The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Finding an Angle

As artists, we’re always trying to find our unique creative voice, searching for the way to make a musical statement (however you want to interpret that word) in a way that is distinct and genuine. But as human beings, we also grapple with things like impatience for success (again, however you want to define that).

The impatient part of us, which tends to be given a lot of latitute in our on-demand, instant-gratification culture, wants success NOW. Fame, riches, financial comfort, the respect of the field, whatever “success” means to you….NOW! And sometimes in our impatience, we start to flail about, searching for The Answer. The One Thing that will get us to the goal line as soon as possible – preferably by next week. We want to know how to get those big-time performers and ensembles to commission and play the hell out of our music. We want to know exactly what to do to win that Big Prize. We want to know exactly what the world is looking for in the next Important Piece.

After all, composers X, Y, and Z had already hit the big time in their 20s or early 30s. So why aren’t I there yet? Right?

It’s the same mentality that most of us have when it’s time to go on a diet. Isn’t there something out there that will just take the weight off? The answer, of course, is “yes.” That something is called portion control and consistent exercise. Put down the cake (the cake is a lie, anyway), and go for a walk.

The same, in many cases, holds true with careers. Put down the [insert distraction here] and write. Write what is true to you.

Since it seems like I follow EVERY composer on Twitter, I tend to see some flailing in my feed. Composers searching for exactly what it is that panels are looking for in this or that competition. Looking for ways to get their music in front of big ensembles.

Fine. Great. There are some answers to these questions.

But sometimes the questions go into the territory of: “How do I change what I’m doing to fit ______?” And that’s where I get a little twitchy.

Sometimes we start looking for an “angle”. A gimmick. Maybe if I use crazy non-standard notation, I’ll get noticed! Maybe if I write in a totally different style, the judges will like my music this time. Maybe if I [insert something that goes against my personal aesthetic] someone will offer me the fame and riches that I deserve. I’ll be the next ________!

And that’s where that sort of thinking goes off the tracks: looking for ways to change what you’re doing so that more people will like it instead of looking for people who enjoy what you’re already creating.

If you’re going to change what you’re doing, change it by making it better – work on your craft, develop your voice (read: write. more. music.), polish your engraving, technical, and orchestrational skills. Don’t be a different composer, be a better composer.

I know I write a lot about income and markets and entrepreneurship, but all of these are in support of your art. A career is not a race to the finish line. It’s a slow build with lots of diversions and changes along the way.

Instead of trying to change our music to suit this or that award panel (which will be a different panel next year), think on this little gem from Ned Rorem: “Why do I write music? Because I want to hear it – it’s simple as that. Others may have more talent, more sense of duty. But I compose just from necessity, and no one else is making what I need.”

Write what you need. Then find the others who need it, too.


The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Commissioning Consortia

Consortia. Such a great word. Consortia. Don’t you just love Latin plurals?

Commissioning consortia have been on my mind a fair amount lately, not just because they’re another source of income, but also because I’m in the middle of helping to build a consortium to commission a new choral work of my own.

Commissioning consortia are a great way to get works commissioned, especially in economies as crappy as our current one. There are a lot of arts organizations right now that really want to commission new works, but can’t do it by themselves because they have severely limited budgets.

Traditionally, consortia have been used to commission larger works such as operas and orchestral or wind band pieces. Commissioning large works requires a correspondingly large budget, and even the biggest of organizations can be financially strained by such projects, so they often band together and share the financial burden. John Mackey’s Redline Tango for wind ensemble and Daron Hagen’s opera Bandanna were both commissioned by consortia of wind bands.

Today, I think that consortia are incredibly useful for smaller-scale works, as well; and also for organizations (and individuals!) with limited budgets.

For example, a group of middle or high school choirs could commission a new choral work from a composer. Or a group of individuals who play the same instrument could commission a new work together – each would have a new piece to perform at a fraction of the cost than had they done it alone. Meanwhile, the composer gets the full benefit of being commissioned and receiving a fee that is probably much higher than she otherwise would have received from any of the individuals by themselves. I’ve heard heartening reports over the past few years that this sort of thing is happening more and more, and I couldn’t be happier!

The lessening of the commissioner’s financial burden is possibly the greatest benefit to forming these consortia.

For a work for which the composer would ask a fee of $5,000, five participating ensembles would only have to raise $1,000 apiece, which is an easy Kickstarter campaign for almost any group. A few requests to friends and family could raise a handful of individuals the funds needed for a $2,000 fee. And eight commissioners contributing $300 apiece earns the composer a nice $2,400 fee. When broken down, what might be prohibitive for one commissioner becomes much more manageable for several.

I especially like the idea of consortia of school groups for a number of reasons past the benefits to the composer. Not only does the project become much more financially manageable for the schools, who are almost uniformly in budget cut hell, but the students benefit infinitely more from the experience than the school might otherwise be able to afford for them. By exposing students to new music in an active capacity such as premiering new works and working with living composers (hello Creative Connections grants!), schools can help to create a culture of active arts participation, and hopefully train the next generation of musicians to make commissioning a regular part of their careers.

Of course there are always practical considerations, too!

Fee structure
I can think of two ways to structure the composer’s fee for these sorts of projects: a per-participant split, and a per-participant fee.

With a per-participant split, the composer sets her commissioning fee, and the co-commissioners split it amongst themselves, either evenly or at varying percentages. So: a group of four commissioners might split a $3,000 fee evenly so that they each pay $750, or they may find a different, unequal split that takes into consideration any number of factors (that the composer probably need not directly concern herself with) so that some commissioners pay more than others (and probably have more leverage in claiming the full premiere of the piece – more on that later). The advantages here are that you as the composer know unequivocally what your fee will be regardless of the number of participants, and the commissioners’ shares of the fee will be correspondingly lowered as additional ensembles and individuals join the consortium. A disadvantage is that the commissioners’ shares of the fee are higher if there are fewer participants in the consortium. However, that becomes an advantage in that the participants will have a greater incentive to want more co-commissioners on the project, which will hopefully lead to their finding additional ensembles to join the consortium (which will mean more performances of the piece for the composer).

With a per-participant flat fee, the composer sets a fee per commissioner, so that each ensemble or individual pays a set amount to be a member of the consortium regardless of the number of co-commissioners. I might advocate for this sort of fee structure if the per-participant fee were reasonably low and you either had a reasonable sense of how many participants there would be or were feeling particularly generous should there be few participants. The main disadvantage here is that the composer doesn’t necessarily know what her fee will ultimately be until everything is finalized. An advantage, however, is that the co-commissioners know exactly what their financial stake will be from the start. On the other hand, should there end up being more consortium members than originally anticipated or hoped for, the composer can end up with a correspondingly higher fee. I’m much less a fan of this second option for a few reasons, but I can see uses for it.

Lead commissioner
Every commissioning agreement spells out a series of rights and responsibilities that the commissioner is entitled to, which can be complicated by the participation of multiple commissioners. Consequently, there is usually a “lead commissioner” who has a greater stake in the commission, both financially and in terms of the rights and responsibilities. The lead will likely pay a greater share of the commissioning fee and have the right to the first performance; so while the other commissioners end up paying less, they also don’t get to have the first performance, but are entitled to subsequent – possibly regional – premieres and performances of the work within a period of exclusivity. Everyone gets credit as co-commissioners.

The lead commissioner may also take a more substantive role in finding additional consortium members because they may have an increased visibility or prestige over the other participants, and will likely handle the negotiations involved with figuring out which participant is entitled to what and when (it’s probably best if you keep your nose out of this one if you can!).

The lead may not have a greater financial share or any additional entitlements, but may just be the go-to member for communicating with the composer or advertising the performances, or may merely be the person/ensemble that initiated the commission.

Getting Paid
Again, there are a few options here. Each commissioner might pay you directly; or they may designate the lead commissioner as the financial point person, in which case all funds funnel through the lead and are paid to you on whatever schedule is spelled out in the contract. And on occasion, a third party may be involved as the collector and administrator of funds. In the end, how the composer gets paid comes down to what is easiest for all parties involved, and what everyone is most comfortable with.

