Co-opetition

Co-opetition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Copyright Part 3

Welcome to part three of our discussion of copyright. This week I’d like to cover the topics of public domain, the doctrine of first sale, and at least get a start on fair use.

First, however, I’d like to make an addendum to last week’s chapter on the benefits of copyright registration. It was pointed out in an excellent comment that I had overlooked an important point, which I’d like to address here.

What I overlooked last week was the fact that the most common type of infringement that a concert music composer today will have to face (any file sharing aside) is an unauthorized use of a recording of the composer’s work by a dance company or non-profit organization, or an unlicensed live performance. Small-potatoes-style infringement.

The most effective way to deal with such a situation – in my opinion – is merely an email or letter from you stating the issue and offering a solution. These types of situations are born out of an appreciation for your work, and most likely an ignorance of the company’s/organization’s obligations when it comes to using copyrighted material. The commenter suggests – and I wholeheartedly agree – that you request a retroactive licensing fee.

Your letter should be polite, yet clear. Explain why you’re writing, be direct, but don’t be an ass. If you keep in mind that these people liked your music enough to use it – quite the compliment! – and that they should be treated with respect as your artistic colleagues (and just as people), you’ll do yourself a service.

Lawyering up in this instance is not only overkill, but likely to earn you a poor reputation in the community. Nobody wants to be known as That Composer Who Sued The Small Dance Company Because They Used His Music Once And Didn’t Make Any Money Anyway.

Unlicensed performances are also best handled by your Performing Rights Organization. Each PRO has a reporting system in place for performances so that there’s a greater likelihood that they will be properly licensed, even after the fact.

Always, always, always act in good faith.

Public Domain
So what happens to works when their copyright term is up? Provided that their term isn’t extended by changes in the law (another discussion for another day), they go into the public domain. The expiration of copyright is – like the existence of copyright itself – intended to “promote the Progress” of the arts. If copyright were indefinite, we wouldn’t have nearly the access to works and scientific writings and findings that we do now. Our artistic and scientific advancement would be seriously curtailed.

It’s public domain that allows us to use poems by Shakespeare or Whitman or Dickinson in our vocal and choral works without having to pay licensing fees or royalties. Because the copyright term on those works has expired, other artists are free to make use of them without compensating the artist (most likely long dead) or his/her estate.

Personally, I prefer working with living poets when I set a text, but there are projects for which I feel that it’s more appropriate – or just plain easier – to use a text in the public domain. All of my choral works use public domain texts, but the bulk of my art songs are on poems by living poets. I have both artistic and financial reasons for this dichotomy. For one in-progress, temporarily-stalled project, I’ve chosen to set 24 public domain texts and collect them into a single album of songs; by setting only public domain texts, I remove any question of what portion of royalties are due to this poet or that out of the sale of the collection. However, I find great artistic satisfaction in setting texts by poets I know, as well as bringing their poetry to a wider audience. Plus, I just really like the idea of helping my friends to earn additional royalties from their works. Big warm fuzzy.

As I mentioned last week, it’s not always easy to know when a work is in the public domain. As a rule, it’s usually – though not always – safe to assume that something written before 1923 is in the public domain. After that point, things start to get more complicated depending on where it was published, whether it was published with or without a copyright notice, and if it complies with various and sundry U.S. Copyright formalities (this last one applies mostly to older works published outside of the U.S.). Here’s an interesting resource from Cornell University’s Copyright Information Center that makes things a little clearer: http://copyright.cornell.edu/resources/publicdomain.cfm

So what happens if you think something is in the public domain, use it, then subsequently learn that it isn’t? Surprisingly, I’m actually dealing with such a situation at this very moment!

A few years ago, I wrote a choral piece believing that the text was completely in the public domain. It turns out that the version of the poem I used was an adaptation of the original by another (living) composer for one of his operas. I hadn’t registered the work either with the Copyright Office or ASCAP, so I haven’t earned any royalties on the piece, and have no registrations to amend. The change from the original is very, very minor (substituting one proper name for another). I could conceivably change the name back to the original, but I rather hate the original. Or, I could find another name to substitute. (Tried it – really hard after becoming so accustomed to it. And I chose the poem partly because I liked the name so much!)

