A litter of new works

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve had a HUGE spike in my musical output. I finally finished Only Air, then wrote three new choral works and a song cycle.

Part of the reason for the spike was the simple fact that four of the above-mentioned works were commissions and had fast-approaching deadlines. I’m a horrible procrastinator at times, so deadlines are happy things for me. And while I adore Douglas Adams, I try not to ascribe to his philosophy on finishing work: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

1) The double bar went on Only Air around the 1st of January. In fact, I’m pretty sure it was the 1st of January. Apparently New Year’s Day hangovers can’t stop me from finishing a piece! Over the next month or so, I sought out critiques from friends and mentors, and continued to make some revisions, but the piece was effectively done.

2)After Only Air was finished and engraved, I turned my attention to They Lie at Rest for SATB choir (text by Christina Rossetti), which was commissioned by two choirs in Florida: East Ridge High School Concert Choir in Clermont, FL, and the Lake Minneola High School Choirs. The commission was instigated by East Ridge’s Gretchen Kemp, who’s a former classmate of mine from my Illinois State days, and with whom I sang in various choirs for several years. They Lie at Rest will be premiered on April 24 in Washington, D.C.

One of the fun and interesting parts of writing the piece was walking the schools through the commissioning process. For a lot of musicians, commissioning is something that only ensembles with huge budgets do, and it seems arcane and wildly expensive. It was enlightening for me to see how people outside of the new music world view commissioning. And it was wildly fun explaining the concept of a commissioning consortium and of co-commissioning to a newbie commissioner! (Definitely a reminder that what seems obvious and simple to me can be anything but that to others.)

3)Once They Lie at Rest was emailed to the choirs, I started in on Voices – the companion piece to When Music Sounds, which was premiered in December by the Illinois State University Madrigal Singers. I think I wrote the piece in three sittings. But when I got it into Sibelius, I realized that I didn’t quite like the ending. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to fix it right away because I had another deadline racing nearer and nearer.

4)In late December, I submitted some works to be considered for a commission by Providence Premieres, a new concert series in Providence, RI, and somehow I was awarded one of the commissions for the inaugural concert in April! This is actually the first time I’ve gotten something – other than residencies at artist colonies – that I’ve applied for. The commission was for a 7-9 minute piece using some combination of soprano, violin, and harp. I, of course, chose to use all three instruments.

For my texts, I chose three short poems by Elizabeth Morgan, who I met in 2009 at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I was completely charmed by her reading one evening at the VCCA of her poem “Poetry Reading”, and ordered two of her books of poetry as soon as I got home, after whose arrival I fell in love with “Email from Odessa” from On Long Mountain. This cycle doesn’t use either text; instead it makes use of three contemplative poems that are, on the surface at least, about animals and insects: “Like Young Men”, “Gnat Facts on NPR”, and “Without a Philosophy”. The cycle, which takes its title from the last poem, clocks in around 10 minutes.

The crazy thing about the cycle (aside from my brief reference to The Orlons’ “Wah Watusi”) is that it was written and engraved, parts were extracted and formatted, and everything was sent off within 10 days of putting pencil to paper – while also holding down a full-time day job. (Yes, I sketch on paper first!) A few weeks later, and my head is still spinning from the frenzy of writing!

After finishing Without a Philosophy, I had a few days of relative down time before I packed my bags and ran off to Dallas for 5 days to be a little social butterfly at the American Choral Directors Association’s national conference. I’d never been to an ACDA conference before, so the whole experience was new and exciting. Aside from some travel difficulties getting to Dallas and the need for a better map of the area, it was a great time and I met some really great directors, as well as spent quality time with a few friends. I also learned quite a lot about some holes in the repertoire, as well as cemented some thoughts on a new business model I’ll be trying out with some other composers later this year.

After Dallas, I revisited Voices and finally got the ending right. And I banged out the parts to Only Air and sent them off so that rehearsals could start.

Blah blah blah, I quit my day job to go full-time freelance, blah blah, more on that later.

5)And this past weekend while staying with Darien and his parents at their house in Montauk, I composed a new 4 1/2 minute piece for SSA choir and piano – Sunset: St. Louis, text by Sara Teasdale. The intention was to send it off to a competition (with fantastic terms and no entry fee, mind you), but it turns out that when I printed out the guidelines, they hadn’t been updated for this year’s voicing, which was mixed choir – SSA was last year! Regardless, I now know that not only can I write a 10 minute song cycle in 10 days, but I can also write and fully engrave a 4 1/2 minute choral piece in just under 32 hours!

