Co-opetition

Co-opetition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Web Series: Part 1. Hubs & Outposts

In the current landscape of the arts in general and concert music in particular, Internet savvy has become something of a requisite for having a viable career. However, it can be confusing, with all of the different platforms for on-line interaction, to know how to proceed.

Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, Soundcloud, Google+, LinkedIn, and of course your personal website — all seem vaguely promising for letting people know what you’re up to, drumming up interest in an upcoming performance or a new recording, and general audience-building. But the thought of using more than one or two services – and devoting the time that it seems like you should to each one – can be a daunting task, especially for those who aren’t as Internet-savvy as they’d like to be.

A friend of mine would frequently lament that it seemed like he should join Twitter, but, “How does one have the time?!”

So how do you prioritize your on-line activities as they pertain to your career?

A few considerations

While there’s no tried-and-true, one-size-fits-all approach to how an artist can make her Internetting as effective as possible, I would say that a personal website is de rigueur for anyone with aspirations of having a career that involves people finding your work and doing something with it, be that purchasing copies of the work, performing it, commissioning new work, or just listening.

Beyond that, you have to start asking yourself a few questions.

Question One is quite simple: Do you have the inclination to do the whole social networking thing? If your answer is “no”, then you probably shouldn’t bother. If you think it’s not worth your time, then it really isn’t. Unless you’re willing to put in the effort, you’ll only be wasting your time. However, if you think that you’re inclined but “don’t have the time,” then you need to figure out if your lack of time is real or imagined – and if it’s imagined, it may be that some part of you knows that you’re not actually inclined, but that you think you should be.

If you’re actually inclined, and expect that you’ll find some enjoyment in engaging with performers and listeners who you’ve not met in meatspace, then you need to figure out to what degree you’re comfortable intermingling your personal and professional lives in a public forum, as well as some other considerations, which I’ll tackle in the coming weeks. A lot of this won’t be new information to the more web-savvy among you, but it can bear repeating.

But regardless of your general social networking strategy, it’s important to be aware of the concepts of Hubs and Outposts, and how the hub-and-outposts method of on-line activity can help you to cut through some of the anxiety.

Hubs

With very few exceptions, your website will be the Hub of all of your on-line activities. The core of your efforts will be centered here, although you may put more day-to-day time into other outlets.

Your website should be kept up-to-date with all new works, performances, recordings, press, bits of news, etc. But most importantly of all, you should have full control over your site: you own the domain name, and you have the ability to add content and change the design at will (although this may involve having someone on call who can do the updates/changes for you). Your website is not bobcomposer.wordpress.com or billwritesmusic.tumblr.com or musicbykatie.wix.com. By all means, use WordPress or Tumblr or Wix to build your site, but get your own damn domain name – they’re not expensive.

If you’re overwhelmed by the options you have for domain name purchasing or web hosting, start by asking people who have websites what they’ve done, and what they like/don’t like about their hosting. I currently own five separate domain names and operate another two for clients from my central hosting account, and have worked with over a half dozen hosting companies in my experience as a web designer — I’m always happy to answer questions, too.

Keep your website the center of your on-line activities. If you blog regularly, make sure that the blog is a part of your site, and not hosted elsewhere, so that the blog readers can easily navigate to the rest of your site.

Outposts

Outposts are sites where you’re likely to find listeners or performers who may be interested in your music. The big ones, of course, are Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc.

You won’t have as much control over your Outposts as you will over your Hub – you won’t own the domain, you’ll have limited control over design, and in some ways you’ll be competing for attention with all other users of the platform. However, discoverability becomes easier, and you can rely (to a degree) on sharing/retweeting/reblogging features to help spread the word about you and your work.

Your website doesn’t naturally have any reliable traffic, but your Facebook and Twitter profiles, once you start to connect with other users and make regular use of the platform, will. You can and should make use of that traffic to draw visitors to your website.

Driving Traffic

The primary purpose of your Outposts is to drive traffic to your Hub. Each of your outposts should link to your website — in the About section of your Facebook page or profile, in the Bio section of your Twitter account, in the description of your Tumblr blog, in the contact info for your LinkedIn profile — so that anyone who finds you sufficiently intriguing can learn more about you.

