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!






Redesign launched!

Well it finally launched – the newest version of DennisTobenski.com (what I think of as DT4.5)! Whee!

The redesign took a mere week of work – and by redesign, I mean rebuilding the entire site from the ground up, while keeping basic design elements such as fonts, color scheme, and the basic idea of the banner and navigation layout (and one or two minor pieces of markup here and there). Every page got a facelift, and the entire site is wider, bigger, and lighter. And the back end is super streamlined.

The launch got postponed nearly three weeks because I literally did not have the $27.86 I needed to move the site to a new hosting service. Such is the life of a newly-freelance composer/web designer! That, and the crippling debt. Well, near-crippling – it’s not all that bad. Yet.

I’ve moved a few things around: the Bio now contains a list of commissions and the rep I currently have under my belt as a vocalist, and the Gallery is now under Media full-time (for a while it lived in Media and on the main nav bar…sheer laziness). I’ve also added a new page under Extras – a list, with screencaps and links, of my web design clients. I’ll have about a half-dozen more sites to add to that page in the coming month or two, which I’m excited about. Check it out – especially if you’re in the market for a website or a redesign.

I’ve also moved my hosting, which has its up- and downsides. On the upside, I’m no longer with Yahoo! Hosting, which, when I started this site in 2005, was the best web host out there. Now, they’re barely in the game – lots of down time, out-of-date PHP & MySQL, and sloooooooooooooooow. Another upside is consolidating my hosting to one JustHost plan (I’m a big fan of this hosting service – they’ve been great to work with since I started the NewMusicShelf site 3½ years ago) – I’m saving $$, and I now have a reliable host with up-to-date tech! The primary downside is that EVERYTHING gets lost in the transfer. In terms of hosted files, that’s not awful since backing everything up is easy. It’s losing over 18,000 emails that blows, and backing up email through Yahoo isn’t an entirely pleasant experience. Plus, I spent about 12 hours without a working email address between when the transfer actually happened and when I noticed that it had happened. And the multiple backups made it difficult to track incoming emails for a few days. I know I missed a few important messages during the transition, and I’m just now noticing two of them… ::hides in embarrassment::

The biggest overall change to the site is on the Works pages. I used to have Store pages on the previous incarnation, but I did away with those in favor of incorporating commerce into the Works pages directly. So now, every piece that’s ready to be printed and sold has a cover image, sample pages, and links to buy either the print or digital copies of the score/parts. Excitement! I’ve also repriced everything based on a new pricing structure that I’m currently writing an essay about – so stay tuned for that!

So poke around, check it out, and enjoy!


Website changes ahead

In between working on sites for my web design clients, I’ve been hammering out some changes to my own site, one of which I launched recently – the new and improved Audio page, which I’m quite happy with. Probably the most substantial and important reworking I want to do is with my Works pages, where I plan to shift the focus of the page to…well, you’ll see.

But as I’ve been working on that page, I’ve been reacquainting myself with my old coding and database structures, and I find myself increasingly frustrated with my 2008 self. The website is quite a behemoth: ten major nevigational headings, a crazy amount of information on each piece, lots of media, and this blog on top of everything else! Of course, lots of sections were tacked on as time went on, so the website – from the back end – is starting to feel like one of those old houses where a room or a wing got added every time somebody got married or had a baby. After a while, you get a sense of sprawl and disconnectedness.

Consequently, the more I tweak certain parts of the site, the more I want to tweak other parts. Make this wider, that bigger, clean this up, get rid of that. And the more I want to tweak, the more fundamentally I realize I’m going to have to change the inner machinations of the site.

So this may be a longer and more time-consuming project than I originally planned. On the one hand, there’s a fair amount of drudgery in store for me. On the other, I get to clear out a bunch of old, unnecessary code, and possibly rework my database structure.

