Art First

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art first, Business second.


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

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

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

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

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

A few considerations

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

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

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

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

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

Hubs

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

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

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

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

Outposts

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

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

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

Driving Traffic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Platform Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friendly Reminder

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

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

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

Thanks!






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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks!






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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks!






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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks!






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

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

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

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

And yet.

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

Some examples I’ve seen are:

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

But.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry. No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which leads to issues of…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks!






The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: 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: 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: 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!






The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Introduction

What is this and who is it for?
Welcome to my new blog series, The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business. Every Thursday, I’ll be posting an essay on the business aspects of the concert music world as they pertain to composers. My goal is to create a resource for concert music composers to allow them to take control of their careers.

For years I’ve watched many of my fellow composers – those my own age and those who have been around for much longer – flounder when it comes to doing business. Many are downright terrified of the thought of negotiating a contract. Most don’t really understand the laws and organizations set up to protect and serve them. And few know how to go about attempting to make anything resembling a living off of the work that they do.

All of these conditions are because of one thing: fear. We’re afraid of trying to negotiate contracts, of grappling with commerce, of taking the driver’s seat in our careers. Why? Mostly because we’ve never been taught these things, and wouldn’t know the first place to start looking to find out. We’ve probably only ever been taught that contracts are binding, which makes us artsy types feel shackled and claustrophobic, and summons up the phrases “set in stone” and “signed with blood”. The thought of commerce makes us feel slimy because we’re artistes. And even if we didn’t feel icky about it, we wouldn’t know the first thing about setting up our own publishing company or finding ways to make sales – because no one ever bothered to teach us how. Why were we never taught these things by our teachers? Frankly, because they almost certainly didn’t know, themselves.

It’s my goal to try to educate my fellow composers in these types of areas.

Because honestly, contracts aren’t that scary. Negotiating may be a little intimidating for some, but with a bit of good will (and a little bit of good will can go a LONG way), the whole process can be completely painless. And what would you rather have? A contract in place that spells out your and your commissioner’s responsibilities in advance? Or a nebulous verbal agreement that leaves everything open to misinterpretation, so that if something goes wrong, neither side is happy, and nobody knows how to make it right?

And frankly, commerce isn’t that difficult, either. With a little bit of know-how, or knowing someone with that know-how, it’s easy to set up a way to get your scores in front of people who want to pay for them. The record keeping is easy, and I intend to offer some suggestions for how to make it as easy as possible.

And taking control of your career is the only way that you’re going to manage to get your music in front of people who want to play it. Nobody – and I mean nobody – is as well-equipped to make people interested in your music as you.

Why am I writing this?
One of my biggest pet peeves is hearing a composer say that they don’t care if people buy their music – they just want to lock themselves away and write. Once the initial rage subsides, I (attempt to) calmly ask them if they studied composition at a college or university. And because the answer is invariably, “yes”, (and almost as invariably, they’ve received a Master’s or a Doctorate), I ask if they’ve managed to pay off their student loans yet. Because unless we’re very lucky, we’ve all racked up some hefty loans. I feel lucky that mine only ever totaled around $20k. I have a lot of friends who owe a LOT more. So I always wonder: if you’ve spent that much money and probably racked up that much debt to educate yourself in a field that you don’t intend to make any money with… I can’t even properly form the question to complete that thought – my brain seizes up.

Traditionally, we’ve been told that maybe only a lucky dozen or so composers can manage to actually make a living without having to have a day job or take a position in academia (why most composers don’t consider this to be a “day job” baffles me to this day – it’s the epitome of a day job, only generally with crappier pay balanced by more time off – but more on that in later sections). Yet [pullquote]there’s a whole new generation of very, very young composers making a substantial living from commissions and royalties[/pullquote]. And I think there’s room for a lot more of us in this new world, not only despite, but because of, the major changes that have shaken our economy in the past few years.

The composers who will thrive in this new economy will be the entrepreneurial ones. The ones who don’t rely on the whims of grant committees or award panels, but blaze new paths by forging personal bonds with their audiences and creating their own commissioning and performance opportunities.

Yes, but why am *I* writing it?
A brief word about what I feel my qualifications are to write this series. First off, I’m an active composer – I’m completely steeped in the field, so I understand the bizarre and often dysfunctional nature of the concert music world.

I’ve also worked for a number of years in the world of finance. I spent several years working in the alternative fund services area (read hedge funds – specifically fund of funds [I know, don’t blame me for the economy!]) of HSBC Bank, and have experience managing Accounts Payable and Accounts Receivable for a major non-profit theatre company in NYC. There’s no better way to understand good record keeping and good accounting practices than to work in an arts organization with a twenty-plus-million-dollar operating budget and go through a yearly audit process.