Every time I publish a Composer’s Guide post, I link to it from Facebook and Twitter, and the majority of my traffic for the next few days is from these two sources. I do the heavy lifting on the website — writing the post — then let my friends and other followers help to spread the word after I let them know that the new post exists.

Similarly, when you add a new work, or a significant blog post, or a new recording to your site — anything that your site visitors would be interested in — you should mention it on social media to drive traffic to your Hub.

The visitors may be returning ones who are just catching up on the new content; or they may be entirely new to your site, and will hopefully spend time poking around and learning more about your work. (More on how to track this and improve on it in the next few posts.)

This small effort on your part has the effects of 1) making your site more easily discoverable to new visitors who may have seen one of your posts or some else’s repost of it, and 2) minimizing your existing listeners’/fans’ efforts to keep up with your works and career.

Where it’s easy to lose hours of your time is in duplicating your efforts across multiple platforms — posting an important bit of information in full on Facebook and Google+ and your website — rather than having a centralized location for your core activities. Links with minimal commentary are easier to share than full-fledged posts and rants that belong on your website.

Of course — and more on this later — exhortations to visit your site aren’t (and shouldn’t be) the be-all and end-all of your Outpost activities. Establishing yourself as a human being is just as important, and posts with broader applicability and interest should outnumber your posts evangelizing about your latest project.

Platform Death

Another reason to make your website your Hub is in case of Platform Death.

Back in the day, when personal websites weren’t the norm, it was common for composers to use MySpace as their hub. Uploading music and video was relatively easy, and users had some control over the look of their page (though we all remember how terrible most pages looked). It was a way for musicians to have an on-line presence without having to dish out hosting fees or navigate the domain registration process, which wasn’t as streamlined as it is today.

You could put your MySpace URL on a business card, and people were impressed with your initiative and tech savvy. You had an on-line presence, and you didn’t have to pay for it, or work very hard at it.

Then came Facebook, and the average MySpace user fled to greener pastures with less eye-wrenching, animated backgrounds and no auto-playing audio. Suddenly, musicians with a MySpace page were behind the times, and many scrambled to adopt the new platform, which wasn’t as well-suited to promotional efforts — especially not to posting static media.

All of these musicians were victims of Platform Death. They put their eggs in the MySpace basket, and the basket broke. The site is still in operation, but few musicians use it, and even fewer listeners take it (or the musicians that rely on it) seriously.

By owning your domain and hosting your files through a reliable web host, you insure yourself against Platform Death. A self-hosted WordPress site will be viable for years to come, even if new versions stop being developed. A custom-coded site is even more secure so long as you know how to update it, or your web person is willing and able to continue working on it. But even if you own your domain, a site hosted by Tumblr or Wix could experience Platform Death if the companies shut down or the platform becomes unpopular or the developers let the platform languish.

Now, that’s not to say that if you currently use one of the latter or similar platforms to host your site that you should run screaming from them. But be aware that you’re more at the mercy of the companies that own the services than those who go through a regular web host. I have a friend with a very elegant website that’s hosted on Tumblr, and one of my own side projects has a Tumblr-hosted site. I keep my ear to the ground about the viability of the platform, and I’m sure he does, too. I also know that if Tumblr suddenly became as uncool as MySpace, or their ToS changed to be less friendly to copyright holders, I could migrate to another service or build a site from scratch, and only lose a day or two in the process thanks to my nine years of experience in building websites. Others may not be so lucky.

Friendly Reminder

Just as your administrative and promotional efforts are on behalf of your music, your outpost activities promote your website as the central repository for knowledge about you and your work (which is, in turn, in service of your music).

I write the Composer’s Guide here, taking time away from my composing to do so. One of the things that has kept me going in the past is feedback from readers – in the comments, on Facebook or Twitter, or via email.

And since I provide these posts for free, I always appreciate a tip in the tip jar below if you feel like you’ve learned something from the posts. Or, if you can’t manage that, sharing the post on social media is always much appreciated.

Thanks!






A litter of new works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Finding an Angle

As artists, we’re always trying to find our unique creative voice, searching for the way to make a musical statement (however you want to interpret that word) in a way that is distinct and genuine. But as human beings, we also grapple with things like impatience for success (again, however you want to define that).

