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 1: Application Fees

[This is part one 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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A recent Twitter conversation, paired with a competition announcement (also on Twitter), prompted me to immediately start scribbling notes on this week’s post. (Yes, I actually outline my posts on paper before I come here to start tippity-typing away – the same holds true for my music, for what it’s worth.)

In my day, I’ve applied to a fair number of composition competitions, so I’ve been through the process many times, and one thing that has consistently bothered me – and basically soured me on the whole competition experience – is the application fee that many of them charge. The American Music Center, before it was New Music USA, always segregated their opportunity listings into competitions with fees and competitions without fees, and made a point of saying every month that they discourage the practice of charging composers to apply. I almost invariably only ever looked at listings without fees, in part because I – like most composers I know – didn’t (and still don’t) have a lot of money, and dropping $25 for the privilege of collecting yet another poorly-worded rejection letter just didn’t sit well with me. Also, I took to heart what I understood to be the subtle undertone of AMC’s notice about fees: namely, that composers should think twice before applying to a competition that charges a fee. Caveat compositor. Composer beware.

To this day, on the off chance that I feel like looking through the American Composers Forum’s listing of composer cattle calls, I only ever look at those competitions and calls for scores that don’t ask the composer to pony up more of their hard-earned cash. Because, as I’ve said before and will undoubtedly say again: entering these things is expensive and time-consuming enough as it is without the indignity of having to write a check for the privilege of probably being rejected. Printing and binding scores, putting together a CD, writing/updating whatever bios/composer statements/program notes/CVs/etc, postage – all come with time and money costs.

Over the years, I’ve heard a number of justifications for application fees, all of which I’ve found to be increasingly lame.

Before I launch into the justifications, let me just say that I know that every organization that hosts a competition means incredibly well, and wants to foster new music and living composers – for which I (and all composers) are incredibly grateful. But certain practices are no longer in keeping with the times, and have proven to be either ineffective or actually harmful.

Serious applicants only
I can’t count the number of times that people have tried to justify an exorbitant application fee (or any application fee at all) to me by claiming that it prevents “un-serious” composers from applying. Weeding out the riffraff. Who, may I politely-yet-pointedly ask of these competitions, are these “unserious” composers who are flooding your mailboxes with their “unserious” applications? What makes these composers any less serious than those whose applications you actually want to receive?

This (poor) excuse is predicated on the idea that there are droves of dilettante composers who write awful music – probably horribly engraved, to boot – and have nothing better to do than to send out applications to every competition that they come across (doubtless thanks to listings such as ACF’s).

Of course, the only thing that could possibly distinguish a “serious” entry from an “unserious” one is that the composer is willing to pay the application fee! There are certainly no other easy-to-identify criteria that could immediately disqualify an entry that doesn’t meet the eligibility requirements of the competition!

Just to dial down the rhetoric a bit, let’s take “seriousness” to mean “ability to follow written instructions” or “having basic professional abilities”. Meaning, a “serious” applicant would submit a score that exactly follows the posted guidelines in terms of instrumentation, duration, performance history, submitting required additional materials, and presenting their application in a manner that is suitably professional in appearance and execution. Now, I totally stand by the need for professional standards, but to call an application that doesn’t meet them “unserious” is, in my estimation, a severe misrepresentation of the situation.

The process of putting together a submission packet takes time, care, and a surprising amount of money, so I should expect that anyone going to the lengths required to prepare one is sufficiently “serious”.

My own applications to competitions (and, just out of undergrad, schools) were wildly unprofessional in presentation a number of years ago. Not because I wasn’t “serious” about them, but because I didn’t know any better at the time – I hadn’t been taught the proper formatting and etiquette for such things. So to consider those early applications to be “unserious” badly mischaracterizes them. They were merely uneducated.

And as for applications which stray from posted instrumentation or duration guidelines: while, yes, they should be disqualified for not following instructions, they probably aren’t “unserious” in the least. I would imagine that such entrants are merely trying to find a place in the YOUMUSTAPPLYTOEVERYTHINGWHYAREN’TYOUAPPLYINGTOTHIS culture (that is foisted upon us by nearly every teacher and music administrator in our lives) for existing pieces that don’t quite fit the mold that this or that competition would have us conform to.

