Co-opetition

Co-opetition.

I came across this term recently, and it’s a concept that I really like. A portmanteau of cooperation and competition, it rather perfectly sums up my philosophy on working with other composers: yes, we’re in competition to a certain degree (there are only so many pieces that can be performed on this or that concert, only so many projects get funded through NMUSA, etc), but the nature of our field is such that by working together and pooling our resources, we can create more opportunities for all of us.

It’s for this reason that I love the idea of composer collectives. Ideally, everyone in the collective has something to offer to the group – connections, a special skill set, etc – and each member is responsible to some degree for promoting the group’s interests. By pooling their intellectual, artistic, and financial resources, the collective can put on concerts featuring the music of its members, or they can use those resources to make commercial-quality recordings of their works, amongst other possibilities. An individual might have a difficult time organizing such endeavors on their own – and may find it impossible to come up with the funds -, but a collective can spread the responsibilities and financial burden across its entire membership.

Similarly, I’ve been thinking lately about the idea of composer-run small presses.

A collective of composers could easily found a small publishing company for its members. Each composer could be held responsible for different tasks within the company – tracking sales, marketing, bookkeeping, outreach to performers, proofreading and editing the scores, etc. Whereas a single self-published composer would be responsible for all of these things, and may have a difficult time keeping up, this scenario would allow each member to be more focused on one or two tasks to which they’re well-suited, which ultimately leaves more time for composing.

Off the top of my head, I can see this working in a handful of ways:

1) The composers could pool all of their works in the publishing company, and allow the company to create (essentially) imprints. The imprints could be by composer, where each member has a brand that is a part of the whole, but slightly distinct; or it could be by instrumentation, where vocal music, choral music, chamber music, and large ensemble music are separated out, which could make marketing much easier, since each imprint would be focused on a particular segment of the performing world.

Mock-up for similarly branded imprints in a publisher’s catalog

2) The composers could pool only particular types of their works in the publishing company, retaining publication and distribution rights to the remainder of their catalogs. This allows the publishing company to narrow its focus to a particular market, and would probably be most ideally-suited to choral or band works.

Although I don’t know the inner workings of the group, the Independent Music Publishers Cooperative (imp.coop) seems to operate in a manner similar to the latter form. (Although I think that each composer publishes their own works, and the group acts as more of an umbrella for the sake of publicity and resource-sharing.) The composers in the group all write a significant amount of music for choirs, and they’ve found a way to increase the visibility of their individual members by pooling resources. The group is a fixture at choral conferences – they always have a booth with racks of music, which is much more affordable to manage when everyone pitches in. I saw them in action in 2013 at the national ACDA conference, in Dallas. Everyone took shifts manning the table to handle sales, and at least one of them would be hanging out by the racks, ready to answer questions and offer suggestions based on a director’s needs. Invariably, the composer-on-dutyr would reach for a piece by one of the other members of the group, saying, “You’ll love this one,” or “I think this would be perfect for your group.” The composers look out for one another. As a consequence, they strengthen their bonds to one another, and they add to the stability of their company, which benefits everyone, financially, personally, and artistically.

A small press, of course, would require that the company license the works from the composers, as well as set up royalty rates. While I wouldn’t recommend that the company own the rights to the works that it publishes (as traditional publishers do), it should probably have an exclusive license to publish them for a finite period of time. (Limiting the length of time that the company has exclusive rights allows the composers and the company to re-evaluate royalty rates on a regular basis, as well as whether or not the composer wants to continue to participate in the company and/or collective, amongst other considerations.) Granting the company exclusive rights creates an incentive for the composer to promote the company/collective. A percentage of the profits would stay within the company, and what the individuals “lose” by not receiving the full profit from their score sales, they gain in the ability to present concerts or produce recordings or go to conferences with the collective, which they otherwise might have difficulty doing on their own.

However, co-opetition doesn’t require any formal agreements or formation of a permanent or semi-permanent group to be useful.

Two of my friends, Clint Borzoni and Philip Wharton, recently paired up to put on a concert of their vocal music. Together, they hired musicians, booked a recording engineer, rented a performance space, and promoted the concert. If each had put on a concert of his own music individually, the individual costs would have been much higher, and the risk of not making back the investment would have been a much more significant consideration. But by banding together, Clint and Philip were able to mitigate the risk because each brought their own set of ticket-buying audience members to help offset the costs. Their goal wasn’t to break even, but to put on a concert that they could be proud of, and to have some solid recordings of their vocal works to use. It was a great concert, and a complete success.

