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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

And yet.

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

Some examples I’ve seen are:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry. No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which leads to issues of…

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

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

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


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

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

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


The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Commissioning Consortia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course there are always practical considerations, too!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of income: see that “Donate” button down there? Be a dear and click that will you? If you can’t afford to donate, please pass this chapter along to someone who you think might get some help from it.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

What they are is: lost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Copyright Part 5

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

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

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

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

OK. Copyleft.

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

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


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

So where does music enter into the equation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me explain as best I can.

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

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

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

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

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

You can do that, too!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Share and Enjoy!

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

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


The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Copyright Part 4

In this week’s installment of The Composer’s Guide, I’d like to broadly cover fair use: address some common misconceptions, look at a few examples, and offer some friendly (i.e., not-legal) advice.

Misconceptions abound about what fair use is and how it can be applied. I’m sure we’ve all heard many of the myths about what constitutes fair use of a copyrighted work: any educational use is fair use; use by non-profits is fair use; any non-commercial use is fair use. Or: so long as you only use 15 seconds or less of a recording or piece of music, it’s fair use; using 300 words or less of a text is fair use. These are vastly misleading oversimplifications of the truth.

A few quick examples can easily show the flaws in these lines of thinking: a teacher photocopying a book chapter by chapter and passing it out to her class week after week to avoid the school having to pay for 30 copies of the book is certainly not fair use. It may be educational, but the sole intent in this particular situation is to avoid paying for a copyrighted work (even if the text itself is in the public domain, chances are that the edition in question is still under copyright). A non-profit organization performing copyrighted works at its annual fundraising gala without paying the proper licensing fees: the cause may be a worthy one, but that doesn’t mean that the author should be automatically deprived of his licensing fee – especially when a simple request to the author may result in his waiving his fee or reducing it significantly.

Using a quote or audio sample of 15 seconds or less is a pretty arbitrary number to assign, especially if the sample used is the most recognizable part of the original work. Examples abound of songwriters sampling other recordings and getting the pants sued off of them because they were dumb enough to use a sample that was highly recognizable, and base their entire work around that single sample. 300 words is also ridiculous arbitrary. Consider a 100-word poem – would using all 100 words because it’s under 300 ever be considered fair use? Of course not.

These examples – and probably most misapplications of “fair use” – stem from the perception of fair use as a right. “Because of fair use, I have the right to use some portion of another creator’s copyrighted work without getting permission or compensating them in any way.”

In actuality, fair use can really only be determined on a case-by-case basis. There are a number of factors that can help to determine whether a particular use is fair use, but they don’t necessarily make any guarantees. According to the U.S. Copyright Office, those factors are:

1. The purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes
2. The nature of the copyrighted work
3. The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole
4. The effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work

You can see where some of the myths come from – they take these factors and blow them out of proportion. The fact that your use of a work is non-commercial in nature may help decide in your favor that it is, in fact, a fair use, but won’t guarantee it. The fact that you use only a very small portion of a text in your work may help decide in your favor, but is that portion the most important part of the work you’re quoting? If the portion you quoted is the climax of the original work, and reveals “the twist” or the most important piece of information in the work, you’re likely not going to be able to call it fair use.

Hopefully you’re beginning to see that the claim of fair use is not a right, but a defense. By saying “this is fair use”, you’re putting yourself in a defensive position, admitting that you haven’t asked permission and probably don’t intend to.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Obviously, arts scholarship requires that any works being studied be quoted. Commenting on or criticizing a copyrighted work is – again generally – a fair use, although there are still limits to what is acceptable, and they must be taken on a case by case basis.

Another generally accepted fair use is that of parody. If you take a copyrighted song and replace the words in such a way that you’re parodying the song itself, you’ll likely be able to claim fair use. Satire, however isn’t covered – so if you change the lyrics to lampoon a political candidate or comment on something other than the original work, you’re not protected under fair use.

You can see how muddy and confusing fair use can be. To further muddy the waters, I’m going to take an example from my own life and argue both sides of the issue.

