the company has rolled out the first batch in an ambitious series of music books focused on Grammy-winning songs. Morton is a man who loves his work.

The founders of Hal Leonard were musicians?

Hal and Leonard Edgstrom were dance band musicians in the 1930s—incredibly successful on the ballroom circuit. The Hal Leonard Orchestra was on the cover of Billboard in December 1941—just after Pearl Harbor...

We're all obsessive musicians at Hal Leonard! If you walk around our office, you'll hear discussions on Eric Clapton or Les Miserables or a Mozart sonata. The passion for music permeates who we are. People realize that we are real—real musicians who got into music publishing.

How did Hal Leonard become the world's largest company of its kind?

In 1970 several Milwaukeeans, Keith Mardak, his brother and a friend, pitched Hal Leonard on some ideas they had. They had very visionary ideas of publishing music books with audio and visual components for classroom settings. They became the Milwaukee office of Hal Leonard… In the 1980s Keith arranged a leveraged buyout of the original founders and Chappell Music, one of the world's largest music publishers. The company has exploded since then, innovating new ways to help people play—whether new methods or new formats or new ways to learn, including apps and ebooks. Whatever it takes to teach people to play music.

One thing to remember is how the music industry has evolved. It was once just sheet music but since the late 1800s we've seen player pianos and phonographs and on and on until iTunes. Sheet music increasingly became a specialty and the song rights holders began licensing out sheet music publishing to specialized companies—outsourcing that end of the business.

And from the Beatles forward, fewer and fewer songs actually began in written form. Nowadays we're the people who create the arrangements of songs on paper—or on screen. And the challenge is that the person who can notate the bass parts on a Red Hot Chili Peppers record is not the same person who can notate John Coltrane's "Giant Steps."

But still, Hal Leonard overtook many competitors…

We create more than anyone else. We don't just do one or two Les Miserables' music books. We might do a 125 different Les Mis books—one for solo piano, one for easy piano, for five-finger piano and piano duets—and on to similar books for guitar, orchestra, band and choir. By doing that we sell more and create more royalty earnings.

It's a lot of boutique audiences and you're the shopping mall of sheet music boutiques?


You've published quite a few books by Milwaukee musicians—Jack Grassel, Steve Cohen, Lil' Rev, Greg Koch…

And we employ a lot of Milwaukee session players for our audio books and DVDs. We work locally whenever we can. Lil' Rev has sold more ukulele books than any of us could have imagined!

Tell me about your Grammy songbooks.

Winning a Grammy is the ultimate statement of the importance of a song. We are launching a comprehensive series of books in conjunction with the Grammy Foundation, which has phenomenal data—historical records, great photos. The idea is a collectible set of books dedicated to Grammy winning and Grammy-nominated songs. There will be 60-70 altogether, including Song of the Year books arranged by decade, and books arranged by genre (country, rock, R&B), and Record of the Year books.

The Grammy folks are excited about it—it’s a way for them to put their brand out to musicians. We pay the Grammy Foundation royalties, which support music. Now, in the digital world of so much information, it’s easy for songs to get lost—to fall out of circulation. We’re excited that we are reminding people of great songs they’ve forgotten or introducing them to great songs they never knew.


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