The impatient part of us, which tends to be given a lot of latitute in our on-demand, instant-gratification culture, wants success NOW. Fame, riches, financial comfort, the respect of the field, whatever “success” means to you….NOW! And sometimes in our impatience, we start to flail about, searching for The Answer. The One Thing that will get us to the goal line as soon as possible – preferably by next week. We want to know how to get those big-time performers and ensembles to commission and play the hell out of our music. We want to know exactly what to do to win that Big Prize. We want to know exactly what the world is looking for in the next Important Piece.

After all, composers X, Y, and Z had already hit the big time in their 20s or early 30s. So why aren’t I there yet? Right?

It’s the same mentality that most of us have when it’s time to go on a diet. Isn’t there something out there that will just take the weight off? The answer, of course, is “yes.” That something is called portion control and consistent exercise. Put down the cake (the cake is a lie, anyway), and go for a walk.

The same, in many cases, holds true with careers. Put down the [insert distraction here] and write. Write what is true to you.

Since it seems like I follow EVERY composer on Twitter, I tend to see some flailing in my feed. Composers searching for exactly what it is that panels are looking for in this or that competition. Looking for ways to get their music in front of big ensembles.

Fine. Great. There are some answers to these questions.

But sometimes the questions go into the territory of: “How do I change what I’m doing to fit ______?” And that’s where I get a little twitchy.

Sometimes we start looking for an “angle”. A gimmick. Maybe if I use crazy non-standard notation, I’ll get noticed! Maybe if I write in a totally different style, the judges will like my music this time. Maybe if I [insert something that goes against my personal aesthetic] someone will offer me the fame and riches that I deserve. I’ll be the next ________!

And that’s where that sort of thinking goes off the tracks: looking for ways to change what you’re doing so that more people will like it instead of looking for people who enjoy what you’re already creating.

If you’re going to change what you’re doing, change it by making it better – work on your craft, develop your voice (read: write. more. music.), polish your engraving, technical, and orchestrational skills. Don’t be a different composer, be a better composer.

I know I write a lot about income and markets and entrepreneurship, but all of these are in support of your art. A career is not a race to the finish line. It’s a slow build with lots of diversions and changes along the way.

Instead of trying to change our music to suit this or that award panel (which will be a different panel next year), think on this little gem from Ned Rorem: “Why do I write music? Because I want to hear it – it’s simple as that. Others may have more talent, more sense of duty. But I compose just from necessity, and no one else is making what I need.”

Write what you need. Then find the others who need it, too.


The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Composer Behavior

This week I’m going to take a brief step away from marketing and self-promotion to talk about….well, another type of marketing and self-promotion, to be completely honest. Though, frankly, everything a composer does is some form of marketing or self-promotion, from the actual music that you write to the ways that you get it out into the world to any appearances you make in public or online.

To that end, I’d like to talk briefly this week about composer behavior in certain situations, and how it can affect the way people view you and your music. This post is largely inspired by a recent experience I had with a composer who behaved particularly poorly in a number of respects, though I’ve seen very similar behavior from a number of other composers throughout my career. I’ll avoid naming names to protect the guilty, and try to generalize as much as possible so that this post doesn’t devolve into a public gripe session.

The ways that we behave in the world greatly affect the trajectories of our careers. A composer who treats performers and audiences and other composers with respect and generosity will in turn receive much better treatment – and probably better opportunities – than one who is selfish and blind to the needs and feelings of others.

The difficulty here is that we spend so much time shaping and crafting our works, and we want so badly for them to be liked and performed well, that we can sometimes be blind to the ways that we behave toward our interpreters and our audiences. Being an artist is in many ways like being a parent – we want the best for our children, and it’s easy to allow that desire to shut out the rest of the world. We can become those Park Slope mommies and daddies who, in the name of wanting the best for their (ridiculously-named) children, become entitled, overbearing, and insufferable.

Case in point:

Not too long ago, I was involved in the premiere of a vocal/chamber work for which the composer was asked to be a member of the pickup ensemble for the performance. With most composers I know, this wouldn’t be a problem, but in this case, it was – and in a very big way. The composer – let’s call them XY – walked into the first rehearsal and, having barely said a word of greeting to any of the performers (none of whom XY had met before), began making changes to the already-confusing (and incredibly poorly-engraved) score. And it was downhill from there. For the remainder of the rehearsal, which ran almost twice as long as scheduled, the ensemble was never allowed to go more than 30 seconds without being stopped and asked to do some new thing that XY had dreamt up that very second, or perform these or those few notes in a way that was not only not notated, but completely inappropriate to a first reading.

