Co-opetition

Co-opetition.

I came across this term recently, and it’s a concept that I really like. A portmanteau of cooperation and competition, it rather perfectly sums up my philosophy on working with other composers: yes, we’re in competition to a certain degree (there are only so many pieces that can be performed on this or that concert, only so many projects get funded through NMUSA, etc), but the nature of our field is such that by working together and pooling our resources, we can create more opportunities for all of us.

It’s for this reason that I love the idea of composer collectives. Ideally, everyone in the collective has something to offer to the group – connections, a special skill set, etc – and each member is responsible to some degree for promoting the group’s interests. By pooling their intellectual, artistic, and financial resources, the collective can put on concerts featuring the music of its members, or they can use those resources to make commercial-quality recordings of their works, amongst other possibilities. An individual might have a difficult time organizing such endeavors on their own – and may find it impossible to come up with the funds -, but a collective can spread the responsibilities and financial burden across its entire membership.

Similarly, I’ve been thinking lately about the idea of composer-run small presses.

A collective of composers could easily found a small publishing company for its members. Each composer could be held responsible for different tasks within the company – tracking sales, marketing, bookkeeping, outreach to performers, proofreading and editing the scores, etc. Whereas a single self-published composer would be responsible for all of these things, and may have a difficult time keeping up, this scenario would allow each member to be more focused on one or two tasks to which they’re well-suited, which ultimately leaves more time for composing.

Off the top of my head, I can see this working in a handful of ways:

1) The composers could pool all of their works in the publishing company, and allow the company to create (essentially) imprints. The imprints could be by composer, where each member has a brand that is a part of the whole, but slightly distinct; or it could be by instrumentation, where vocal music, choral music, chamber music, and large ensemble music are separated out, which could make marketing much easier, since each imprint would be focused on a particular segment of the performing world.

Mock-up for similarly branded imprints in a publisher’s catalog

2) The composers could pool only particular types of their works in the publishing company, retaining publication and distribution rights to the remainder of their catalogs. This allows the publishing company to narrow its focus to a particular market, and would probably be most ideally-suited to choral or band works.

Although I don’t know the inner workings of the group, the Independent Music Publishers Cooperative (imp.coop) seems to operate in a manner similar to the latter form. (Although I think that each composer publishes their own works, and the group acts as more of an umbrella for the sake of publicity and resource-sharing.) The composers in the group all write a significant amount of music for choirs, and they’ve found a way to increase the visibility of their individual members by pooling resources. The group is a fixture at choral conferences – they always have a booth with racks of music, which is much more affordable to manage when everyone pitches in. I saw them in action in 2013 at the national ACDA conference, in Dallas. Everyone took shifts manning the table to handle sales, and at least one of them would be hanging out by the racks, ready to answer questions and offer suggestions based on a director’s needs. Invariably, the composer-on-dutyr would reach for a piece by one of the other members of the group, saying, “You’ll love this one,” or “I think this would be perfect for your group.” The composers look out for one another. As a consequence, they strengthen their bonds to one another, and they add to the stability of their company, which benefits everyone, financially, personally, and artistically.

A small press, of course, would require that the company license the works from the composers, as well as set up royalty rates. While I wouldn’t recommend that the company own the rights to the works that it publishes (as traditional publishers do), it should probably have an exclusive license to publish them for a finite period of time. (Limiting the length of time that the company has exclusive rights allows the composers and the company to re-evaluate royalty rates on a regular basis, as well as whether or not the composer wants to continue to participate in the company and/or collective, amongst other considerations.) Granting the company exclusive rights creates an incentive for the composer to promote the company/collective. A percentage of the profits would stay within the company, and what the individuals “lose” by not receiving the full profit from their score sales, they gain in the ability to present concerts or produce recordings or go to conferences with the collective, which they otherwise might have difficulty doing on their own.

However, co-opetition doesn’t require any formal agreements or formation of a permanent or semi-permanent group to be useful.

Two of my friends, Clint Borzoni and Philip Wharton, recently paired up to put on a concert of their vocal music. Together, they hired musicians, booked a recording engineer, rented a performance space, and promoted the concert. If each had put on a concert of his own music individually, the individual costs would have been much higher, and the risk of not making back the investment would have been a much more significant consideration. But by banding together, Clint and Philip were able to mitigate the risk because each brought their own set of ticket-buying audience members to help offset the costs. Their goal wasn’t to break even, but to put on a concert that they could be proud of, and to have some solid recordings of their vocal works to use. It was a great concert, and a complete success.

I recently started a new feature in my newsletter where I link to a piece by a composer I like: I spend a few sentences telling the people on my list why I like that particular piece or composer, and why I think that they’ll like it, too. The composer may write in a style similar to mine, and we may be “competing” for performances by the same performers, but it doesn’t hurt me to promote their works. Also, since I know my subscribers, I know that they appreciate learning about a new composer or a new piece. It costs me nothing but a few minutes to type up the handful of sentences and link to the audio, but it’s positive for everyone involved.

StoryBundle is a great example of co-opetition in the world of fiction. Each bundle centers around a particular genre, and every author that signs on to be a part of a bundle encourages their mailing list and followers on social media to check it out. The author hopes for sales on the bundle because each sale is earned income for them. Driving their readership to the bundle is partly an act of generosity – readers who buy a bundle get at least five books by other authors, as well, which is a huge win for readers, and it also helps the other authors -, but when all twelve writers drive their lists to the bundle, each writer is seen by the lists of the other eleven, which greatly increases their own visibility. Everyone wins.

Co-opetition is predicated on the idea that “a rising tide lifts all boats”, but with the added benefit of that tide having been generated by the collective efforts of the boats themselves.


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.


The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Web Series: Part 1. Hubs & Outposts

In the current landscape of the arts in general and concert music in particular, Internet savvy has become something of a requisite for having a viable career. However, it can be confusing, with all of the different platforms for on-line interaction, to know how to proceed.

Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, Soundcloud, Google+, LinkedIn, and of course your personal website — all seem vaguely promising for letting people know what you’re up to, drumming up interest in an upcoming performance or a new recording, and general audience-building. But the thought of using more than one or two services – and devoting the time that it seems like you should to each one – can be a daunting task, especially for those who aren’t as Internet-savvy as they’d like to be.

A friend of mine would frequently lament that it seemed like he should join Twitter, but, “How does one have the time?!”

So how do you prioritize your on-line activities as they pertain to your career?

A few considerations

While there’s no tried-and-true, one-size-fits-all approach to how an artist can make her Internetting as effective as possible, I would say that a personal website is de rigueur for anyone with aspirations of having a career that involves people finding your work and doing something with it, be that purchasing copies of the work, performing it, commissioning new work, or just listening.

Beyond that, you have to start asking yourself a few questions.