In the end, I’ll probably end up pulling a Wuorninen: A few years ago, I was hired to rework the back end of Charles Wuorinen’s site so that it functioned better and was infinitely easier to update, all without substantially changing the look or feel. It was an interesting project that forced me to reconsider some of my approaches to database design, if only because of the sheer volume of works that he’s written! This project will likely be akin to that – maintaining the basic look and feel of the site, albeit with some heavy tweaking in areas, while completely overhauling the back end.

I also expect that this series of back-end overhauls will pave the way for a complete redesign a few years down the road. This current iteration of the site is just shy of five years old, now, and I can see myself wanting a new look in the next two or three. So be prepared for a more updated look within the next few weeks!


Site Update: New Audio Page!

The past few months have brought a handful of new web design clients. And new web design clients always inspire new design ideas…some of which I can’t help but plunder for myself!

The first change I’m implementing on the site is a new Audio page, which I’ve felt has been badly in need of a new audio player for some time now. The old player was great when I first got this version of the site up and running (and this is the fourth incarnation of DennisTobenski.com, by the way), but it’s just been bothering me for the past few months. So now I’ve uploaded most of my tracks to SoundCloud, and I’ve embedded their pretty little player on the site! Check it out here.

I’ll be making a few more tweaks to the layout and functionality of the site in the coming weeks, so stay tuned!

And after a few months away, I’m firing up the Composer’s Guide again – I put up a new essay this past weekend, and there are a handful of posts in draft form ready to go up in the coming weeks. Back in the saddle again!


Nick Norton’s RSS Feed

Yesterday afternoon, composer Nick Norton, with whom I’ve had an email correspondence for at least a year, linked to a blog post from his Twitter account. The post started with one of Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics, which I read religiously. I was, obviously, hooked on Nick’s blog. Jerry McGuire may have had whatsherface at “hello”, but Nick had me at “T-Rex”. I needed to have his blog in my gigantic pool of Google Reader subscriptions.

The only problem was that Nick didn’t have an RSS or Atom feed to subscribe to.

So, I did what any web-obsessed person would do: sent Nick a Tweet asking if he had a feed. This, as I’m standing on the corner of 142nd St & Riverside, overnight bags at my feet, waiting for my boyfriend to pick me up to spend a long weekend at his parents’ house in Montauk. (Rough life, huh?) What would I do without a smartphone, to ask such pressing questions?

It turned out that, no, Nick’s site was sans RSS, despite his blog being prominent on the site. Nick uses Frog CMS (seriously, Nick, dump the Frog – it’s not worth the trouble), which I’d never heard of. As a semi-serious web designer, that was a pretty major red flag. Frog also – let me digress for a moment – hasn’t had a new stable release since April 2009, which tells me that it’s essentially defunct.

Because I’m a glutton for punishment, and I genuinely love helping out my fellow composers, I said, “Let me research this and get back to you.”

By the time we got to Bridgehampton, I had it all planned out in my brain: use PHP to create an XML file from the blog info in his MySQL database, and run a Cron job every hour to update it. Or, in layman’s terms: Use a bunch of acronyms and jargon to do magical things. Then we got to the house, unloaded the cat, had a few drinks and watched some episodes of the Ricky Gervias Show on HBOGo before crashing.

Morning came. Ok, late morning came. Ok, almost noon came, and I rolled out of bed, showered, and sat down with the laptop at the dining room table (i.e., my Montauk office). Several hours of work later, I realized that my initial plan was, in effect, stupid. It wasn’t going to work for reasons that I don’t want to talk about, largely because it’s boring and I’d like to spare your brain cells, Dear Reader.

Fortunately, Nick had sent me the log-on to his site to get things working (mwahahahaha), so I resigned myself to working within the Frog Content Management System to get things done since my original idea wasn’t going to work. *Sigh*

After several more hours, interrupted by giving the cat a bath, nearly drowning in the torrential rains while attempting to get lunch, and making dinner for the family, I finally – at 11pm – and in the past-tense words of Tim Gunn – made it work. You don’t really want to know how, even though it involves none of the XML/Cron/MySQL stuff (though it did involve some PHP, and working with code like “$this->find()”). Fewer acronyms, just as much magic.