Mind you, most of the members of the ensemble had never met one another before, let alone attempted to rehearse this hyper-complex piece, so anything beyond correcting pitches and rhythms seems inappropriate to me. And constant interruptions to make ill-thought-out changes to the score, or exhort the guitarist to play more “digitally” (!?), didn’t help us a) learn the piece, b) have the slightest bit of confidence in the composer’s abilities (or, frankly, sanity), or c) maintain any sort of good will toward the composer.

Despite the fact that XY was very kind and earnest and enthusiastic, they had behaved incredibly poorly. The constant interruptions, and later calls for additional rehearsals, were very disrespectful of the performers’ time, despite the fact that XY didn’t intend any sort of disrespect whatsoever.

[There is much more that was wrong about XY’s behavior, but I’m not really writing this to complain (honest!), but as an example of some recent poor composer behavior.]

Now, this was a fairly extreme example, but I can say with a fair amount of certainty that at some point in all of our careers we’ve behaved poorly to some degree. In some respects, I think it’s part of coming of age as a composer. But there does come a point where such things must be left behind.

This isn’t to chide, but to remind that we must be aware of our behavior.

Because it’s by the good will of our performers, audiences, and composer colleagues that we gain any measure of success.

A composer can’t expect to gain a base of performers if they can’t be relied upon to treat performers with respect and courtesy. XY thought that there was no problem interrupting constantly, and asking for several-hour last-minute rehearsals because they’d mismanaged earlier rehearsal time so badly, because it was their piece – their baby. (Yes, that phraseology is awkward, but I’m hell-bent on avoiding gendered pronouns of any sort.) Like those Park Slope mommies and daddies, XY wanted the best for the piece, even though their behavior burned every (every) bridge in that rehearsal room.

I remember one particular instance of not-so-pristine behavior in my composerly adolescence during a rehearsal of a new piece with the choir that was premiering it. I was a member of the choir, and we had literally just finished a concert. The director thought we should spend a little time preparing for an upcoming tour that would feature my new work, so – still in concert attire – we spent some time running various works, mostly mine.

It was the end of the day, we’d just spent the last hour or so singing difficult music, and we were all nearing exhaustion. In my own tiredness, I wasn’t prepared to hear anything but perfection from the choir, and got a little harsh in my criticisms of the group’s sound. Ultimately, I used a particularly inapt and slightly offensive analogy for what I wanted, and – fortunately – the director stepped in and called an end to the rehearsal. I still cringe when I remember that moment, because I knew immediately that I’d just crossed a line. Since I was a member of the group, the other singers forgave and forgot very quickly, but I know that with a choir that didn’t know me as well, I would have fared poorly indeed.

So we’ve all been there.

I think that we all need to remind ourselves periodically that we’re a part of a community – and a remarkably small one, at that – and that we’re dealing with other people who all have the same goals that we do. We all want to make music as best we can. And it’s much better to have a performance that’s a little lacking but the performer wants to do the piece again – or commission a new one – than to behave poorly and potentially burn a bridge.

Again, it’s so easy to be blindered to others by how close we are to our scores.

We should by all means be enthusiastic and passionate about our music, and strive for perfection in performances, but if we’re a part of a rehearsal, or offering feedback on a performance, we must remember that sensitivity to our performers and respect for their time and craft is important. Good will and respect are very mutual things, and it’s important to know how much and what sort of feedback is appropriate to the performer or ensemble that you’re working with.

Of course we’re all probably going to encounter situations at some point in our careers in which one or more performers are hostile to us or our music for whatever reason, but I think that here good will and respect – including self-respect – are even more important. It’s much better to come away from these situations having it said that, “He handled himself well,” than the alternative.

Remember, we’re building relationships with performers – your piece can be performed again, but once you burn a bridge, it’s difficult to rebuild.

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

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

Thanks!






The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Performer Partnerships

I was going to hold off a few weeks on this promotional solution, but a recent experience convinced me to move it up in the rotation.

