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.


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!


Like this

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

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

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

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

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


#Armada

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

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


Nick Norton’s RSS Feed

Yesterday afternoon, composer Nick Norton, with whom I’ve had an email correspondence for at least a year, linked to a blog post from his Twitter account. The post started with one of Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics, which I read religiously. I was, obviously, hooked on Nick’s blog. Jerry McGuire may have had whatsherface at “hello”, but Nick had me at “T-Rex”. I needed to have his blog in my gigantic pool of Google Reader subscriptions.

The only problem was that Nick didn’t have an RSS or Atom feed to subscribe to.

So, I did what any web-obsessed person would do: sent Nick a Tweet asking if he had a feed. This, as I’m standing on the corner of 142nd St & Riverside, overnight bags at my feet, waiting for my boyfriend to pick me up to spend a long weekend at his parents’ house in Montauk. (Rough life, huh?) What would I do without a smartphone, to ask such pressing questions?

It turned out that, no, Nick’s site was sans RSS, despite his blog being prominent on the site. Nick uses Frog CMS (seriously, Nick, dump the Frog – it’s not worth the trouble), which I’d never heard of. As a semi-serious web designer, that was a pretty major red flag. Frog also – let me digress for a moment – hasn’t had a new stable release since April 2009, which tells me that it’s essentially defunct.

Because I’m a glutton for punishment, and I genuinely love helping out my fellow composers, I said, “Let me research this and get back to you.”

By the time we got to Bridgehampton, I had it all planned out in my brain: use PHP to create an XML file from the blog info in his MySQL database, and run a Cron job every hour to update it. Or, in layman’s terms: Use a bunch of acronyms and jargon to do magical things. Then we got to the house, unloaded the cat, had a few drinks and watched some episodes of the Ricky Gervias Show on HBOGo before crashing.

Morning came. Ok, late morning came. Ok, almost noon came, and I rolled out of bed, showered, and sat down with the laptop at the dining room table (i.e., my Montauk office). Several hours of work later, I realized that my initial plan was, in effect, stupid. It wasn’t going to work for reasons that I don’t want to talk about, largely because it’s boring and I’d like to spare your brain cells, Dear Reader.

Fortunately, Nick had sent me the log-on to his site to get things working (mwahahahaha), so I resigned myself to working within the Frog Content Management System to get things done since my original idea wasn’t going to work. *Sigh*

After several more hours, interrupted by giving the cat a bath, nearly drowning in the torrential rains while attempting to get lunch, and making dinner for the family, I finally – at 11pm – and in the past-tense words of Tim Gunn – made it work. You don’t really want to know how, even though it involves none of the XML/Cron/MySQL stuff (though it did involve some PHP, and working with code like “$this->find()”). Fewer acronyms, just as much magic.

So.

If, like me, you want to read Nick’s blog via Google Reader or whatever aggregator you use, you can now.

And the link is: http://nickwritesmusic.com/rss.

Let me tell ya – that’s a lot of work to go to just to be lazy and not have to check in on the blog regularly.

And while we’re at it…

I made a little change to my own blog recently and added a blogroll. Check it out over to the right. Or, if you’re reading this via Google Reader, come on over to the site and check out the stuff I decided is fun enough to read. I’ve got several categories of sites that I link to: the Blogroll is general stuff, including the NewMusicShelf and articles that I “share” via Google Reader; Composers is pretty straight-forward; Fun Stuff is just that; Gay News, self explanatory; and Publishing Blogs gives you a sense of the stuff that I read that makes me so hardcore about self-publishing and being entrepreneurial.

And say hello to my little Twitter feed just below the blogroll.


askacomposer

Today I participated in a pretty cool little event: #askacomposer on Twitter, organized by AskTheMusicians.com. There were some really interesting questions asked, and some equally interesting answers given. I thought it was a really fun time, and look forward to the next askacomposer day!

Of course, it can be awkward when you’re limited to 140 characters – especially when you’re as prolix as I can be! So over the next few days, I intend to re-answer some of the questions that resonated with me right here on the blog.