So.

If, like me, you want to read Nick’s blog via Google Reader or whatever aggregator you use, you can now.

And the link is: http://nickwritesmusic.com/rss.

Let me tell ya – that’s a lot of work to go to just to be lazy and not have to check in on the blog regularly.

And while we’re at it…

I made a little change to my own blog recently and added a blogroll. Check it out over to the right. Or, if you’re reading this via Google Reader, come on over to the site and check out the stuff I decided is fun enough to read. I’ve got several categories of sites that I link to: the Blogroll is general stuff, including the NewMusicShelf and articles that I “share” via Google Reader; Composers is pretty straight-forward; Fun Stuff is just that; Gay News, self explanatory; and Publishing Blogs gives you a sense of the stuff that I read that makes me so hardcore about self-publishing and being entrepreneurial.

And say hello to my little Twitter feed just below the blogroll.


DennisTobenski.com goes mobile

I spent a few hours this afternoon hammering out a mobile version of the site since the regular site was never exactly mobile-friendly. The mobile version has a little less information than the “desktop” version, but is still pretty content-rich, with Bio, Works, and Calendar pages, as well as an upcoming Listen page. Mobile devices should automatically redirect to the mobile site. So pull out your phones, check it out, and let me know what you think!


Getting over the hump

Thanks to the economy tanking in September 2008, everyone seems to have had a difficult time making ends meet. I certainly know that I have. Being a composer is not a particularly lucrative vocation, being a young composer especially so. As a result, since moving to New York City in September 2004, I’ve made my living as a temp.

I give up roughly 40 hours of my week hopping from office to office in Manhattan. I’ll spend days, weeks, or even months in an office, performing mostly menial tasks – filing, data entry, and rarely (very rarely) a bit of reception work (which I invariably loathe). I was very fortunate prior to the economic crash – I had found a great long-term temp gig in the Alternative Fund Services department of HSBC. The VP who oversaw the area that I assisted was also a musician, so he understood my situation and did his best to keep me on for as long as possible. Ultimately, I was there for three and a half years, not including a several-month stint where I temped for a jewelry company. In the middle of this 3.5 years, I spent about six months as a full-time, salaried employee of HSBC – I was a Fund of Funds Administrator (basically, I was an administrator for a particular type of hedge fund) – but it was too great of a draw on my time, so I quit, left on very good terms, and was called back again as a temp when I finished with the jewelry company. I stayed until about two weeks before the crash, when every single temp in the company was let go at once.

After that, the economy was so terrible that my temp agencies had a very difficult time finding me work. From September 2008 until August 2010, I worked a total of maybe 10 weeks – not because I didn’t want to, but because the work just wasn’t there. I was fortunate in that I could draw Unemployment for a year, and I was able to design a website or two, but none of this was enough to pay the rent, let alone bills. After my Unemployment ran out, I was in pretty dire straits. Consequently, I got myself into a bit of a financial pickle, and was fortunately bailed out by my parents earlier this year. (Hooray for parents!)

The constant financial worry was obviously a major draw on my mental abilities. The anxiety and subsequent depression made it pretty much impossible to write. I even had a rough go of it during my stays at artist colonies – I couldn’t maintain my concentration, and kept feeling as though maybe I shouldn’t be there at all, if only because I couldn’t afford to travel or be away from potential jobs. And while I was in the City, I spent almost zero time writing – I would sleep embarrassingly late and then fritter away the remainder of the day. Not an existence indicative of a healthy mind.

I managed to write only a handful of works during that period, most of which had pretty strict deadlines, and it was still like pulling teeth to get me to sit down to write, even with the promise of money.