As anyone who follows me on Facebook or Twitter knows, I recently had a half dozen of my a cappella choral works recorded by an excellent choir in the Midwest, and I’ll be making those commercially available under my own label once the recording guys are done working their magic.

I sang with this choir, the Illinois State University Madrigal Singers, from my first semester as a freshman at ISU in 2000 until I graduated in 2004, during which time the group commissioned several works from me. Since then, the ensemble has continued to commission me and perform older pieces of mine regularly, and over the past 12 years I’ve built a very strong relationship with the choir and its directors.

By working so extensively with the choir, I’ve gotten a number of opportunities that I wouldn’t otherwise have had: they frequently perform pieces of mine at festivals and conferences, which exposes my choral music to a much wider audience of listeners and potential performers; I’ve gotten some excellent live recordings; and over the past two weeks, they toured parts of Europe, performing my music on a number of exciting concerts.

By pairing with a performer or an ensemble, you greatly increase your chances to be seen and heard. As with composers who create collectives, each composer and performer brings their own audiences to the table, and provided that both of you are promoting the collaboration, each stands to gain a significant new following. By making the collaboration last for years, you’re increasing the likelihood that the performer’s or ensemble’s fans will come to have a deeper understanding and appreciation of your work, and hopefully follow your career, as well as increasing the likelihood that your followers will become long-term fans of the performers because of the dedication they’ve shown to your music.

These partnerships, of course, don’t spring up overnight. And they take nurturing.

I always view them as friendships with a musical component.

As with any relationship, these collaborations are subtle, nuanced things that require attention and reciprocity, as well as genuine mutual respect and good feeling.

There’s no one path to creating them, but I can say with certainty that there’s no forcing the connection.

In my own experience, you find performers – who are often friends to begin with – that are kindred spirits, and the professional relationship develops from there.

Possibly the easiest time and place to make these connections is during your formal education – any school that has a composition program will undoubtedly have performers running around, many of whom you’ll probably share classes with. (Obviously, this situation favors younger composers – those of us who are out of an academic setting won’t have the same access without seeming like creepy Uncle Touchy with his windowless van and promises of candy.) In this setting, it’s generally simpler to connect with performers with whom you may build years- or even life- long connections.

For those of us out of school, things get markedly more difficult insofar as most performers we meet are just as busy building their careers as we are, and we may not immediately fit into their plans for world domination success. As a result, we have to be more creative in our approaches to finding performers, and at the same time be more careful and tactful.

In my own experience, the performers who I’ve collaborated with typically have started as friends who I met outside of academia – usually through other friends or former teachers. Without exception, I have always viewed each of them as friends first, which I think is the key to the longevity of our personal and professional relationships. Which is to say: while I may have wanted them to perform my works early in our friendships, I never expected it, and never allowed it to be an ulterior motive in maintaining the connection.

I know I tend to push this idea a lot, but it’s at the heart of my personal philosophy of navigating the concert music world: the strongest connections are personal ones.

Also, when I’m interested in collaborating with a new performer, I never ask them to perform my music and expect them shoehorn it into their repertoire. Instead, I invite them to perform on a program that I’m producing (always paid!), or I ask them if they would be willing to record a piece of mine (again, paid!). I try to approach these situations with the mindset that (contrary to popular belief) performing my music isn’t the highest priority in someone else’s life – especially if we don’t know one another well -, and being paid for a gig might be a good incentive to learn the piece (and hopefully come to like it during the process).

Of course, I’m (maybe a little overly) cautious out of concern that I not come off as pushy. And “pushy” is not “me”. (Although I have been described once as “affably pushy”, which I can dig.)

But we’re not really talking about how to get performers to perform your music. </tangent>

By building collaborative relationships with performers, you not only gain the benefits of cross-promotion, you also get the benefit of creating an intensely personal body of work for that individual or ensemble, which can be incredibly rewarding. It’s a great opportunity to learn the ins and outs of a particular (set of) instrument(s), and the quirks of the performers. David Del Tredici often says that his vocal music would be infinitely simpler – and consequently less interesting and rewarding – if he hadn’t had the opportunity to work so extensively with Phyllis Bryn-Julson, who could sing with absolute ease the incredibly demanding vocal lines he’d concocted. I think my own choral works would be less interesting if I’d not had such an excellent choir to work with over so many years.