Really, if there are applications that don’t meet certain standards of quality (engraving) or that don’t follow the entry guidelines (instrumentation, duration, performance history, etc), those entries should be disqualified, and the judges move on. They don’t warrant the preemptive punishment of a $10, $20, or $25 application fee to make us think twice before applying.

And let’s be perfectly honest here. The only type of composer that an application fee will likely deter from applying is a composer who can’t afford to pay the fee in the first place. I speak from a decade of applying experience here. I cannot count the number of competitions that I’ve been unable to apply to not because my works didn’t fit various application criteria or because I didn’t fall within the proper age group (another post for another day – promise!), but because I just couldn’t afford to dish out the $25 and still manage to eat that week. Seriously. For all that I was “serious” about applying, I was much more serious about being able to feed myself. And I’m absolutely positive that I’m not alone in this. In fact, a colleague with whom I share a first name recently said on Twitter, “By the time I could afford to enter competitions, I was already too old for most of them.”

This excuse exhibits the absolute wrong type of gatekeeperism: it does very little to deter the types of applications that it’s supposedly meant to, and instead definitely does prevent composers who are perfectly suited to a competition, and would likely benefit from it the most, from being able to participate.

So for this reason alone, I invite competition hosts to think of the financial burden that they place on the very composers whose careers they claim to want to foster.

Judges’ fees / Administrative costs
As a businessperson, I’m sensitive to budget considerations. I am. But seriously, if this is the reason that a competition is charging an application fee, the admins need to revisit their budget and start thinking ahead a bit more.

If an organization can raise enough money to pay some sort of award, they can also raise the money to cover their administrative costs, as well as any honoraria that they want to give their judges/panelists. Because these aren’t going to be huge costs by any means. Each group will have different needs; and the smaller the group, the smaller the needs. And with electronic submissions being more and more the norm, postage and other costs are increasingly small – to the point of being either negligible or nonexistent.

Judges should be given some sort of honorarium for their participation (when the judge doesn’t waive their fee altogether and just donate their time), but I’m a firm believer that judges and panelists should also have a sense of citizenship and a belief in “paying it forward”. A panelist who insists on being paid $X to judge young composers’ works may not be the best choice for the competition.

Then there are these:

Application fees without monetary awards
I have zero tolerance for this sort of thing. I’ve posted about a competition like this over at the NewMusicShelf, and can really only consider these sorts of things to be scams, no matter how well-meaning the organizers. Anyone running a competition that charges a fee and doesn’t have some sort of monetary award needs to stop hosting that competition NOW.

Application fees with small monetary awards
Seriously, what’s the point? So I’ve dished out $10 to enter your (probably) brand-new competition, and on the off chance that I win, I get $240? Whee!

Organizations that do this sort of thing either need to stop hosting competitions altogether, or seriously get their acts together and start fundraising for the award and admin costs. If the competition is a high enough priority for the organization, then it should be done properly. But I have a nagging feeling that there are more than a few ensembles and organizations that think that hosting a competition is some sort of status symbol, or lends them greater authority and cachet. On the contrary, the organization itself should lend authority and cachet to the competition!

If an organization is truly serious about the competition that it hosts, it should have the foresight to budget for it properly. And if the organization doesn’t have proper funds on hand, it should postpone the current year’s competition and do it right next year.

And don’t even get me started on competitions that use the application fees to fund the prize money!

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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: Performer Partnerships

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

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

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

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

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

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

I always view them as friendships with a musical component.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And again, for those composers with hangups about being able to talk about their own work, you can spend your time talking about the performers you’re working with, and the joys of your collaborations, to make things easier on yourself.

I write the Composer’s Guide here, taking time away from my composing to do so. If this post helped you in any way, please leave a tip or a small donation on the way out. If you can’t afford to donate, please pass this chapter along to someone who you think might get some help from it.

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

Thanks!






The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Cross-Promotion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I write the Composer’s Guide here, taking time away from my composing to do so. If this post helped you in any way, please leave a tip or a small donation on the way out. If you can’t afford to donate, please pass this chapter along to someone who you think might get some help from it.

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

Thanks!






The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Collectives Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I write the Composer’s Guide here, taking time away from my composing to do so. If this post helped you in any way, please leave a tip or a small donation on the way out. If you can’t afford to donate, please pass this chapter along to someone who you think might get some help from it.

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

Thanks!






The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Why Self-Publish?

Alright, now that we’ve talked about some non-everyday, slightly esoteric stuff, let’s tackle something a bit meatier and more immediately applicable: publishing your music.

