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!


Untitled

Well as of today, I can add another major project to my list of major projects for the coming year. Dr. Carlson, the Director of Choral Activities at ISU, is ready to proceed with recording a full disc of my choral music starting in the Spring! We’ve been talking about the project on and off since December, and now that she knows her choir for the year, and she knows what her other commitments will be, she’s ready to go ahead with the project. So amongst writing Only Air, raising money for it, planning the new concert series (which is finally starting to get off the ground), and hopefully recording my song cycles this Winter, I’ll be planning the choral disc as well.

Considerations for this project are:

a timeline for recording
my monetary commitments
the recording contract
how many pieces will be on the disc / how many new pieces I have to write to flesh out the disc

I’ve been considering these things for a while, and I haven’t come up with solutions for any of them quite yet. But now that the question is no longer academic, I can come up with a solution in no time.


JFund progress

Work at the library last night went quite well. I think I’ve got the personal statement in its near-finished form. I realized that I’d left my notes at home, so I referred back to these posts since I had mentioned my bullet points here. It clocks in at just under a page, which is perfect. I’m debating over keeping headings for the different sections. One one hand, it’s more easily scanable; on the other, it doesn’t have a full flow down the page.

My budget and budget description for the Enhancement Funds are basically done, as well. The question here is whether or not to acknowledge that there will be expenses beyond the $1,500 Enhancement Funds. It’s not completely germane to the application process, but I do want the panelists to know that I’m cognizant of the larger array of costs.

The residency has been okayed on VCCA’s end after I emailed them last night proposing the week following the event, dependent upon the day job’s approval of the time off. I’ll be asking the day job today about the time off.


Caveat Compositor

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be cross-posting a series of short essays that I wrote at the NewMusicShelf about self-publishing and making good financial decisions as an artist.

It’s one of those times of the year for me: time to check out the various “opportunity listings” with the Professional Organizations I’m a member of, and put together packets for competitions and calls for scores.

The thing that consistently annoys me about these applications is the ridiculous expense you go to in order to have a stranger judge you and your body of work based on a single score. If the competition requires that you submit your scores anonymously or pseudonymously, you’re dishing out money to print and bind this one-time-use-only score, mail it, and cover the return postage. Then there’s the cost of the other submission materials: CDs for recordings; labels for the CDs; a jewel case for the CD; envelopes; paper and ink for your cover letter, resume, bio, list of works, contest entry form, and the performance history of the work being submitted; and the sealed envelope marked with your pseudonym, containing your real name and the title of the work you’ve submitted. One application with one score and one recording can cost $20. Sending two scores and two CDs? Tack on another $10. And that’s all before any application fees. So, to enter a competition requiring two copies of the score and two CDs, as well as a $25 application fee (not at all unheard-of), you’re dishing out $55 at the very least. You can see why I’m happy that more and more competitions are going to electronic submissions!

This is sort of a long way of saying that I don’t particularly like application fees. I’m already dishing out a surprising amount of money to enter a competition, so making me write a check for $25 isn’t terribly endearing. Now, I totally understand that there are administrative costs to running a competition – judges need to be paid for their time; someone has to be paid to collect and sort the applications, get them to and from judges, and put them in their return mailers and get them back to their respective composers; and there are also costs to advertise the competition – but a competition whose intent is to benefit composers probably shouldn’t be taking so much of their money, especially considering that a composer probably isn’t limiting himself to applying to just one competition. If you apply to four competitions that need 2 scores, 2 recordings, and $25 app fee, you’ve just dropped $220.

Another function that an application fee supposedly serves is that of gatekeeper. Some application fees are in place to keep out those composers who aren’t really serious about the competition – just as some colleges and universities have exorbitant app fees in order to weed out those applicants who apply on a lark, and who don’t particularly intend to go there. Ostensibly, composers who aren’t very good and whose scores would add an unnecessary burden to the process would take themselves out of the runnings. I think that, more likely, these fees serve only to keep out serious composers who can’t afford the fee (see: Tobenski, Dennis from 2004-2010).

My thought is that the administrative costs should be budgeted for in advance. Any organization that has its act sufficiently together to hold a national – or international – competition, complete with prize money, should have an operating budget that takes these administrative expenses into account. And any organization that is using the entry fees to fund any part of its prize clearly doesn’t really have its act all that together, now does it?

There’s a potential argument that the administrative costs are budgeted for, and that the application fees are a projected part of that budget. To which I can only say: “Horse feathers!” If the organization has a real budget, it does fundraising. And if it does fundraising, it can come up with the judges’ and administrative fees. And maybe it can cut some costs by going digital, to boot. Save everyone some time and money. I know that fundraising is hard, especially in this economic climate. But being a young composer while trying to pay rent, feed yourself, and be an active participant in competitions and calls for scores is just a wee bit harder. (And it’s awfully awkward when you’re being taken to task by Fran Richard at ASCAP for not applying to competitions that you’re perfectly suited for yet can’t afford to submit to because you can’t really afford your rent and bills thanks to the abysmal job market (See: Tobenski, Dennis: June 2010).)