I recently started a new feature in my newsletter where I link to a piece by a composer I like: I spend a few sentences telling the people on my list why I like that particular piece or composer, and why I think that they’ll like it, too. The composer may write in a style similar to mine, and we may be “competing” for performances by the same performers, but it doesn’t hurt me to promote their works. Also, since I know my subscribers, I know that they appreciate learning about a new composer or a new piece. It costs me nothing but a few minutes to type up the handful of sentences and link to the audio, but it’s positive for everyone involved.

StoryBundle is a great example of co-opetition in the world of fiction. Each bundle centers around a particular genre, and every author that signs on to be a part of a bundle encourages their mailing list and followers on social media to check it out. The author hopes for sales on the bundle because each sale is earned income for them. Driving their readership to the bundle is partly an act of generosity – readers who buy a bundle get at least five books by other authors, as well, which is a huge win for readers, and it also helps the other authors -, but when all twelve writers drive their lists to the bundle, each writer is seen by the lists of the other eleven, which greatly increases their own visibility. Everyone wins.

Co-opetition is predicated on the idea that “a rising tide lifts all boats”, but with the added benefit of that tide having been generated by the collective efforts of the boats themselves.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks!






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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks!






The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: 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: 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!






No JFund this time

Well this was not how I wanted to start my week.

Because I’m impatient, and because I happened to see on Google+ last week that the JFund applications were being reviewed, I checked out the American Composers Forum website this afternoon to see if the grant winners had been announced. They had. Last Wednesday. Which is a pretty sure sign that I got nothing. And that’s exactly what I got.

I’m honestly incredibly depressed by the news. I hadn’t felt so optimistic and confident about an application I’d sent out, well…ever. So this was a significant blow to the ego, especially given the subject matter of the piece and my personal stake in it.

But life will go on. It goes on with temporarily undermined confidence and a brief bout of depression, but it goes on. I’ve still got the MAP Fund Letter of Inquiry out there.


“The Gallant Weaver” for Choir

This evening I started a new arrangement of “The Gallant Weaver” for SATB choir and piano. The reason? There’s a choral composition competition (say that ten times fast) that I’d like to enter, and the deadline is Friday. I’ve been hemming and hawing over texts for ages, and this afternoon after a very busy day at the day job where I didn’t choose a text like I’d half-planned to do (“Look it up while you’re at work, instead of doing your work! Brought to you by the Internet Foundation.”), I decided to make life a little easier on myself and just arrange something from my existing catalog. “The Gallant Weaver” is ripe for the picking in this respect, and also happens to be one of my favorites of my own songs (don’t tell the others, though – we don’t want them getting jealous…).

So after a little walk in this beautiful warm weather, I dove into the arrangement and am already at the halfway mark. I should be able to finish the arrangement Wednesday evening, which makes me incredibly happy. It’s nice to add a new piece to my catalog, and to do it so quickly!

I’d have it done tomorrow, except that I’m meeting with Jeff Algera to make the final arrangements for the Tobenski-Algera Concert Series, which is effectively finished. However, part of our meeting is to deal with the funds leftover from our semi-season last year so that I can start a new series in the coming months very much like the T-A Concerts. The reason for the dissolution of the Series is that Jeff and his wife are moving to California next month, which will make continuing the Concerts in their current form very difficult. Obviously, Copland and Sessions managed to do it via post in the early ’30s while the latter lived in Paris, and it’s infinitely easier to communicate via Skype, but it’s time to change things up a bit, and Jeff’s life will certainly be taken up for quite a while with setting up his new life and web business on the West Coast.

I don’t normally write pieces specifically for competitions. In fact, I usually avoid those that require an unperformed, unpublished piece because I have so few of those. And as a self-published composer, I honestly can’t say that I have any unpublished pieces. As soon as I finish something, I slap the Tobenski Music Press logo on it, and throw it on my site and the NewMusicShelf. Everything I write is immediately considered to be published. But it’s not published by a “legacy publisher” (a nice term I came across to describe traditional publishers), which is certainly what is meant by the “no publication” rule. No danger of that ever happening – I don’t want a “legacy publisher”! (More on that some other time.) My other point of “meh”-ness is that the piece can’t be performed in the meantime, or submitted anywhere else. So, until August when the award winners are announced, this arrangement, which I’m so far very happy with, has to sit on my hard drive and twiddle its thumbs. But I guarantee that even though I can’t do anything with it in the meantime, it will be ready to go for the instant that the announcements are made. Of course, I’m certainly hoping that it has to sit on the shelf for another few months because it’s won the award and needs to be premiered by this organization!

Fingers crossed!


You’re Doing It Right

Cross-posted from http://NewMusicShelf.com/News.

I want to point out a composition competition that’s making a point of being completely above-board. It’s a nice counter-example to the skeevy one I mentioned in my recent post about composition competitions.