Question One is quite simple: Do you have the inclination to do the whole social networking thing? If your answer is “no”, then you probably shouldn’t bother. If you think it’s not worth your time, then it really isn’t. Unless you’re willing to put in the effort, you’ll only be wasting your time. However, if you think that you’re inclined but “don’t have the time,” then you need to figure out if your lack of time is real or imagined – and if it’s imagined, it may be that some part of you knows that you’re not actually inclined, but that you think you should be.

If you’re actually inclined, and expect that you’ll find some enjoyment in engaging with performers and listeners who you’ve not met in meatspace, then you need to figure out to what degree you’re comfortable intermingling your personal and professional lives in a public forum, as well as some other considerations, which I’ll tackle in the coming weeks. A lot of this won’t be new information to the more web-savvy among you, but it can bear repeating.

But regardless of your general social networking strategy, it’s important to be aware of the concepts of Hubs and Outposts, and how the hub-and-outposts method of on-line activity can help you to cut through some of the anxiety.

Hubs

With very few exceptions, your website will be the Hub of all of your on-line activities. The core of your efforts will be centered here, although you may put more day-to-day time into other outlets.

Your website should be kept up-to-date with all new works, performances, recordings, press, bits of news, etc. But most importantly of all, you should have full control over your site: you own the domain name, and you have the ability to add content and change the design at will (although this may involve having someone on call who can do the updates/changes for you). Your website is not bobcomposer.wordpress.com or billwritesmusic.tumblr.com or musicbykatie.wix.com. By all means, use WordPress or Tumblr or Wix to build your site, but get your own damn domain name – they’re not expensive.

If you’re overwhelmed by the options you have for domain name purchasing or web hosting, start by asking people who have websites what they’ve done, and what they like/don’t like about their hosting. I currently own five separate domain names and operate another two for clients from my central hosting account, and have worked with over a half dozen hosting companies in my experience as a web designer — I’m always happy to answer questions, too.

Keep your website the center of your on-line activities. If you blog regularly, make sure that the blog is a part of your site, and not hosted elsewhere, so that the blog readers can easily navigate to the rest of your site.

Outposts

Outposts are sites where you’re likely to find listeners or performers who may be interested in your music. The big ones, of course, are Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc.

You won’t have as much control over your Outposts as you will over your Hub – you won’t own the domain, you’ll have limited control over design, and in some ways you’ll be competing for attention with all other users of the platform. However, discoverability becomes easier, and you can rely (to a degree) on sharing/retweeting/reblogging features to help spread the word about you and your work.

Your website doesn’t naturally have any reliable traffic, but your Facebook and Twitter profiles, once you start to connect with other users and make regular use of the platform, will. You can and should make use of that traffic to draw visitors to your website.

Driving Traffic

The primary purpose of your Outposts is to drive traffic to your Hub. Each of your outposts should link to your website — in the About section of your Facebook page or profile, in the Bio section of your Twitter account, in the description of your Tumblr blog, in the contact info for your LinkedIn profile — so that anyone who finds you sufficiently intriguing can learn more about you.

Every time I publish a Composer’s Guide post, I link to it from Facebook and Twitter, and the majority of my traffic for the next few days is from these two sources. I do the heavy lifting on the website — writing the post — then let my friends and other followers help to spread the word after I let them know that the new post exists.

Similarly, when you add a new work, or a significant blog post, or a new recording to your site — anything that your site visitors would be interested in — you should mention it on social media to drive traffic to your Hub.

The visitors may be returning ones who are just catching up on the new content; or they may be entirely new to your site, and will hopefully spend time poking around and learning more about your work. (More on how to track this and improve on it in the next few posts.)

This small effort on your part has the effects of 1) making your site more easily discoverable to new visitors who may have seen one of your posts or some else’s repost of it, and 2) minimizing your existing listeners’/fans’ efforts to keep up with your works and career.

Where it’s easy to lose hours of your time is in duplicating your efforts across multiple platforms — posting an important bit of information in full on Facebook and Google+ and your website — rather than having a centralized location for your core activities. Links with minimal commentary are easier to share than full-fledged posts and rants that belong on your website.

Of course — and more on this later — exhortations to visit your site aren’t (and shouldn’t be) the be-all and end-all of your Outpost activities. Establishing yourself as a human being is just as important, and posts with broader applicability and interest should outnumber your posts evangelizing about your latest project.

Platform Death

Another reason to make your website your Hub is in case of Platform Death.

Back in the day, when personal websites weren’t the norm, it was common for composers to use MySpace as their hub. Uploading music and video was relatively easy, and users had some control over the look of their page (though we all remember how terrible most pages looked). It was a way for musicians to have an on-line presence without having to dish out hosting fees or navigate the domain registration process, which wasn’t as streamlined as it is today.

You could put your MySpace URL on a business card, and people were impressed with your initiative and tech savvy. You had an on-line presence, and you didn’t have to pay for it, or work very hard at it.

Then came Facebook, and the average MySpace user fled to greener pastures with less eye-wrenching, animated backgrounds and no auto-playing audio. Suddenly, musicians with a MySpace page were behind the times, and many scrambled to adopt the new platform, which wasn’t as well-suited to promotional efforts — especially not to posting static media.

All of these musicians were victims of Platform Death. They put their eggs in the MySpace basket, and the basket broke. The site is still in operation, but few musicians use it, and even fewer listeners take it (or the musicians that rely on it) seriously.

By owning your domain and hosting your files through a reliable web host, you insure yourself against Platform Death. A self-hosted WordPress site will be viable for years to come, even if new versions stop being developed. A custom-coded site is even more secure so long as you know how to update it, or your web person is willing and able to continue working on it. But even if you own your domain, a site hosted by Tumblr or Wix could experience Platform Death if the companies shut down or the platform becomes unpopular or the developers let the platform languish.

Now, that’s not to say that if you currently use one of the latter or similar platforms to host your site that you should run screaming from them. But be aware that you’re more at the mercy of the companies that own the services than those who go through a regular web host. I have a friend with a very elegant website that’s hosted on Tumblr, and one of my own side projects has a Tumblr-hosted site. I keep my ear to the ground about the viability of the platform, and I’m sure he does, too. I also know that if Tumblr suddenly became as uncool as MySpace, or their ToS changed to be less friendly to copyright holders, I could migrate to another service or build a site from scratch, and only lose a day or two in the process thanks to my nine years of experience in building websites. Others may not be so lucky.

Friendly Reminder

Just as your administrative and promotional efforts are on behalf of your music, your outpost activities promote your website as the central repository for knowledge about you and your work (which is, in turn, in service of your music).

I write the Composer’s Guide here, taking time away from my composing to do so. One of the things that has kept me going in the past is feedback from readers – in the comments, on Facebook or Twitter, or via email.

And since I provide these posts for free, I always appreciate a tip in the tip jar below if you feel like you’ve learned something from the posts. Or, if you can’t manage that, sharing the post on social media is always much appreciated.

Thanks!






Untitled

In preparation for the upcoming NY premiere of Only Air this Sunday (learn more about the performance here, and buy tickets here), I thought that I’d post a few thoughts about the piece, inspired by the questions that Garrett Schumann sent me to help prepare his upcoming article on several socially-conscious works that will be published on the NewMusicBox. (I’ll provide that link when the article is posted.)