I’ve opted for a third route: I’ve emailed the composer, asking his permission to use the text as I currently have it in the score. And when I say “I’ve emailed the composer,” I mean that I’ve only just emailed him, so I haven’t yet had the chance to receive a response. I’ll be sure to keep you all informed of the progress of the situation, hoping, of course, that this will be an excellent example of the power of writing a friendly, straightforward message that addresses the issue and offers an equitable solution.

Doctrine of First Sale
There are a number of names for the doctrine of first sale: “first sale rule”, “exhaustion rule”, “right of first sale”. So what is it, and how does it affect you?

The first sale rule allows the purchaser of a CD or score (or other individual copy of a copyrighted work) to either sell or lend that copy to another person. So, if you buy the score of a string quartet, you can then resell it. You can also lend it to another person.

You can’t, however, make a copy of it to sell, or to keep when you sell the original. Any copy you may make is, of course, an illegal copy.

It also, in the case of scores/parts (although not CDs or other “phonorecords“), allows the original purchaser to rent his copy to others.

So.

I buy a copy of the score to your most popular piano piece. A pianist I know wants to perform it, but can’t afford to buy it. So (because in this example I’m a bit of a dick), I rent it to him at a lower cost than if he were to buy it. I’ve just – legally – made a profit off of your copyrighted work. I’ve probably not made much, but it’s profit that you’re not legally entitled to. Not a huge deal in the long run, but there are instances when the first sale rule can start to chafe for some. (I’m not entirely sure that I mind this whole thing, but it’s absolutely worth knowing about.)

For example, Choir X buys 60 copies of one of your choral pieces so that they can perform it. A month later, Choir Y wants to perform it as well, so, rather than pay to buy it from you or your publisher, they rent it from Choir X instead. Choir X can rent your piece out to choir after choir, keeping you out of the income loop, and it’s completely within their right to do so. This is a fairly common occurrence, although it seems that more choirs are attempting to buy scores rather than rent them (I’d love to get some statistics on this, or at least feedback from choral staff). It’s also not unheard of in the concert band world. Orchestras do it less because they tend to rent their scores and parts directly from the publisher, and usually don’t buy.

And there’s the interesting point in all of this.

If you fear that copies of your scores will be rented out, and that your sales will suffer for it, your recourse is simply to not sell your scores/parts, but to rent them. Then, the terms of your rental agreement can prohibit the renter from sub-renting to other ensembles. Should you forget that particular provision, then be content in the knowledge that the renter would most likely have to sub-rent the piece at a higher rate than you are charging in order to make the whole thing worth their while, at which point it’s no longer worth the while of the sub-renter, because they can get it cheaper directly from you.

Also a possibility, is the idea of “permanent loan”, which I’ll cover in subsequent chapters on rental agreements.

In terms of practicality, I find the doctrine of first sale to be more academic than useful. But I know that there are composers who do worry about it. There are a lot of factors involved here in the sell vs. rent argument, and, like I said, I’ll cover it in later chapters.

Fair Use
Here’s a biggie. And I surely won’t be able to cover everything in this chapter. So: a quick overview.

Fair use was implemented in order to allow for discussion of copyrighted works, and to further – here’s that phrase again – “promote the Progress” yadda yadda yadda. How is science to further itself if one scientist refuting another’s published claim can’t quote the original in his own paper? How can a book or play be criticized, studied, reviewed, if the original text can’t be quoted? Imagine a TV news story reporting on a concert or musical or gallery opening that couldn’t display any portion of the event in the report – what would be the point?

There are also a LOT of misconceptions about what constitutes the fair use of a copyrighted work: educational use is always fair use; the 15-second limit; the 300-word limit; use by non-profits; the use is non-commercial; etc. There are a lot of instances when the use of some portion of a work is fair use. There are even more that are fuzzy.

My own personal opinion is: when in doubt, ask permission.

That said: it’s late, I’m nearing my 2000 word limit, and I have a mysteriously limping kitten that needs some love.