Finding Participants
This is probably the hardest part of setting up commissioning consortia. (Duh!)

In many cases, I’d probably advocate for having the lead commissioner do the majority of it. They probably know more ensembles of the same instrumentation or performers in their field than you do. And depending on the situation, there’s a certain…legitimacy…that is lent to the endeavor when the lead is the one who approaches potential participants. The alternative could come off like: “Hi, person I don’t know! Do you want to commission me?” Maybe not the best face to put on the project?

So tell me – do you all have experiences with commissioning consortia? Please share in the comments section below!

Speaking of income: see that “Donate” button down there? Be a dear and click that 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: Passive Income

OK, so I should be getting back onto a semi-regular updating schedule here. The past two months have been filled with travel, yearly audit prep at the day job, apartment hunting, and moving, all of which are horribly un-conducive to writing or composing. But such is the way of life – we take these things in stride and get back onto our schedules when the dust starts to settle. In the meantime, I’ve been sketching out a handful of posts on a wide variety of topics, so I should be able to power through a few essays in the next few weeks so that the Guide can get back into full swing.

One of the topics on my mind lately has been streams of income – particularly passive income. So let’s talk about money this week, shall we?

Before we talk about passive income, though, let me define active income: Active income is any source of revenue earned through personal effort – wages, salaries, tips, etc. Commissioning fees are active income, as are any fees or pay we receive from performing, speaking, teaching, copying/engraving, etc. The bulk of our income as composers will be active, and these are the sorts of things that we’ll always be seeking out.

Passive income, on the other hand, is any regular or semi-regular income that requires little to no effort to maintain. This includes royalties and licensing fees. And for our purposes, I’m going to lump in score and recording sales because our profits from these are traditionally regarded as royalties.

Now, while passive income will likely be much less than active income, it shouldn’t be ignored for a number of reasons. One is the simple fact that passive income is INCOME. Why pass up the opportunity to have money come to you without having to work hard for it just because the money you have to put out effort for is greater? For this reason alone, I think that ignoring passive income is silly. By making your scores (and hopefully professional-quality recordings, as well) available for sale, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to bring in revenue that you really don’t have to work for. Sure, you may have to mail out the scores themselves, but compared to the effort that goes into writing a piece of music or rehearsing for a performance, sticking a score in an envelope and walking it to the post office is nothing! At the very least, the effort is commensurate with the amount of money you’ll earn for each sale.

Also, each sale you make will likely lead to additional passive income.

For example, when you sell a score, it’s entirely probable that the person buying it intends to perform the piece. And with performances come what? If you said royalties, you’ve been paying attention. Gold star! More income you didn’t have to work for. At all. You sat back while someone else did all the work of buying the score (which you got paid for), learning and rehearsing the piece, and getting up on stage in front of who-knows-how-many people and performing it. Then nine months later, ASCAP or BMI wrote you a check. All because you made your score available for sale and took the few minutes to address an envelope, slap a stamp on it, and pop it in the mailbox. Or maybe your scores – like mine – are available digitally, so you just checked your email, saw you had a sale, and moved your earnings from PayPal to your bank account. (An ING reasonably-high-yield savings account with pretty damned good interest rates. Oh noes! My little moneys are making more moneys!) Such herculean effort!

Up-front effort
OK, I’ll admit that passive income isn’t completely effortless. You have to put in some effort on the front end to make sure that you can earn it.

With physical scores, you have to engrave the score and either have copies on hand or be prepared to have the scores printed and bound on demand. But because you’re a professional (or working to become one), your scores are nicely engraved to begin with, and you’ve done the minor research you need to do to find a printer in your area that can service your needs. Since I just moved, I need to find a new print shop, or start farming it out to Limes or Subito or another company that’s been actively courting me for a few months now via Twitter. (If y’all are reading this – I haven’t forgotten about you!) Then you create a simple page on your (up-to-date) website letting people know how they can purchase your scores. You can even set up simple PayPal buttons that process payment automatically and collect shipping information that is emailed to you within nanoseconds of the sale being made. (This is almost obscenely easy to do, by the way.)

With recordings, of course there’s the effort and expense of the actual recording (provided that you’re the one bankrolling the project, as in my own planned series of recordings), plus cover design, packaging, etc. But that’s the expense of making the recording. Making it available for sale is as simple as setting up an account with CDBaby and letting them set you up with iTunes and Amazon. Click click, tippity-type, submit: done.

And with digital scores or recordings, you need to either set up a store-front or find an online retailer who fits your needs (for recordings, see my CDBaby comment, like, one sentence ago). Creating your own storefront, admittedly, can be time-consuming, though it’s getting easier and easier with all of the open source options out there. I’m a relentless DIY-er, and found the process incredibly rewarding and worthwhile. And how nice that I don’t have to give a cut of my sales to anybody but PayPal?

But once these initial setup steps are done, they’re done! Your works are out there. You’re not guaranteed any sales, but at least you have the option now. The only guarantee is that if your scores aren’t available, you won’t make any sales at all.

Leverage
I think one of the biggest reasons to pursue passive income streams is the fact that they can be leveraged to create active income. At the very least, they lead to additional passive income, as in the royalty scenario. Or, if you have multiple recordings, a person who likes one recording of yours may buy another, and may continue to buy any subsequent recordings that you put out.

And also: In my experience, the purchase of a score and subsequent performance of the piece has a significant chance of leading to a commission of some sort.

My song cycle at least a moment was commissioned by a harpist who had discovered Starfish at Pescadero through a Google search while looking for a piece with instrumentation similar to George Crumb’s Madrigals, Book III. After requesting to buy a copy of the score, she performed Starfish, and immediately after the performance commissioned at least a moment. There was even talk of a companion piece, which I may still write because a) I want to, and b) I have the text setting permissions, so why waste them!?

Recordings, too, can be leveraged to create performances, score sales, additional recording sales, and even commissions. I leave it to your capable imaginations to come up with examples of how a person listening to a recording of your music can lead to additional passive or active income.

Speaking of passive income: see that “Donate” button down there? Be a dear and click that 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: Composer Behavior

This week I’m going to take a brief step away from marketing and self-promotion to talk about….well, another type of marketing and self-promotion, to be completely honest. Though, frankly, everything a composer does is some form of marketing or self-promotion, from the actual music that you write to the ways that you get it out into the world to any appearances you make in public or online.

To that end, I’d like to talk briefly this week about composer behavior in certain situations, and how it can affect the way people view you and your music. This post is largely inspired by a recent experience I had with a composer who behaved particularly poorly in a number of respects, though I’ve seen very similar behavior from a number of other composers throughout my career. I’ll avoid naming names to protect the guilty, and try to generalize as much as possible so that this post doesn’t devolve into a public gripe session.

The ways that we behave in the world greatly affect the trajectories of our careers. A composer who treats performers and audiences and other composers with respect and generosity will in turn receive much better treatment – and probably better opportunities – than one who is selfish and blind to the needs and feelings of others.

The difficulty here is that we spend so much time shaping and crafting our works, and we want so badly for them to be liked and performed well, that we can sometimes be blind to the ways that we behave toward our interpreters and our audiences. Being an artist is in many ways like being a parent – we want the best for our children, and it’s easy to allow that desire to shut out the rest of the world. We can become those Park Slope mommies and daddies who, in the name of wanting the best for their (ridiculously-named) children, become entitled, overbearing, and insufferable.

Case in point:

Not too long ago, I was involved in the premiere of a vocal/chamber work for which the composer was asked to be a member of the pickup ensemble for the performance. With most composers I know, this wouldn’t be a problem, but in this case, it was – and in a very big way. The composer – let’s call them XY – walked into the first rehearsal and, having barely said a word of greeting to any of the performers (none of whom XY had met before), began making changes to the already-confusing (and incredibly poorly-engraved) score. And it was downhill from there. For the remainder of the rehearsal, which ran almost twice as long as scheduled, the ensemble was never allowed to go more than 30 seconds without being stopped and asked to do some new thing that XY had dreamt up that very second, or perform these or those few notes in a way that was not only not notated, but completely inappropriate to a first reading.