Only Air takes the form of an art song with orchestral accompaniment (or in Sunday’s case, chamber ensemble) with five brief instrumental interludes. When I first describe the piece to people, the interludes often cause a bit of confusion, especially given that their musical material is so different from the material of the song sections. So the question frequently arises as to what exactly their musical role is.

The interludes play several roles, although they’re primarily meditations on each of the five boys that I chose as the extramusical focus of the piece. The interludes contrast pretty strongly with the “song” sections – the interludes are traditionally tonal, while the vocal sections, which are still essentially tonal, are a bit more dissonant and disjunct, and often have a recitative-like quality. Early in the compositional process, I struggled to reconcile the stark differences between the vocal sections and the interludes until I came to think of the latter as being akin to the Sea Interludes in Peter Grimes – integral to the piece as a whole, but also sharing little to no musical material with the rest of the work. Each interlude is largely self-contained, yet some musical ideas get lightly woven into succeeding sections to allow for a more subtle sense of cohesion and musical inevitability.

Each interlude has a solo instrument or featured section (for the orchestral version, they are, in order: trumpet, the percussion section, clarinet, cello, and violin) which I used as a starting point for my meditations on the five boys that the piece is dedicated to. I felt that the choices of the cello and the violin were particularly important because Justin Aaberg and Zach Harrington were both cellists and Tyler Clementi was a violinist.

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When I wrote the piece, LGBT suicide was a social issue that the concert music world had almost completely ignored. An amazing number of professional sports teams had made It Gets Better videos (years before any of the players had started to come out), as had countless major corporations. Yet no orchestra had made such an effort despite the fact that many members of the orchestral and concert music communities are also members of the LGBT community, and had undoubtedly undergone similar torment in their youths. Disaster relief concerts were commonplace, but this sort of social responsibility hadn’t quite made it into the concert hall. Fortunately, more ensembles are interested in bringing awareness of important issues to their audiences. David Del Tredici composed his piano quintet Bullycide after a conversation we had following the commission of Only Air, and it has started to take wings with performances in La Jolla and Montclair, and an upcoming performance by Chamber Music Northwest.

My hope is that if just one young person who might be contemplating suicide and is sitting in an orchestra or a chamber ensemble or even in the audience where the piece is being played can take away an ounce of strength from the piece and from knowing that this ensemble and all of the people around them are offering their support, then we’ll all have done a very good thing.

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One of Garrett’s questions particularly surprised me – I’d never stopped to consider this one aspect of the work that seems rather obvious in hindsight: “How do you represent yourself in this piece, if at all? ”

Taking a step back from the piece, I can see myself in both of the main “characters” of the text – the young man in pain who is preparing to commit suicide, and the voice asking him to stop. During my teenage years, I had a very difficult time, in large part because of my sexuality, and I contemplated suicide more than once. So I identify with these boys. But having come through the other side stronger and wiser, I want to lend them some of my strength so that they can make it through their own dark times to find life and happiness.

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Stay tuned for the link to Garrett’s NewMusicBox article, and I hope to see you this Sunday at the concert!


The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Growing Your Catalog

As a businessperson in the arts, the most important thing you can do is to continually expand your catalog of works. No amount of marketing or networking or promotion will help you in the long run if you don’t constantly work to build your catalog. (Conversely, you can build your catalog all you want, but it will be for naught if you don’t do sufficient networking etc.)

So for those composers who moan that all they want to do is write, they’re at least doing something right!

As with any other facet of running a business, there are several strategies for how you can expand your catalog, and you can pick the strategy that best suits you – or you can build your own strategy using elements of others.

Casting a Wide Net
One strategy for catalog building is to cast a wide net. In a nutshell: write pieces with a broad range of instrumentation: a piece for solo flute, a string quartet, some art songs, a piece for orchestra, a piano trio, some duos, etc.

While there are several advantages to this strategy, its greatest strength is that you’re not putting all of your eggs in one basket, in terms of performance possibilities. If you write solely for solo piano, there’s zero chance that a string quartet will program your works, and a much lesser chance that you’ll come up on the radar of non-pianists for commissions. By casting a wide net, you have a much broader base of potential performers and commissioners.

Also, writing a broad range of works can show versatility, if that’s a quality that you value (some juries and panels do). Again, if you only write for solo piano, some performers may question your ability to write for their instrument.

Casting a wide net also allows you to resist being pigeonholed. I know plenty of composers who resist labels as a “choral composer” or “song composer” or “band composer”. It can be difficult to avoid these labels out in the world (in certain circles I’m known as a “choral composer”, and in others I’m known as a “song composer”, and in others yet I’m known as a “cabaret singer”), but writing a broad range of works can help to ameliorate that, if you see it as being a potential problem.

There are, of course, drawbacks to this strategy: some composers will feel that it lacks focus. Writing for a wide range of ensembles for the sake of writing for a wide range of ensembles does lack focus if you don’t want to write for the ensembles that you’re writing for.

And if you keep up this wide net strategy for too long, or take it to mean that you can never write for the same group of instruments more than a few times, you can limit an ensemble’s choices of works in your catalog.

Targeting
Another option is to take a more targeted approach to the instruments or ensembles that you write for. There are any number of living composers I can think of who write a range of works, but also have certain areas of focus: John Mackey, David Rakowski, and Daron Hagen. John has a significant output for band, David for piano, and Daron for the operatic stage, although all three have much larger ranges.

To take David Rakowski as an example, he has a wildly impressive catalog of works for solo piano, including his books of Etudes, and the Preludes that he’s currently at work on. But he’s written a ton of music that’s not for solo piano. Following him on his various web presences, it’s clear that he manages this huge catalog by writing regularly.

This strategy is easiest to pursue when you have easy access to performers. For example, if you’re friends with an accomplished flautist, you have a unique opportunity to write extensively for the flute, either as a solo instrument or as part of an ensemble (especially if they’re already a part of one). And the more of an advocate that flautist is for your music, the greater the benefits to taking this course. That flautist can recommend your music to their friends, colleagues, and students, and when you make all of your flute music available and easy to find, you’re encouraging sales and performances, which can obviously lead to more performances and commissions. The flautist might also make mention of you on their various web presences. Or if they record with any sort of regularity, you may end up on one or more of their discs.

If you have a friend who is active in the World Harp Congress or the International Society of Bassists or any similar performer organization, and you write regularly for that friend, you are much more likely to have your works heard by an extremely wide range of performers. Or if not heard, at least spoken about.

Assuming that you show a real aptitude for writing for a particular instrument or group of instruments, you are more likely to gain a loyal following amongst that community. And that targeted ability can give focus to your catalog, and affords performers within that community more options to perform your music, as well as more entrees to your work.

Whereas casting a wide net may seem unfocused or limited, the targeted approach can more easily allow you to be pigeonholed, and you run the risk of limiting interest from performers outside of the area(s) that you’re targeting.