Let me say here and now (though I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again [and again and again]): I strongly advocate against pursuing a publishing deal with a traditional publisher. Traditional publishers, or legacy publishers as I prefer to call them, are not the institutions that they once were, fostering the careers of promising composers, and advocating for performances and recordings of their living composers. Honestly, though, I’m not sure if they ever really were what “they once were” – just as our cultural memory of the 50s as a wholesome-as-apple-pie, not-a-care-in-the-world era of happiness and prosperity is a false one, I think our memory of publishers as bastions of modern music in the style of Ralph Hawkes’ cultivation of Benjamin Britten is fabricated from equal parts wishful thinking and Stockholm syndrome. We’ve always been taught to believe that if you write good enough music – and maybe win an important prize or two – one of the big houses will swoop down from the heavens and offer you a contract to publish X or Y piece (or an exclusive contract!), and you’ll be taken care of for the rest of your life. All we have to do then is keep writing music, and our publishers will take care of the rest.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. At least not anymore. (And I can’t say as I’ve ever heard of a case where things did work like that.)

Concert music publishers today are, for the most part, antiquated subsidiaries of subsidiaries of subsidiaries of multi-national corporations. Some are still independent, but that mostly means that there’s not a larger corporate structure in place to bail them out if they get into financial hot water; although it also means that there’s not a larger corporate structure in place to shut them down if they don’t meet the arbitrary profit expectations set by some accountant sitting in a back office of one of the parent companies, and who has no interest in knowing the concert music industry or its financial idiosyncrasies. This is all to say that, like many things these days, concert music publishing has been corporatized, and is primarily interested in what will sell.

Now none of this is to say that publishers, because they’re corporate, are evil. Nor are they uncaring or lazy.

What they are is: lost.

The world of concert music has never embraced innovation or technological advances. We do the things we do because that’s how things are done, not because they’re efficient or intuitive. Some things are efficient, some things are intuitive, but most things are… tradition.

Take, for example, paper sizes. Concert music is published on 9 x 12 inch paper, while the world operates on 8.5×11; sometimes 8.5×14 or 11×17. But whenever I hazard the opinion that self-publishers should format their scores to 8.5×11 (especially for digital scores, which will be printed by others without specialty printers), at least one person in the room suddenly turns into the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey – I’m confronted with a flusteredly scowling Maggie Smith, hooting a shocked, “But my dear, it simply isn’t done!”

Publishers are locked in the same mindset. And what changes they make are either too little too late, or mere retrenchment. Most publishers, in response to flagging score sales, resorted to print-on-demand for most of their titles. This allowed them to avoid some warehousing costs, but (at least at first) added 3 to 4 weeks to the delivery time – a major inconvenience to customers. And it took most publishers years and years to create an online storefront on their own websites, which would have afforded them (after the initial investment in an ecommerce setup) a higher rate of profit. Instead, their websites pointed to various and sundry distributor sites, which sold through their own online storefronts, and took a sizable discount, leaving the publishers with less money, as well as less brand recognition: I didn’t buy this score from Boosey & Hawkes; I bought it from SheetMusicPlus. The storefronts of most publishers today are still mostly clunky, ugly, counter-intuitive, hamster-powered labyrinths of confusing nested categories and incomplete misinformation. (Pardon my horribly mixed metaphors.)

Services like Schirmer On Demand are great steps in the right direction, but they won’t, I fear, be enough to save the industry.

Although it’s all I hear in private, it’s difficult to say in public that concert music publishers are dying a slow and agonizing death. (To channel the Dowager Countess myself for a moment: one doesn’t say to a man on his deathbed, “Did you know that you’re dying?” One smiles and comments on the weather, and when one is out of earshot, tsks and tuts and well-he-brought-it-upon-himselfs behind his back.) Without a drastic shift in the way publishers do business, their continued survival will not be a long-lived one, and their various play-it-safe experiments will do little more than put off the inevitable for a few more years.

I’ll continue to pick on legacy publishers as we go, so let’s talk about happier things in the form of your alternative in the game of getting your music “out there”: self-publishing.

It used to be that the mere suggestion of wanting to self-publish was an admission of defeat, or a sign of very poor judgment. Self-published scores used to be synonymous with poorly-engraved scores of music that was, to varying degrees, unlistenable, unplayable, or just plain bad.