So let’s meet back here next week to talk in much greater detail on fair use. The week after, we’ll wrap up copyright with a discussion of Copyleft, and then we’ll move on to new territory.

So: what are your thoughts on using public domain texts, tunes, etc in y our work as opposed to more contemporary stuff? Do you have a preference? Let me know in the comments!

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

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

Thanks!






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

This week’s installment is part one in a multi-part series on copyright that I’ll be writing over the next few weeks. This week, I want to tackle the basic terminology and concepts behind copyright before moving on in subsequent weeks on ways that composers can and do leverage their copyrights to generate income; the benefits of registering your copyrights with the U.S. Copyright Office; practical concepts like public domain, fair use, the doctrine of first sale, and the “poor man’s copyright”; and the impact of the Copyleft movement. I’ve written briefly about copyright before on this blog, so I’ll be rehashing a bit of old territory, but I’ll be going into greater depth in this multi-part section.

Copyright is a bit of a difficult concept for most people to get their heads around, in large part because it centers on the idea of intellectual property – the ownership of creative ideas, or the expression of those ideas. Things get a little more confusing for composers in some areas. My father – a smart man – has asked on more than one occasion: “When someone commissions you, who owns the copyright?” The answer is, of course, me, but when a CPA with a successful, 30-year career is fuzzy on issues of copyright ownership, you know it’s not a simple subject.

So let’s start with a basic definition of copyright and work from there.

What is copyright?
Copyright is a term that refers to a group of rights granted to a creator – we’ll refer to him as an “author” from now on, understanding that for our purposes “author” is interchangeable with “composer” – with respect to his creative works. Those component rights are:

• The right to make copies of the work
• The right to distribute copies of the work
• The right to make adaptations of the work
• The right to publicly display or perform the work

The right to make copies of the work is pretty self-explanatory. The right to make copies – copyright – get it? Eh? Eh? Upon the creation of the work (specifically when the work is fixed in some tangible form, such as written or notated on paper, or recorded by means video or audio), the author is the only person allowed to make copies of her work. This simple beginning is the lynchpin on which copyright is secured. All other rights, as you may notice as we go along, flow from this first right.

The right to distribute the work means that the author may sell or give away any copies of the work that she has made, yet she still retains ownership of the work, and others are prohibited from distributing the work without the author’s permission. So, after writing your latest string quartet, you aren’t giving up your copyright when you sell a copy of the score, or give one away – you’re merely distributing the physical copy of the work. The right to make copies and the right to distribute the work, when combined, form the basis of the publishing industry.

The right to make adaptations – most commonly referred to as “derivative works” – means that the author may arrange or expand on the original work in other, separate works, barring others from doing the same without the author’s permission. It’s this right that allows J.K. Rowling to continue to write in the world of Harry Potter, and prohibits other writers from writing new Harry Potter stories without Ms. Rowling’s permission. Similarly, a composer may make an arrangement of his piano piece for orchestra or brass quintet or guitar, but another composer may not make arrangements of that same work without the original composer’s permission. This right ensures that the intellectual property that Ms. Rowling has gone to such time and effort to create isn’t usurped by another writer who can’t be bothered to come up with his own world to write in.

The right to publicly display or perform the work allows the author to hang his painting, produce his play, perform his music, or read his novel or poem in public – preferably for a fee – and prevents others from doing the same without the author’s permission. This right is where we get our performance royalties from – ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC have built an entire industry around this one right. Performances via audio or video are also covered under this right.

Now, reading all that, it may seem as though these rights are actually more restrictive than helpful, and maybe the Copyleft folks have it right – copyright only serves to restrict the freedom of speech and dissemination of information. Uh, no.

First, a word about the origins and purpose of copyright in the U.S. (my apologies to my non-U.S. readers – this is all U.S.-based discussion).

Copyright was seen as so important to our Founding Fathers that it was written into the body of the Constitution itself. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution reads: “The Congress shall have Power … To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries”. From this section comes the legal basis for copyright, patent, and trademark. Powerful little clause there, huh?