A visual artist friend of mine used one of my scores last year to create a mixed-media work that in turn inspired a whole body of work. Now, let’s ignore the fact that she had my permission to use my score, and act for the moment as though she didn’t.

In this situation, I could argue that her use was not fair use. First, not only did she photocopy my score, she used my intellectual property as the basis for her own creative work. The mixed-media work directly used the written score. Because the work was created specifically to be shown in a gallery, the commercial nature of the work is a foregone conclusion (an artist doesn’t exhibit in a gallery unless they intend to sell – and the piece sold very quickly). The visual nature of the score was also a direct inspiration to the composition of the work. And because a cross-section of the work was used, rather than a limited portion of it, one could argue that a substantial amount was used.

On the other hand: My score is a representation of sound – the look and the engraving are intended to facilitate performance, and not to serve as a work of visual art, so the nature of my work doesn’t directly intersect with hers. The pieces of the score used – although photocopied – were small circular bits punched from the page, rendering the music virtually unrecognizable. And in addition to the confetti-like treatment, the colorization of the “dots” added another visual element of differentiation. The fact that the pieces were no bigger than hole punch confetti makes the use fairly unsubstantial. And the fact that her use of my score doesn’t affect the market value of my own work – either positively or negatively – rules out economic considerations. Also, even though my score inspired the piece – and ultimately the entire body of work, though it was only used in the one piece – any other score could easily have been used (and were in other works in the series), rendering the use of my score somewhat inconsequential.

This situation could be argued either way to varying degrees of effectiveness. Now, of course, my friend had my permission to use the score, so this is a purely academic exercise, but it shows how muddy the waters can be.

One of my favorite examples of how to approach fair use is Weird Al Yankovic. Weird Al is known for his parodies of pop songs, which falls squarely – unequivocally – under the umbrella of fair use. However, he makes a point of asking permission from each of the copyright holders before he uses their songs on his albums. He could forego getting permission, and stand back and use the argument that his songs fall under fair use, but by doing so, he leaves himself open to litigation. He may be “in the right”, but that doesn’t stop the artist from suing him, which is both time-consuming and incredibly costly. He avoids the issue entirely by asking permission in the first place. He eliminates all gray area, and saves himself the worry and potential expense and difficulty.

So that said, my friendly advice is this: when you want to use any portion of another artist’s work, ask permission first. If there’s the slightest chance that they may be unhappy with your use of their work, protect yourself and ask their permission before you even start. And if they say no? Move on. Walk away. Find something else to quote or sample or whatever. There’s nothing to stop you from doing it anyway and trying to claim fair use, but know that if you’re sued – you’re responsible. No one else.

You’re going to hear that a lot from me: You’re Responsible. You’re responsible for your own career. No one else. So when it comes to issues that affect you, you should educate yourself – know what you’re getting into, and be prepared.

You’ll likely encounter times when you run into issues of fair use – both in your own creative process, and in someone else’s – so you should know what your rights are so that you can handle the situation in a manner that is both knowledgeable and intelligent.

So I leave you this week with a few links that I think you’ll find interesting.

First, is a link from Stanford University Library’s site on Copyright & Fair Use outlining a bunch of thought-provoking examples of what is and is not fair use.

And second, two links from the blog of Weird Al Yankovic in which he discusses fair use and his policy on getting permission: The Gaga Saga and Gaga Update.

See you all next week to talk about Copyleft! In the meantime, do you have any fair use stories? I’d love to hear about them 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.


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:

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.


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.


The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Copyright Part 2

Welcome to this week’s installment of The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business. This week, I’d like to continue our discussion of copyright, and cover the whys and the wherefores of registering your copyrights with the U.S. Copyright Office.

Before we get started, though, I’d like to remind everyone that I’m not a lawyer or a law professional, just a composer with an obsession with the practical aspects of having a career in music. This Guide shouldn’t be interpreted as “legal advice”, but as observations based on experience and (extensive) research.

On to the fun stuff!