Now, some of the most successful composers publish their own works very successfully. Jennifer Higdon, Stephen Paulus, Philip Glass, Alex Shapiro all publish their own works and have thriving careers. No longer is self-publishing a dilettante’s game.

The advantages of self-publication are numerous, and include:
• complete control over rights, layout, pricing;
• larger profits;
• collection of writer and publisher royalties;
• the enthusiasm of your sales force – you.

Compared with a legacy publishing deal, where you hand over all rights and control, earn a 10% royalty on sales, forfeit half of your performance royalties, and are lumped in with hundreds of other composers and thousands of other scores vying for the attention of the already-badly-overworked marketing department…. Self-publishing isn’t looking so bad.

With all the control you maintain, however, come the responsibilities of:
• knowing how to engrave your scores to professional standards;
• managing your bookkeeping;
• finding distribution outlets for your scores and recordings;
• being a good spokesman for your works.

Some of you may start to balk here because <whinyvoice>It’s too much woooork</whinyvoice> and <whinyvoice>It takes up too much tiiiime</whinyvoice>.

Well. As a business, which, if you remember my chapter on the benefits of entrepreneurship, you are, these are things that should be on your mind. Every successful business owner has to think about these things: the quality of their goods or service, cash flow and bookkeeping, distribution channels, ways to let people know about their services, finding new business/clients. They’re a necessary part of establishing and growing a business. And they’re a necessary part of establishing and growing your compositional career.

Some of us are already good at some of these things. For me, engraving is a part of my composing process – although I write in a number of different ways (at the piano, at the computer, away from both piano and computer, hurriedly scribbling notes on the subway before I get to my stop), I’m always thinking about the final look of the score: how will I notate this? is there a clearer way to show that? how in the hell do I put that on the page? And I’m ridiculous about bookkeeping – I have spreadsheets for everything: performance royalty tracking, project budgets, what I owe my collaborators in royalties from score sales. I have a spreadsheet where I enter my musical income, and it analyses the data so that I can track my income by score, income by year earned, income by year of composition, and income by source. It may be a little overkill for some people’s tastes, but I know where my money comes from, and that helps me to know where my energies are (literally) paying off.

For those of you starting to get panicky over all of these businessy considerations, take a deep breath – no one is forcing you to implement everything all in one go and to understand the whole shebang out of the gate. For the rest of the year, we’ll be tackling these issues piece by piece, and exploring ways to approach each one.

For this week, your homework is to take stock of your skills as a businessman/businesswoman, and be honest with yourself about where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Consider yourself in the role of a shop owner or service provider: what do you need to keep in mind to manage your business properly? Now, compare those requirements to your composing career: where are the similarities? Where are the almost-similarities? Where are the differences that really aren’t all the different when you think about it a little bit? And what just flat-out doesn’t apply? I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that there aren’t many that fall in the last category.

So tell me: what are your strengths? And how do you intend to capitalize on them? And what do you intend to do to address your weaknesses?

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: Copyright Part 5

My apologies for my absence last week – an unexpected health issue kept me from making use of my regularly-scheduled Composer’s Guide writing time last week (I set aside every Wednesday evening from 6:00 until 1:30am to write this, though I try not to take that long!), and the rest of my time was already spoken for until today. Such is my life!

So this week I want to finish off (at least for now) our copyright discussion with one of the most controversial topics surrounding intellectual property law: the cutely-named “copyleft” movement, and its impact on how copyright law is perceived.

First, though, a brief note and a few links on copyright infringement again. One of my earlier posts on the importance of registering your works, and it was noted in the comments that wholesale theft of concert music almost never happens. However rarely it happens, though, it still does.

Take as an example the Messe de requiem by Alfred Desenclos. The Messe was composed in 1963, and published by Durand et Fils in 1967. Then in 1999, almost 30 years after the death of Desenclos, it was presented as an original work by the young composer Tristan Foison. The story is sordid and sickening. And a wonderful cautionary tale. You can read about it here and here. So who doesn’t want to register their works now?

OK. Copyleft.