And again, for those composers with hangups about being able to talk about their own work, you can spend your time talking about the performers you’re working with, and the joys of your collaborations, to make things easier on yourself.

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

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

Thanks!






The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Cross-Promotion

One solid way to deal with promotion in a way that removes some of the stress of promoting yourself is to cross-promote with other composers.

There are a ton of options here. Some possibilities are:

• Linking to one another on your websites
• Mentioning one another in your newsletters
• Recommending each other’s scores to performers you know
• Recommending each other’s recordings to your own fan bases
• Placing score samples of one another’s works in instrumentationally-related scores of your own
• Guest blogging on each other’s websites

The benefits here are more far-reaching than merely getting your name out there a little more. Sure, you’re being exposed to a whole new mailing list or potential fan base. But you’re also sending a lot of subtle yet important signals at the same time.

These explicit endorsements of your colleagues say different things to different groups, all of which can only be good.

By recommending another composer’s work to performers and listeners, you’re showing them that you’re not just out for yourself – you care about that composer and their music in particular, and also about the musical community in general. Community-building isn’t something that we as composers have traditionally been very good at, in large part, I think, because we tend to view our colleagues as competition – competition for jobs, competition for performances, competition for awards – and not always as fellow travelers whose goals we share, and with whom we can work toward mutual success. This sort of community-mindedness is, in my perpetually humble opinion, a very attractive quality in an artist, from the viewpoint of a consumer of art. I, for one, listen much more favorably to a composer’s music when I know that they interact well with performers and other composers.

You’re also breaking through the me-me-me-ism that people probably expect in your newsletters and other promotional materials. Devoting that bit of space or time to someone else who you believe in can be a breath of fresh air. And for those of you reluctant to talk solely about yourselves, this gives you an out – by plugging someone else, too, you’re not just talking about yourself. (Sometimes I think that these little ways of thinking can be very helpful in drawing shy and nervous composers out of their shells – it lets them off the hook in small ways that hopefully make self-promotion more comfortable.)

And we shouldn’t ignore the fact that we live in an age when people are interested not just in what an artist creates, but what inspires her, and what her interests are. So these little endorsements are easy ways to let your followers know a bit more about you as a person and as an artist, as well as introduce them to more art that they’ll hopefully be drawn to.

Another option, for those who are so inclined, is to put promotional materials for other composers in the backs of your scores. I’ve started doing this myself, in a limited way. This is a practice that I appropriated from traditional publishers of decades past. All of the older scores that I’ve purchased have a page in the back listing additional pieces with similar instrumentation published by that company. So, in the score for a song cycle, one page at the back of the publication (sometimes the back cover itself) is dedicated to other songs and song sets by composers of roughly similar style and time period.

Now, likely you aren’t publishing other composers’ works. But there are undoubtedly composers whose works you admire, and which you’d like to introduce people to. I recommend sticking to instrumentally-related scores – it would be a little silly to promote a trumpet piece in the score for a string quartet.

I have my own way of formatting these things, but it’s still a little clunky, and I’m working out the kinks. I like to have the cover of the piece I’m recommending available, along with a sample page. But a simple listing of similar pieces along with the composers’ website URLs would be just as effective – as well as a little easier to pull off.

An upshot of the digital age is that many of us have blogs that we update with varying degrees of frequency. It’s worth considering having guest bloggers on your site. By having other composers or performers or whomever write a short post (probably in some sort of reciprocal exchange) you:

a) give them an additional outlet to post to,
b) introduce them to your audience,
c) offer a change of pace for your own readers, and
d) hopefully gain additional readers and site visitors when your guest mentions their appearance on your site.

Maybe try to set up a blog tour with composers who you’ve created relationships with. Each of you can visit the others’ sites for interviews, articles, video posts, whatever you want to do. There are lots of resources online offering advice and suggestions on how to set up and manage a successful blog tour (mostly for authors, but the advice is almost always pertinent).

Of course, these options don’t need to be quid pro quo arrangements (and I believe that they generally shouldn’t – I prefer being generous with those composers I believe in). I’ve taken it on myself to put samples of other composers’ works in the backs of some of my own scores not expecting anything in return from them. Not that I wouldn’t appreciate anything that they might do to promote me, as well, but my intention is to endorse those composers because I like their work.