Hybrid
A hybrid of the above to strategies may be the more obvious path: giving special attention to one or two or three areas while also continuing to write for a broader range of ensembles.

Commissions often put us in a position where we end up focusing on one or two areas, so we may feel a need to cast a wider net when we’re not working on these pieces. For example, I’m frequently commissioned by my alma mater to write new choral works. It’s great because a) I get paid, b) I get to write music I like, c) I get to work with great performers and good friends, and d) I’m expanding my catalog. Unfortunately (as I often see it), it puts me in the position to be considered as primarily a “choral composer” if I don’t make sure to keep my catalog sufficiently diverse. I love writing for choirs of all types, but I can’t imagine writing primarily for choir. The same goes for art song: I love writing it, and I frequently get commissioned to write more, but I love writing for chamber ensembles and the orchestra too much to limit myself to just art song or just vocal music in general.

In this position, I find it smart to write between commissions whenever possible to build my catalog as much as possible, and in directions that I feel are important to me. For example, I’m between commissions right now, so I’m pursuing two different paths: one is a choral music project that I’m collaborating on with several other composers, and the other is a group of instrumental duos that I have long-term plans for. Sure, with the first project, I’m going down one of my well-worn paths, but the project as it’s working out is a solid business decision. But the second project broadens the area where I feel that I’m under-recognized, despite having a solid catalog.

And in addition to building my catalog, these projects are, in their own way, “practice”, but that’s a GIGANTIC post for another day.

I see the hybrid approach as being about balance – balance between focusing on one area and broadening your catalog. But without that flautist friend who advocates for your work at every conference and performance, how do you find it?

One option is to monitor your performances. If you find that one piece or a group of pieces in a specific instrumental area is getting more attention than the rest of your catalog, you can consider writing more in that area. These areas of interest are ripe for the targeted approach.

Or if you start to feel hemmed in in one area or another, you can consider making forays into other instrumental combinations.

Beyond Instrumentation
Having a catalog of substance extends beyond mere instrumentation, however. You’ve created a catalog that includes vocal works, small and large chamber pieces, works for band and orchestra, and maybe even some stage works, but there’s also the important element of timing. If your works mostly clock in between three and seven minutes, you’re probably not showing your range well. You’ve written a dozen or so short pieces for trombone and piano for this great trombonist who loves your music – maybe it’s time to consider writing a larger work for them/the instrument.

Or the reverse may be true – I have a friend who feels that the concert music community is suffering from severe ADD, as evidenced by the over-inundation of the scene by works shorter than eight minutes. Consequently, few of his works are shorter than twenty. He’s done himself no favors by primarily writing works that take up a quarter or a third of a standard program since performers can’t just try him out – they have to commit to a lot of rehearsal and devoting a significant portion of their concert to his one piece.

And although this is a minor consideration: is most of your music slow? fast? Do you usually start a piece like this or like that? Do a significant number of your works end on a quiet, contemplative note? Or maybe they all end with a bang? Think about it.

Why?
Beyond the strategies I’ve outlined here for expanding your catalog, and the reasons for each, it’s just flat-out important to continually add to your list of available works. The more works you have available, the more performance and commissioning opportunities you have, and the more stable of a career you’re able to build for yourself. Writing two dozen works, then trying to push those onto performers over and over will get you next to nowhere unless you’re incredibly lucky. But by having lots of works ready for performers, while you still need luck, you’re creating more of that luck for yourself.

I write the Composer’s Guide here, taking time away from my composing to do so. If this post helped you in any way, be a dear and click the donate button at the bottom of this post, will you? If you can’t afford to donate, please pass this chapter along to someone who you think might get some help from it.

And I really love to get feedback in the comments section, via email, and on Twitter – they really keep me going on this project.

Thanks!






The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Competitions Pt 6: IMHO

[This is the final segment of a six-part miniseries of posts on composition competitions. Competitions are typically a significant part of a composer’s coming-of-age process, and young composers in particular are frequently (in some cases constantly) bombarded with exhortations to apply to everything possible from teachers, administrators, and older composers. In these posts, I’m taking a look at various issues with competitions that many composers have come to see as problems, and which have caused many to stop applying altogether.]

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So now that I’ve spent the past few posts on what my boyfriend refers to as a “competition take-down”, it’s time to offer some more constructive suggestions on how I – in my eternally humble opinion – would like to see things run. Mind you, these guidelines mostly hold for ensembles and performing organizations, and not larger institutions.

Call for Scores
First off, drop the whole “competition” thing. Awards and honors should be meted out by large, well-established, well-funded institutions. The American Academy of Arts and Letters, ASCAP, BMI, Columbia University. These institutions can fund a more considerable prize, and there’s significant cachet associated with the awards.

Additionally, removing the competitive aspect allows the organization to avoid whatever costs are associated with bringing on a panel of judges – honoraria, travel, postage, food, accommodations – and keep all decisions both in-house and completely at the discretion of the members and administration of the ensemble/organization, so that the selections are based on the resources and artistic direction of the group.

Multiple Selectees
Rather than making a token gesture toward new music by selecting one or two “winners,” my recommendation is to select either an entire program’s worth of works from the call, or select at least two works per program for your upcoming season. An ensemble that wants to make a commitment to new music should make a true commitment.

By performing works by several composers rather than one or two, your ensemble will be making a much more significant contribution to the music world by giving voice to many composers’ works.

Also, don’t predetermine the exact number of works that you intend to choose. In the event that there are a high number of entries that suit the group well, the option should be available to program more of the submitted works than originally expected. Conversely, if most of the works don’t fit the ensemble’s artistic profile, you should have the option of choosing only those that are best suited to the group. This also allows for infinitely more meaningful interactions between the ensemble and the composers.

Multiple Performances
If it’s something that your ensemble does, perform the selected works more than once! Your composers will LOVE you for it! Your audiences are also more likely to remember the composer, and hopefully seek out more of her works. (And maybe ask for you to program her again!)

Modest Honorarium
I may get an angry mob at my door for this one, but prize money isn’t strictly necessary – especially with a call for scores. However, a modest honorarium never goes amiss.

An honorarium is a nice gesture, as is paying a licensing fee for “rental” or copying or general use of the composer’s materials.

The reason why I’m more in favor of honoraria than prize money is that for many competitions, the prize money isn’t very substantial to begin with. Attempting to raise a bit more, then spreading it equally amongst the selected composers, benefits more of them – whereas a single “winner” would receive a performance and the complete prize, this way gives more composers performances and honoraria that they wouldn’t have received in a more competitive model.

While not strictly necessary, I think that honoraria or licensing fees are important because they send the message that the composer’s work is valuable. Plus: if you intend to charge for admission to your concert, you stand to make money from the composer’s work – they should, too.

Performance Licenses
Definitely have a performance license in place with the composers’ PROs (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC). They’re not expensive, and they offer additional income to the composers. And they make your performance…legal.

