Art First

The Composer’s Guide has fallen a bit by the wayside over the past year, but it’s been very much in my thoughts of late. I’ve been doing a lot of research into various business and marketing topics as they relate to publishing fiction and nonfiction, and I’ve come across a lot of ideas that are applicable to the field of concert music. While I may not have many/any full-on Guide posts in the coming weeks and months, I may try to put out little postlets like this one, if only to continue putting some of my thoughts out into the world.

Be warned: I use the words “product” and “market” a lot in this post.

Since starting the Guide several years ago, one argument that keeps popping up in certain quarters is that the introduction of business techniques into the arts will inevitably cheapen the art: composers will start writing “to the market”, and concert music will be increasingly dumbed-down.

What the Guide advocates (and which every other writer on entrepreneurship in the arts that I’ve read advocates) – which I may not have made sufficiently clear – is an Art First approach: Art first, Business second.

In other words, composers should write the works that they feel compelled to write on an artistic/emotional/intellectual level regardless of what they think will “sell.” It’s only after the work is completed that they should attempt to find performers and an audience (a market) for that work.

The writers who I follow most closely on the topics of business and marketing in the world of fiction/nonfiction advocate this same approach. Johnny B. Truant and Seth Platt, in their excellent book Write. Publish. Repeat., relate their philosophy on this very topic. During the writing process, their job is to write the best novel they can so that they can be proud of the work that they are putting out into the world. Their art comes first. However: “Your written product stops being about you, your needs, desires, and emotions as soon as the writing is finished. Then it becomes a product, and you must treat it as such. Products must sell, and in order to sell, they must be positioned in the best possible way —even if that way doesn’t totally jibe with your own personal artistic feelings. That’s not always easy when those words feel like your babies —things you slaved over, loved, and gave birth to. But you need to take a step back, and if it won’t work for readers, you must be able to see that and act accordingly.”

More simply: “Write for you, then act in the best interests of the market and your reader.”

Put into terms of concert music: If I’m commissioned to write a choral piece, I’m going to write the best damned choral piece that I can. I’ll take into consideration the technical limitations of the ensemble that has commissioned me, I’ll consult with the director on the text that I’ll use, and I’ll do my best to adhere to requests for a particular duration for the piece. And then, within those constraints, I’ll write what I feel the need to write – for myself. A work that I will be proud of. Then, after the piece is finished, and it’s engraved and publication-ready, the work of art that I’ve created will also become a product in my catalog of works, and I’ll treat it as such. At this point, my job – as my own publisher – is to market this finished piece so that it comes into the awareness of as many appropriate ensembles as possible. How I’ll go about doing that is a topic for another day: Ethical Marketing.

Outside of commissioned works, I may make calculated decisions as to what type of instrumentation to use in order to position myself within an underserved market or a market with significant opportunities – concert bands, in particular, spring to mind – but these are works that I want to write for myself. The quality of my work will not change, nor will my musical language, only the instruments that I’m working with.

A number of the comments that I’ve received on my writings, and that I’ve seen on the writings of others who advocate for more entrepreneurial thought in the concert music world, are along the lines of, “This works fine for composers who write accessible music, but what about those of us who don’t?”

This is a legitimate question, and the answer is: this approach will still work for you, but you can’t expect as large of an audience. Absolutely do not change what you’re doing to suit what you think “the market” wants – that’s artistic suicide. Yes, your audience will be smaller, but they’ll be just as enthusiastic, provided that your work is of high quality.

And I should add: writing at a high level of quality, with a solid grasp of your craft…that’s the one assumption that I make throughout my writings on these topics. You must write well – anything less is unacceptable.

Back in fiction-land, a novelist who writes legal thrillers will, by the nature of the genre that he writes in, have a larger target market than, say, someone who writes Westerns. The writer of Westerns may not have as big of a readership, but they will be loyal to him so long as he continues to write to the best of his abilities. He shouldn’t start putting wizard vampires who are into BSDM in his books because he thinks it will sell more copies.

Although this is more a part of the Ethical Marketing discussion: for composers whose works are less “accessible”, I think it’s a safe assumption that you’re also a consumer of similar works by other composers. You’ll pay to go to concerts featuring music in a style similar to yours, and you’ll pay to buy recordings of music in a style similar to yours. While you’re a part of the larger concert music community, you’re also a part of a smaller community who values and actively searches out this style of music….Find these people. They are your audience. They are your market.

You may have a harder time convincing consumers of more “accessible” styles to listen to your works. Similarly, I’ll have a harder time convincing consumers of less “accessible” styles to listen to mine. I’m not going to change my style to “pander” to an audience that doesn’t enjoy what I feel artistically compelled to write, and neither should you. And similarly, a larger or a smaller potential audience doesn’t make one style more or less valid – merely more or less popular or more or less rarefied.

And to briefly address the idea of “cheapening” concert music…. Because concert music is predicated on a high level and quality of musical thought, the field would have to undergo a massive transformation in order for poorly-composed works written “for the market” to gain any sort of significant foothold. Although there are fads and passing fancies that may portend doom to some, I place my faith in composers, performers, schools, organizations, and genuine lovers of concert music to continue to value quality of musical expression, and to pass on to each new generation of musicians an appreciation for high musical standards.

To sum up: Every piece you write should be the best that you’re capable of. It should be a work of art that you’re proud of, and that represents your truest voice. And once it’s finished and ready to go out into the world, it becomes a product (and no less a work of art) for you to market to performers and listeners who will value what you do. Wear your composer hat while you’re writing, and then your publisher hat when you’re trying to sell your finished works. Keep your marketing hat away from your writing chair: that way lies madness.

Art first, Business second.

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