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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks!






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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks!






The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Competitions Pt 5: Odds & Ends

[This is part five 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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As this mini-series draws to a close, I thought I’d tackle a few issues that don’t necessarily warrant an entire post to themselves.

Anonymous/Pseudonymous Entry
Quite a number of competitions attempt to level the playing field by requiring that all distinguishing marks on a score be removed – any names, places, or clues as to the potential identity of the composer. The idea is that by masking the identities of the composers, the panel is prevented from awarding a work based in any significant part on the reputation of the composer (or not awarding a work based on the reputation of the composer…). Instead, the panel’s decision is based entirely on the artistic merit of the piece. In theory.

In practice, it’s entirely possible that a panelist may already know a particular score, or be able to identify the style of a composer he or she is acquainted with. In theory, the panelist should recuse himself when it comes to that submission, but we know that doesn’t always happen. As well-meaning as these panelists may be, and as objective as they may think they are or try to be, it’s still an ethical problem.

Another problem with these types of entries is the amount of time and money that a composer has to spend in creating this separate version of her score and all of her materials. If I’m submitting a song cycle, I have to go song by song removing my name, my poet’s name (because they’re probably alive, and I’m likely one of the few composers they’ve collaborated with), the copyright information, dedications, and dates and locations at the double bars. Then re-export the songs to a PDF; merge the PDFs; create a new version of the cover without my name, the poet’s name, or my publishing company; create that PDF with the other front matter (again, removing the poet’s name from the texts); merge those with the rest of the score to create a single file to print from; then send the score to be printed at my local copy shop, and pick up the new score. Now, of course, I have an anonymous version of the file for the next time I want to submit the piece to a competition that require anonymous entry, but I have no other use for the file.

Oh, wait, the next competition I want to send it to requires a pseudonym? Sure, I don’t mind starting all over. There’s nothing better I could be doing with my time.

Then there are the actual costs. While I could have just grabbed a copy of one of my scores with my name on the cover off of my shelf and popped it in the envelope with a SASE, then reused the score when it was returned to me, instead I have to spend $15-20 to have a new one printed and bound. 8.5×11, black and white, double sided, clear front, black back, coil binding. Or 11×17, black and white, booklet style, card stock cover, saddle stitched. And let’s not forget the digital processing fee that many copy shops charge. Now I have a copy that’s only good for competitions that require anonymous submissions! Joy!

Pseudonyms are also particularly sticky things, and offer composers an opportunity to attempt to game the system. While enough of us believe that entering competitions is akin to entering the lottery (you’re probably going to lose), some try to stack the odds in their favor. By watching lists of competition winners, some composers claim to see trends in the genders and races of winners and runners up. Consequently, I know of several composers who have multiple pseudonyms at the ready to attempt to sway panelists’ opinions: Hispanic male and female pseudonyms, Korean female, Chinese male, Eastern European male, etc.

Electronic Submissions
Yes, please!

More and more competitions are doing the electronic submission thing, and we composers thank you. It saves us a lot of time and money. Plus, it leaves control of our materials with us – we don’t have to worry that the copy shop might get it wrong – and getting it wrong for a last-minute submission is devastating.

And there are lots of other little perks, too.

Electronic submissions are easy to implement – they don’t require fancy online software that comes with monthly costs, only an email address. Download the files, organize them into folders, and you’re set! Or set up a Dropbox account and have applicants share their materials in a dedicated folder.

E-submissions are also more eco-friendly in that they don’t require that more paper be shuffled around.

And materials can’t get lost or damaged like they can in the mail. Plus, they make deadlines that much easier to enforce – there aren’t any stragglers coming in days late because of slow mail service. If the files aren’t received by X time on Y date, which is easy to see by the email’s timestamp, it’s late.

Performance History
I see an awful lot of competitions that require that the submitted works not have received a premiere. Or at least not a “professional” performance.

This assumes one of two things: 1) that composers just happen to have works for such-and-such instrumentation lying around that they haven’t gotten around to getting performed yet, or 2) that the entrants will write something specifically for the competition.

#1 is plausible under certain conditions: the composer is young and has only received performances of the piece at school, which doesn’t constitute a “professional” premiere; or the composer wrote the work on spec and hasn’t yet managed to find an ensemble willing or able to play it. Great, fine, whatever.

But to assume #2 is a little heinous.

My favorite use of this requirement in competition guidelines occurred several months ago – a friend Tweeted a link to a competition for choral music that required the composer to submit three unperformed pieces. The panel would then select a composer, award them something like $200, and ask them to write an entirely new piece without performing any of the others.