The copyleft movement started in the software world: software engineers wanted certain of their programs to be freely available while still limiting certain uses of them: particularly commercial use. In other words, they wanted people to be able to use and build upon their code, but didn’t want corporations to swoop in, modify the code slightly (derivative works, anyone?), and release the minorly-edited version commercially, thereby making potentially millions of dollars on a product that they neither created nor funded the creation of. The fruits of this movement are quite robust and active still in the tech community in the form of Open Source. WordPress, OpenOffice, VideoLAN, Wikipedia, Apache, Android, Mozilla: these are all companies and products centered around the Open Source Initiative, which has its roots in copyleft. Each of them may be used and disseminated freely, and users may modify or add to them so long as they don’t offer the modified version for sale, and in most cases maintain the notice of original authorship.

Most of what we make use of on the internet is thanks to the Open Source Initiative, the GNU License, etc. This blog is powered by WordPress. Some of the cooler bits of coding on this site are my own adaptations of various codes available on sites like Dynamic Drive. If you care to, view the source of this page and see the authorship notices embedded in the site’s header material. You can bet your sweet bippy that I’m thankful for open source software.

However!

This is all tech crap I’m talking about. It’s not music.

So where does music enter into the equation?

With the advent of sampling and sound libraries, there came a wider call for freely-available sounds and sampling materials. Just as with the proliferation of powerful image editing software, there grew a need for non-copyrighted stock images. Of course, when I say a “call” or a “need”, I mean: people wanted to use things that other people made, but not pay for it.

Enough people had gotten in trouble for using copyrighted images or sounds without permission that some of them started making their own and offering them for others to use without having to pay licensing fees. Many of these are available thanks to the proliferation of the Creative Commons license.

I get a lot of questions about Creative Commons and how it compares to copyright. (There’s nothing to actually compare, but we’ll get to that.) In fact, it was an email conversation I had with a fellow composer about Creative Commons that sparked me to write my first essay on copyright, which I’ve plundered liberally for this series.

This composer argued in favor of abandoning copyright in favor of licensing under Creative Commons and similar entities. (I say “entity” because Creative Commons is a non-profit corporation. FYI.) And it was this argument that made me finally realize how little composers and other artists understand about what Creative Commons actually is, and how it stands in relation to copyright.

A lot of composers and artists I talk to seem to think that Creative Commons and similar types of licenses are an alternative to copyright. That somehow CC’s ShareAlike and NoDerivs licenses replace the need for copyright protections. CC is, in fact, a type of extension of copyright that allows creators to forfeit various and sundry of their rights so that other people can have more stuff for free.

You can see that I’m not the hugest fan.

Now, I’m not completely opposed to CC licenses, but I think that composers should be careful about using these licenses with their works.

The most successful uses of CC licenses that I’ve seen used with creative works have been with photos, sound samples, and webcomics. All of these are small individual works that help to give a creator exposure and experience while also allowing them to generate revenues in other areas.

For example, photographers can make a handful of their photos available with a CC Attribution-NonCommercial license as teasers for the rest of their work – individuals and companies that want to use other of their images can pay a licensing fee, or hire them for individually-tailored shoots. Audio engineers offering sound samples can create a tiered service: the basic set of samples are made available gratis, and the “premiere” set can be purchased for a fee.

Webcomics make ingenious use of CC licenses. The individual comics themselves, because they’re posted to sites that are accessible by anyone, and because no image online is safe for long, are all licensed under CC. It’s merchandising that earns the artists their income. Jeffrey Roland’s TopatoCo is a prime example of this, as is Randall Munroe’s xkcd comic and store. Roland’s comics Wigu and Overcompensating, you’ll notice, like Munroe’s xkcd (all three of which I adore – I have a whole folder of webcomic feeds that I subscribe to in Google Reader. If you want me to dork out some time, ask me about it.) are available via CC licenses. And fans who want to have the comics collected in book form, or want T-Rex of Qwantz fame on a t-shirt , or want a print of Cornelius Snarlington, Business Deer, can shell out cash for the comic artist’s merch.

Concert music, in my opinion, differs greatly from these media. Enough so that I find CC licenses to be ill-advised for concert music composers. I’m always willing to listen to arguments to the contrary, but for the moment, I can’t see CC (say that ten times fast!) as being beneficial to our financial or artistic well-being.

Let me explain as best I can.