And since I can’t enter the piece into the competition, I’ve made it available on NewMusicShelf with a 40% discount through the 13th. So if you or a director you know with a women’s/treble choir are looking for some new material, send ’em over here and tell ’em to use the code STLOUIS.

The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Score Design

Let’s take a brief break from talk about finances, and discuss something slightly more aesthetic this week, shall we?

One of my major hobby horses is the quality of engraving in a score, which I’ve written about before, and I’ll write about again in more depth in the coming weeks. This week, I’d like to take a slightly wider view, and talk about the quality of a score as a whole.

For those of you who have bravely (and smartly) decided to publish your own works, you’ll do well to view your scores as a whole product comprised of several key elements: the engraved music, the physical materials, the visual design, and the non-score inside matter.

The score itself, obviously, should be well-engraved. The purpose of your score is to communicate to performers what you want them to play, and when and how you want them to play it. Proper, clear engraving facilitates that communication, and offers a clarity of expression that a messy or unclear score couldn’t possibly hope to attain.

While some see engraving as drudgery that takes time away from the creation of actual music, I’ve come to view it as a highly artistic part of my process. By making sure that my scores have proper spacing between notes and staves and systems; by avoiding collisions between slurs, accidentals, noteheads, etc; and by making sure that my dynamic and expressive markings are clear and well-placed, I know that I’m allowing the performer to exercise her own artistry much earlier in the rehearsal process, making for a much freer and more intimate and personal performance. She doesn’t have to wonder, “What does he mean here,” or, “How loud should I be,” or “Wait, is that a mistake?” Instead, the score tells her clearly what I want – without being too fussy, of course – so that she can get to the part where she starts interpreting and being expressive much sooner.

My engraving certainly isn’t perfect, but I know from experience that performers appreciate a well-notated score with as few collisions and as much clarity as possible. Cleanliness, as they say, is next to godliness!

For those who still see engraving as drudgery – it’s not just page turns and collision avoidance. Spacement and placing can have a huge psychological impact on a performer. Take, for example, this phrase from one of my pieces, Starfish at Pescadero, which more and more I feel the need to revisit, engraving-wise:

Although I’m fairly clear about tempo, the performance of this particular phrase is always WAAAY too fast because of the notational choices I’ve made. The sixteenth notes (consistent with the rest of the fast-paced movement) and the tight spacing always conspire to make the soprano think that the line should be sung very quickly. When I do finally make the time to correct this page, I’ll at the very least double the note values, and put each measure on its own line to give the notes and text more room to breathe.

As a performer, I’m no stranger to the value of a score whose visual aesthetic matches the musical aesthetic. I, too, have rushed through passages that were too tightly-spaced, been tense and white-knuckled through scores fraught with collisions and poor spacing, and just plain scratched my head at unclear notational choices. In one piece I performed last year, I always – ALWAYS – railroaded through major a tempo change because it happened a) across a page turn (ouch), and b) without a double-bar (sin of sins!). It’s these considerations that allow us to communicate better with our performers, and to flex our visual artistry muscles.

To tie in briefly with last week’s discussion of paper size and the idea that “My dear, it simply isn’t done,” I’d like to say that I have no intention of bucking the entire system. I think that – for traditionally notated music, which mine is – certain traditions and “standards” are there because they work. Engraving is one of those areas where I think that tradition has it (at the very least mostly) right. Engraving standards are standard because they work, and because they communicate effectively within the strange, temporally-notated world that is concert music.

Not everyone works within the standard style of notation, of course. Some modern concert works can’t be notated within the standard tradition of music engraving. In which case, I exhort the composers, still: be clear in what you want. However you notate it, notate it clearly and in a way that (should your music not absolutely necessitate your being a part of it always and for all time) communicates more or less precisely what you want.

OK, we’ll come back to engraving in MUCH more depth later, of that there is little doubt. I have examples and examples and examples of weird engraving that made my brain seize up, melt, and start dribbling out one or both of my ears, as well as a list a mile long of Recommended Reading for those wanting to learn more about the art and craft of engraving.

Two subtle considerations that can make a HUGE difference in printed scores are paper quality and binding style.