This type of requirement also indulges in the Premiere Fetish. It values new works above all the other excellent music that already exists, and which would benefit greatly from a second or third performance. It’s also incredibly selfish, especially since the ensemble can claim a world premiere without having burdened themselves with the expense of paying for a commission, which is simply abusive, manipulative, and exploitative.

My recommendation is to search for works with a limited performance history. It widens the field for composers to send in solid work – which one should hope that the organizations would appreciate – while still leaving openings for the ensemble to claim the performance as some sort of regional premiere (there’s a post coming soon on this topic). By all means, require that the piece not have been previously awarded. And even say that preference may be given to works that have not been premiered.

Publication History
While the requirement for works to be unpublished is becoming more and more a thing of the past, I still see it crop up now and again. The only reason it bothers me is that it overlooks this little thing that a couple of composers have started doing, called “self-publishing.” Fortunately, nobody has ever been successful with such blatant vanity projects.

Yeah, ok, I’ll stop being bitchy and admit that the point of this language is to exclude works that are published by a company with established national distribution channels. These works already have the advantage of being more easily discoverable by performers and ensembles on a national or even international scale than self-published works, and are presumably less in need of whatever boosts these competitions may have to offer.

I really just want to see better language here. Something along the lines of, “Submitted works should not have received publication by a company in which the composer does not have full or partial ownership.” It’s a relatively minor point when put side-by-side with rights grabs (3 years exclusive performance rights and 6 years exclusive recording rights with no additional compensation to the composer?? with an application fee!), but it acknowledges the legitimacy of self-publishing, as well as the fact that composers aren’t shackled to a particular way of handling their careers.

I have a few more posts on competitions that I’ll publish in the coming weeks, but these past few installments are the major, salient points, and constitute my biggest issues with the way that they’re currently run. I appreciate organizations that want to champion new music and give voice to composers’ works and recognition and assistance to composers themselves, but many of them fall prey to outdated modes of operation that do more harm than good to composers and the musical community at large.

Stay tuned for the conclusion to this mini-series: my excruciatingly humble opinion on how I believe that competitions should be run.

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

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

Thanks!






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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks!






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

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

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

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

And yet.

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

Some examples I’ve seen are:

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

But.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry. No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which leads to issues of…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks!






The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: 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: Commissioning Consortia

Consortia. Such a great word. Consortia. Don’t you just love Latin plurals?

Commissioning consortia have been on my mind a fair amount lately, not just because they’re another source of income, but also because I’m in the middle of helping to build a consortium to commission a new choral work of my own.

Commissioning consortia are a great way to get works commissioned, especially in economies as crappy as our current one. There are a lot of arts organizations right now that really want to commission new works, but can’t do it by themselves because they have severely limited budgets.

Traditionally, consortia have been used to commission larger works such as operas and orchestral or wind band pieces. Commissioning large works requires a correspondingly large budget, and even the biggest of organizations can be financially strained by such projects, so they often band together and share the financial burden. John Mackey’s Redline Tango for wind ensemble and Daron Hagen’s opera Bandanna were both commissioned by consortia of wind bands.

Today, I think that consortia are incredibly useful for smaller-scale works, as well; and also for organizations (and individuals!) with limited budgets.

For example, a group of middle or high school choirs could commission a new choral work from a composer. Or a group of individuals who play the same instrument could commission a new work together – each would have a new piece to perform at a fraction of the cost than had they done it alone. Meanwhile, the composer gets the full benefit of being commissioned and receiving a fee that is probably much higher than she otherwise would have received from any of the individuals by themselves. I’ve heard heartening reports over the past few years that this sort of thing is happening more and more, and I couldn’t be happier!

The lessening of the commissioner’s financial burden is possibly the greatest benefit to forming these consortia.

For a work for which the composer would ask a fee of $5,000, five participating ensembles would only have to raise $1,000 apiece, which is an easy Kickstarter campaign for almost any group. A few requests to friends and family could raise a handful of individuals the funds needed for a $2,000 fee. And eight commissioners contributing $300 apiece earns the composer a nice $2,400 fee. When broken down, what might be prohibitive for one commissioner becomes much more manageable for several.

I especially like the idea of consortia of school groups for a number of reasons past the benefits to the composer. Not only does the project become much more financially manageable for the schools, who are almost uniformly in budget cut hell, but the students benefit infinitely more from the experience than the school might otherwise be able to afford for them. By exposing students to new music in an active capacity such as premiering new works and working with living composers (hello Creative Connections grants!), schools can help to create a culture of active arts participation, and hopefully train the next generation of musicians to make commissioning a regular part of their careers.