This is from the ACDA Illinois Choral Composition Contest guidelines:

WHAT RIGHTS ARE GRANTED TO ACDA-ILLINOIS?
a) The following dedication must be included in all manuscript and published editions of the winning compositions: “Winner of the 2011 ACDA Illinois Choral Composition Contest”
b) IL-ACDA will have the right to make copies for distribution to the members of the summer 2011 IL- ACDA Directors’ Chorus, its conductor, and accompanist.
c) Each winning composer will be asked to provide biographical information for publicity purposes. IL-ACDA will have the right to use the composer’s name and composition title in the future IL-ACDA Communications.

WHAT RIGHTS ARE GRANTED TO THE COMPOSER?
a) Copyright ownership will be retained by the composer.
b) Publication rights will be retained by the composer.
c) The composer will be given the privilege to display/advertise other compositions at the Summer Retreat.

There’s nothing “slick” here – no one’s trying to dress up a crappy deal in vague, misleadingly positive language. I really appreciate that the ACDA has made a point of spelling out exactly what they expect of the composer, and exactly what the composer can expect of them. ACDA reserves the right to make sufficient copies of the winning score to prepare and perform it. There’s no talk of perpetuity or recording rights. They require that the composer note in the published score that it won the contest – a very reasonable request, especially considering that the works can’t have been performed before, so it’s a safe assumption that most of the entries were written specifically for the competition. And ACDA can use the composer’s name and the title of the winning work on their website, in their newsletter, and in their promotional materials – publicity for the composer.

They’re also not making a grab at the copyright, publication, or mechanical rights, which sometimes happens.

ACDA Illinois: You’re doing it right.


Caveat Compositor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Pricing: The Goldilocks Zone

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

When I’ve talked to other composers about self-publishing and selling their own works, one of the most consistent stumbling blocks is the issue of pricing. It can be very difficult to evaluate whether a given price is too high or too low.

The worry is that if a score is priced too high, no one will want to shell out the money because it’s too expensive, and consequently won’t buy it; but if it’s priced too low, people may think it must not be any good, and they still won’t buy it. Also, pricing a score on the lower end of the spectrum gives a smaller return to the composer, which may be undesirable because of all of the time and effort that went into composing the piece and engraving the score; but pricing on the higher end of the spectrum, while maybe “fairer” to the composer considering his efforts, may still turn people off, thus depriving him of any income at all.

It’s a difficult situation.

An element that adds to the confusion is what we might consider to be the pricing “standards” set by currently available scores that are published by the big music publishing houses. Let’s take for example two song cycles of roughly equal duration, difficulty, and quality. A major publisher will charge upwards of $20 where I would probably ask for $7. The major difference is that they have to charge that much because they have a much higher per-score production cost than I do – they have editors, engravers, marketing, art, and legal departments to pay; not to mention the costs of printing and materials. And while more publishers are doing print-on-demand, it’s much less efficient and cost-effective than printing a larger run of scores. So, like any business, they’re going to pass the added expense onto the consumer. Again, they have to charge more to stay in business.

I think that we shouldn’t be pricing our scores in a similar range as those that are traditionally published. I think, instead, that we should be competing – and you don’t compete by charging the same as your competitor. By which I don’t mean that we should adopt the Always-The-Lowest-Price, cut-throat, Wal-mart-style approach to slashing prices maniacally and attempting to drive out all other business. I mean instead that we aren’t burdened by anywhere near the overhead costs as traditional publishers, so we have the luxury of pricing accordingly. Plus, even when pricing my song cycle at $7, I can expect a much higher return than had it been sold at $20 by a traditional publisher (especially if I’m selling digital copies, where there are no printing or other overhead costs).

Personally, although I like buying new scores, I find most traditionally published scores to be prohibitively expensive. I just can’t afford them. Consequently, I take myself as a model customer. If I were looking for new material to perform, or at least to consider performing, what price range would I find most comfortable and inviting? Is that price range fair to the composer given the length and instrumentation of the piece?

Unlike the world of novels, where standardized pricing is the norm and sales expectations are much higher, we have a much tougher row to hoe, I think. One current argument in the book world is for ebooks to be priced at $2.99. Another argument is for a tiered method. We don’t have the luxury of such clear delineation of categories as is required by the tiered pricing method – we have to balance duration, instrumentation, and (potentially) difficulty in our pricing decisions. We also have the question of whether or not to sell parts bundled with a score or separately, and how to price those.

I like the sentiment behind the current arguments for ebook pricing: encourage sales and foster long-term growth through affordability. Simple, really. We certainly can’t expect the sheer number of sales that a successful novel can generate, but we can definitely encourage more performers to take a chance on our music by making it affordable. Affordable without underselling yourself.

I think it’s a much easier task when you stop trying to assign Monetary Worth to your works, and start thinking in terms of affordability, fairness, and long-term growth.