For quite a while I thought that the problem was that I didn’t have a draw on my time – that I needed to have less of my time available to me so that I would value what little time I had to write and use it properly. Now there may be some validity to this, but it never once crossed my mind until a few weeks ago that my problem was that I couldn’t think except to worry about the five dollars in my checking account and thirteen cents in savings. The worry would keep me up at night. I was afraid to buy anything. I was terrified every time I swiped my debit card, expecting that the tiniest purchase would be denied because I might not have enough money in my account.

Some of the haze finally cleared a few weeks ago on the plane en route to Santa Fe, NM to see my friends Danny and Kaity get married and hear the premiere of The Gallant Weaver, which I arranged for solo guitar as their processional. In August, my boyfriend’s sister recommended me for a freelance temp job in the Finance office at New York City Center, where she had worked in Development. That assignment lasted “officially” from mid-August to October 1. I say “officially” and put it in quotes for two reasons: 1. I’ve been asked back for a while to help out in the Capital Projects office, and 2. I’ve been offered (and I’ve accepted) a full-time position in Finance starting December 13. I’ll be taking over for a really great guy who’s been at City Center for quite a while, and is retiring at the end of the year. Big shoes to fill!

It was around the time that my boss-to-be began making job-style overtures in my direction that I started to realize that my compositional problem hasn’t been too much time on my hands – it’s been incessant, gut-wrenching, debilitating anxiety/depression over the fact that I’ve had no money for the past two years! So once there was a light at the end of the tunnel, an oasis on the horizon, I was finally able to think more clearly and realize that my creative process had been hijacked by paralyzing anxiety and a real, deep depression.

Now it feels as though a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I still have to live a little frugally until the job starts in mid-December, but I’ve been able to breathe and sleep easier.

And the music has begun to flow again! In a matter of days, I wrote a 4-minute choral work that I’m really excited to hear when it’s premiered at Illinois State University the weekend before I start full-time at City Center. I feel energized to write and write and write!

I intend to attack the Songbook Project again, and I’ve got an interesting series of short chamber works bubbling away in my brain. Also, I’ve found a direction for the orchestral piece I started at Ucross last year that I think is going to propel it into something quite good – important, even. So let’s get to work!


September Catch-up

Once again I fall off the face of the blogosphere! What have I been doing to warrant having neglected my dear, dear readers? Not enough to excuse myself, but enough to fill a short post with!

The Gallant Weaver
About a month ago, I finished a solo guitar transcription/arrangement of "The Gallant Weaver" from And He’ll Be Mine. The piece will be premiered at the wedding of my good friends Danny Stone and Kaity Volpe in Santa Fe, NM on Sept. 18.

Soliloquy
Last week I finished revisions to my first solo flute piece from 2004, Soliloquy, for Kristi Benedick, a flautist I went to Illinois State University with. Mostly, the revisions took the form of renotation of the original score into traditional notation. However, I also tightened up a few sections – dropped a few phrases here and there, and elided others. Kristi will perform the piece on November 14 at Southeast Missouri State University. She will also premiere the flute and piano version of at least a moment in Spring 2011.

Duo for Violin & Piano
I’m also revising my Duo for Violin & Piano, which should be finished soon. I’m extending the opening section, and fixing a pesky transition that didn’t work in the original.

MichaelKorie.com
I’ve picked up a new web client. (Did I tell you this? I’m too lazy to check.) I’m currently designing a website for lyricist/librettist Michael Korie, who I met through another of my clients. More news as the site develops.

Keyed Up Concerts
I started a mock-up today for another client, the Keyed Up Concerts, run by my good friend Marc Peloquin.

PatriciaLeonard.com
Next month, I start yet another site for composer Patricia Leonard!

DavidShohl.com
More websites! I’m in the data entry stage of the creation of a website for my friend David Shohl, also a composer. David was actually my first web client, but as we both have an amazing capacity for procrastination, and David later fell seriously ill (he’s much better now – hooray!), we haven’t gotten around to making it happen until now.