Thanks to the Copyright Office’s new online system, registering your copyrights could hardly be easier. The first copyright I registered was back in 1998 – one of my very first compositions, which I guarantee will never see the light of day until some lucky doctoral student decides to write their dissertation on my juvenalia decades from now. My Sonata in C#-minor (yeah, I know) was the first thing I’d written that I’d taken the pains to notate, and it was such a special occasion for 16-year-old me that I raced out to get it copyrighted as soon as possible.

Even then, having to fill out the paper form and mail it off, it was an easy process – so long as you had the right form – and I had no difficulty at all, even at such a tender age. With a little poking around online with my family’s AOL account (who’d have thought the internet could ever have been that young?) I found Form PA, printed it out, and set about registering my very first copyright. The form itself was only two pages (it still is, and hasn’t changed a lick in the intervening years), and took a matter of minutes to fill out. I’m sure I spent infinitely longer looking over the form again and again to make sure I hadn’t overlooked something or misread the instructions. Imagine my surprise to learn that such a fabled thing – a COPYRIGHT – was so easy to register!

Off the form went in the mail with a photocopy of the manuscript and a check for $65, and a few months later (no one ever accused the government of working quickly) my form showed up again in my mailbox with the “Do not write above this line” section filled out with my registration number and effective date. Bliss!

Now there may not have been much call to register the copyright for that particular piece, especially since no one has seen it (and I’ve barely thought of it) since the late ’90s, but by going through the process, I learned a very valuable lesson: things like this tend to be a lot easier than they seem.

Even though the thought of bureaucracy and filling out forms can be daunting to some, registering your copyright is a very simple thing to do. And it’s something that every composer should do, for a number of reasons.

Why Register Your Copyrights?
A few months ago, a friendly acquaintance on Twitter weighed in on my earlier post about copyright, and said that he didn’t think that the government should be the arbiter of copyright at all. I kept my snark to myself, being the polite, gentle soul that I am (*wonders of anyone actually believed that last bit*).

Of course, I wanted to give my acquaintance a light smack on the head.

Government is the arbiter of copyright. And there’s no other arbiter even remotely possible.


Well, let’s look at some of the benefits of registration, and go from there.

The primary benefit of registering with the U.S. Copyright Office is so that if your copyright is infringed upon, you have clear redress to the situation.

The first step to take in case of an infringement is to get a lawyer. Your lawyer will draft a letter informing the person or business:
a) that they are infringing on your copyright, and
b) that they must stop their use of your materials at once.

The second step is to drag their sorry asses to court. Now, in some instances, the infringement isn’t severe enough to bring to this point. Some people just plain won’t have known that what they were doing was illegal, and will be mortified, and stop what they were doing right away. Chances are, these people won’t have done enough damage to warrant taking to court.

But other people…

Sometimes the other party just won’t stop. Either they don’t care, or they think you don’t mean business, or they’re just black-hatted, mustachioed arch-villains bent upon the destruction of society through their disregard of intellectual property laws. Y’know. The founders of Napster. (I kid, I kid.)

In this situation, your registration with the copyright office will be immeasurably in your favor, because you can’t even file an infringement suit without a registration! Without a registration, the only redress you have is to write letters and cry into your pillow.

If you decide to wait until someone has already infringed on your copyright, you’d better be quick about registering.

Copyright holders who register in a timely manner are entitled to significantly greater damages in infringement suits. Many victims of copyright infringement are only entitled to actual damages – the amount of money the other person gained from the infringement. This usually isn’t much at all, so the costs of filing the suit will far outweigh the damages that you’ll be paid in this instance.

However, when you register in a timely manner and successfully sue the infringer, you’re also entitled to what are referred to as statutory damages, as well as court costs and legal fees. This is a HUGE incentive to register your works.

If your work is published – and, considering as most of us self-publish these days, it probably is – you have two chances to register in what is considered a “timely manner”. Your registration is considered timely if it’s done either:
a) within three months of publication, or
b) before the infringement first occurred.

If your work is “unpublished”, you must register before the infringement occurred in order to be eligible for statutory damages (which can be as high as $150k!), court costs, and attorney fees.