Mind you, most of the members of the ensemble had never met one another before, let alone attempted to rehearse this hyper-complex piece, so anything beyond correcting pitches and rhythms seems inappropriate to me. And constant interruptions to make ill-thought-out changes to the score, or exhort the guitarist to play more “digitally” (!?), didn’t help us a) learn the piece, b) have the slightest bit of confidence in the composer’s abilities (or, frankly, sanity), or c) maintain any sort of good will toward the composer.

Despite the fact that XY was very kind and earnest and enthusiastic, they had behaved incredibly poorly. The constant interruptions, and later calls for additional rehearsals, were very disrespectful of the performers’ time, despite the fact that XY didn’t intend any sort of disrespect whatsoever.

[There is much more that was wrong about XY’s behavior, but I’m not really writing this to complain (honest!), but as an example of some recent poor composer behavior.]

Now, this was a fairly extreme example, but I can say with a fair amount of certainty that at some point in all of our careers we’ve behaved poorly to some degree. In some respects, I think it’s part of coming of age as a composer. But there does come a point where such things must be left behind.

This isn’t to chide, but to remind that we must be aware of our behavior.

Because it’s by the good will of our performers, audiences, and composer colleagues that we gain any measure of success.

A composer can’t expect to gain a base of performers if they can’t be relied upon to treat performers with respect and courtesy. XY thought that there was no problem interrupting constantly, and asking for several-hour last-minute rehearsals because they’d mismanaged earlier rehearsal time so badly, because it was their piece – their baby. (Yes, that phraseology is awkward, but I’m hell-bent on avoiding gendered pronouns of any sort.) Like those Park Slope mommies and daddies, XY wanted the best for the piece, even though their behavior burned every (every) bridge in that rehearsal room.

I remember one particular instance of not-so-pristine behavior in my composerly adolescence during a rehearsal of a new piece with the choir that was premiering it. I was a member of the choir, and we had literally just finished a concert. The director thought we should spend a little time preparing for an upcoming tour that would feature my new work, so – still in concert attire – we spent some time running various works, mostly mine.

It was the end of the day, we’d just spent the last hour or so singing difficult music, and we were all nearing exhaustion. In my own tiredness, I wasn’t prepared to hear anything but perfection from the choir, and got a little harsh in my criticisms of the group’s sound. Ultimately, I used a particularly inapt and slightly offensive analogy for what I wanted, and – fortunately – the director stepped in and called an end to the rehearsal. I still cringe when I remember that moment, because I knew immediately that I’d just crossed a line. Since I was a member of the group, the other singers forgave and forgot very quickly, but I know that with a choir that didn’t know me as well, I would have fared poorly indeed.

So we’ve all been there.

I think that we all need to remind ourselves periodically that we’re a part of a community – and a remarkably small one, at that – and that we’re dealing with other people who all have the same goals that we do. We all want to make music as best we can. And it’s much better to have a performance that’s a little lacking but the performer wants to do the piece again – or commission a new one – than to behave poorly and potentially burn a bridge.

Again, it’s so easy to be blindered to others by how close we are to our scores.

We should by all means be enthusiastic and passionate about our music, and strive for perfection in performances, but if we’re a part of a rehearsal, or offering feedback on a performance, we must remember that sensitivity to our performers and respect for their time and craft is important. Good will and respect are very mutual things, and it’s important to know how much and what sort of feedback is appropriate to the performer or ensemble that you’re working with.

Of course we’re all probably going to encounter situations at some point in our careers in which one or more performers are hostile to us or our music for whatever reason, but I think that here good will and respect – including self-respect – are even more important. It’s much better to come away from these situations having it said that, “He handled himself well,” than the alternative.

Remember, we’re building relationships with performers – your piece can be performed again, but once you burn a bridge, it’s difficult to rebuild.

I write the Composer’s Guide here, taking time away from my composing to do so. If this post helped you in any way, please leave a tip or a small donation on the way out. 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: Performer Partnerships

I was going to hold off a few weeks on this promotional solution, but a recent experience convinced me to move it up in the rotation.

As anyone who follows me on Facebook or Twitter knows, I recently had a half dozen of my a cappella choral works recorded by an excellent choir in the Midwest, and I’ll be making those commercially available under my own label once the recording guys are done working their magic.

I sang with this choir, the Illinois State University Madrigal Singers, from my first semester as a freshman at ISU in 2000 until I graduated in 2004, during which time the group commissioned several works from me. Since then, the ensemble has continued to commission me and perform older pieces of mine regularly, and over the past 12 years I’ve built a very strong relationship with the choir and its directors.

By working so extensively with the choir, I’ve gotten a number of opportunities that I wouldn’t otherwise have had: they frequently perform pieces of mine at festivals and conferences, which exposes my choral music to a much wider audience of listeners and potential performers; I’ve gotten some excellent live recordings; and over the past two weeks, they toured parts of Europe, performing my music on a number of exciting concerts.

By pairing with a performer or an ensemble, you greatly increase your chances to be seen and heard. As with composers who create collectives, each composer and performer brings their own audiences to the table, and provided that both of you are promoting the collaboration, each stands to gain a significant new following. By making the collaboration last for years, you’re increasing the likelihood that the performer’s or ensemble’s fans will come to have a deeper understanding and appreciation of your work, and hopefully follow your career, as well as increasing the likelihood that your followers will become long-term fans of the performers because of the dedication they’ve shown to your music.

These partnerships, of course, don’t spring up overnight. And they take nurturing.

I always view them as friendships with a musical component.

As with any relationship, these collaborations are subtle, nuanced things that require attention and reciprocity, as well as genuine mutual respect and good feeling.

There’s no one path to creating them, but I can say with certainty that there’s no forcing the connection.

In my own experience, you find performers – who are often friends to begin with – that are kindred spirits, and the professional relationship develops from there.

Possibly the easiest time and place to make these connections is during your formal education – any school that has a composition program will undoubtedly have performers running around, many of whom you’ll probably share classes with. (Obviously, this situation favors younger composers – those of us who are out of an academic setting won’t have the same access without seeming like creepy Uncle Touchy with his windowless van and promises of candy.) In this setting, it’s generally simpler to connect with performers with whom you may build years- or even life- long connections.

For those of us out of school, things get markedly more difficult insofar as most performers we meet are just as busy building their careers as we are, and we may not immediately fit into their plans for world domination success. As a result, we have to be more creative in our approaches to finding performers, and at the same time be more careful and tactful.

In my own experience, the performers who I’ve collaborated with typically have started as friends who I met outside of academia – usually through other friends or former teachers. Without exception, I have always viewed each of them as friends first, which I think is the key to the longevity of our personal and professional relationships. Which is to say: while I may have wanted them to perform my works early in our friendships, I never expected it, and never allowed it to be an ulterior motive in maintaining the connection.

I know I tend to push this idea a lot, but it’s at the heart of my personal philosophy of navigating the concert music world: the strongest connections are personal ones.

Also, when I’m interested in collaborating with a new performer, I never ask them to perform my music and expect them shoehorn it into their repertoire. Instead, I invite them to perform on a program that I’m producing (always paid!), or I ask them if they would be willing to record a piece of mine (again, paid!). I try to approach these situations with the mindset that (contrary to popular belief) performing my music isn’t the highest priority in someone else’s life – especially if we don’t know one another well -, and being paid for a gig might be a good incentive to learn the piece (and hopefully come to like it during the process).

Of course, I’m (maybe a little overly) cautious out of concern that I not come off as pushy. And “pushy” is not “me”. (Although I have been described once as “affably pushy”, which I can dig.)

But we’re not really talking about how to get performers to perform your music. </tangent>

By building collaborative relationships with performers, you not only gain the benefits of cross-promotion, you also get the benefit of creating an intensely personal body of work for that individual or ensemble, which can be incredibly rewarding. It’s a great opportunity to learn the ins and outs of a particular (set of) instrument(s), and the quirks of the performers. David Del Tredici often says that his vocal music would be infinitely simpler – and consequently less interesting and rewarding – if he hadn’t had the opportunity to work so extensively with Phyllis Bryn-Julson, who could sing with absolute ease the incredibly demanding vocal lines he’d concocted. I think my own choral works would be less interesting if I’d not had such an excellent choir to work with over so many years.