Split Second Piano Ensemble
Yet another website that’s in the data entry stage is for the Split Second Piano Ensemble, made of the duo Marc Peloquin and Roberto Hidalgo.

New Commission
In the next week, I’ll be starting work on a new choral work for the Illinois State University Madrigal Singers. Karyl Carlson, the Director of Choral Activities, has been a great proponent of my music, and she’s commissioned this new work for the 55th Annual ISU Madrigal Dinners, which coincide with the 40th Anniversary of the founding of the ISU College of Fine Arts. The new piece will be performed alongside two of my other choral works, Fair Robin I Love (2005) and Take All My Loves (2009), both written for the ISU Madrigal Singers.

NewMusicShelf.com
NewMusicShelf is chugging along – I’m still building the composer roster, which is taking a little more time than expected, as getting composers to put their scores together is like herding cats. However, I’ve made a lot of improvements to the site, and am still looking for ways to make the site better.

New Day Job
To top off this list of busy-making things (and in addition to a 10-day trip to visit family in Illinois), I’ve started a new short-term, part-time day job assisting the Finance Office at New York City Center. I’ll be there through the end of September, when I’m back out on the streets looking for more ways to pay the bills.


NewMusicShelf.com

About two weeks ago, I finished up another of the many temp jobs I’ve had. The end of this particular day job was a little unexpected, so the typical anxiety attendant at the end of a bout of gainful employment was considerably magnified – doubly so thanks to my financial worries over the past year. As usual, I started to worry about where my next paycheck would come from (truth be told, I’m still worrying about that).

Then I happened to read a Wikipedia article about a web comic that I particularly like (Overcompensating.com). I didn’t learn anything that I didn’t already know, but the story of the artist’s merchandising company mixed with my worry and desperation, and sparked a new idea based on an idea that I’ve been idly toying with for years.

In 2006, around the time that Jeff Algera and I formed our concert series, I started thinking about starting a small publishing company. Something akin to the Cos Cob Press. I would publish works by young and emerging composers. I did a lot of research into startup costs and general overhead costs for such an endeavor, and decided that there was no way that I could make it work without suddenly winning the lottery or coming into a large inheritance. So, I set the idea aside, and I sigh over it every so often.

Since 2006, I’ve made some significant steps in selling my own music. I set up my ASCAP Publisher account, I put together a system of identifying codes for my works, and I started the Tobenski Music Press online store on my website. The thing that I’ve not managed to do is to get people to the site to buy scores. That’s the problem – generating traffic. I’d spent a surprising amount of time during the last week of that job thinking about how to bring traffic to my site, but, while I’d come up with a few potential promotional ideas, I didn’t have a long-term solution.

What I needed was distribution.

And that’s where “Overcompensating” came into the equation. When Jeffrey Rowland – the creator of “Overcompensating” and the founder of TopatoCo (the merchandising company) – started doing merchandise for other web comics, he quickly became the one of the biggest distributors of web comic merchandise. So, why shouldn’t I do the same for concert music and start a distribution company?

The idea percolated for the remainder of the work day, then my brain went into overdrive as I walked the 4.5 miles from the office to my boyfriend’s apartment. By the end of that hour-and-a-half walk, I’d come up with the basic business model and fee structure, and pared the idea down to its essentials. At first, I thought it would be feasible to sell bound scores, but too many questions got brought up, and the idea was dependent on too many variables: who prints/binds/mails the scores? If I mail them, do I have to have them printed and bound, as well, or do the composers send me copies in advance? If the former, then the fee structure depends on the specifics of the score (number of pages, size of pages, special printing needs, weight of the bound score); if the latter, then I don’t have enough space in my apartment to act as a warehouse – I barely have enough space for me, and I can’t afford a separate storage or office space. Maybe when there’s a sale, I send the money to the composer, who then prints and mails the score to the customer, in which case, I’m dependent on every composer to be a) completely honest, and b) not a flake; otherwise, my business is made to look bad.