Using regular, 20 lb. bond paper for scores isn’t awful. But using a slightly nicer grade of paper can bespeak a certain level of care and professionalism. So, too, can a nicer style of binding lend a greater air of authority to your works. We all grew up with traditionally published scores, and the paper weight and quality are much higher than what’s used to run off copies at Kinko’s.

In my experience as a performer and as a producer of a concert series, I’ve seen a lot – and I mean a LOT – of scores with comb binding. While I know that a lot of composers swear by comb binding, I’m generally a little…offended by it. It’s noisy to turn pages with, multiple comb-bound scores don’t play nice with one another on a shelf or in a pile, and it’s obviously the cheapest option available at Kinko’s.

If I have to do a fast-and-dirty binding for a last-minute submission to a competition or call for scores (of which I’m never guilty…</sarcasm>), I prefer coil binding, which I know isn’t always available at some print shops (read: my favorite one). It’s just a little more…elegant…than the other cheap options.

Generally, though, I prefer saddle stitch binding for scores that aren’t a billion pages. It conforms nicely to standards for professionally published scores, and is remarkably inexpensive. It does, however, require that the number of pages in your score be divisible by four (think of 11×17 paper folded in half, and you can see why). For large scores, and scores that absolutely must lat flat, saddle stitching isn’t the way to go – a comb or coil really is right for that if you can’t manage the happiest of all binding styles: perfect binding. I’ll be experimenting with perfect binding as soon as I finish enough songs to complete my Songbook project, the cover of which you’ll see below.

Now, using nicer paper and a more elegant binding style can add a bit to the cost of each printed score (one reason not to go crazy with the super nice papers). These aren’t costs that you should eat, if you decide to go this route – instead, the costs should be accounted for in the way you price your scores. Until I re-attack the issue of pricing, see this post from last year on practical pricing: http://dennistobenski.com/news/2011/08/22/pricing-a-practical-approach/

You should also always use the best printer at your disposal. Scores printed on inkjet printers are nowhere near as crisp and neat as laser printed scores. And while those printers at Kinko’s and Staples are laser printers, they’re not always the best-taken-care-of, and can leave streaks and smudges that undermine your efforts at quality. Best to head to a good print shop, where they really know their craft, and can help you find exactly the right materials for your score. The crispness of the printing, while subtle, sends a subtle but clear message that you’re using the right equipment for the job.

These small considerations can make a real difference in the perception of your scores: they show an attention to detail and a thoughtfulness that lend greater authority to your scores, as well as show a higher level of professionalism.

Cover and Visual Design
“You can’t judge a book by its cover,” the saying goes, though we all know that’s complete and utter crap.

OF COURSE you judge a book by it’s cover! Why else would it have one?!

Similarly, scores get judged by their covers. Maybe rather less so than books, but that’s probably because the general cover design for published scores leaves quite a lot to be desired.

For good or for bad, legacy published scores have a particular look to them that inform the whole industry. If I say “Boosey & Hawkes”, you can conjure up the few major looks they’ve had in the past few decades: plain, marbled, or solid colors – with a schmancy treble clef. “Universal Edition?” Black and white. “G. Schirmer?” YELLLOOOOOWWW!! (and green).

Each publisher has created a visual brand that we associate with them.

You, too, should consider the idea of a visual brand when creating your scores.

I’m just guessing, but half of you probably just thought “Visual Design?!” and your brains exploded with delight. The other half thought “Visual Design?!” and your brains exploded in fear and dread. For the happy ones, hold on a second – we’ll get to you. For the ones cowering the corner, rocking back and forth in abject terror, take a breath, and remember that you don’t have to do it all yourself. Really.

We all have friends who have skill sets outside of our own, and those friends are probably willing to lend us a hand (especially if we float a bit of cash or a few drinks or a dinner or two in their direction – whatever you workout between yourselves). One composer on the NewMusicShelf has a friend who happens to be a painter, and he licenses photos of various of his friend’s paintings to be the cover art for his scores. They look really nice, and they lend a unique look to his scores that mark them as being from the same person.

For those of you running off in search of pencil and paper to start designing your new look, hang back a second.