And again, for those composers with hangups about being able to talk about their own work, you can spend your time talking about the performers you’re working with, and the joys of your collaborations, to make things easier on 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, please leave a tip or a small donation on the way out. 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: Cross-Promotion

One solid way to deal with promotion in a way that removes some of the stress of promoting yourself is to cross-promote with other composers.

There are a ton of options here. Some possibilities are:

• Linking to one another on your websites
• Mentioning one another in your newsletters
• Recommending each other’s scores to performers you know
• Recommending each other’s recordings to your own fan bases
• Placing score samples of one another’s works in instrumentationally-related scores of your own
• Guest blogging on each other’s websites

The benefits here are more far-reaching than merely getting your name out there a little more. Sure, you’re being exposed to a whole new mailing list or potential fan base. But you’re also sending a lot of subtle yet important signals at the same time.

These explicit endorsements of your colleagues say different things to different groups, all of which can only be good.

By recommending another composer’s work to performers and listeners, you’re showing them that you’re not just out for yourself – you care about that composer and their music in particular, and also about the musical community in general. Community-building isn’t something that we as composers have traditionally been very good at, in large part, I think, because we tend to view our colleagues as competition – competition for jobs, competition for performances, competition for awards – and not always as fellow travelers whose goals we share, and with whom we can work toward mutual success. This sort of community-mindedness is, in my perpetually humble opinion, a very attractive quality in an artist, from the viewpoint of a consumer of art. I, for one, listen much more favorably to a composer’s music when I know that they interact well with performers and other composers.

You’re also breaking through the me-me-me-ism that people probably expect in your newsletters and other promotional materials. Devoting that bit of space or time to someone else who you believe in can be a breath of fresh air. And for those of you reluctant to talk solely about yourselves, this gives you an out – by plugging someone else, too, you’re not just talking about yourself. (Sometimes I think that these little ways of thinking can be very helpful in drawing shy and nervous composers out of their shells – it lets them off the hook in small ways that hopefully make self-promotion more comfortable.)

And we shouldn’t ignore the fact that we live in an age when people are interested not just in what an artist creates, but what inspires her, and what her interests are. So these little endorsements are easy ways to let your followers know a bit more about you as a person and as an artist, as well as introduce them to more art that they’ll hopefully be drawn to.

Another option, for those who are so inclined, is to put promotional materials for other composers in the backs of your scores. I’ve started doing this myself, in a limited way. This is a practice that I appropriated from traditional publishers of decades past. All of the older scores that I’ve purchased have a page in the back listing additional pieces with similar instrumentation published by that company. So, in the score for a song cycle, one page at the back of the publication (sometimes the back cover itself) is dedicated to other songs and song sets by composers of roughly similar style and time period.

Now, likely you aren’t publishing other composers’ works. But there are undoubtedly composers whose works you admire, and which you’d like to introduce people to. I recommend sticking to instrumentally-related scores – it would be a little silly to promote a trumpet piece in the score for a string quartet.

I have my own way of formatting these things, but it’s still a little clunky, and I’m working out the kinks. I like to have the cover of the piece I’m recommending available, along with a sample page. But a simple listing of similar pieces along with the composers’ website URLs would be just as effective – as well as a little easier to pull off.

An upshot of the digital age is that many of us have blogs that we update with varying degrees of frequency. It’s worth considering having guest bloggers on your site. By having other composers or performers or whomever write a short post (probably in some sort of reciprocal exchange) you:

a) give them an additional outlet to post to,
b) introduce them to your audience,
c) offer a change of pace for your own readers, and
d) hopefully gain additional readers and site visitors when your guest mentions their appearance on your site.

Maybe try to set up a blog tour with composers who you’ve created relationships with. Each of you can visit the others’ sites for interviews, articles, video posts, whatever you want to do. There are lots of resources online offering advice and suggestions on how to set up and manage a successful blog tour (mostly for authors, but the advice is almost always pertinent).

Of course, these options don’t need to be quid pro quo arrangements (and I believe that they generally shouldn’t – I prefer being generous with those composers I believe in). I’ve taken it on myself to put samples of other composers’ works in the backs of some of my own scores not expecting anything in return from them. Not that I wouldn’t appreciate anything that they might do to promote me, as well, but my intention is to endorse those composers because I like their work.

Your promotion and endorsement of other composers – as in all things – should be genuine.

These promotional solutions, as well as that of composer collectives, are predicated on the idea that the business of concert music is not a zero sum game. We’re not really competing with one another – we’re in this together. And a rising tide lifts all boats.

I write the Composer’s Guide here, taking time away from my composing to do so. If this post helped you in any way, please leave a tip or a small donation on the way out. 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: Collectives Part 1

One of the things that makes self-promotion so uncomfortable for people is talking about themselves – specifically talking themselves up. It’s just you saying how great you are.

One way to alleviate some of that anxiety is to band together with other composers, forming a collective of sorts. There’s no one way to do this, and the best solution is one that you and your fellow collective members are all comfortable with.

These collectives can operate in a number of ways: as PR machines, issuing press releases, and sending email newsletters and announcements; as production companies, presenting concerts of the composers’ works; or as publishers, issuing scores, handling royalties and licensing, and doing promotional work for the composers it represents. The possibilities go on and on, and can be mixed and matched in any combination that works best for the collective’s members.

In these arrangements, each composer naturally brings something unique to the table, not the least of which are the strengths of their music and reputations. But they also bring with them a built-in audience, as well as the various skills that each composer wields outside of their musical prowess.

When I ran the Tobenski-Algera Concert Series with Jeff Algera, we both had different skills that helped the series to gain attention and a solid reputation: we both had significant experience designing and building websites; I had a good mailing list in the City, as well as a growing donor base to draw on; and Jeff was a great organizer and detail man, especially on the days of the concerts themselves, when I was often busy preparing to perform (another asset I brought to the table [I frequently performed – always for free – so that we had lower operational costs]).

Here are a few other brief examples of composers banding together successfully:

• With some collectives, like the New York Composers Circle (http://nycomposerscircle.org), dues are charged to help defray the group’s expenses. The NYCC also hosts monthly salons to showcase members’ works, and presents regular concerts featuring works by both members and non-members alike.

• In contrast to the NYCC’s semi-open membership, Sleeping Giant (http://www.sleepinggiantmusic.org/) is a group of six Brooklyn-based composers of varying focuses and styles who present concerts together.

• Red Poppy Music (http://www.redpoppymusic.com/) was formed by Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe to publish and promote their own music. The company has since gained distribution through G. Schirmer. (And founded a little thing called Bang on a Can.)

• And none of us could have made it through our musical training without learning something of Les Six and The Mighty Five. ‘Nuf said.

Just Googling “composer collective” reveals a startling array of groups in the first page of results – clearly this is not a new idea, but one that many of us overlook.

PR
For a number of reasons, it’s often much easier to talk about your work through the filter of a larger organization.

For one, you’ve got the benefit of there being safety in numbers. You’re not just advocating for yourself, you’re advocating for a group that you happen to be a part of, which can alleviate the stress of having to talk about yourself exclusively, so that you can take advantage of the mode of thinking that, “This email blast isn’t from me, it’s from us.”

Also, being a part of a formal or semi-formal group can create a sense of distance – a sort of wall that separates you from the group that you’re sending updates to. I figured this one out when I started the NewMusicShelf – the act of speaking for and as a company felt wildly different than speaking as and for only myself. I knew that the people I announced the existence of the site to who knew me were aware that my music was there, but I didn’t feel a) the need to push myself exclusively, or b) the minor anxiety that often goes with saying, “Hey! Look at me!”

The same was true of the Tobenski-Algera Concerts. Granted, my name was the first half of the name of the series, but the fact that I could speak as the organization granted me the latitude to speak of myself as just another of the interesting composers whose works were being presented, rather than saying, “Check me out, I’m awesome!”