Archival Recording
Do offer an archival recording of the performance(s). Be clear about how a composer can use the recording (they can’t sell it), and make sure that they credit your ensemble. If you intend to post the performance on your group’s website, let the composer do the same, provided that they link to your site. Be generous, and be smart: having your performance in the composer’s promotional materials with proper credit gets your group’s name out there even more. It’s free advertising, and great word-of-mouth promotion from an enthusiastic new supporter!

Any recording that you’d like to make commercially available should be negotiated separately with the composer. See my final statement on honoraria.

Commissions
If you’re going to offer a commission, please do it right.

Raise the funds for a fee that is commensurate with the work you’re commissioning. For anything larger than a duo and smaller than an orchestra, that’s between $500 and $1000 per minute of music.

As with my suggestion for multiple selectees, I wouldn’t commit to a commission up front. I absolutely endorse commissioning, obviously, but my recommendation is to base your commissioning decisions on rehearsals, performance, and interactions with the composer rather than merely seeing one or two scores.

Commissioning is a collaborative process, and selecting a composer – or composers – to work with should be approached with the same care and deliberation as programming the remainder of your season. This should be a composer who you want to create a long-standing relationship with, not someone to prop up for a single performance and then discard.

And please – perform the commissioned work multiple times! You paid for it – get some mileage out of it!

Strict Guidelines
Hopefully you’ll have a flood of entries – especially when it’s clear that you’re selecting multiple works for (multiples) performance(s). In this case, you’ll want to have a set of strict submission guidelines. Unambiguous instrumentation: SATB choir with no extended divisi; violin and piano (not violin, piano, and something else because it’s the closest thing the composer had in his catalog). A clear listing of required materials: X number of scores, engraved with a high degree of quality; recording requirements; a CV listing works, commissions, and selected performances. For electronic submissions, list appropriate file formats.

Any submissions that don’t conform to the guidelines will not be considered. Period.

And don’t hesitate to call out composers who don’t follow your guidelines. Email them and say that because they’re missing X from their submission, their piece can’t be considered. If you’re feeling generous, give them the opportunity to submit the missing components within a limited timeframe. (I accidentally left out a submission component to a large competition several years ago, and they allowed me a few days to email or fax it to them. Although I didn’t win, I was still grateful for the leeway so that my piece could be considered properly.)

And absolutely call out composers who have submitted scores that don’t fit the instrumentation that you’ve clearly listed – that’s poor behavior on the composer’s part, and they need to be told – politely but firmly – that they will not be considered because they did not follow the instructions.

Feedback
If you want to be my hero, offer constructive feedback on submissions. “We couldn’t select your work because the score’s engraving wasn’t sufficiently legible.” “Your work is good, but doesn’t fit the style of pieces we usually perform.” “The piece may be too rhythmically complex for us to put together and do justice to in the limited number of rehearsals that we have scheduled.” “Your alto line sits a little too low for our ensemble.” It may be time-consuming, but honesty and tact go a long way, and can really help composers to grow musically or to tailor their submissions to groups more effectively.

Garrett Shatzer and the New Lens Concert Series did just this with a piece that I submitted recently to their call for scores. After they’d made their decisions, Garrett messaged me to say that they liked my piece, but it didn’t fit with the other works that they had already programmed for their season. (If you don’t know about New Lens, they pair newer works with works of the past.) New Lens is really doing it right!

None of These
For anyone who has read the lead-ups to this post, it should go without saying that entry fees are an absolute no-no. Plan ahead, and raise the funds your organization needs to make the proper commitment. Electronic submissions will keep postage costs and administrative time to a minimum. Printing costs can be kept to a minimum by reviewing submitted scores that have accompanying MP3s at the computer or on a tablet.

Age limits should be avoided. If you want to be of service to early-career composers, simply say so in your guidelines. Set flexible internal criteria for reviewing a composer’s CV to decide if they fit the profile of what you’re looking for in terms of where they are in their careers.

And leave the composer’s rights alone. If you want to make a commercial recording, work something out directly with the composer. Remember – you’re using their materials, so they deserve to be paid for it.

In Conclusion
I’m sure I haven’t covered everything, but I think that this basic outline can make the entire process infinitely more rewarding for both ensembles and composers, as well as drastically reduce the expenses that a group might otherwise be subject to with a traditional competition.

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I write the Composer’s Guide here, taking time away from my composing to do so. If this post helped you in any way, be a dear and click the donate button at the bottom of this post, will you? If you can’t afford to donate, please pass this chapter along to someone who you think might get some help from it.

And I really love to get feedback in the comments section, via email, and on Twitter – they really keep me going on this project.

Thanks!






The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Competitions Pt 4: Rejection Letters

[This is part four of a multi-part miniseries of posts on composition competitions. Competitions are typically a significant part of a composer’s coming-of-age process, and young composers in particular are frequently (in some cases constantly) bombarded with exhortations to apply to everything possible from teachers, administrators, and older composers. In these posts, I’m taking a look at various issues with competitions that many composers have come to see as problems, and which have caused many to stop applying altogether.]

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I nearly forgot about this aspect of competitions. Until this past weekend, that is, when I got a particularly unpleasant one and remembered how important rejection letters and emails are to the whole process.

Timeliness
It should go without saying – but apparently doesn’t – that organizations and ensembles that host competitions and put out calls for scores should adhere to the deadlines that they’ve posted for notifying entrants of their decisions. There are times, of course, when circumstances prevent organizations from getting through all of the entries by the posted date, in which case it’s probably a good idea to send everyone an email saying that the announcement has been postponed. We’ll understand. I promise!

It’s always unfortunate, and reflects poorly on the organization, when a composer finds out that she didn’t place in a competition or her work wasn’t selected from a call for scores by reading about a colleague’s win on their blog or having to hunt down the results on the organization’s website / Facebook page / Twitter feed weeks after the winners/selections were supposed to be officially announced. I think it’s safe to say that nearly every composer has been in all of these situations at least once. (Though one of my composer friends is still waiting to hear from a major orchestra’s competition held in 1997. He’s keeping hope alive.)

The rejection I received recently had a few strikes against it, number one being that it came a full 20 months after I originally submitted several works for consideration. I understand that professional ensembles with open calls for scores receive lots of submissions, and that time to review such things is limited, but a near-two-year lag is a bit long, in my estimation.

Tone of Voice
This is one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to any sort of correspondence: people consistently seem not to realize that the written word has no tone of voice!

From text messages to instant messages, from emails to handwritten letters, the way you intend for something to be read is possibly not how it will be read. And the shorter your missive, the easier it is to misconstrue the meaning and feeling behind it. For most of us, short = unfriendly or rude, even if that’s not the intention. Which is not to say that every rejection or acceptance letter/email needs to be particularly long, but rather its tone needs to be evaluated before it gets sent out.