The basic purpose of copyright is to promote science and the arts by allowing authors to control the uses of their works. Imagine: if these rights weren’t protected by law, anyone could appropriate our work, slap their name on it, and not only call it their own, but attempt to make money from it. In such a world, what incentive is there to share our writings and scientific findings? (Let me point out here that copyright doesn’t extend to facts, but only to the individual expression of ideas. Consequently, writing a novel set in London doesn’t put London under copyright, only the particular story and characters expressed in the novel.) Obviously, there is a drive in many to share their work for the love of their art or the advancement of science, but the ability to generate income from that work is an even greater incentive to disseminate it. What better way to promote science and the arts than by allowing people to make a living at them?

And Free Speech, while a lovely banner to wave, isn’t an excuse to deprive artists of their right to control how their work is used and distributed. I’ve got a big section planned on Copyleft and these arguments, so let’s move on for now and get back to copyright basics.

You’ll notice that I used the word “permission” a lot in my explanations of the component rights of copyright. Permission is the key to what I often refer to as “leveraging copyright”. These permissions are called licenses, and are the basis for the entire music business.

Licenses
By giving another person permission to arrange your string quartet for full orchestra, or sell copies of your score on your behalf, or publicly perform your music, you are granting them a limited license to exercise one of your rights as an author.

Licenses can be granted for any individual right or group of rights, for any length of time that you might specify in your agreement with the licensee. Licenses can be exclusive – i.e., only one licensee may exercise those rights for a period of time – or non-exclusive – multiple licensees may exercise the same right at the same time. Licenses are the basis for royalties, publishing agreements, recording contracts, you name it. Basically, anything that will earn you money from your music is due to a license on your copyright.

When you join a Performing Rights Organization (PRO), such as ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC, you authorize the organization to license performances for you – in other words, to act on your behalf in exercising your right to publicly perform your work. So when an ensemble wants to perform one of the works you have registered with your PRO, the organization authorizes those performances and collects the fees that it charges for the licenses. This type of license is a very limited license – it extends to specific performances, and no more. Any performances of that work that aren’t licensed by your PRO are unauthorized, and a violation of your copyright.

When you grant another composer permission to arrange one of your pieces, you are granting them a license to exercise your right to create a derivative work. Any derivative work here, by the way, has its own copyright, which is now split between you, as the original author, and the arranger, as the author of the arrangement.

When a piece of yours is recorded, you’ll have a mechanical licensing agreement (and you should be paid a licensing fee). When that recording is broadcast, the broadcast is licensed, and you receive a royalty. When a piece of yours is used in a film, TV show, or commercial, the filmmaker etc will have to secure a synchronization license, for which a fee and/or royalty is paid to you.
If a piece of yours is recorded multiple times, you’ll be paid a compulsory license royalty.

All these opportunities for income – however big or small – are because of licenses.

Assignments
While licenses are for individual rights or groups of rights, an assignment is a little different. When you assign your rights to another person or a company, you give them all of your rights to a particular work, typically for the life of the copyright (we’ll get to that).

In the concert music publishing world, a composer typically assigns his rights to his publisher. He forfeits his rights to the work, and the publisher becomes the effective “author”. In exchange for this assignment of rights, the publisher then pays the composer a percentage – typically 10% – of its gross sales for that score. (Now, I have a lot of thoughts about this, as y’all may know, so obviously stay tuned for the posts I’ll have on Publishing and Self-publishing later in the Guide.)

Duration of Copyright
Works don’t stay protected by copyright forever. There’s an expiration date for each work’s copyright. Because U.S. copyright law has changed several times in the past century, most notably to extend the duration of copyright, it can be a little confusing when it comes to knowing what is still protected by copyright and what is in the public domain. Unfortunately, there’s not always an easy answer to this. It’s almost always easier to determine whether a work is still protected under copyright than to determine if it’s not.

For works written as of January 1, 1978, the duration of copyright in the U.S. is the life of the author plus 70 years. So for your own works, you’re fine until you die, and then some.

But when quoting or sampling other works, be careful and be educated.

Quotation / Sampling / Text Setting
Before I sign off for the week, I’ll touch on one final thing. Not exactly a copyright basic, but it ties in nicely with licenses.