Another advantage to banding together is the ability to expand your circle of exposure to the mailing lists of your fellow collective members. Now, this doesn’t mean swapping your contact lists and suddenly sending emails to a person who hasn’t “opted in” to receiving your personal newsletters just because they’re a contact of one of your friends. But by convincing your contacts to joining the group’s mailing list (and attending the group’s concerts, or buying the group’s album, or just listening to the audio samples you’ve got on the group’s site), everyone benefits because of the wider exposure.

There’s an ethics to the whole mailing list thing that must be acknowledged. I think a good rule of thumb is asking yourself: “Would I like to receive regular mass emails from a stranger or vague acquaintance? Emails that I didn’t ask to receive?” The answer is probably, “No.”

What I’d recommend in this instance is to invite your contacts to join the list of the group. Offer them an MP3 of your music if they sign up (and be sure they get the MP3!). Take a page from Permission Marketing (and while you’re at it, Seth Godin’s blog – he’s got some great ideas in this area and many others) and give your fans an incentive to follow the group.

Publishing Company
This particular solution is probably the least useful now that self-publishing is no longer as stigmatized as it was. With so many major composers having taken on the role of their own publisher, it’s no longer necessary to hide behind a distinguished-sounding name to be taken seriously.

However, publishing your works with other composers can offer a few perks. There’s the increased visibility: the followers of the other composers will regularly see your name when they visit your publishing company’s site (because you’re going to have a site, no ifs, ands, or buts). And if you each bring a different skill to the table – score design, engraving, organization, bookkeeping, web design – you can make life easier for each other. Plus, you can pool some financial resources to make things less cumbersome than they would be if you were going it alone.

On the other hand, you all have to be relatively equally committed to the endeavor, especially since there are finances at stake. Each member will have to pull his/her own weight, or resentments and major conflicts are inevitable. Bookkeeping will be especially important since publisher royalties will be paid to the company, and will have to be divided accurately.

Pooling Resources
In my eternally humble opinion, the pooling of resources is where the money is at, so to speak. There are tons of ways to make this one work without the long-term, far-reaching commitments of publishing that you may not be ready to make at this juncture, but that allow everyone involved to benefit enormously. The pooling of resources can be as formal or informal as you and your compatriots like.

One example of an informal resource pooling is a bartering arrangement – trading the use of skills to mutual advantage: web design, engraving, extracting parts, writing press releases and promotional materials, proofreading materials, performing. In essence, if Composer A has a skill that Composer B lacks, and Composer B has a skill that Composer A lacks, each can help the other out by bartering services. This may not be quite a “collective”, but it definitely helps to create a sense of community and shared goals – nothing to scoff at.

The Tobenski-Algera Concerts’ beginnings offer another example (maybe one of the stronger ones, in my experience) of how composers pooling their resources can be used to significant mutual advantage. When we started the series, we typically programmed works by a central core of young composers, with several others (including one “master” composer) thrown in. This central group divided expenses equitably to make sure that no one or two composers bore the bulk of the financial burden. In one of our earlier concerts, we hired eight musicians, and the costs of the performer fees, the space rental, and the high-quality recording ran in excess of $3,000, which none of us could ever have afforded individually. But because of the way we split the expenses (minus the box office), none of us paid more than $400 – a reasonable price to pay for a solid performance (well-played and well-rehearsed) plus a good recording for use in our portfolios. As the series matured, and we started putting out calls for scores, we stopped asking for composer contributions and started fundraising in earnest. But those early concerts worked as well as they did because the group was willing to pool our resources – both financial and otherwise – to make the concert as successful as possible. And as fundraising became more and more of a necessity, Jeff and I shared those responsibilities, as well – pooling our donor bases and mailing lists effectively.

And producing concerts with like-minded colleagues is not only much easier to handle financially than going it alone, but is also an infinitely more proactive approach to building a career than waiting around for someone else to perform your works.

Recording as a group also helps out immensely. For example, if each member of a group of composers has a piece that falls within the bounds of a particular instrumentation, the group could hire an ensemble to prepare and record the piece, rent a studio, and hire a recording/mixing engineer to record each of the works. Sharing the expenses makes much more financial sense – for a fraction of the cost, each composer walks away with a solid recording.

And if the group is so inclined, they can release all of the recorded together works on a compilation album. Although the divvying up of sales would take some solid bookkeeping (not to mention a well-written agreement among the members for equitable distribution of royalties), each composer would benefit immensely from the others’ promotional efforts in getting the album to reach a wider audience. And in this day and age, it’s almost obscenely easy to get an album onto iTunes, and equally simple to sell copies from the composers’ websites. (And let us not forget the selling of recordings at concerts!)

I really think that when composers band together to help one another out, the sky’s the limit. Seriously, dream big, and see where working together can take you.

I write the Composer’s Guide here, taking time away from my composing to do so. If this post helped you in any way, please leave a tip or a small donation on the way out. 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: Marketing & Promotion

I started this essay last week, but had so much going through my mind on the subject that I got a bit paralyzed. So what I’ve decided to do is to spend this week talking about attitudes and general concepts, then spend the next few weeks on potential solutions.

This is a topic on which my thoughts are still evolving in subtle ways, so I fully expect to contradict what I write here at some point, maybe even contradict myself within the confines of this essay. But it’s something that I feel compelled to write about now, even though some of my thoughts are still working themselves out.

One thing is for sure, though: more often than not, I’m annoyed by people’s attitudes toward promoting their works. Most of us are uncomfortable doing it, sure, but there are some logical, perfectly-ok reasons for that which I think we’re all capable of getting over. What bothers me are the bizarre “philosophical” objections to promotion, as though wanting to introduce people to your own music is some horrible moral failing.

Some of this stems from a basic misunderstanding of the concept of marketing, and a general tendency to conflate the concepts behind different types of promotional efforts.

Marketing is a broad term that encompasses a number of different activities: advertising, pricing, interacting with consumers, distribution, etc. In a nutshell, it’s all of the ways that you present yourself and your works (or your business and your products) to the world. (Here’s an interesting pictorial that shows some of the differences.) I think we tend to conflate marketing and promotion with advertising, which is much narrower in scope, specifically a (usually paid) non-personal exhortation to buy a particular product: buy this vacuum cleaner, eat at this restaurant, lease this car.

For a composer, marketing (as it currently stands in my mind) really comes down to a handful of things: learning who your “fan base” is, learning how best to communicate with them, and finding ways to reach more people to connect with.

Much of this business (any business, really) is making connections with people. Because we’re artists, we’re capable of connecting on a very different level through our works as well as through our personal interactions, and it’s through making these connections that we’ll find the most successful and rewarding solutions to our promotional squeamishness.

Most of us are fairly squeamish about self-promoting, and that’s perfectly understandable: as David Smooke points out in his excellent essay on the NewMusicBox, we’ve all been trained not to brag about ourselves, and people get bored listening to someone who talks too much about what they’ve accomplished. Because of this squeamishness, and because composers tend to have an innate shyness, we often drop the ball when we’re in situations where we should say a little something about what we’re doing or have done.

Case in point: a few years ago, I attended the premiere of an opera written by my then-teacher. Afterward, I ended up in conversation with the librettist, who’s won just about every major poetry award imaginable, and he kept asking about my own work and accomplishments. The conversation ended up being disappointingly short because my hypertrophied sense of modesty caused me to repeatedly deflect his earnest interest in me, and ask about him instead – he was the one with the major career, after all! At my next lesson, when I related my impressions of the incident to my teacher, he chided me for having repeatedly attempted to steer the conversation back to the poet – he didn’t want to talk about himself because he’d already achieved major status; I, on the other hand, was just starting out, and he found that much more interesting because I still had my career and major accomplishments ahead of me. It was a perspective I hadn’t considered (especially since I was a little star-struck), but it’s made me a little less reticent to talk about projects that I’m working on – especially when someone asks!

It’s a fine line, being able to talk about yourself and your works in a way that’s appropriate to the occasion without dropping the ball or being a bore. And it’s something that we all need to learn how to do. This is something I’d like to talk about a bit more in-depth, and comments are definitely encouraged. I’m currently working through an approach to this issue that I’ll report in on when I’ve had a chance to test it out.