Composers, in my experience, generally have a pretty horrible sense of visual aesthetics. Not all, certainly, but a significant number. When I started designing websites, the vast majority of composer sites were a total mess – especially those designed by the composers themselves. Consequently, I always advise…not so much caution as…care…when approaching a visual project like web design (which I’ll obviously be delving into pretty majorly later on) and score design. Care, and a few extra sets of eyes. It’s really easy to get so wrapped up in the giddy-making little details that we forget to take a step back to make sure what we’re doing is actually…good. So showing drafts of the work to someone else – or a few someones else – can be really beneficial.

With score design, as with site design, I always say recommend limiting the number of fonts you use, and limit them to those that are easily readable. I’ve been privy to conversations in which composers obsess over the fonts they want to shoehorn onto the cover of their latest score. “This one’s gonna be goofy, that ones’s gonna be art deco, that one’s gonna be…” horrid – a visual nightmare. For my own scores, I’ve worked to limit the number of fonts I use across the board – I have a small handful that I’ve selected as my pool of basic fonts.

Here are a few examples of my covers:

All of my score covers are based on these layouts, and generally use these fonts. As I continue to refine my visual brand, I expect to move more to this design, and similar even-more-consolidated looks:

And for inside matter – program notes, texts, instrumentation – I use a mix of standard fonts and those fonts I use on the covers. Compare these texts pages to the cover from echoes, where they’re from:

Note the continued use of the typewriter font as a highlight for small pieces of important information. The poems, for the sake of readability, are clear, reasonably common fonts – this information needs to be straight-forward and absolutely readable, not cute or clever or particularly visually interesting.

(A small design note, but one I’m kind of proud of: compare the two-word lineation of the poem “perfect” to the description of the cycle on the cover and the dedication.)

I really recommend using a consistent look or set of looks across all your scores. In other words, start to create a visual brand. My earliest visual branding, as seen in the covers for Elegy and My True Love hath My Heart, emphasized clarity over all else, and is, frankly, a little boring, which is why I’m in the process of moving toward the look of the Songbook – it incorporates the color scheme of my website, which creates an added layer of recognizability, and uses the typewriter font that is increasingly among my favorites.

Inside Matter
The non-score inside matter is just as important to a performer or ensemble as the music itself – it’s where you put your texts, list full instrumentation, map your percussion instruments (I’ve been yelled at a few times for leaving this one out), put your table of contents for collections of pieces, or give notes on whatever nit-picky notational devices that composers are known for using.

In addition to texts, instrumentation, and percussion mapping (where appropriate), I like to have a page for premiere and commissioner information – it’s a nice way to acknowledge the people who helped usher the piece into the world. Credit where credit is due. And loving appreciation.

Also, because of the divisible-by-four requirement of saddle-stitched scores, I often have an extra few pages at the end of a score that I feel weird about leaving blank, so I’ve taken to filling those pages with advertising for other scores. At the back of my Duo for Violin and Piano, I had two leftover pages facing one another, so I turned the left-hand page into “Additional Works by Dennis Tobenski” that are instrumentally related to the Duo, and the right-hand page advertises scores by other composers. (This latter bit is something I want to expand on when I get to marketing your works, so take note of it now, and think on how it benefits you, your colleagues, and the field of new music in general.)

The inside matter is a great opportunity to draw performers deeper into your music. If you have the room, put in a detailed program note that talks about the genesis of the piece, what musical and extra-musical ideas inspired it, or any particular points in the piece that you find interesting or noteworthy. Having these insights into the piece – and into you – can be a selling point for the score, or can trigger a connection with performers (and listeners, if these notes are available in the program at performances) that draws them further into your work. And that’s what this is all about, isn’t it? Connecting?

What have I missed? What have I short-changed? What interesting things do you put in your scores?

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.


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!

Fanfare for the Little Green Man

Every so often, you run across an old piece that you’ve forgotten about, and that you really shouldn’t have. That happened today while I was home sick from the day job. I was clicking around on my desktop, and there, nestled in my folder marked “Chamber Works” was a long-forgotten (about two years) set of pieces that were supposed to be a slightly larger work. For several reasons, the full piece never came to fruition, although I’d still like it to. Since there are more pressing projects on my plate, it will have to stay on the back-burner for a while. In the meantime, I’m releasing the existing movements separately.

I spent about an hour cleaning up the second of the two movements, and am offering it up by itself: Fanfare for the Little Green Man for violin duo.

Here’s how my computer says it sounds:

And, of course, it’s available at the NewMusicShelf!

