Back Story: From Music and Film to Books—A Composer Takes on Publishing


Stan Zabka

As a professional songwriter and music publisher, my experience spans more than half a century. As a first-time author of Razz Ma Tazz: My Life in Music, Television and Film, I have found that book publishing is quite similar to music publishing, with this exception: To find a book publisher, an author most generally needs to align himself with a literary agent.

I also find that book publishing is a more “exacting” industry than music, in that once a decision is made to publish, a skilled team of in-house editors and designers and more are brought in and the work proceeds. That’s not necessarily so in music, where artists and managers, studios and recording executives may enter the picture, often causing delays and sometimes a total reversal of intent. One thing both industries rightfully have in common is the expected willingness of, even dependency on, the author or composer to actively participate, sometimes monetarily, in the marketing process.

When I first started out as a songwriter, I was fortunate to find a publisher who was hungry, who believed in my talents and eventually published my first song—a Christmas song, no less, the hardest of all to sell because of the short holiday season. Following Broadcast Music, the publishing rights changed hands three times, with varying degrees of success: first, Mills Music, then Gower Music, and then Gallico Music assumed control. But it wasn’t until I took over the publishing myself and assigned Warner-Chappell as sub-publisher that the song assumed its present stature. Today, “Christmas Eve in My Home Town” is 63 years young, boasts 19 recordings, vocal, choral and symphonic arrangements and is available on multitude digital platforms.

That being said, having chosen songwriting as a career, I needed a benefactor to sponsor me, or at least a way of earning a decent living. To support my music “habit,” I was able to find work with NBC, beginning as a page boy, later winning an Emmy as one of its directors. Being a published songwriter was not the end-all. I still found it necessary to invest in recordings and demonstrate my music to television producers strapped with meager budgets and even less music savvy. As a consequence, I reverted to what I called my “do-it-yourself kit,” taking out loans and journeying first to London and then to Paris, hiring string orchestras and conducting the musicians myself to keep the costs down (admittedly not my strongest forte). Gratefully, I survived the experiences and came away with some excellent recordings. Four television themes resulted, including the first “Tonight Show” and NBC Sports themes.

During my 24 years with NBC, Hallmark producer-director George Schaefer hired me to write the theme and score for his award-winning television production “Turn the Key Deftly.” Once again, due to budget restraints, I conducted the orchestra myself. Next, NBC producer George Murray hired me to write the theme for his documentary, Tornado, Xenia Ohio, 4:45pm, and I traveled to Nashville to oversee the recording. Because the session didn’t turn out as desired, I funded the recording myself at the Radio City Music Hall in New York. Mr. Murray’s production won both Pulitzer and Christopher Awards for excellence in broadcasting, and I earned my third peer award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.Zabka_cover

As I grew professionally, a major company offered me a recording contract, but I declined. Instead, I followed the example of Johnny Mercer and other writers and formed my own company, Palladium Records. Within three years, we had 26 distributors in the U.S. and Canada, had signed multiple artists and were considered promising independents in the business.

In 2006 I wrote my first book, A Long Line of Glory. When no publisher bought it, and having had no stomach to wage a battle in an industry of which I had little or no knowledge, I threw it in a basket. In Razz Ma Tazz: My Life in Music, Television and Film, I feel I have a better story. Today it is being marketed in five countries (that I am aware of) and is available on every iBook platform, including Amazon with its current, two dozen or more five-star reviews. That I am a published author is somewhat difficult for me to believe. When I walk into a bookstore it scares me to death to think I am trying to crash so huge an industry!

Stan Zabka is a veteran of two wars and an award-winning composer, musician and director who spent 22 years as an associate director with NBC, including five years with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and Perry Como on Kraft Music Hall. He and his wife Nancy have three grown children and live in Grass Valley, California.


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