So on to some specific marketing thoughts:

My Music Should Speak for Itself
One cop-out to promotion that I’ve heard a few too many times is the idea that the music should speak for itself, but the plain fact of the matter is that it can’t unless it’s heard. Yes, the merits of a piece should convince an ensemble to perform your music, but that won’t happen unless the ensemble knows about you / your piece.

You’re going to have to advocate for your own music on some level. And you are, indeed, the most qualified person to do it – you know your work better than anyone else, and you already have a strong, built-in connection to it. The challenge here is learning how to speak for and about your music, and to find the people who would be interested.

I’d Rather Be Writing
This one, I hear a lot. And I understand it. We’d much rather be writing music than dealing with businessy things – it’s why we’re composers and not accountants. But.

As I’ve said before: remember that this is in service to your music. You are searching out opportunities for it to be performed, recorded, heard. Finding performers and listeners who are interested in your music shouldn’t be seen as a distraction or a major imposition. You’re looking for people who will connect with your music.

Advertising
One idea that I keep coming back to as I mentally chase my tail on all of this is that advertising just won’t work for individual artists. This likely doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but I think it bears saying. Maybe I’ll change my mind on this one down the road, but I doubt it.

Because advertising is by nature impersonal, and the arts are by nature intensely personal, putting an ad out for this or that score, or sending brochures for your catalog to ensembles, isn’t likely to get you the result you’d like. In fact, you’d probably weird people out if you did it.

But beyond that, advertising just isn’t an effective tool in general. Ads usually don’t convince us to buy anything. At best, they let us know that a product exists, and we do our research from there.

Usually, we make decisions on what concerts to attend, what CDs to buy, what performers or composers to follow based on the recommendations of people whose opinions we trust, and the reputations of the venues, ensembles, and composers themselves.

Knowing Your Market
As a composer, you have essentially two primary “markets”: performers and listeners. (There are others, but these are the biggies.) However, your performer market isn’t comprised of all performers of concert music. My music, which is entirely acoustic, probably wouldn’t be interesting to performers and ensembles that specialize in electronic or electro-acoustic music; nor would it likely be a good fit for ensembles that dig on experimental, avant, or otherwise non-tonal music. And I definitely wouldn’t be a consideration for a group that has no interest in music outside of the standard classical repertoire. Each of us has a broadly specific range of performers and ensembles that we can consider our “target market”, and that target market varies from composer to composer. The same is true, although probably less strictly so, with our target listening market.

Our challenge is to figure out what those ranges are. There are people out there who, if they knew your music, would enjoy it, and would be interested in performing your music or following your career. As a marketer, it’s your job to find them – at least some of them.

How can you know which performers and ensembles might be interested in your works? Well, start with their websites. See what they’ve performed before – if your music could fit in with their repertoire, you’ve made your start. The question then, of course, is what to do with this information. And that will be the focus of the next few weeks.

Again, here I’m going to ask for input from performers and ensemble members on your perspectives on connecting with composers; and from composers on how you’ve been successful (or have failed) in the past at making these connections.

Making the Connection
You’ll notice I’m not saying that you should just start mailing scores off higgledy-piggledy. There are approaches here that are appropriate, and I think that the key is in a word that I’m using a lot this week: “connection”.

A short aside: It’s a little weird for me to separate the ideas of marketing and networking because I tend to see it all as making connections with another person. Marketing/promotion, obviously, is more result-oriented: you’re attempting to have a piece performed or heard. But I think that your efforts in these areas are more likely to be successful when you’ve made a personal connection, and that’s where my thoughts on networking start to intrude.

I’ll definitely be talking about networking in more detail later on, but briefly, here are my thoughts in a nutshell: in a networking-type situation, my goal has always been to meet people on a human, two-people-who-could-possibly-become-friends level rather than in a hunting-for-someone-who-can-do-something-for-me sort of way.

And to me, the same goes for connecting with your potential markets: there’s a give-and-take, a mutual genuine interest, that goes with all of this.

Next week we’ll start looking at a few possible approaches we can take toward marketing and promoting our works, both in terms of specific scores and our musical output in general.

So tell me: composers, how do you connect with performers? And performers: how do you connect with composers?

I write the Composer’s Guide here, taking time away from my composing to do so. If this post helped you in any way, please leave a tip or a small donation on the way out. 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: Print vs. Digital

Print vs. digital. Print scores or digital scores?

Of course, it’s not a question of either/or. But how can a nearly-thirty-year-old (!) American raised on the evening news not open with a sensationalistic and misleading pseudo-question?

A business-savvy composer with her eye on the changes taking place within the industry will see that print and digital scores are a logical complement to one another. Print scores continue to fulfill the needs of and carry on tradition, while digital scores offer more immediate access for a generation of musicians steeped in technology, and that embraces the digital revolution of the 21st century.

While few composers neglect the print side of the business in favor of digital scores (although I must confess that my efforts are generally – and obviously – more geared toward digital, and I would be a bit better served if I found more of a balance between the two), most have yet to hop on the digital bandwagon, as it were.

I think that there are a few reasons why the digitization of scores is still in its infancy.

For one, I think that people forget that they have some wonderful technology at their disposal that wasn’t there a few years ago, which can help them to accomplish so much. The ability to create PDFs – and when I speak about digital scores, I’m speaking primarily of scores and parts in PDF format – has come a long way in the last few years. The Open Software movement has offered a number of PDF creation tools that are remarkably sophisticated, while proprietary products with full technical support like Adobe Acrobat have become infinitely more affordable.

Why do I automatically speak of digital scores as being in PDF format? Simple: accessibility.

Everyone has full and free access to Adobe Reader (do people use other PDF reading software other than maybe Google Docs?). Very few non-composers own Sibelius or Finale or Score or whatever notation software you may use to create your beautifully-engraved scores. Consequently, to offer scores in one of these formats as opposed to as a PDF strikes me as self-defeating.

Digital Springs from Print
In my creating my own scores, I prepare my files to be printed in one fell swoop – everything in one file, which gets uploaded to my Dropbox account. That way, when I need a bound copy of one of my scores, I just email it off to the printer. No muss, no fuss. My files are formatted to be printer-friendly so that they’re always ready, and require as little effort to print as possible.

In the process of putting my print score together, of course, I’ve generated a full digital score, including the cover and everything else that needs to go inside. Ensemble X is hosting a competition with electronic submission? I’m already prepared. Performer Y has a call for scores out? Point, click, send.

So, in preparing my print version, I’ve coincidentally created the digital version, as well. And the whole process could hardly be easier.

My process, in brief, is this:

1) I create my score in Sibelius
2) I create my cover, notes, texts, etc in either Microsoft Word or OpenOffice (depending on my mood that day)
3) I print my score to a PDF using Adobe Acrobat Professional (any PDF creator worth its salt will come with a printer driver that is installed automatically, allowing you to “print to PDF”)
4) I print my cover, notes, etc to one or several PDF files, depending on whether or not I’ve created them in one or several documents
5) I use Adobe Professional to append the files to one another (Document -> Insert Pages, if you’re wondering), creating a single PDF file.

And voilà! A full digital score!

Let me offer as an example this song I wrote in 2009, To a Western Boy: tobenski-t82-v2009-3pdf.pdf

The cover was created in Microsoft Word, the score itself in Sibelius, and the back page (a “stock” page that goes at the back of every score, and which I have always available) also in Word. All were printed as PDFs, then aggregated to a single document and saved. Because the song is so short, I decided to forego any additional pages in the score so that it could be printed on a single 11″x17″ page and folded, like many older short songs from legacy publishers were printed on a single 12″x18″ page.

It’s simple and economical – any additional pages would complicate the matter too much. Were I to add any more, I would have to either add two pages’ worth of material, which would necessitate the buyer to print on one sheet of 11×17 and one page of 8.5×11 (or, more simply – three sheets of 8.5×11), or a whole four pages’ worth, which would be a silly waste of space and of paper.

Digital Concerns
As the founder of NewMusicShelf.com, I spend a lot of time pushing people to take the digital leap, and consequently talking people off the ledge when it comes to their concerns about sending digital copies of their works out into the world.