Your promotion and endorsement of other composers – as in all things – should be genuine.

These promotional solutions, as well as that of composer collectives, are predicated on the idea that the business of concert music is not a zero sum game. We’re not really competing with one another – we’re in this together. And a rising tide lifts all boats.

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

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

Thanks!






Response Part 2

After I posted here the other day about my comment at the J.W. Pepper blog, there was a fun and lively conversation on Twitter about self-publishing. Those that were involved generally seemed to be of the opinion that they’d much rather go the route of self-publishing because of the level of control that it affords them, as well as the higher royalty rate and the fact that they keep all of their rights.

The next morning, my comment was approved, and the composer/blogger who wrote the original post responded. Unfortunately, his response didn’t really address any of the points that I made, and instead continued to plug the legacy publishing system without offering any support for why he thinks it’s a good idea. Here is his response (which you can also find here):

Dear Dennis,
Thanks for your response to my article. I’m not surprised by your comments, and I can see where you’re coming from. No question, great music deserves to be published, recognized, and performed, and I know it can be extremely difficult, or impossible, to find an established publisher that considers the work to be a profitable investment. But, when I see self-published music that does have the attributes of a profitable publishing investment, I like to encourage the writers of those works to go the route of commercial publishing. I realize that in some cases self-publishing might be the composer’s only reasonable alternative.

And here is my lengthy response:

I still completely fail to see the benefits of going the route of legacy publishing (if you want to know why I use the word “legacy”, Google the phrase “legacy system“).

First, I have to give up *all* rights to my creative efforts. I give away my copyright, and all claim I have to the piece I just spent days, weeks, or months writing, to a corporate entity with no real stake in its success or failure.

I can’t even write an arrangement of that piece anymore without asking the permission of my publisher. I wrote it, and they own it now. In exchange for what? I have absolutely no say in cover design, pricing, distribution or marketing methods, or whether or not my piece actually makes it to print. A publisher has zero obligation to actually put the piece into print once the contract is signed – they own it, they can do with it what they will. And unless it’s stipulated in the contract, they don’t have to create parts (another horror visited upon one of my friends – he wrote a piano trio, which was published by one of the big houses, yet they never made parts; instead, the score is sold in sets of three for over $100 – it’s never been bought, ever, and it’s been sitting in a warehouse since the mid-’80s). If a particular piece turns out to have been a “bad investment”, then it’s just left on the shelf, and no further effort is put into promotion. And if they decide to license the work for a cause that I find completely abhorrent – oh, well – they own it, and can do with it what they will.

So: I lose all claims to the piece, and have no control over its uses. Fun!

Editorially, there’s not much benefit. Publishers are now requiring composers to engrave their works themselves or at their own expense.

Monetarily, I’m entitled to royalties, but royalties are net of all expenses incurred by the publisher. But what expenses exactly? That’s a good question, and one you’ll never get a publisher to answer with any level of specificity. Salaries of the marketing / legal / art / editorial staff? Rent for their offices? Pencils / paper / office supplies? All are needed to sell my piece, but not all are direct expenses, especially once the piece is printed and on the shelf of some warehouse. However, the accounting departments of publishing houses are quite creative places, and any expense can be used to justify keeping a little more of the pie. Generally, though, in the end I’m left with a royalty of around 10%. Plus, if the piece is ever commercially recorded, the publisher banks the bulk of the recording royalties, as well. Good luck paying your mortgage with that!

And the fun continues! Brick and mortar music stores are essentially off-limits to concert music composers. Patelson’s shut down years ago; the two music shops in my hometown don’t stock concert music, except the Czerny exercises and some beginner piano stuff; and the music shop in the town where I went to college – there were two big schools in town that both had good music programs – didn’t stock anything written after “Mikrokosmos”. Brick and mortar stores are mostly around for instrument sales and rentals, or to peddle the Glee songbook.

Promotion is one of your big reasons for working with a legacy publisher, but again I have to ask: what can a big publisher do that I can’t? I’ve not seen much of this promotional muscle you mentioned, and I do enjoy buying scores and looking for new works to perform – both for myself as a vocalist, and as a concert presenter. In fact, I couldn’t tell you a single new thing that any of the major publishers have picked up in the past few years. I know that Boosey represents Du Yun, but only because I read it on Twitter. Beyond that, I, as a consumer of concert music, have not been marketed to. At all.

