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

One of the things that makes self-promotion so uncomfortable for people is talking about themselves – specifically talking themselves up. It’s just you saying how great you are.

One way to alleviate some of that anxiety is to band together with other composers, forming a collective of sorts. There’s no one way to do this, and the best solution is one that you and your fellow collective members are all comfortable with.

These collectives can operate in a number of ways: as PR machines, issuing press releases, and sending email newsletters and announcements; as production companies, presenting concerts of the composers’ works; or as publishers, issuing scores, handling royalties and licensing, and doing promotional work for the composers it represents. The possibilities go on and on, and can be mixed and matched in any combination that works best for the collective’s members.

In these arrangements, each composer naturally brings something unique to the table, not the least of which are the strengths of their music and reputations. But they also bring with them a built-in audience, as well as the various skills that each composer wields outside of their musical prowess.

When I ran the Tobenski-Algera Concert Series with Jeff Algera, we both had different skills that helped the series to gain attention and a solid reputation: we both had significant experience designing and building websites; I had a good mailing list in the City, as well as a growing donor base to draw on; and Jeff was a great organizer and detail man, especially on the days of the concerts themselves, when I was often busy preparing to perform (another asset I brought to the table [I frequently performed – always for free – so that we had lower operational costs]).

Here are a few other brief examples of composers banding together successfully:

• With some collectives, like the New York Composers Circle (http://nycomposerscircle.org), dues are charged to help defray the group’s expenses. The NYCC also hosts monthly salons to showcase members’ works, and presents regular concerts featuring works by both members and non-members alike.

• In contrast to the NYCC’s semi-open membership, Sleeping Giant (http://www.sleepinggiantmusic.org/) is a group of six Brooklyn-based composers of varying focuses and styles who present concerts together.

• Red Poppy Music (http://www.redpoppymusic.com/) was formed by Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe to publish and promote their own music. The company has since gained distribution through G. Schirmer. (And founded a little thing called Bang on a Can.)

• And none of us could have made it through our musical training without learning something of Les Six and The Mighty Five. ‘Nuf said.

Just Googling “composer collective” reveals a startling array of groups in the first page of results – clearly this is not a new idea, but one that many of us overlook.

PR
For a number of reasons, it’s often much easier to talk about your work through the filter of a larger organization.

For one, you’ve got the benefit of there being safety in numbers. You’re not just advocating for yourself, you’re advocating for a group that you happen to be a part of, which can alleviate the stress of having to talk about yourself exclusively, so that you can take advantage of the mode of thinking that, “This email blast isn’t from me, it’s from us.”

Also, being a part of a formal or semi-formal group can create a sense of distance – a sort of wall that separates you from the group that you’re sending updates to. I figured this one out when I started the NewMusicShelf – the act of speaking for and as a company felt wildly different than speaking as and for only myself. I knew that the people I announced the existence of the site to who knew me were aware that my music was there, but I didn’t feel a) the need to push myself exclusively, or b) the minor anxiety that often goes with saying, “Hey! Look at me!”

The same was true of the Tobenski-Algera Concerts. Granted, my name was the first half of the name of the series, but the fact that I could speak as the organization granted me the latitude to speak of myself as just another of the interesting composers whose works were being presented, rather than saying, “Check me out, I’m awesome!”

Another advantage to banding together is the ability to expand your circle of exposure to the mailing lists of your fellow collective members. Now, this doesn’t mean swapping your contact lists and suddenly sending emails to a person who hasn’t “opted in” to receiving your personal newsletters just because they’re a contact of one of your friends. But by convincing your contacts to joining the group’s mailing list (and attending the group’s concerts, or buying the group’s album, or just listening to the audio samples you’ve got on the group’s site), everyone benefits because of the wider exposure.

There’s an ethics to the whole mailing list thing that must be acknowledged. I think a good rule of thumb is asking yourself: “Would I like to receive regular mass emails from a stranger or vague acquaintance? Emails that I didn’t ask to receive?” The answer is probably, “No.”