Tone is one of the things that I most often agonize over in these posts. Am I too sarcastic, too bitchy, too dry? Certain posts are fueled by anger, though I try to keep that anger in check. But however I intend for the posts to come off (usually an amalgam of mildly bitchy sarcasm, attempted humor, relaxedness, and pedanticism – with the odd bit of righteous indignation thrown in on occasion), I can’t be entirely sure how others will interpret them. When I originally read Ned Rorem’s diaries in college, I missed a lot of the sarcasm and humor that pervades his writing. It wasn’t until I heard him read excerpts from them aloud that I understood the tone of voice that had been lacking in my own reading (also the gentle lisp).

Organizations need to be especially sensitive to tone in rejections: the composer has put their work out for your consideration, which is no small source of anxiety. A rejection is often at best a painful thing. And while it’s not the organization’s job to make sure that everyone is happy or gets a medal just for trying, it is in the organization’s best interest to ensure that composers don’t lose their respect or good feeling toward the organization. A rejection with poorly-considered tone will undoubtedly make the composer less likely to speak well of the ensemble/organization, and that’s never a good thing for anybody.

I, for one, have – unfortunately – soured on the ensemble that sent me this most recent rejection email. The author of the two-sentence email clearly didn’t consider how his email came across, and after several days, I still honestly cannot tell whether or not I should be insulted by the first sentence.

Respect
I’m not implying that organizations that host competitions don’t have respect for the composers who submit works for their competitions and calls for scores. If that were the case, why would the competitions/calls exist in the first place!? But – to beat a dead horse – the proper tone in a rejection letter conveys a sense of respect for the fact that the composer not only took the time and went to the expense of submitting a work for consideration, but that they took the risk of sending this piece of themselves out into the world to be judged worthy – or not – of being performed by your group and heard by your audiences.

A well-considered rejection letter can actually boost a composer’s opinion of a group by showing the organization’s respect for composers and what they do, and acknowledging the emotional component inherent to making a submission.

The Person at the End of the Internet
Again with this dead horse.

But let me take the opportunity to turn this around on composers. If you are corresponding with someone at an organization, remember that, just as there’s a monster at the end of this book, there’s a person at the other end of the internet reading your email. Consider your own tone, respect that the organization is attempting to do right by composers and new music, and remember that we’re all in this together.

Tropes
There are a lot of rejection letter tropes that get complained about: “regret to inform you”, “so many wonderful submissions”, “high caliber of music”, “difficult to choose”… The fact that these and similar phrases, along with listing the winners/selectees, have become so common can grate on some composers. For some, listing awardees can feel like rubbing salt in an open wound: “You lost! But guess who won? These guys!!”

For myself, I don’t mind the majority of rejection letter tropes, and can’t really think of any that particularly bother me. Seeing the list of awardees doesn’t usually send me into a rage or a downward spiral of self-pity, though I’m admittedly not entirely immune to a bit of private envy. Typically, though, the winners list offers me a chance to congratulate friends who were selected, and to get a sense of what the panel was looking for. Sometimes seeing who was selected and knowing their style can give solace in the knowledge that you just didn’t fit the panelists’ stylistic profile. (Which is its own problem.)

Boo Boos
No matter how hard we try, something’s always going to go wrong somewhere. But here is a place where an error can be particularly painful. For example, spelling the composer’s name incorrectly. Nothing negates all the good will in the world like getting someone’s name wrong when you’re rejecting them.

And putting all of the rejectees’ names and email addresses in the To: line, and not bcc-ing them in a form rejection.

Although this falls under Tropes, “Dear Composer” is flat-out insulting. It’s the nineties – you should know how to use Mail Merge. You can do that with emails, too, you know, so that the form rejection at least has the composer’s name in it.

I’ve certainly not covered all of the tropes, the aggravations, the potential pitfalls, but if there’s one thing that must be absolutely clear: a rejection letter – be it for a competition, a call for scores, a school application, a job application, whatever – is a delicate thing that has much more power over a composer’s psyche than many people give it credit for. And while I loathe, Loathe, LOATHE the Romantic notion of the Sensitive Artist, composers do find rejection to be a very difficult thing. Everyone does, but there really is a special kind of anxiety and emotional fragility associated with artistic rejection.

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I write the Composer’s Guide here, taking time away from my composing to do so. If this post helped you in any way, be a dear and click the donate button at the bottom of this post, will you? If you can’t afford to donate, please pass this chapter along to someone who you think might get some help from it.

And I really love to get feedback in the comments section, via email, and on Twitter – they really keep me going on this project.

Thanks!






The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Competitions Pt 3: Age Limits

[This is part three of a multi-part miniseries of posts on composition competitions. Competitions are typically a significant part of a composer’s coming-of-age process, and young composers in particular are frequently (in some cases constantly) bombarded with exhortations to apply to everything possible from teachers, administrators, and older composers. In these posts, I’m taking a look at various issues with competitions that many composers have come to see as problems, and which have caused many to stop applying altogether.]

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Many of the composition competitions out there have decided to focus on helping composers at the beginnings of their careers, which is only fitting because once a composer has established herself sufficiently, she no longer needs awards to pad her CV in order to make herself more desirable to schools, other competitions, or (possibly) potential commissioners.

What tends to get overlooked by many of the organizations hosting these competitions, however, is that not all composers begin their careers in their youth. Some composers merely come to writing music late in life. And others start a musical career, then move away from music for whatever reason (usually financial) to return in later years, effectively starting over. Enough significant composers from the 20th century fall into either of these categories that they need not be listed here.

Consequently, imposing age restrictions on competition entrants has the net effect of excluding emerging-but-no-longer-young composers who could benefit greatly from the performances/exposure that a competition placement could earn them. Composers starting later in life are already at the disadvantage of having to change gears or start from scratch, so these limits put them at a greater disadvantage by excluding them from potentially beneficial opportunities.

And, as composer Christian Carey pointed out in a Twitter conversation on the subject, age limits are not only exclusionary, but further pander to the cult of youth that has already swept popular culture.

In short, we’re looking for a composer who – in addition to being talented and skilled – is also, as a former teacher of mine once described some of my extra-musical qualities, “Young, cute, and f*ckable.” (Srsly.)

We’ve also fallen prey to the 5 O’Clock News Syndrome: searching for the next wunderkind who will wow us all with his facility: the myth of the youthful talent that is so limitless that the organization who “discovers” them will be praised for all time for recognizing such a phenomenon. The five-year-old who plays Mozart perfectly after a single hearing. The 17 year-old who composes symphonies crammed with orchestral “color”. In short, a youth who can be propped up in front of audiences and donors as “the next Mozart”.

Wunderkinden are rare. And thankfully so, because we invariably ask them to run before they can walk, and few seem to continue past adolescence or early adulthood, when the pressures to recreate and simultaneously surpass their youthful successes become too great.

I understand that age limits are intended to keep out composers with more experience and (hopefully) growing careers, but they also neglect to take into account those composers whose careers haven’t reached a sufficiently significant level by age 30…35…40…whatever completely arbitrary number the committee decides to impose on entrants.