If you didn’t already, I hope you’re starting to see how government can be the only arbiter of copyright. Registration incentives aside, copyright and intellectual property laws define the scope of the protections that you’re entitled to in the event that your music is stolen or used without your permission. Remember from last week that copyright was written into the body of the Constitution – it was deemed more important than the Bill of Rights as evidenced by the fact that it’s not an amendment – in order to “promote the Progress” of the arts. Without these laws in place, there could be no enforcement of any kind of protections, or limits on the usage of another person’s intellectual property.

So while it may feel nice to think that in a perfect world all artists and their works would be protected without the need for government oversight, the cold hard fact remains that copyright is governed by a series of laws; so if you want some redress in the even that your intellectual property is stolen, get thee to Form PA.

But How Do I Register?
As I said earlier, copyright registration could hardly be easier.

Whereas a composer used to have to get Form PA (for Performing Arts, which we shared with playwrights, filmmakers, choreographers, and recording artists), there’s now one online form for most types of registrations, Form eCO.

The advantages of eCO over the paper forms are pretty huge. First and foremost is the lower filing fee. Remember how I said earlier that I paid $65 for the registration of my Sonata? The paper version is still $65, but the online form is a whopping $35. Much easier on the pocketbook!

There’s also a much faster processing time thanks to the lack of paper. Transmission is immediate, nobody needs to sort through stacks of mail and forward them to the appropriate department, and there’s no sloppy handwriting to decipher. Everybody wins! Except maybe the post office….

You can also track the status of your registration, which is nigh on impossible with paper applications.

I just took a moment to go through Form eCO with one of my recent compositions, and it took me a whole five minutes to get through the registration. Definitions and instructions abound, and are very, very, very readable – they’re there to help you understand what you’re doing, not confuse you – and the form tailors itself to your needs – almost nothing is extraneous.

Alas, and alack, I would not recommend (again, this ≠ legal advice) registering works as a collection, unless they are unpublished. (If your works are available to the public, including through your own website, they are considered published.) The Copyright Office’s various publications and sets of instructions repeatedly say not to do it. That said, if you feel compelled to register your separately-published works as a collection, be it on your head.

To learn more about copyright and registration, check out the various publications available at the U.S. Copyright Office website. Also, I highly recommend Stephen Fishman’s The Copyright Handbook, available from the excellent Nolo Press. The ebook version of The Copyright Handbook is on both of my computers, my phone, and my tablet so that it’s available any time I might have questions. I’m a big fan of Nolo, which is a great online legal resource, with many free articles and lots of information. In fact, tonight, one of my favorite online book stores had an amazing sale, so I snagged a handful of Nolo’s books to add to my collection.

The Poor Man’s Copyright
“But $35 to register each work is still too expensive,” I hear you say. “Can’t I just use the Poor Man’s Copyright?” To which I repeat: copyright registration is required in order to file suit for copyright infringement.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, the poor man’s copyright refers to the practice of sealing a newly-finished work in an envelope and mailing to yourself. The postmark on the envelope, according to this myth, establishes the date of copyright so that anyone attempting to infringe on the copyright at a later date will be foiled in court when the postmarked envelope containing the copyrighted work is produced as evidence.

All well and good, but again: without registration, there can be no infringement suit. And with registration, you’ve only wasted a perfectly good envelope and the cost of postage.

So let us hearken back two weeks to my exhortation to think like a business. Your registration with the Copyright Office is two things: an investment and insurance.

You’re investing in your security as a business, and in the future of your works. You’re also insuring – for a one-time fee, rather than a monthly premium – that should the unthinkable happen, you’re protected against the bulk of your loss. You may, in fact, come out ahead financially, depending on the severity of the infringement and the damages that you are awarded.

If you have catching up to do, do it. Do one piece a week if you can, or one a month, or one every other month. But get it done – protect yourself and your work.

Make copyright registration a part of your self-publishing process. And if you’re nervous about the forms, do a couple of dry runs first – fill some out for different works in your catalog, but don’t submit them, just shred them before doing it for real

So who’s registering works this week? I know I have a bit of catching up to do.

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.


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.

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.

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 (, 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 (, Kristine Kathryn Rusch (, and J.A. Konrath ( 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, 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 ( 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!