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

Giving away scores. We’ve all done it. You meet a performer, the two of you talk, and they say that they’d love to see a copy of that piece you wrote for their instrument (because it just happens that you have one – quelle coïncidence!). The two of you exchange cards. You rush home – giddy at the prospect of a performance – and mail off a prettily bound copy of the score.

What happens next?

Probably nothing, aside from the performer having a copy of your piece in a pile somewhere in their apartment.

You’ve done this. I’ve done this. We’ve all done this.

I think we should probably stop.

We don’t need to stop entirely, but we do need to take a step back and look at the situation for a moment.

The thing that bothers me about giving away scores for free (ok, there are several things that bother me about it) is that it can devalue the scores and the work that went into creating them. Not to mention the fact that we’ve just spent our own money to print and bind a score – and maybe mail it, too – for someone else who will in all likelihood ignore it. And this is considered to be a perfectly acceptable scenario (the rudeness of the ignoring part aside). It’s not only generally acceptable for a composer to go to the expense of printing, binding, and mailing a score at their own expense so that someone else can have it for free, but it’s expected.

One of the problems is that quite often we’re asked to give someone a copy of the score. It’s not so outright as, “Hey, will you give me a copy of that for free?” But that’s the underlying message. That said: I’m absolutely positive that the intention is never to weasel a free score out of us. (How awful would that be?) It comes from a place of good intentions and even genuine interest, I’m sure, but these things add up, and they can add up quickly. The unintended implication here, though, is that our work isn’t really worth offering to pay for.

Another, bigger problem is that we (young-and/or-emerging-in-particular) composers, in our desperation to be loved and performed everywhere, give away our scores higgledy-piggledy. We meet a performer (who we probably just heard on stage), go all a-twitter at her performerliness, and throw anything at her that we’ve written and that happens to make use of her instrument. Go dignity!

Regardless of whether we are asked for a score or offer it, there’s an element of “insult to injury” to the scenario – in the latter scenario, we just happen to be insulting ourselves. The injury is that we’ve spent our own money to print, etc the score. The insult is manifold. First, someone (the composer and/or the score-requester) thinks it’s ok for the composer to spend their own money to print, blah blah blah. Second, beyond the score itself, there’s the whole element of the composer having spent years and years and tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars studying and preparing to be able to spend the days/weeks/months writing the music and engraving the score that was given away for free. I, for one, didn’t spend all that time and tuition on my degrees or all that money and time on private study so that I could spend more money to just give away the fruits of my labor and education.

In the case of composers throwing scores at anyone they come into contact with, I’d like to see us be a little more dignified. There’s nothing wrong with wanting this new, exciting person to perform our works, but maybe we can create a more significant bond with them that will make it a bit more likely that they would perform our works in public.

In the case of being asked for scores, I do see less and less of this going on, which I like. In my own experience, I’ve had a growing number of people offer to purchase copies of my scores rather than ask for them outright. I think the difference is that, while yes the culture may be changing, these people also know that my scores are available on my website and on the NewMusicShelf (yay!), and that they’re affordable.

So, some potential solutions as I see them.

Solution 1: Stop treating scores like noodles and performers like walls, throwing one at the other and hoping they’ll stick. Instead, create relationships with performers, which will hopefully make them genuinely interested in your music and in performing it regularly. Then you can give them all the scores you want for free – it’s much more meaningful, and will probably be infinitely more fruitful.

Solution 2: If a performer says, “Yeah, I’d like to check out your piece for kazoo and nose flute,” direct them to your website where they can hear audio of the piece, and buy a copy of the score if they’re so inclined. This, of course, necessitates that you a) have a website (if you don’t: shame, shame, shame! Do it now!), b) have MP3s of your works, and c) have a set-up on your site or somewhere else to sell your scores (admittedly harder to do without a certain level of Web Skillz or someone to do it for you).

Solution 3: If a performer wants to check out your work, and you want to give it to them for free – email it. Save yourself the printing and postage costs. Not to mention the tree.

We’ve all gone through a lot of expensive preparation for our chosen careers, be we composer or performer, and we’re all in this strange, maybe-sinking ship (if you listen to any number of critics, which I don’t) of concert music together. While I’m not advocating a stance of “pay me or you get nothing”, I am a big advocate of working together in a way that’s fair to everyone, and not treating your work as something without value beyond the purely artistic.

Now, I do like giving away scores, I’ll be the first to admit, but I try to be judicious in who I give them to. Someone just performed one of my works? They get a signed copy of the score in thanks, and maybe second one – something I’d like to hear them do next. A close friend’s birthday? I write them a song and present them with a copy. I set a poet’s words? Signed copy, absolutely. Someone is a big advocate of new music in general, and my works in particular? You better bet that they get scores from me! But performers I just met? Not likely. I’m more interested in having it mean something when I give away a score.