In the end, I decided on purely digital distribution of PDF scores. If that goes well, I can add MP3 recordings in about a year, and then start distributing bound scores as well in about 5 years.

Then started the beginning of the actual work – I needed to make the website, and get it running. I quickly found a lot of open source shopping cart software that was very trustworthy, but settled on OpenCart because of its general layout and the ease with which it could be modified. It took me a week to learn the basics of the software and how to bend it to my purposes. The site was officially live exactly a week after I’d had the original idea for the company.

I really think that this could be the “next big thing” for concert music sales.

As it stands, composers’ works are either published by a major publishing house like Boosey & Hawkes or G. Schirmer or Edition Peters, etc, or composers publish their own works. Those whose works are published through a major publisher automaticlaly get distribution through that publisher’s established channels. Those who self-publish have next to no distribution. We may sell our scores on our own websites, or we may find a way to shoehorn our scores into a site that doesn’t cater to musicians. Regardless, the only way to find our works is to actively look for them. You have to know who Dennis Tobenski is before you can go traipsing off to buy my scores. Granted, you could stumble across my site by accident, but that isn’t a long-term solution to getting exposure for my scores.

NewMusicShelf.com offers a central location for scores by self-published composers. A one-stop shop, if you will. Ideally, performers and other buyers of new music scores will know of the site and go there to look for new works, and they needn’t have a specific composer in mind when they arrive.

Also, the inventory will be very dynamic – as new composers sign up, their catalogs will be added to the site, and composers already selling their scores there will continue to create new works. The site is not dependent on the production schedules of publishing houses, only on the output of the composers who sell their works there.

I’ve spent the last week drumming up interest in the site and preparing for what I hope will be an onslaught of submissions and purchases. It’s an interesting exercise writing FAQs and Returns Policies. I’ve been trying to anticipate most questions and situations, which I know is impossible. But it’s definitely caused me to refine my ideas about the site and the business.

The response so far has been incredibly positive. Quite a number of composers are very excited about the site, and are currently pulling together their scores and accompanying information. And the performers I’ve talked to love the idea because it means a wider base of repertoire for them to draw from.

Obviously, I’m very excited!

Check it out!


Site evolution

Visitors to the site may have noticed some little changes taking place over the two or three months, and particularly in the past two weeks. Here’s a little rundown of recent tweaks I’ve made to the site.

In March, I decided to drop my Twitter feed from the front page of the site since I hardly use the service anymore. I’m not dumping Twitter completely (I’ve still left a Twitter widget on the sidebar of the blog here), but I felt that a listing of my next performance would be infinitely more useful, especially since the Twitter feed so often mimes this blog, which is represented on the front page, as well.

Less noticeable is a line at the bottom of most entries in the Works and Current/Recent Projects pages that reads “Last Updated:” with the date and time that I last edited that particular entry. I don’t expect the information to change regularly, but I feel as though it’s a nice little indicator to show how recently I’ve tinkered with the information for that particular work or project.

And in a stroke of coding genius (no, not really, though it only took me about an hour to do), I separated the Vocal works into subcategories to avoid confusion between song cycles and individual songs. I even went a step further and separated out Starfish at Pescadero for being a “Song Cycle with Instrumental Ensemble”. I like this little bit of code because it only affects the Vocal works, even though the works.php file controls all of the different groupings together. Probably not terribly exciting to the world at large, but I’m quite pleased with it.

Also, I reworked the photo gallery to look a little nicer. The old gallery was a holdover from DT.com 3.0, and it just didn’t work for me anymore. Each subgallery could only hold 5 photos, which felt very limiting. I’ve kept the subgallery headings, but placed all of the thumbnails on a single page, which allows for easier access to the photos and room for growth within each subgallery. I also find it easier to work with the Lytebox to display the photos, which frees up a lot of space on the page.

I suspect that I’ll be making more changes like this in the coming weeks – it seems natural that the site should continue to evolve.