And if Twitter is the best promotional tool at the disposal of the big publishing houses, then I should point out that it’s one of the promotional tools at my disposal, too. I have slightly over a quarter of the number of followers that Boosey has, half of Schott, nearly as many as G Schirmer and Peters, and almost two and a half times as many as Subito. If this is the future of concert music promotion, then I’m playing with the big boys.

Ok, yes, the publishers have an easier time going to conventions, and have more clout with the major orchestras. But what’s to stop me from banding together with some of my composer friends, renting a booth at one of these conventions, and marketing our works directly? Just by being there, we’ve gained some name recognition, and we can market our works directly to performers and directors – much more passionately and personally than a publisher could do.

A publisher is interested in making sales. Any sales. They have no interest in the individual welfare of their composers. Individuals who work for a publisher may take an interest, but the corporation itself is interested in one thing only: maximizing profits and minimizing risk/loss. And to romanticize the role of the publisher is, frankly, silly. A publisher is a business partner, not a friend, and should not be a source of artistic validation. The gatekeeperism inherent in the system has been romanticized to a degree that has crippled countless composers’ careers. My works are only valid or good if some faceless corporation says they are? I’m sorry, no, my works are valid and good because I stand behind them, because performers enjoy presenting them, and because audiences enjoy hearing them.

While you didn’t really address any of my points in your response, this idea seems to be at the center of it: composers who are good enough should get a publisher (*snap*, get one, just like that), and those that aren’t good enough, well, self-publishing is a reasonable alternative whose relative obscurity won’t get in the way of works that have been vetted by the sales department of X Publishing.

There are a lot of composers who are very successful, and who self-publish their works. Most notably, of course, is Jennifer Higdon, who I think it’s safe to say is good enough to get a publisher if she wanted. And she has some pretty interesting things to say on the nature of publishing and self-publishing at the NewMusicBox. That a composer as successful and respected as Ms. Higdon should consider the idea of giving her rights to a legacy publisher to be “absurd”, I think is very telling.

Meanwhile, I’m making sales this week and pocketing 92% of the cover price (these are digital sales). That’s a royalty rate that no publisher could ever offer. And while my score sales aren’t going to be paying my rent (yet), I’ve covered my web hosting fees for the month (read: I’ve recouped my marketing expenses). I made those sales the way that composers have been making sales for ages: one person heard me perform one of my own song cycles with the American Opera Projects recently, and the other is filling out a series of recitals and found me by Googling a phrase that is particularly pertinent to me and my music.

And unlike with a legacy publisher, I’m creating a personal relationship with both – I’m thankful for their support and for the fact that they enjoy my music; and in creating this relationship, I’m hopefully paving the way for new collaborations or commissions or score sales. With a legacy publisher, there’s a monolithic wall between the composer and the score buyer that discourages such a personal connection. Had either person I mentioned bought my music through a legacy publisher, I wouldn’t know it, they wouldn’t know me, and there would be no way to know that there are already plans to perform those song cycles in various parts of the country.

One final point, and then I’ll stop typing for now.

Author Kristine Kathryn Rusch (www.kriswrites.com) has been making some great arguments in favor of self-publishing for writers (as have Dean Wesley Smith and Joe Konrath, whose blogs I encourage everyone to check out), and while there are some qualitative and quantitative differences between the book publishing world and the concert music publishing world, certain tenets hold true across the board. I’m not completely against legacy publishing, but I don’t think it’s a very good *business* decision at this point in time. (As I said before, I’m much more interested distribution at this point, which doesn’t require a publisher.) And that’s the heart of my argument – every decision a composer makes regarding her scores and their uses should be sound business decisions. I’m not speaking of artistic choices, which are entirely separate – it’s after the artistic choices have been made, we must be savvy in the way we approach our careers. So I’ll end with a quote from Ms. Rusch’s blog, substituting “Composer” for “Writer”:

Composers Are Responsible For Their Own Careers.
Composers Are Professionals.
Composers Are In Business, And Should Behave Like Business People.

As always, thoughts and responses are welcome in the comments section!