Our works are highly-individualized, labor-intensive, time-consuming things that have very specific types of secondary income: score sales and print/recording/broadcast/etc royalties. By appending a CC license to any of our works, we forfeit our claim to those sources of income. And unless we write many, many works with the same instrumentation, we aren’t likely to be able to use a limited number of CC-licensed works as gateway works to the rest of our catalog. Even then, a composer with a significant number of works for solo piano would be – in my opinion – ill-advised to offer one or two pieces under CC licenses hoping to attract interest in the rest of his catalog. A photographer offers a limited number of photos under CC because she knows that those few she offers for free won’t be appropriate for every project that others may need images for. An audio engineer can offer a limited number of quality samples because he knows that while some users will be content with the free product, more users will want the full complement of samples because of a) their quality, b) their range and scope, and c) again their quality.

The concert music composer who offers a CC-licensed piano piece is offering a stand-alone work that is presumably of considerably high quality. (Why offer a work that is not your best?) That work is likely to be played more often than those that require the performer to pay for the score and performance licenses. People will, of course, buy the others, but probably rather less often.

One argument I’ve heard in favor of CC licenses is that they allow others to make use of your music to create more art.

That’s nice and all, but they can still do that without you renouncing whole swaths of your rights.

Remember the last chapter from two weeks ago when I told my little story about the visual artist who used one of my scores in her work? (I completely failed to mention, by the way, that her name is Yu-Wen Wu, and he’s fabulous. You can see the body of work inspired by my score here.) Well, I gave her permission to use my score, and I didn’t ask her for a fee or anything. She’s a friend, and I was happy to have my piece repurposed for the sake of her art, so I just said, “Yes.”

You can do that, too!

I’ve also had my works remixed by pop artists, and arranged by fellow composers. All I asked of them was that I get credit as the original author. That may sound like a CC Attribution license, but the big difference is that I retain my rights to those works for all other uses.

It’s not that I’m stingy, it’s that I don’t feel the need to renounce significant portions of my rights altogether.

If you want people to remix your work, or make use of it in some new and unusual way, you don’t have to give up your rights.

A simple solution? Put something on your website saying that you welcome collaborations with other artists, and all they have to do is email you at youremailaddress@yourdomain.com. Done!

Problems with Perception
There are a few reasons, I think, why people tend to rebel against copyright, and lean toward the copyleft movement (which I recently heard referred to as “copywrong” – I don’t disagree with that assessment), and I think it has to do with public perception of how copyright can be…misused…? I hesitate to use the term, although I think that it is what I really mean to say.

Copyright duration tends to be a big issue for some people, and I can’t say that I completely disagree with them. I fully believe that a creator should have complete control over his/her works for the entirety of their lives, including the right to assign those rights to others (publishers, etc). I even think that the creator’s heirs should get some benefit from royalties, etc. So, I definitely advocate for a life-plus-___ duration.

I certainly don’t have an answer as to how long I think copyright should extend beyond the life of the creator. But it should for some reasonable period.

I’ve heard a lot of people lately saying that life plus 70 years is too long, and they’re not unreasonable in saying so.

And it’s the reason why life-plus-70 exists that has skewed much of the public’s perception of copyright. The Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 was lobbied for extensively by the Walt Disney Company and the Gershwin Estate. Both had a lot on the line – the copyright terms for Mickey Mouse and Rhapsody in Blue were both nearing their end; and because the CTEA was passed, both of these continue to be significant sources of revenue for each organization, respectively. Thus, the perception of copyright as benefiting only corporations was born.

Because of this sore point, it’s easy to overlook how greatly copyright benefits individual creators. As I’ve said many times already, all opportunities we have for income generated from our works are because of copyright.

I feel really strongly about composers holding onto their rights. So I urge those of you considering using Creative Commons and similar licenses to think carefully before you do. It’s a bell that can’t be unrung – once you put a piece out there with a CC license on it, those copies can circulate and undermine any attempt you may make later on to generate income from the same work, should you reconsider your earlier decision to go the copyleft route.

Before I close the door on our copyright discussion, I would be remiss if I didn’t make note of termination rights. For those of you who have pieces that were published during or after the late 1970s, you have a unique opportunity coming up: you can reclaim rights that you’ve assigned to your publishers. This right comes available 35 years after first publication, and is available only for a window of 5 years. There are hoops that must be jumped through, and some really specific timing issues involved, but some of you may find it to your benefit (though don’t expect your publisher to be happy with you).

There’s a good blog post by an Intellectual Properties lawyer on the subject here, and the Copyright Office’s official language here.

That does it for now for copyright, so I’ll see you all back here next week for the next exciting episode chapter of The Composer’s Guide!

Share and Enjoy!

I write the Composer’s Guide here once a week, 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!