What I’d recommend in this instance is to invite your contacts to join the list of the group. Offer them an MP3 of your music if they sign up (and be sure they get the MP3!). Take a page from Permission Marketing (and while you’re at it, Seth Godin’s blog – he’s got some great ideas in this area and many others) and give your fans an incentive to follow the group.

Publishing Company
This particular solution is probably the least useful now that self-publishing is no longer as stigmatized as it was. With so many major composers having taken on the role of their own publisher, it’s no longer necessary to hide behind a distinguished-sounding name to be taken seriously.

However, publishing your works with other composers can offer a few perks. There’s the increased visibility: the followers of the other composers will regularly see your name when they visit your publishing company’s site (because you’re going to have a site, no ifs, ands, or buts). And if you each bring a different skill to the table – score design, engraving, organization, bookkeeping, web design – you can make life easier for each other. Plus, you can pool some financial resources to make things less cumbersome than they would be if you were going it alone.

On the other hand, you all have to be relatively equally committed to the endeavor, especially since there are finances at stake. Each member will have to pull his/her own weight, or resentments and major conflicts are inevitable. Bookkeeping will be especially important since publisher royalties will be paid to the company, and will have to be divided accurately.

Pooling Resources
In my eternally humble opinion, the pooling of resources is where the money is at, so to speak. There are tons of ways to make this one work without the long-term, far-reaching commitments of publishing that you may not be ready to make at this juncture, but that allow everyone involved to benefit enormously. The pooling of resources can be as formal or informal as you and your compatriots like.

One example of an informal resource pooling is a bartering arrangement – trading the use of skills to mutual advantage: web design, engraving, extracting parts, writing press releases and promotional materials, proofreading materials, performing. In essence, if Composer A has a skill that Composer B lacks, and Composer B has a skill that Composer A lacks, each can help the other out by bartering services. This may not be quite a “collective”, but it definitely helps to create a sense of community and shared goals – nothing to scoff at.

The Tobenski-Algera Concerts’ beginnings offer another example (maybe one of the stronger ones, in my experience) of how composers pooling their resources can be used to significant mutual advantage. When we started the series, we typically programmed works by a central core of young composers, with several others (including one “master” composer) thrown in. This central group divided expenses equitably to make sure that no one or two composers bore the bulk of the financial burden. In one of our earlier concerts, we hired eight musicians, and the costs of the performer fees, the space rental, and the high-quality recording ran in excess of $3,000, which none of us could ever have afforded individually. But because of the way we split the expenses (minus the box office), none of us paid more than $400 – a reasonable price to pay for a solid performance (well-played and well-rehearsed) plus a good recording for use in our portfolios. As the series matured, and we started putting out calls for scores, we stopped asking for composer contributions and started fundraising in earnest. But those early concerts worked as well as they did because the group was willing to pool our resources – both financial and otherwise – to make the concert as successful as possible. And as fundraising became more and more of a necessity, Jeff and I shared those responsibilities, as well – pooling our donor bases and mailing lists effectively.

And producing concerts with like-minded colleagues is not only much easier to handle financially than going it alone, but is also an infinitely more proactive approach to building a career than waiting around for someone else to perform your works.

Recording as a group also helps out immensely. For example, if each member of a group of composers has a piece that falls within the bounds of a particular instrumentation, the group could hire an ensemble to prepare and record the piece, rent a studio, and hire a recording/mixing engineer to record each of the works. Sharing the expenses makes much more financial sense – for a fraction of the cost, each composer walks away with a solid recording.

And if the group is so inclined, they can release all of the recorded together works on a compilation album. Although the divvying up of sales would take some solid bookkeeping (not to mention a well-written agreement among the members for equitable distribution of royalties), each composer would benefit immensely from the others’ promotional efforts in getting the album to reach a wider audience. And in this day and age, it’s almost obscenely easy to get an album onto iTunes, and equally simple to sell copies from the composers’ websites. (And let us not forget the selling of recordings at concerts!)

I really think that when composers band together to help one another out, the sky’s the limit. Seriously, dream big, and see where working together can take you.

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!





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