MILWAUKEE – One of the biggest names in the music business isn’t from Los Angeles or New York City. It’s from Milwaukee. Hal Leonard is the world’s largest publisher of recorded music and is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2022.
If you’ve ever been in a band class, learned an instrument, or wanted to play your favorite song, you’ve probably used a Hal Leonard book in the process. He is best known for his early books. You can learn everything from guitar to djembe to a piano to a headset.
“We create thousands of songbooks and learning materials physically and digitally for people to learn to play music,” said CEO Larry Morton.
Beyond guidebooks, they create sheet music for Disney, Pixar and every major artist from Adele to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Beethoven to everyone in between. They don’t just operate in the physical world. Hal Leonard created the first online music company, sheetmusicdirect.com in 1997 – five years before iTunes even existed. She also owns the websites sheetmusicplus.com, noteflight.com and groove3.com.
“We’re a music company, and I think that’s the authenticity — you feel it and you can see it in our products,” Morton said.
With all those companies and other ventures, the company generates about $300 million in revenue each year.
The company was founded in 1947 by brothers Hal and Leonard Edtsrom. An office in Milwaukee was opened in 1980, which eventually became the company’s headquarters. While it has offices all over the world from England to Australia, it is proud to be a Midwest company.
“Yeah, it’s a little crazy right? Because you’d think the biggest music publisher in the world would be in New York or LA, but we’re here in Milwaukee,” Morton said.
The way Hal Leonard makes his songbooks might just be a musician’s dream job.
The company obtains the rights from companies such as Universal Music Group and Disney to be the exclusive rights holders for song arrangements. Arrangement is the note-by-note construction of the song. It is Hal Leonard’s job to create the arrangement for guitar, banjo, piano, big band, choir, and any other instrument so that others can play it.
“Oftentimes, we’re the first people to put those notes down on the page, if you think about it. (Bands) go into the studio. They record their jams and the song comes out. A lot of times it’s not written. Actually, most of the time it’s not written . We’re the company that does that,” Morton said.
When a new Taylor Swift song or album comes out, one person will listen to it. They will do their best to create an arrangement of that song. Then they will send it to an editor. The editor plays the song and makes corrections to ensure that the character of the song is preserved and is as close to the original as possible. Once approved it goes to press. This process will be repeated for different difficulty levels, playing styles and for a multitude of instruments.
“We’re going to do something that the New York Philharmonic would use, and we’re going to do things that the local high school orchestra would use,” Morton said.
Hal Leonard also prides himself on his speed in getting these songs out. Sheet music can be organized and published in just a few hours.
Take for example a pop musician who releases a song. It was released at midnight local time worldwide.
“We have a team in Australia transcribing overnight US time. When we come to this office the next day, they’ve done the transcribing. Our editing team cleans it up and by noon that day we’ve published it. it digitally on hundreds of websites,” said Morton.
Their extensive network of offices around the world allows the Hal Leonard team to maintain its dominance in the world of music publishing.
In the 75 years Hal Leonard has been around, the music industry has changed drastically. It has gone from CD recordings to streaming. The sound of popular music has changed from big bands to singer-songwriters. However, with all the changes, one thing remains the same – it’s all music. Morton said he plans to take the company in whatever direction music takes for decades to come.
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