Of course there are always practical considerations, too!

Fee structure
I can think of two ways to structure the composer’s fee for these sorts of projects: a per-participant split, and a per-participant fee.

With a per-participant split, the composer sets her commissioning fee, and the co-commissioners split it amongst themselves, either evenly or at varying percentages. So: a group of four commissioners might split a $3,000 fee evenly so that they each pay $750, or they may find a different, unequal split that takes into consideration any number of factors (that the composer probably need not directly concern herself with) so that some commissioners pay more than others (and probably have more leverage in claiming the full premiere of the piece – more on that later). The advantages here are that you as the composer know unequivocally what your fee will be regardless of the number of participants, and the commissioners’ shares of the fee will be correspondingly lowered as additional ensembles and individuals join the consortium. A disadvantage is that the commissioners’ shares of the fee are higher if there are fewer participants in the consortium. However, that becomes an advantage in that the participants will have a greater incentive to want more co-commissioners on the project, which will hopefully lead to their finding additional ensembles to join the consortium (which will mean more performances of the piece for the composer).

With a per-participant flat fee, the composer sets a fee per commissioner, so that each ensemble or individual pays a set amount to be a member of the consortium regardless of the number of co-commissioners. I might advocate for this sort of fee structure if the per-participant fee were reasonably low and you either had a reasonable sense of how many participants there would be or were feeling particularly generous should there be few participants. The main disadvantage here is that the composer doesn’t necessarily know what her fee will ultimately be until everything is finalized. An advantage, however, is that the co-commissioners know exactly what their financial stake will be from the start. On the other hand, should there end up being more consortium members than originally anticipated or hoped for, the composer can end up with a correspondingly higher fee. I’m much less a fan of this second option for a few reasons, but I can see uses for it.

Lead commissioner
Every commissioning agreement spells out a series of rights and responsibilities that the commissioner is entitled to, which can be complicated by the participation of multiple commissioners. Consequently, there is usually a “lead commissioner” who has a greater stake in the commission, both financially and in terms of the rights and responsibilities. The lead will likely pay a greater share of the commissioning fee and have the right to the first performance; so while the other commissioners end up paying less, they also don’t get to have the first performance, but are entitled to subsequent – possibly regional – premieres and performances of the work within a period of exclusivity. Everyone gets credit as co-commissioners.

The lead commissioner may also take a more substantive role in finding additional consortium members because they may have an increased visibility or prestige over the other participants, and will likely handle the negotiations involved with figuring out which participant is entitled to what and when (it’s probably best if you keep your nose out of this one if you can!).

The lead may not have a greater financial share or any additional entitlements, but may just be the go-to member for communicating with the composer or advertising the performances, or may merely be the person/ensemble that initiated the commission.

Getting Paid
Again, there are a few options here. Each commissioner might pay you directly; or they may designate the lead commissioner as the financial point person, in which case all funds funnel through the lead and are paid to you on whatever schedule is spelled out in the contract. And on occasion, a third party may be involved as the collector and administrator of funds. In the end, how the composer gets paid comes down to what is easiest for all parties involved, and what everyone is most comfortable with.

Finding Participants
This is probably the hardest part of setting up commissioning consortia. (Duh!)

In many cases, I’d probably advocate for having the lead commissioner do the majority of it. They probably know more ensembles of the same instrumentation or performers in their field than you do. And depending on the situation, there’s a certain…legitimacy…that is lent to the endeavor when the lead is the one who approaches potential participants. The alternative could come off like: “Hi, person I don’t know! Do you want to commission me?” Maybe not the best face to put on the project?

So tell me – do you all have experiences with commissioning consortia? Please share in the comments section below!

Speaking of income: see that “Donate” button down there? Be a dear and click that 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: Passive Income

OK, so I should be getting back onto a semi-regular updating schedule here. The past two months have been filled with travel, yearly audit prep at the day job, apartment hunting, and moving, all of which are horribly un-conducive to writing or composing. But such is the way of life – we take these things in stride and get back onto our schedules when the dust starts to settle. In the meantime, I’ve been sketching out a handful of posts on a wide variety of topics, so I should be able to power through a few essays in the next few weeks so that the Guide can get back into full swing.

One of the topics on my mind lately has been streams of income – particularly passive income. So let’s talk about money this week, shall we?

Before we talk about passive income, though, let me define active income: Active income is any source of revenue earned through personal effort – wages, salaries, tips, etc. Commissioning fees are active income, as are any fees or pay we receive from performing, speaking, teaching, copying/engraving, etc. The bulk of our income as composers will be active, and these are the sorts of things that we’ll always be seeking out.

