Sonya Kim walks the circular corridors inside the American Baptist Church building on North Gulph Road in King of Prussia. Known as the “holy doughnut,” the passageways lead to additional office space and a 25,000-square-foot warehouse. In 2006, Theodore Presser Company, a chief tenant here, doubled the size of the space to hold 50,000 titles—six million copies of music in all.
A Main Line institution, Theodore Presser sells sheet music to students and professionals alike. Titles are for sale or rent. When its copyrighted music is performed or somehow used, Presser gets a royalty beyond the rental fee, as does the composer. It also actively promotes the music of composers with whom it has rights.
Once stored vertically, all the com-pany’s holdings are now cataloged and kept on flat, state-of-the-art shelves and rolling racks, proving you can teach an old dog—even the oldest continuous independent music publisher in the United States—new tricks.
Since Theodore Presser closed its last retail store two years ago, business has spiked. Kim, the company’s 33-year-old CEO and president, credits new computer software, the launch of a website and subsequent online sales for the recent success. For years, Presser was straight-laced. It was old and old-fashioned—and it never sought publicity.
“We’ve changed, but we haven’t changed,” said Haverford’s Arnold Broido, Presser’s 87-year-old co-chairman and previous president, who passed away last October after interviews for this story.
After Broido had a heart attack in 1994, his youngest child, Tom, took over. Kim came along in March 2006. A graduate of Harvard Business School, Kim found an ancient company at a pivotal point. Korean born, she first arrived in the United States at age 16 to study music and economics in New York City’s Columbia-Juilliard Joint Program. A pianist, she never sought a career in performance. “In six months, I could make decisions that would position this company for the next 50 or 100 years,” Kim says. “For me, it’s what lured me to the job. This is a dream job for me.”
In addition to its own catalogs, Presser represents the music of some 50 refined American and foreign publishers. Until the recent overhaul, it represented more than 100 others. Judith Ilika, director of performance promotion and one of 50 company employees, caters to the 50 or so active living composers the company represents. She’s a tireless traveler and promoter in their name. “It’s a very solitary business,” she says. “They present, perform, audition—and critics make decisions in five minutes about a piece they’ve poured their heart into. Even the best composers need a friendly face.”
The company’s goal has always been to add composers, but composers who had “something to say,” Broido said, “and the wherewithal to communicate it.”
Company founder Theodore Presser is remembered as the publisher of The Etude, a groundbreaking music magazine, and a philanthropist for music education. With a background of study at the New England Conservatory in Boston and the Leipzig Conservatory in Germany, along with experience as a college music instructor (he founded the music department at Ohio Wesleyan University), Presser was sensitive to the needs of music teachers. His plan was to readily and inexpensively provide teachers with necessary materials—music and practical guidance, plus information about the international music world.
In October 1883, with $250, Presser began publishing The Etude in Lynchburg, Va., where he often taught at Randolph Macon College for Women. At first, The Etude was a modest 10-page paper, but it was instantly successful. The success prompted him to seek larger facilities in Philadelphia starting in 1884—first on Chestnut Street (a location that included a retail store) and later in Bryn Mawr (1956-2001), before the move to King of Prussia.
Presser didn’t intend to become a publisher. His need for music to sustain The Etude led him to secure and publish new music in the magazine and elsewhere. “He saw himself as an educator,” said Broido. “But when he set up the magazine, publishing was inevitable.”
Presser printed just 2,000 copies of his first edition of the magazine, which featured an advertisement for LaDuke in France, a music company his enterprise still represents. He established contacts with the world’s most musically influential, and “he, too, became an important person,” Broido said.
In December 1918, subscriptions totaled 217,805. By 1923, staff at The Etude and the music company totaled 342.
The publishing house was so successful that, in 1906, Presser expressed his appreciation for those who made it possible—thousands of music teachers—by establishing what was then called the Presser Home for Retired Music Teachers.
That philanthropic zeal continues through the Haverford-based Presser Foundation, which he began in 1916, nine years before his death. It remains one of the few such organizations dedicated solely to the support of music appreciation and education.
In August 2004, the foundation sold the music company. Now, Presser is also associated with New York’s Carl Fischer, another major American music publisher. The same private owner—whose name is kept confidential—owns both.
It’s through Theodore Presser’s acquisition of the Oliver Ditson Company in 1931 that the company traces its origins to 1783. That was the year Batelle’s Book Store (later Oliver Ditson) began a music publishing business in Boston.
“Over the years, we bought out many others (among them, the John Church Company in 1930),” Broido said. “We were an attractive magnet, and it allowed us to acquire a very large catalog of private music—but also educational, choral, bands and orchestra.”
By the 1970s, George Rockberg was hired as music editor, and he added serious contemporary music. That “brought the company into a well-rounded condition,” said Broido.
Broido grew up in Long Island, N.Y. Like Kim, he studied piano, earning a scholarship to Juilliard and graduating in 1936. But in his “16-year-old wisdom,” he, too, decided he didn’t want to “travel
the country carrying around his dirty laundry.”
In other words, Broido didn’t want to be a career performer, either. At Ithaca College in central New York, he studied to be a music instructor, going on to a teaching job in nearby Binghamton. When World War II began, he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, where he organized an onboard band at sea.
After the war, Broido worked as an editor and production manager for various publishers in the music industry, raised three children, taught wherever and whenever he could, and became vice president of the Rockville Center School District in Long Island.
“The music department was vile,” Broido said bluntly. “I caused all kinds of trouble. I found a music teacher who taught clarinet, but who held the instrument with his hands right-over-left (instead of left-over-right). After that, they’d see me coming and they’d all duck.”
When Presser came calling, he met with the board at the Union League in Philadelphia. Two days later, he had an offer to become company president and left New York, where he’d been working for Frank Loesser of Guys and Dolls fame.
“I can honestly say that no one had a job he enjoyed more. I worked for men who always said how wonderful I was,” Broido said. “I was brought in to stir the dust out of the old doldrums.”
Broido’s role in the company back then was not unlike Kim’s today—though the industry has changed drastically with the advent of technology. These days, copyright protection (beginning in the 1970s) consumes an inordinate amount of time and energy.
Broido, who was also treasurer of the American Society of Composers and Performers (ASCAP) and an ASCAP Foundation and National Music Publishers Association (NMPA), predicted many of the current woes. “Boy, was I right,” he said. “What we were was an educational and paper-based company. Then we became more of a performance company. But now, we’re a copyright industry, and no one knows what will happen next in the digital-rights world.”
Broido remained skeptical about the government’s role in regulating the issue. “Congress and its copyright office say they’ll solve it. They say, ‘Move on,’ but no one knows what to do,” said Broido. “Anyone can transfer anything, digitally, anytime. We say it’s theft, but no one believes it. They say, ‘What do you mean? It’s on my computer.’ The industry has spent millions trying to educate, but no one thinks they’re stealing.”
“We do some chasing,” Kim admits.
Even so, Broido saw music publishers as the closest thing on earth to angels. Of all the arts, he said, music is the one that endures from one century to the next—just as the Theodore Presser Company has.
“Music is what we all want to fulfill our lives,” said Broido. “It’s not even that it’s a language of its own. It’s direct communication.”
To learn more about the Theodore Presser Company, visit presser.com.