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Milwaukee based Hal Leonard, world's largest sheet music publisher, celebrates 75th anniversary

The largest sheet music publisher isn't in Los Angeles or New York City. It's in Milwaukee.
Posted at 5:34 PM, Aug 25, 2022

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 print music publisher, and it 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 probably used a Hal Leonard book in the process. It's best known for its beginner's books. You can learn everything from guitar to djembe to a piano to a dulcimer.

"We create thousands of songbooks and instructional materials physically and digitally for people to learn to play music," CEO Larry Morton said.

Hal Leonard CEO
Larry Morton has been the CEO of Hal Leonard since 2016.

Beyond instructional books, they create sheet music for Disney, Pixar, and every major artist from Adele to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Beethoven to anyone in between. They don't just operate in the physical world. Hal Leonard created the first online sheet music company, sheetmusicdirect.com in 1997 - five years before iTunes existed. It also owns the websites sheetmusicplus.com, noteflight.com and groove3.com.

"We're a musician's company, and I think that authenticity - you feel it and can see it in our products," Morton said.

With all those companies and other ventures, the company generates about $300 million in revenue every year.

The company was founded in 1947 by brothers Hal and Leonard Edtsrom. A Milwaukee office was opened in 1980, which eventually became the company headquarters. While it has offices all around the world from England to Australia, it's proud to be a Midwest company.

Brothers Hal and Leonard Edstrom
Brothers Hal and Leonard Edstrom created the company Hal Leonard. They both played in a big band back in the 1930's.

"Yea it's a little crazy right? Because you would think the world's largest music publisher would be in New York or L.A. But we're here in Milwaukee," said Morton.

The way that Hal Leonard makes its songbooks might just be a musician's dream job.

The company gets the rights from companies like Universal Music Group and Disney to be the exclusive rights holders to the arrangements of the songs. The arrangement is the note-by-note construction of the song. It's Hal Leonard's job to come up with the arrangement for guitar, banjo, piano, big bands, choirs, and any other instrument, so that others can play it.

"Oftentimes, we're the first people to put those notes onto the page, if you think about it. (Bands) go into the studio. They record their jamming, and out comes the song. A lot of times it's not written down. In fact, most of the time it's not written down. 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 the character of the song is maintained and is as close to the original as possible. Once approved it goes to the presses. This process will be repeated for various levels of difficulties, styles of playing, and for a multitude of instruments.

Sheet Music
Sheet music books from Hal Leonard.

"We’ll do something that the New York Philharmonic would use, and we do things the local high school orchestra would use," Morton said.

Hal Leonard also takes pride in its speed at getting these songs out. Sheet music can be arranged and published in just a matter of hours.

Take for instance a pop musician publishing a single. It's released at midnight local time around the world.

"We have a team in Australia that transcribes overnight U.S. time. When we come into this office the next day, they’ve done the transcription. Our editorial team cleans it up, and by noon that day we’ve released it digitally on hundreds of websites," Morton said.

Their expansive network of offices around the world allows the Hal Leonard team to maintain its dominance in the sheet music publishing world.

In the 75 years that Hal Leonard has existed, the music industry has changed drastically. It has gone from records to CDs 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 on ushering the company into whatever the next direction music takes for decades to come.

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