And one can’t help but wonder if there’s not a sense of distaste at the thought of having a competition winner be in his 60s. There is a more than subtle ageism at work here.

Not every composer started like me when he was 14. And not every composer finds success in youth, early adulthood, or even middle age – there are incredibly skilled and talented composers who toil away without recognition during their lifetimes.

There should be no problem awarding a composer who is not in her 20s or 30s because she started later or hasn’t yet achieved the status that she “should have” by such an age.

Taken alongside application fees and the rights grabs that many competitions make, it’s easy to suspect a certain…cynicism…at play in the organizations that host some of these competitions. The youth requirement all but guarantees that the entrants will be inexperienced and pliable, so a $25 gatekeeper fee doesn’t automatically seem outrageous to the applicants. Plus, a bit of legal-sounding language that seems to be guaranteeing a recording or multiple performances but which also effectively steals a composer’s rights will likely – and generally does – go unquestioned and unchallenged. After all, what experience do the entrants have to counter the claim, “This is just how things are done”?

The only ones to question these practices are the ones who are too old to apply anymore. And their criticisms can be easily written off as petty bitterness over not having achieved a certain status. (…which having won X competition would obviously have solved, if only they could enter it again.)

I’m just starting to age out of some of these competitions, and I honestly feel nothing but relief.

If organizations want to limit entrants to their competitions to be early in their careers, a glance at a composer’s works and CV list will show how long they’ve been at it, and how much experience they have. If a composer’s works list only goes back a handful of years, they’re obviously just starting out, regardless of age. If their musical education was 20 or 30 years ago, but their musical output has a corresponding 20 or 30 year gap…they’ve recently returned to their first love, and need all the help they can get in establishing themselves in this new career.

Competitions who purport to aid emerging composers (as opposed to composers just starting out) might have a slightly more difficult time with composers who are on the verge of moving from “emerging” to “established” (or whatever), but I think that this is a finer point that may need to be addressed on a competition-by-competition and composer-by-composer basis: “Is this composer sufficiently well-established that being awarded by our organization won’t be of significant aid to her career?”

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I write the Composer’s Guide here, taking time away from my composing to do so. If this post helped you in any way, be a dear and click the donate button at the bottom of this post, will you? If you can’t afford to donate, please pass this chapter along to someone who you think might get some help from it.

And I really love to get feedback in the comments section, via email, and on Twitter – they really keep me going on this project.

Thanks!






Matter-of-Fact

“Matter-of-fact” may, in fact, be my favorite score indication. “Clangorous” being a close second.


(Only Air (2011-2013))


(“Permanently” from at least a moment (2009))

Similar markings work, too:


(“inevitable” from echoes (2008))


(“Kenneth’s Death” from echoes (2008))

It may be my reserved, Midwestern upbringing. Or it may be that I prefer to let the text and music carry themselves, without the singer “getting in the way”. I also tend not to choose texts that imply histrionics. Subtle emotion seems to be my thing, musically. Understatement.

There’s nothing particularly earth shattering about this idea. It’s something I’ve known about myself and my music for a long time, but thinking about Only Air brings up the idea again for me.

I almost felt you
shudder this morning
as I dreamed of death

I can’t imagine this line – or anything from the poem, save four of the last lines – being recited or sung in any manner other than completely straight-forward. There’s obvious, deep, gut-wrenching emotion behind the poem, but it carries itself so simply, so beautifully that any to attempt to “interpret” it or put any additional “feeling” into it would cripple the words.

Similarly, “Kenneth’s Death” from echoes can’t be anything other than unsentimental. It is, of course, an incredibly sentimental song, but if I ever heard a singer put anything more than a sort of sad humor behind the words “He’s dead,” I might barf. (Or at least roll my eyes so hard that I get a peek at my brain.)

Sometimes the most complex of emotions can only be expressed through utter simplicity.


The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Competitions Pt 2: Rights Grabs

[This is part two of a multi-part miniseries of posts on composition competitions. Competitions are typically a significant part of a composer’s coming-of-age process, and young composers in particular are frequently (in some cases constantly) bombarded with exhortations to apply to everything possible from teachers, administrators, and older composers. In these posts, I’m taking a look at various issues with competitions that many composers have come to see as problems, and which have caused many to stop applying altogether.]

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The subject of competition rights grabs is something I’ve blogged about before on the NewMusicShelf, and I suggest you click on over to read that post, and if you haven’t done so already to read the Composer’s Guide miniseries on copyright.

The rights enumerated in copyright law are the key to an artist’s financial well-being. The only way we can generate any sort of income with our art is to retain as many of our rights as possible, which means that more rights we give away, the less income we can secure from our works.

And yet.

A worrisome number of competitions contain language in their rules and submission guidelines that grants the organization certain key rights to a composer’s intellectual property. Rights that the organization really has no valid reason to have or need. Rights whose exercise could cause severe damage to a composer’s financial well-being should the organization decide to make use of them.

Some examples I’ve seen are:

Right to make a commercial recording
Yeah, ok, I get that the organization or ensemble may be so excited about the winning entry/entries that they want to run straight into the studio to get the performances on disc.

But.

Anything regarding a recording – especially one that will be made commercially available on any level – should be reserved for a separate agreement between the organization and the specific composers involved. It shouldn’t be in a blanket edict dictated to all entrants to the competition at the time of application.

Most of the competitions that use this language also require that the composer waive certain fees and royalties that are normally payable to a composer. Meaning: the organization is claiming the right (by claiming yours) to make money off of a recording of your work without the attendant responsibility of having to pay you for it.

I’ve said this in other posts on this blog, but I’ll say it again: money always flows to the composer.

If someone uses your work, you need to be paid for it. Period. Especially if they stand to make money off of the performance/recording/synchronization. There is no use of your work that should not result in your remuneration. (Except certain educational uses. And music used in religious services – though I strongly disagree with this.)

The mechanical license for a small commercial release (and any sale of a recording constitutes a commercial release – it’s not just recordings sold by big record labels) shouldn’t be waived, especially since it’s not a large fee! When I questioned this point with a competition last year, I was given the excuse that the fee would be small anyway, so I shouldn’t mind waiving it. Sorry, no. If the fee is small anyway, the organization shouldn’t mind paying it.

Remember: the ensemble isn’t doing you a favor by recording your music. If they want to sell it, then they’re using your music to generate a profit for themselves. No one is doing anyone any favors, except the one where you waive your right to fees that are legally payable to you.

I get worked up over this because I see it quite a lot when I look at competition guidelines.

Maybe the organizations who use the language saw it in another competition’s guidelines, and decided to just adopt it into their own because they’re not really sure what sorts of things should go into competition guidelines.

Or maybe there’s a lawyer or businessperson involved in some of these organizations who knows just enough about IP law and the way that competitions are currently being run to think of putting in this language, but not enough to actually understand the potential and actual ramifications of the inclusion.