A nominal application fee, I understand. Something to help defray costs. For example: So-and-so is already being paid regularly for their time working for the organization, so a small application fee supplements their pay for the extra hours they’ll have to work to sort through and organize all of the submissions. Or: in exchange for working from their homes, the panelists have donated their time in judging the entries, so the application costs cover postage of the application materials to and from each of the judges. A bunch of small application fees can go a long way for an organization; conversely a small handful of application fees can be very harmful to a young composer’s financial stability. And don’t tell me that young composers should be more selective in which competitions they apply to (they should, but for different reasons) until everyone in the industry stops badgering us to “Apply! Apply! APPLY!!!”

I totally stand behind the American Music Center’s caveat about application fees on their website:

The American Music Center does not encourage the charging of entry fees to composers or performers participating in competitions, calls for scores, festivals, or other opportunities. While we understand that organizations may feel compelled to charge a nominal fee to help pay for reasonable administrative costs not covered by funding, the American Music Center strongly objects to organizations that charge fees in a manner that is misleading or inappropriate, such as charging relatively high entry fees in order to fund the cost of the actual award or performance or, worse, charging entry fees while reserving the right not to award any prize at all (e.g., hundreds or thousands made by charging fees, but no commission, performance, award, etc.). It is for these reasons that we urge all composers and performers to consider carefully all opportunities with entry fees and to contact AMC directly if you have questions or concerns about a particular opportunity.

I recently came across a competition listing that rubbed me completely the wrong way. The Midwestern organization hosting this competition offers an unspecified cash prize plus two performances to the composer of the winning entry. So after dishing out $25 for your first submitted score and $10 for your second, you have the chance to win $????.??! Bestill my beating heart! If you manage to read the submission guidelines all the way to the bottom, you find out that:

The composer of the winning piece will receive half of all entry fees collected, two concert performances in [date redacted], and a performance and/or recording session recording.

Your prize, should you win, is half of the collected entry fees. In other words, the organization hosting this competition didn’t budget for an award, and are hoping that a lot of suckers composers apply. You may be the only sucker composer who enters, which means that you’ll win $17.50 if you paid $35 to submit two scores. Or everyone in the world could apply, and you’ll be a billionaire!

If that weren’t weird and skeevy enough, this is the next bit from that paragraph which is buried at the bottom of the page.

[Name of organization redacted] will have non-exclusive, world-wide perpetual license to perform the winning piece and shall have the right to record the performance for archival and other purposes, including distribution and sale of such recording. Other submitted works may also be selected for performance but will not receive prize money.

Translation: If you win, then by having entered the competition, you give the organization perpetual license to perform your piece, record it, and use the recording however they damn well please. So you are entering into a contract with the organization signing over a portion of your rights, allowing them to make money off of your works in perpetuity. And the benefit to you that is explicitly spelled out in this contract? …. Yeah, I thought so. There’s no mention of mechanical rights; royalties; the ability to veto a recording that’s god-awful; coaching, consultation, or any involvement whatsoever with the rehearsal or recording processes; or even your right to have your name on the recording next to the title of your piece. Skeevy.

Taking a step back for a moment, most arts organizations operate on the policy of good faith. In a recent conversation I had with a pretty major agent for composers, it was further driven home to me that most contracts in the concert music world are mostly for show. Even with a major commission, the contract is never truly followed, save for the dollar amounts that should be written on checks to the composer. The whole transaction happens purely on good faith. My recent blogular hard-assed-ness to the contrary, I totally stand behind the practice of operating on good faith. We are artists, after all, not divorce attorneys!

So the problem that I have with this particular competition is that this paragraph clearly outlines the composer’s obligation to the ensemble, but not the ensemble’s obligation to the composer. Because it’s buried at the bottom of the page, and it uses such phraseology as “non-exclusive, world-wide perpetual license” and “shall have the right”, in my mind it belongs to the slimy world of fine print. I half expected to see “Some restrictions may apply,” or “Void where prohibited,” tacked onto the end. It just seems to nullify the idea of good faith.

I’m willing to believe that this competition is legit, but that it’s just very poorly managed. And it’s very unfortunate that someone in the organization felt the need to make such a slimy grab at the entrants’ rights. They want to perform the piece? Great, they’ll have to pay royalties. They want to record it? They’ll sign an agreement with my publisher (i.e., me), outlining the fee for the mechanical rights, and ensuring that I’m either involved with the preparation of the piece or have the power to veto its use on the disc should I be unhappy with the result. It’s not just in my best interest that the recording be good – I should hope that the censemble would want that, as well.

This is the sort of competition that makes me question all the others, and I don’t want that.