Concern number one is the big topic that has been highly visible in art-business circles: piracy.

I’ve already written a big post on DRM and Piracy here, so I’ll just give the salient points with a little new elaboration.

Piracy, for the most part, stems from a demand for a work that is either unavailable or priced beyond the means of the people who want it. A thirteen-episode series of Doctor Who (squee!), last I checked, retails for around $50 (when I first started searching, they were $99 apiece), which is a lot more than this sci-fi dork can reasonably afford for something like a DVD box set. I adore the show, and would love to own it, but it’s too expensive for me. A lot of people are in the same boat. Consequently, all six series of the new Doctor Who ($300 in all, plus tax) are particularly popular on various file sharing sites.

The hundreds (probably thousands) of wannabe Companions would happily buy the whole thing to watch over and over and over if the DVDs were only more reasonably priced.

And therein lies lesson number one about piracy: piracy can be combated with affordable pricing. Just think about how many scores you yourself would buy – and not photocopy from the library (just admit that you do it) – if they weren’t so prohibitively priced!

Another television example (since that’s where a lot of piracy is happening): Game of Thrones (god, I’m just putting my nerdiness on display here, aren’t I?) was almost impossible to get for months after it finished airing. The DVD set wasn’t due out for months, and streaming versions were only available by buying or upgrading your cable package. In fact, there’s a great dissection of the whole scenario here – check that out for a wonderfully pithy (and swear-tastic) explanation. Piracy, in this case, was just about the only option for many people (fortunately, I’m blessed with a boyfriend whose parents had an HBOGo account just lying around unused).

And that’s lesson number two: piracy can be combated by making your product available and easily accessible. Fighting piracy with scarcity – by removing the product from the market, or making it prohibitively difficult to obtain, or by putting the release date off for an obscene amount of time – only encourages piracy.

And so it is with your scores. If you’re afraid people will share your scores without paying for them, then make it easier to get them and easier to afford them. Don’t undervalue yourself, but don’t insult the people who want to buy your scores.

The corollary to all of this is lesson number three: the artist’s enemy is not piracy, it is obscurity. Which problem would you rather have? People want your music so badly that they’ll resort to piracy (which we know you can combat), or people don’t know where to find your music/can’t afford it, so no one bothers to perform it? I think we both know the answer here.

Another concern I’ve encountered has to do with page size. For those composers who insist on adhering to the traditions of using outsized paper, digital scores are a bit harder to justify. Either there needs to be a big neon sign attached to every digital score that uses odd-sized paper in order to warn the buyer of what they’re getting, or a second version of the score needs to be made to accommodate regular sized paper. (Scaling is maybe an option here, but then the size of the printed music can be a little too small.) I don’t quite have an answer to this one yet – while I format my scores to 8.5″x11″, I understand the allure of slightly larger pages: they really can be nice. I welcome input on this point – how do you reconcile the issue?

A third concern that I’m going to acknowledge here, but tackle in a few weeks, is how to sell the digital score. How does a composer go about putting his digital scores out there, collecting payment, and delivering the files in a way that doesn’t require constant attention? We all know I’ve got solutions to this one, so I’ll address it when we get to distribution.

So Why Digital?
To the question “Why should I embrace digital?” I can really only respond, “Why not?”

You’ve already got the files ready to go.

Also, the overhead of selling digital scores is almost nil. Print scores come with the costs of printing/binding/postage – a necessary part of doing print business. But digital scores come only with the time cost of creating the files, which you already have to create the print version. After that, your investment is over – there are no losses to recoup. The only money you may “lose” would be the fees that PayPal or Google Checkout or whatever your payment solution of choice charges per transaction, or in the cases of NewMusicShelf and similar services, the distribution fee the business deducts per sale.

Digital scores can, consequently, be offered at a lower price than the print score because there are no print costs involved. (I think that offering digital copies at the same price as print copies is counterproductive and silly – as major book publishers do with ebooks and their print counterparts.) And despite any discount you may offer for ecopies, your profit margin is probably higher, depending on how steep of a discount you offer. In other words: less work and higher return.

In the end, I think that print and digital sales complement one another very well: print accommodates those who appreciate the Score-as-Object, and digital accommodates those who are happy to save some money and print the score themselves.

I write the Composer’s Guide here, taking time away from my composing to do so. If this post helped you in any way, please leave a tip or a small donation on the way out. 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: Score Design

Let’s take a brief break from talk about finances, and discuss something slightly more aesthetic this week, shall we?

One of my major hobby horses is the quality of engraving in a score, which I’ve written about before, and I’ll write about again in more depth in the coming weeks. This week, I’d like to take a slightly wider view, and talk about the quality of a score as a whole.

For those of you who have bravely (and smartly) decided to publish your own works, you’ll do well to view your scores as a whole product comprised of several key elements: the engraved music, the physical materials, the visual design, and the non-score inside matter.

Engraving
The score itself, obviously, should be well-engraved. The purpose of your score is to communicate to performers what you want them to play, and when and how you want them to play it. Proper, clear engraving facilitates that communication, and offers a clarity of expression that a messy or unclear score couldn’t possibly hope to attain.

While some see engraving as drudgery that takes time away from the creation of actual music, I’ve come to view it as a highly artistic part of my process. By making sure that my scores have proper spacing between notes and staves and systems; by avoiding collisions between slurs, accidentals, noteheads, etc; and by making sure that my dynamic and expressive markings are clear and well-placed, I know that I’m allowing the performer to exercise her own artistry much earlier in the rehearsal process, making for a much freer and more intimate and personal performance. She doesn’t have to wonder, “What does he mean here,” or, “How loud should I be,” or “Wait, is that a mistake?” Instead, the score tells her clearly what I want – without being too fussy, of course – so that she can get to the part where she starts interpreting and being expressive much sooner.

My engraving certainly isn’t perfect, but I know from experience that performers appreciate a well-notated score with as few collisions and as much clarity as possible. Cleanliness, as they say, is next to godliness!

For those who still see engraving as drudgery – it’s not just page turns and collision avoidance. Spacement and placing can have a huge psychological impact on a performer. Take, for example, this phrase from one of my pieces, Starfish at Pescadero, which more and more I feel the need to revisit, engraving-wise:

Although I’m fairly clear about tempo, the performance of this particular phrase is always WAAAY too fast because of the notational choices I’ve made. The sixteenth notes (consistent with the rest of the fast-paced movement) and the tight spacing always conspire to make the soprano think that the line should be sung very quickly. When I do finally make the time to correct this page, I’ll at the very least double the note values, and put each measure on its own line to give the notes and text more room to breathe.

As a performer, I’m no stranger to the value of a score whose visual aesthetic matches the musical aesthetic. I, too, have rushed through passages that were too tightly-spaced, been tense and white-knuckled through scores fraught with collisions and poor spacing, and just plain scratched my head at unclear notational choices. In one piece I performed last year, I always – ALWAYS – railroaded through major a tempo change because it happened a) across a page turn (ouch), and b) without a double-bar (sin of sins!). It’s these considerations that allow us to communicate better with our performers, and to flex our visual artistry muscles.

To tie in briefly with last week’s discussion of paper size and the idea that “My dear, it simply isn’t done,” I’d like to say that I have no intention of bucking the entire system. I think that – for traditionally notated music, which mine is – certain traditions and “standards” are there because they work. Engraving is one of those areas where I think that tradition has it (at the very least mostly) right. Engraving standards are standard because they work, and because they communicate effectively within the strange, temporally-notated world that is concert music.

Not everyone works within the standard style of notation, of course. Some modern concert works can’t be notated within the standard tradition of music engraving. In which case, I exhort the composers, still: be clear in what you want. However you notate it, notate it clearly and in a way that (should your music not absolutely necessitate your being a part of it always and for all time) communicates more or less precisely what you want.

OK, we’ll come back to engraving in MUCH more depth later, of that there is little doubt. I have examples and examples and examples of weird engraving that made my brain seize up, melt, and start dribbling out one or both of my ears, as well as a list a mile long of Recommended Reading for those wanting to learn more about the art and craft of engraving.