If you find that you absolutely need to quote or sample another work whose copyright is held by someone other than yourself, you’ll end up licensing that portion of the original work. Likewise, if you set a text that isn’t in the public domain, you’ll end up licensing it from the publisher or author. Don’t play it fast and loose – just ask for permission. And if you don’t get it, move on. We’ll talk more about securing permissions in coming weeks, though in the meantime, ASCAP has some good resources for this very topic.

On that note, I bid you a fond farewell. Next week we’ll continue with more copyright! Yay!

Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer, and these posts shouldn’t be interpreted as legal advice. They’re my interpretations and opinions. If you have specific questions about copyright, I highly recommend Nolo’s excellent publications on the subject, or consulting an intellectual properties lawyer. If you think you may be the subject of copyright infringement, absolutely consult a lawyer.

I write the Composer’s Guide here once a week, taking time away from my composing to do so. If you find value in this blog, please do leave a tip or a small donation on the way out. Thanks!






The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Putting the “Fun” in Fundraising!

Since Dr. Block got back from his trip yesterday, I requested the presented materials from him again. Hoping to have it by the end of the week so that I can send out the completed JFund app by Monday. It doesn’t need a postmark until next Friday, but for once in my life I’d like to get an application in before the last possible second.

I also spent a significant chunk of yesterday afternoon working on the commissioning contract, making edits from the copy I marked up at the bar last week. It looks as though it will be about 5 pages, but I’m considering cutting a few lines that deal with payment since ISU isn’t the one paying me for the piece. The main items that remain are the commissioner credit in the score/programs/marketing materials/etc and the specific date(s) and number of the performance(s). I’m hoping for three performances, but I’m not holding my breath – I’m not the only thing that they’ll be playing next year.

I also spent some time looking at potential funding sources in addition to the JFund. The MAP Fund is a possibility, and there are a few funders that popped up on a search of LGBTQ foundations/philanthropists. I’m kicking around the idea of a Kickstarter thing for this, but I’m still unsure of whether or not to save that for the recording sessions I want to do starting in December. Basically what I have to decide is this:

1) Do I want to potentially do two separate funding drives for two separate projects within two or three months of one another?
Or
2) Do I want to do ONE funding drive for just one of the two projects?
a) Which Project should that be?
i) The commission will potentially be partially funded from JFund and/or the Secret Music Foundation and/or any other granting organizations we decide to apply to.
ii) I *could*, if I were so inclined – and this idea does sort of appeal – fund the recording with the commissioning money.
iii) However: It might be nice/smart to put that money (whatever it ends up amounting to) in a savings account or toward some investments. I *do* have my financial future to consider.

I’m leaning much more toward doing a Kickstarter project for just the recording so that I can bank the commissioning fee. Keeping the funds separate seems smarter, especially in the long term.

On the other hand, were I to try to fund part of the commissioning fee with Kickstarter, there’s a real possibility, I think, for greater exposure and a wider funding base since there’s a larger social issue involved.

I’m also going to pick the brain of my friend who’s the Director of Development for the ISU College of Fine Arts to see what he thinks/suggests.

I’ve also decided not to try for the VCCA this Fall. If I’m going to go to Brush Creek in the Spring, that’s two of my four weeks of vacation days eaten up right there. I may be better served keeping some of my days in reserve. I can always take a day here and a day there in the meantime to do work.


We Don’t Need No (Business) Education

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

So I’ve already written about the problems of pricing and why we should (mostly) stop giving away scores for free, but these two topics are part of a larger issue – the lack of education we receive on the business aspects of the concert music business.

I had a great undergraduate education. I was encouraged to push myself academically, personally, and artistically, and I got way more experience than I had dreamed possible – 17 commissions and over 120 performances of my works during those four years. But I was never formally taught about commissions or contracts or royalties. I was very lucky when I left school to have had a private teacher who was well-acquainted with such matters, and who made it a point to educate me on the business side of things. I was taught how to register my works with ASCAP and maintain my performance records; I was given advice on how to negotiate text setting permissions / royalty agreements with poets; I was shown how to present my works professionally; and I was even taught what expenses I could claim as a composer on my taxes and how to organize them to be prepared for an audit. I’ve also “inherited” two separate filing systems to keep my works and my correspondence organized (I use a hybrid of the two, which I’ve in turn passed along to two people who have hired me to organize their archives). But most young composers I know haven’t gotten that sort of education.