I’m also the founder and operator of NewMusicShelf.com (http://newmusicshelf.com), an online digital distribution company for self-published composers. I created the business in May 2010 with $100 and a burning need to make a difference. There are currently 20 composers selling 300 of their works through the site, and I’m always getting new requests to join.

I also ran a successful concert series in Manhattan (the Tobenski-Algera Concert Series) for five years. The series highlighted young and emerging composers, and always got butts in the seats. And, not for nothing, after our last season, we had a budget surplus of nearly $1,000, which is pretty great for that kind of small endeavor.

Recommended Reading
A number of different books and blogs have led me to start on this project, and I highly recommend them to everyone, be they composer or otherwise. One of my biggest suggestions to young artists of any stripe is to [pullquote]learn about the other arts and how business is done in other areas[/pullquote]. Consequently, I’ve spent the past year or more engrossed in the daily upheavals taking place in the book publishing world. It’s much of my reading there that led to the creation of NewMusicShelf, my opinions on various business structures and their efficacy in music, and the way that I do business in my own career and advise my colleague friends when they ask my advice (which honestly – and startlingly to me, at least – is remarkably often).

My main suggestions for reading in the book publishing area (which I think closely mirrors the concert music world in some areas while being wildly divergent in others) are the blogs of Dean Wesley Smith (http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/), Kristine Kathryn Rusch (http://kriswrites.com/), and J.A. Konrath (http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/). All three have consistently discussed ways that authors can (read, should) go about taking control of their careers, as well as offering commentary on the near-daily fluctuations in their industry. Because the book publishing and the music publishing businesses are based on the same premise (sell copies of intellectual properties licensed from individual artists), I find that the observations offered in these blogs are really appropriate to our industry.

Ms. Rusch has also published a book titled The Freelancer’s Survival Guide, which is an almost direct inspiration for this series. The Freelancer’s Guide is available in a variety of formats: it’s available for free in blog format at http://kriswrites.com/freelancers-survival-guide-table-of-contents/, as well as in ebook format and in print. The structure of her book, and the way she went about writing it, you’ll see obviously mirrored in this project. In addition to the free blog post aspect, I too will be compiling my posts and editing them into book form when the project is over.

In the realm of music, I highly recommend David Cutler’s book The Savvy Musician (http://savvymusician.com/). I read Mr. Cutler’s book with a notebook and pen in hand, making notes whenever I had an idea for a new project or a new way of approaching the business. There were a quite a number of chapters where I couldn’t make it more than a few sentences without having to stop to jot notes for a solid 15 minutes. I remember one hour-plus-long subway ride from upper Manhattan into Brooklyn (it was a weekend) during which I was reading the book: I sat down and read a sentence or two, then scrambled for my notebook, and spent a solid twenty minutes sketching out a project that I’d only just thought of because something in those words sparked something in my brain. Two more sentences, and I spent the rest of the trip outlining promotion for the project, along with details on how to make it as effective as possible. So trust me when I say that this is an inspiring book.

Goals and Expectations
I think it’s important to set goals for projects such as this. My goal, frankly, is not to reach every composer on the planet and revolutionize the industry. Although that would be awesome, it’s not a realistic goal. Nor is it an actual “goal” – it’s a dream. Something I have no control over, but that I’d like to see happen. A goal is achievable. A goal is completely under my control. A dream, while potentially achievable, is not completely within my control.

Consequently, my long-term primary goals for the project are to a) finish it, and b) edit the blog posts into a book, which I’ll then offer in both print and ebook versions. These goals are completely under my control. I’ve planned out the structure of the series (although I have built-in wiggle room and room for expansion), and I know how I’m going to make it through – by setting short-term goals that lead to the end result. My short-term goals are the weekly ones – writing another post, getting it on the blog on Thursday, managing the discussion that I hope it sparks in the comments section. (And please do make use of the comments section!)

I’ll also be including, as Ms. Rusch did, a PayPal Donate button with each post. The reason for my including the button is that, although I very much want to write the book and consider it to be a labor of love, writing these weekly posts takes time away from my composing, which is what I Do with a capital D. So with each post, I’ll ask that anyone who found that particular essay useful to please leave a tip. It subsidizes my time away from composing, and it gives me a solid incentive to see the project through to its conclusion by telling me that someone is benefiting from it and appreciates the work I’m doing.

With that, I leave you with a parting request: please drop by the comments section below and let me know what topics you’d like to see covered in this series. Currently on the list are: copyright, royalties, performing rights organizations, publishers, distributors, self-publishing, keeping records, managing money, negotiating contracts, commissions, and marketing, to name a handful. Your feedback and involvement is going to be an integral part of the series, and I hope that the comments section can be a place to share questions, answers, triumphs, and ideas.

I’ll see you all back here next week with my first full essay on being an entrepreneurial composer!