Passive income, on the other hand, is any regular or semi-regular income that requires little to no effort to maintain. This includes royalties and licensing fees. And for our purposes, I’m going to lump in score and recording sales because our profits from these are traditionally regarded as royalties.

Now, while passive income will likely be much less than active income, it shouldn’t be ignored for a number of reasons. One is the simple fact that passive income is INCOME. Why pass up the opportunity to have money come to you without having to work hard for it just because the money you have to put out effort for is greater? For this reason alone, I think that ignoring passive income is silly. By making your scores (and hopefully professional-quality recordings, as well) available for sale, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to bring in revenue that you really don’t have to work for. Sure, you may have to mail out the scores themselves, but compared to the effort that goes into writing a piece of music or rehearsing for a performance, sticking a score in an envelope and walking it to the post office is nothing! At the very least, the effort is commensurate with the amount of money you’ll earn for each sale.

Also, each sale you make will likely lead to additional passive income.

For example, when you sell a score, it’s entirely probable that the person buying it intends to perform the piece. And with performances come what? If you said royalties, you’ve been paying attention. Gold star! More income you didn’t have to work for. At all. You sat back while someone else did all the work of buying the score (which you got paid for), learning and rehearsing the piece, and getting up on stage in front of who-knows-how-many people and performing it. Then nine months later, ASCAP or BMI wrote you a check. All because you made your score available for sale and took the few minutes to address an envelope, slap a stamp on it, and pop it in the mailbox. Or maybe your scores – like mine – are available digitally, so you just checked your email, saw you had a sale, and moved your earnings from PayPal to your bank account. (An ING reasonably-high-yield savings account with pretty damned good interest rates. Oh noes! My little moneys are making more moneys!) Such herculean effort!

Up-front effort
OK, I’ll admit that passive income isn’t completely effortless. You have to put in some effort on the front end to make sure that you can earn it.

With physical scores, you have to engrave the score and either have copies on hand or be prepared to have the scores printed and bound on demand. But because you’re a professional (or working to become one), your scores are nicely engraved to begin with, and you’ve done the minor research you need to do to find a printer in your area that can service your needs. Since I just moved, I need to find a new print shop, or start farming it out to Limes or Subito or another company that’s been actively courting me for a few months now via Twitter. (If y’all are reading this – I haven’t forgotten about you!) Then you create a simple page on your (up-to-date) website letting people know how they can purchase your scores. You can even set up simple PayPal buttons that process payment automatically and collect shipping information that is emailed to you within nanoseconds of the sale being made. (This is almost obscenely easy to do, by the way.)

With recordings, of course there’s the effort and expense of the actual recording (provided that you’re the one bankrolling the project, as in my own planned series of recordings), plus cover design, packaging, etc. But that’s the expense of making the recording. Making it available for sale is as simple as setting up an account with CDBaby and letting them set you up with iTunes and Amazon. Click click, tippity-type, submit: done.

And with digital scores or recordings, you need to either set up a store-front or find an online retailer who fits your needs (for recordings, see my CDBaby comment, like, one sentence ago). Creating your own storefront, admittedly, can be time-consuming, though it’s getting easier and easier with all of the open source options out there. I’m a relentless DIY-er, and found the process incredibly rewarding and worthwhile. And how nice that I don’t have to give a cut of my sales to anybody but PayPal?

But once these initial setup steps are done, they’re done! Your works are out there. You’re not guaranteed any sales, but at least you have the option now. The only guarantee is that if your scores aren’t available, you won’t make any sales at all.

Leverage
I think one of the biggest reasons to pursue passive income streams is the fact that they can be leveraged to create active income. At the very least, they lead to additional passive income, as in the royalty scenario. Or, if you have multiple recordings, a person who likes one recording of yours may buy another, and may continue to buy any subsequent recordings that you put out.

And also: In my experience, the purchase of a score and subsequent performance of the piece has a significant chance of leading to a commission of some sort.

My song cycle at least a moment was commissioned by a harpist who had discovered Starfish at Pescadero through a Google search while looking for a piece with instrumentation similar to George Crumb’s Madrigals, Book III. After requesting to buy a copy of the score, she performed Starfish, and immediately after the performance commissioned at least a moment. There was even talk of a companion piece, which I may still write because a) I want to, and b) I have the text setting permissions, so why waste them!?

Recordings, too, can be leveraged to create performances, score sales, additional recording sales, and even commissions. I leave it to your capable imaginations to come up with examples of how a person listening to a recording of your music can lead to additional passive or active income.

Speaking of passive income: see that “Donate” button down there? Be a dear and click that 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: 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!