Like this

I’ve been working to add more social networking integration to the site. You’ve undoubtedly noticed the row of buttons on each blog post – Tweet This, Facebook Like, Google +1, Facebook Share. Click away – especially if you like something you’ve read here! If you like it, certainly someone else will, and you, lovely reader, are my best hope at being discovered by the masses! So by all means, Like, Tweet, Share, +1!

I’ve also added to each Works page a Facebook Like and Send button. This way, if there’s a particular work you like, you can let your Facebook friends know about it. More social networking integration will be coming this week.

Similarly, I’ve added the same buttons to the NewMusicShelf, so be sure to head over there and let the world know that you like this or that work of mine! If you have something you’d like to say about any of the works, you can also comment/write a review of any work on the NMS.

Also, be prepared for a new announcement, and a BUNCH of backdated blog posts in the coming week. (I’ve created a new Category for them, so you can read everything in one fell swoop!)

I hope you’ve all had a wonderful Labor Day weekend! I’ve spent mine at the beach in Montauk reading David Cutler’s The Savvy Musician, and eating FAR too much.


Yesterday I joined a little online “collective” of composers who are writing an exquisite corpse via Twitter. So far, I’ve contributed one measure (the second), and am sure to write a few more before the 140 measures are complete. You can check out the website for #Armada (Hashtag Armada) here: http://hashtagarmada.wordpress.com/.

The resulting piece will most likely end up on the NewMusicShelf, so stay tuned.

Caveat Compositor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


With all the blogging I’ve been doing lately about the concert music business and how composers should be more proactive in the financial aspect of their careers, I’ve decided to make a personal/professional resolution: By October 2011, I want to be able to pay my monthly student loan payments with income from my musical activities: commissions, royalties, performance fees, score sales, and the (very) small distribution fee I charge at the NewMusicShelf. It’s a small goal – $264 per month – but one that I think is attainable. And it’s a step toward my larger long-term goal of being able to support myself almost entirely on my music. I don’t think that just under $3,200 per year is too much to ask for now – I’ve managed it before, and more. My musical income for 2010 was a paltry $1,273.35, so all I have to do is a little more than double that.

In order to meet this goal, of course, I need to have a plan. The plan, in a nutshell, is this: Over the next few months, I’ll be rolling out a new segment of the site devoted to commissioning new works, as well as making a marketing push for the NewMusicShelf, and a separate push for my own music. Beyond that, I’m researching some recording projects to help get my music out there.

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.”)

Publishing renaissance

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.

Over the past few months, I’ve been doing a lot (a LOT) of reading about publishing and self-publishing, and it’s been particularly enlightening.

Pretty much all of my reading has been about publishing books. I haven’t bothered reading about music publishing for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the dearth of writings on the subject.

There is, however, a TON of writing available about self-publishing books. There’s a renaissance going on amongst our prose and poetry writing brethren that I find incredibly intriguing – more and more authors are “going indie” and publishing their own works. Some are established authors branching out into different genres and trying something outside of the Brand that they and their publishers have created for them; some are established authors who want to take control of their works and their profits; some are non-established authors who found no interest in their work from the big publishers; and some have never had any experience with major publishers at all. This shift that’s happening is really exciting to read about because everything is changing so rapidly for the industry, and people keep finding new and ingenious ways to get their work out there. What’s also interesting to read about is the vitriol being spewed at some of these authors by people in their own industry. Not heartening, surely, but interesting.

I’m really inspired by the writers who are doing so well at self-publishing, self-marketing, self-distributing, self-etc. – there are a lot of them, and many more are joining those ranks. I find it inspiring in large part because I know the phenomenon can be translated to the concert music world. We’ve actually already started on the path toward our own publishing renaissance, but I think we’ve stalled. Not out of any inherent laziness – although I think that we as composers have been trained to avoid self-promotion and any act that may make us seem as though we actually want to make a living at this career for which we’ve spent so much time and money educating and preparing ourselves (a conversation for another day). Our stalling has been due mostly, I think, to a lack of outlets for self-publishing composers to showcase their works. [Insert preaching-to-the-choir-style plug for NewMusicShelf here.]

I want to point out two blogs that I’ve found particularly interesting and motivational: author Joe Konrath’s blog and Zoe Winters’ posts over at IndieReader.com. They have a lot to say about their industry that I feel is pertinent to the discussion of self-publishing in music.