Namely: that there are significant monetary consequences to the commercial release of a recording of a piece of music. The composer’s only control over recordings of her works extends only to the first commercial release. This is the only time that she can negotiate the mechanical license and royalty rate, or veto the actual recording of the piece if it’s not of sufficiently high quality or not being recorded by performers she wants making this particular recording. All subsequent recordings of that work by other ensembles will only earn her a compulsory license fee, which pays 9.1 cents ($0.091) per copy sold for works under 5 minutes, and 1.75 cents ($0.0175) per minute of recorded music for works over 5 minutes. Beyond that, she will be owed nothing. So, first recordings are important. And you can be sure that a piece that already has a commercial recording probably won’t be eligible for 99% of these competitions, so the vast majority of submissions are unrecorded, meaning that these composers stand to lose something.

While these releases may end up flying under the radar if the distribution is purely physical, entirely offline, and on a small scale, under other, perfectly reasonable conditions they could present a major problem for the composer. If the competition organization is sufficiently tech savvy to get the recording on iTunes – which isn’t hard at all – anybody with an interest in recording the piece can find it if they do even marginal due diligence (and any ensemble working with a real label will get that due diligence from the label’s R&D team), and know that the composer only needs to be paid the compulsory license fee and no more. No permission need even be asked or notification given to make the recording! So whereas our hypothetical composer could have negotiated a reasonable license fee and royalty rate, this competition just screwed her out of hundreds or possibly thousands of dollars in royalties. And if she waived her fees and royalties because of the competition guidelines…..

The only way that a composer could make a decent royalty rate on non-first recordings is if a) the label decides to be uncharacteristically and magically generous, or b) the composer owns the rights to the recording herself, and will consequently earn the full profit from all sales. The latter meaning, of course, that she has either purchased the master, or paid for the entire recording process herself.

I should note that this little rant doesn’t extend to recordings made for archival purposes. Sometimes an organization just wants to have a recording on file of their performances for the sake of posterity or study or promotion. These uses are non-commercial, and have no significant impact on royalty rates or fees. For archival recordings, no mechanical license fee or royalty is due the composer, though I think that the composer should also get a copy of the recording for their own non-commercial use.

(The same competition that told me that I shouldn’t mind waiving the mechanical license fee, also tried to sell me the line that their recording would be archival, which to them meant that it would probably only sell one or two hundred copies. Sorry – not archival. That’s called a “limited commercial release.” And they’d still be making money off of composers who weren’t being compensated.)

Derivative works
One “competition” that I’ve specifically called out in the past really is a scam, and not just because it charges a hefty application fee and awards only a “Certificate of Excellence in Composition” to its winners. It makes a couple of rights grabs that a few other – infinitely more legitimate – competitions also make: most significantly, to make derivative works based on your submission. Seriously.

There is absolutely no reason why a competition should ever in a million years need to make an arrangement of your work or adapt it for any non-original purposes.

When I see this one, which is admittedly pretty rare, but still out there, the only thing I can think (besides, “Hulk Smash!”) is that someone has decided that they want to make some money by stealing rights to pieces, making arrangements, and selling them as their own work.

Performance Rights
Sometimes the competition claims the right to perform the work – almost invariably accompanied with the language “in perpetuity” (a phrase that makes my blood boil on good days) – royalty-free.

Sorry. No.

As a music presenter, the organization should have blanket licenses already in place with the major PROs, so your royalty will cost absolutely nothing more to the organization than what they’ve already paid. If they don’t have a blanket license in place, that’s a big problem, because it means that the organization isn’t paying royalties to anybody for any of the music that they perform! As someone who has paid these license fees before, I can say with absolute certainty that they aren’t expensive in the least, and are easy to obtain (though the PRO websites seem to have gotten more difficult to navigate lately – ya hear me, guys?)

Those unlicensed performances are – sing it with me, now – not. legal.

There’s no reason to ever waive your right to a performance royalty except maybe in the instance of a performance for charity – and then you should still be asked, and not dictated to.

You agree
All of these rights grabs are predicated on the idea that by submitting materials, you agree to all of the terms and conditions (the guidelines and eligibility rules) of the competition. There’s no need to sign here, here, and here, and initial here because you’ve probably filled out an application form, and you’ve definitely sent in scores for consideration; and as these things are worded, that (especially if you’ve signed an application form with attached guidelines) indicates that you have read and agree to all the terms.

Necessary Rights
There are, of course, rights that competitions need to exercise in order to operate: the right to use your name and likeness in press materials announcing that you’ve won, or in promotional materials for the organization or competition. Possibly the right to make photocopies of your materials for purposes of adjudications (which copies will be promptly destroyed). I’m not entirely convinced that a choral competition should have the right to make sufficient copies of the winning score(s) for the choir for performance, but I might be willing to let it slide. Still, I don’t think it would kill anybody to come up with a copying license fee for this latter instance.

Financial Liability
What I think all of these rights grabs really boil down to is not ignorance on the part of the organizers, or any active desire to harm composers or their financial well-being. Instead, it’s purely an act of looking out for the fiscal interests of the organizations themselves. Money is scarce everywhere, especially over the past few years. And ESPECIALLY in the arts. So if an organization can find ways to generate income (creating a recording, selling concert tickets) while also limiting their financial liabilities (not paying royalties, forcing composers to waive their fees, asking composers to submit scores rather than having to find and pay for them…), then they’re going to try them. It may not be sinister, it may not be intentionally harmful. But it is wrong. Administrators may be trying to avoid yet another expense, but it’s at the greater expense of the composers’ careers.

Which leads to issues of…

Professionalism
Because most of the composers who apply to the bulk of the competitions out there are young/emerging and generally professionally inexperienced, they’re not really equipped to know that there are potential and actual consequences to these rights grabs. And unfortunately, the fact that the rights grabs are becoming more and more common is training these composers to value their work less and less. If the organizations who set themselves up to be supportive of new music and of young/emerging composers will nickel and dime the artists, and insist that they waive their fees and royalties, those composers will be trained to put a low value on their art (and haven’t we already devalued it enough?). This sort of financial hamstringing is absolutely not in the interests of composers or of new music.

Rather than than using rights grabs to stiff young composers out of income that they’re entitled to, competitions should be helping to create professional expectations and standards of behavior. Organizations should be teaching young/emerging composers that they are entitled to be paid for their work, and affirming that composer’s rights are important, not manipulating them into giving up rights and waiving fees because the organization has so generously decided to perform a piece or award some paltry prize money.

This is not just a financial issue. It’s a moral one.

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I’m going to be spending a few weeks on the topic of competitions and various elements that I think need to be addressed. These posts will be aimed at both composers, so that they can be aware of various issues before entering any competition or submitting to a call for scores, and competition administrators, so that they can have a composer’s eye view of the issues involved with competitions and awards. The end of this mini-series will culminate in my (ever-humble) opinion on how I think organizations should structure programs like these to be as supportive as possible of composers and new music without putting a greater burden on those organizations and ensembles.

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