Fortunately, more and more schools are offering courses that tackle business matters, but the culture is still very much anti-business. We would much rather focus our energies on our Art and leave the dirty stuff – the money matters – to others. Or we’ll deal with the money when it starts coming in. Except that it won’t come in if we don’t make it come in. We can’t be ostriches with our heads in the sand if we want to survive as both individuals and a community.

Now, we don’t need to get a whole new degree in all things financial, but we should know some basics, because there are some real consequences if we don’t. Indulge me for a moment and let me continue to draw parallels between the field of concert music and the field of prose writing. There was a recent incident involving Columbia University’s MFA writing program, a very famous, very unscrupulous writer, and a lot of screwed-over young people. These young people were offered very unrealistic returns on a very unrealistic amount of work if they signed a very slippery contract written up by said unscrupulous writer’s unscrupulous lawyers. Some sort of education in how to deal with contracts (consult a lawyer before you sign anything!?) would have served these students incredibly well. You can read a great account of the events, as well as a well-written dissection of the underlying issues here.

Composers need a basic knowledge of contracts and their rights just as much as aspiring novelists. Although I obviously advocate self-publication, I know it’s not for everyone, so composers should be aware of what’s in their contracts with traditional publishers. And film composers are especially exposed to being screwed over, however inadvertently.

Let me offer an example of how contracts with a traditional publisher can cause problems. A friend of mine had a chamber piece published about 30 years ago by one of the major publishers. Standard contract. The contract, however, didn’t stipulate that the piece be engraved or that parts be created. So, whenever anyone wants to buy a copy of the score, they can’t. They have to buy three copies. Of a xeroxed manuscript. Because no one engraved it or made parts. And it costs $110. Who would ever buy that? And because of his contract, he can’t get the rights back to do it properly and sell it himself under his own publishing imprint.

I should hope that that story alone would send every composer on the planet scrambling for a book on the subject of contracts, or a crash course from a lawyer friend. It probably won’t, but a boy can dream, can’t he?

Unfortunately, the most common attitudes I see are either of haughty disdain for any activity that might sully the arts with the stink of financial gain, or a general wide-eyed naïveté when it comes to anything remotely financial. And I can’t figure out which one bugs me more.

Let me eviscerate the former first, though. Ignorance, I understand. That “I smell poo” nose-wrinkling, I loathe. Loathe. Loathe. Loathe.

One of my favorite examples is recent Pulitzer Prize winner, Jennifer Higdon. I heard a story recently from a friend who has attended some rather distinguished music schools. A remarkable number of composition students during his time in school had nothing but snarky things to say about Ms. Higdon because she has… a publicist! How dare she! How dare she hire a professional to bring her performances and commissions, the central goal of composerdom! How dare she attempt to support herself through the career that she has chosen for herself! How dare she!

I really only have contempt for that sort of behavior, and I don’t event try to mask it. I think it’s undignified, and I think it’s petty. It’s a purely negative behavior that benefits no one, and only serves to hold up success to derision. It’s also potentially very damaging to the derider, should his badmouthing reach the ears of someone in a position of power who happens to feel warmly toward her maligned colleague. The world of concert music is a small one; the world of composers even more so.

In the case of the monetarily naive and uneducated, it seems as though the general attitude is that they don’t expect to make much money from their works, and they’re fine with that; but if something eventually happens to come along, surely someone will take care of them. That’s an awfully laissez-faire attitude, don’t you think? “I’m going to write what I write, stick it on a shelf in my apartment, hope somebody performs it (but I won’t go after the royalties if they do), and not try to

But it’s not uncommon. There’s a real squeamishness and embarrassment about monetary gain from art music – very much related to the active sneering at financially successful composers – but turned inward, as if to say, “Who am I to think that my works have some sort of value beyond the purely artistic?” (“I don’t even like to admit that they have artistic value – I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I don’t have the proper humility in the face of my Art.”)