Materials
Two subtle considerations that can make a HUGE difference in printed scores are paper quality and binding style.

Using regular, 20 lb. bond paper for scores isn’t awful. But using a slightly nicer grade of paper can bespeak a certain level of care and professionalism. So, too, can a nicer style of binding lend a greater air of authority to your works. We all grew up with traditionally published scores, and the paper weight and quality are much higher than what’s used to run off copies at Kinko’s.

In my experience as a performer and as a producer of a concert series, I’ve seen a lot – and I mean a LOT – of scores with comb binding. While I know that a lot of composers swear by comb binding, I’m generally a little…offended by it. It’s noisy to turn pages with, multiple comb-bound scores don’t play nice with one another on a shelf or in a pile, and it’s obviously the cheapest option available at Kinko’s.

If I have to do a fast-and-dirty binding for a last-minute submission to a competition or call for scores (of which I’m never guilty…</sarcasm>), I prefer coil binding, which I know isn’t always available at some print shops (read: my favorite one). It’s just a little more…elegant…than the other cheap options.

Generally, though, I prefer saddle stitch binding for scores that aren’t a billion pages. It conforms nicely to standards for professionally published scores, and is remarkably inexpensive. It does, however, require that the number of pages in your score be divisible by four (think of 11×17 paper folded in half, and you can see why). For large scores, and scores that absolutely must lat flat, saddle stitching isn’t the way to go – a comb or coil really is right for that if you can’t manage the happiest of all binding styles: perfect binding. I’ll be experimenting with perfect binding as soon as I finish enough songs to complete my Songbook project, the cover of which you’ll see below.

Now, using nicer paper and a more elegant binding style can add a bit to the cost of each printed score (one reason not to go crazy with the super nice papers). These aren’t costs that you should eat, if you decide to go this route – instead, the costs should be accounted for in the way you price your scores. Until I re-attack the issue of pricing, see this post from last year on practical pricing: http://dennistobenski.com/news/2011/08/22/pricing-a-practical-approach/

You should also always use the best printer at your disposal. Scores printed on inkjet printers are nowhere near as crisp and neat as laser printed scores. And while those printers at Kinko’s and Staples are laser printers, they’re not always the best-taken-care-of, and can leave streaks and smudges that undermine your efforts at quality. Best to head to a good print shop, where they really know their craft, and can help you find exactly the right materials for your score. The crispness of the printing, while subtle, sends a subtle but clear message that you’re using the right equipment for the job.

These small considerations can make a real difference in the perception of your scores: they show an attention to detail and a thoughtfulness that lend greater authority to your scores, as well as show a higher level of professionalism.

Cover and Visual Design
“You can’t judge a book by its cover,” the saying goes, though we all know that’s complete and utter crap.

OF COURSE you judge a book by it’s cover! Why else would it have one?!

Similarly, scores get judged by their covers. Maybe rather less so than books, but that’s probably because the general cover design for published scores leaves quite a lot to be desired.

For good or for bad, legacy published scores have a particular look to them that inform the whole industry. If I say “Boosey & Hawkes”, you can conjure up the few major looks they’ve had in the past few decades: plain, marbled, or solid colors – with a schmancy treble clef. “Universal Edition?” Black and white. “G. Schirmer?” YELLLOOOOOWWW!! (and green).

Each publisher has created a visual brand that we associate with them.

You, too, should consider the idea of a visual brand when creating your scores.

I’m just guessing, but half of you probably just thought “Visual Design?!” and your brains exploded with delight. The other half thought “Visual Design?!” and your brains exploded in fear and dread. For the happy ones, hold on a second – we’ll get to you. For the ones cowering the corner, rocking back and forth in abject terror, take a breath, and remember that you don’t have to do it all yourself. Really.

We all have friends who have skill sets outside of our own, and those friends are probably willing to lend us a hand (especially if we float a bit of cash or a few drinks or a dinner or two in their direction – whatever you workout between yourselves). One composer on the NewMusicShelf has a friend who happens to be a painter, and he licenses photos of various of his friend’s paintings to be the cover art for his scores. They look really nice, and they lend a unique look to his scores that mark them as being from the same person.

For those of you running off in search of pencil and paper to start designing your new look, hang back a second.

Composers, in my experience, generally have a pretty horrible sense of visual aesthetics. Not all, certainly, but a significant number. When I started designing websites, the vast majority of composer sites were a total mess – especially those designed by the composers themselves. Consequently, I always advise…not so much caution as…care…when approaching a visual project like web design (which I’ll obviously be delving into pretty majorly later on) and score design. Care, and a few extra sets of eyes. It’s really easy to get so wrapped up in the giddy-making little details that we forget to take a step back to make sure what we’re doing is actually…good. So showing drafts of the work to someone else – or a few someones else – can be really beneficial.

With score design, as with site design, I always say recommend limiting the number of fonts you use, and limit them to those that are easily readable. I’ve been privy to conversations in which composers obsess over the fonts they want to shoehorn onto the cover of their latest score. “This one’s gonna be goofy, that ones’s gonna be art deco, that one’s gonna be…” horrid – a visual nightmare. For my own scores, I’ve worked to limit the number of fonts I use across the board – I have a small handful that I’ve selected as my pool of basic fonts.

Here are a few examples of my covers:

All of my score covers are based on these layouts, and generally use these fonts. As I continue to refine my visual brand, I expect to move more to this design, and similar even-more-consolidated looks:

And for inside matter – program notes, texts, instrumentation – I use a mix of standard fonts and those fonts I use on the covers. Compare these texts pages to the cover from echoes, where they’re from:

Note the continued use of the typewriter font as a highlight for small pieces of important information. The poems, for the sake of readability, are clear, reasonably common fonts – this information needs to be straight-forward and absolutely readable, not cute or clever or particularly visually interesting.

(A small design note, but one I’m kind of proud of: compare the two-word lineation of the poem “perfect” to the description of the cycle on the cover and the dedication.)

I really recommend using a consistent look or set of looks across all your scores. In other words, start to create a visual brand. My earliest visual branding, as seen in the covers for Elegy and My True Love hath My Heart, emphasized clarity over all else, and is, frankly, a little boring, which is why I’m in the process of moving toward the look of the Songbook – it incorporates the color scheme of my website, which creates an added layer of recognizability, and uses the typewriter font that is increasingly among my favorites.

Inside Matter
The non-score inside matter is just as important to a performer or ensemble as the music itself – it’s where you put your texts, list full instrumentation, map your percussion instruments (I’ve been yelled at a few times for leaving this one out), put your table of contents for collections of pieces, or give notes on whatever nit-picky notational devices that composers are known for using.

In addition to texts, instrumentation, and percussion mapping (where appropriate), I like to have a page for premiere and commissioner information – it’s a nice way to acknowledge the people who helped usher the piece into the world. Credit where credit is due. And loving appreciation.

Also, because of the divisible-by-four requirement of saddle-stitched scores, I often have an extra few pages at the end of a score that I feel weird about leaving blank, so I’ve taken to filling those pages with advertising for other scores. At the back of my Duo for Violin and Piano, I had two leftover pages facing one another, so I turned the left-hand page into “Additional Works by Dennis Tobenski” that are instrumentally related to the Duo, and the right-hand page advertises scores by other composers. (This latter bit is something I want to expand on when I get to marketing your works, so take note of it now, and think on how it benefits you, your colleagues, and the field of new music in general.)

The inside matter is a great opportunity to draw performers deeper into your music. If you have the room, put in a detailed program note that talks about the genesis of the piece, what musical and extra-musical ideas inspired it, or any particular points in the piece that you find interesting or noteworthy. Having these insights into the piece – and into you – can be a selling point for the score, or can trigger a connection with performers (and listeners, if these notes are available in the program at performances) that draws them further into your work. And that’s what this is all about, isn’t it? Connecting?

What have I missed? What have I short-changed? What interesting things do you put in your scores?

I write the Composer’s Guide here, taking time away from my composing to do so. If this post helped you in any way, please leave a tip or a small donation on the way out. 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!