Allow me to speculate for a moment.

Getting music performed live is difficult. Very difficult. I know because I’ve produced a series of new music concerts in Manhattan for several years, now. It’s a time-consuming and expensive endeavor. A vital one, though.

But I’ve been wondering about the future of concert music. Specifically, I’ve been wondering about audience development and making a career as a composer a financially viable one – viable without resorting to academia as a primary means of income before having established oneself and gained some measure of success solely as a composer.

Can we continue to build our audiences almost solely through live performance, or should we be expanding our public image to a more diverse array of media?

Unlike writers, we can’t spread our musical gospels through printed scores. Scores aren’t for reading on the subway – they are for those who intend to perform our music, or for those who intend to study our music to some academic end – both rarefied pursuits. Granted, our primary targets are and should be performers, the evangelists of our works. But should we not also preach our own gospels? (I don’t know where this religious analogy came from, but it seems to be working….) As I tell all of the composers who join the NewMusicShelf – you are your own best salesman.

To rely on performers to bring our music to the masses requires that we have a solid and enthusiastic base of performers who want to expose their audiences to our works. Enthusiasm is never enough, though. Successfully relying on our performers presupposes that they have their own loyal listenership and plenty of performance opportunities where they are in control of the works that they bring to the stage, neither of which criteria we can rely on always being the case.

So should we, in addition to finding ways to get our works publicly performed, be attempting to record our music and make it widely available? The average new music aficionado may not whip out a score on the subway instead of the latest James Patterson potboiler, but they most likely do whip out their iPod or other similar device capable of playing digital audio. Like novels (I swear, I will run the writer-composer comparison into the ground), people consume recorded music at a fantastic rate. Though unlike novels, recorded music is much quicker to get through, and therefore more easily consumable. It’s also much more easily re-consumed, which often results in a more loyal listenership. And a loyal listenership is often in search of the next release….

The downside here is that recording music at a high level of professional quality is expensive. Prohibitively so. And without a wide listenership, we probably can’t expect a return on our initial financial outlay for a recording project.

Of course, we can defray these costs in a number of different ways.

One way is to involve our existing audience base in the creation of the recording, i.e, fundraising. Inviting friends, family, and other fans of your work to be a part of the creative process by helping to fund the project (notice the careful wording there) can bring them much closer to your work merely by having become literally invested in it. A gracious thanks to your financial supporters in the liner notes of the disc and on the disc’s page on your website can be very gratifying, and these supporters may be more likely to recommend the recording to other music lovers because of their own involvement in its creation.

Another way to keep costs down is to split studio/editing time and costs with other composers, or with performers working on their own recording projects. This approach has its own potential difficulties, not the least of which is the diminished time allotted for your works, but it at least allows for some portion of your music to be recorded for less than it would cost for a whole album’s worth.

The whole recording idea, of course, hinges on the expectation of a return on your investment. I propose this in contrast to the financial outlay for a live performance, which may not earn back in ticket sales what it cost to put on the event, especially since there’s only one chance to earn back that investment, whereas a recording can earn indefinitely.

The point at which you break even on the project will most likely be 5 or more years out, so this truly is an investment in your own career, and should be seen as such. And, like all investments, it should be expected to bring in a return once the up-front costs are paid back through album/MP3 sales.

The math for this sort of project may be a little daunting to some. But bear with me, and let’s take a quick look at some numbers. I promise to be gentle.

Selling a full-length digital album through your own website and using PayPal to handle the transactions (PayPal charges a 2.9% + $0.30 fee per transaction) leaves you with the following returns:
On a $10.00 digital album: $9.41. Not bad.
On a $0.99 digital track: $0.66. Not horrible.

Now let’s assume that the album costs $8,000 to produce. I’m basing this figure on a recording that I turned pages for last year. It was solo piano music, so performer costs weren’t an issue. It was also done in a well-respected studio in Manhattan, which skewed the price a bit higher. So let’s assume that the lack of performer costs and the NY studio prices cancel each other out, and stick with $8,000 as our number. (By the way, the recording will be released on Naxos American Masters, so that tells you something about the level of quality that was being aimed for – that level of quality being another of the base assumptions for our hypothetical project here.)

Taking these numbers as our base, we would have to sell 850 copies of the full digital album to break even. That’s 170 copies per year over 5 years. A little daunting, maybe, for composers who are still growing their base. But remember that this recording will be available for the rest of your life – it’s an investment. And we can break that number down again to make it even more easily palatable: you would have to sell one copy of the album every 2 days over 5 years to break even. Not quite so bad. We can even take 8½ years and sell 100 copies per year, or 85 copies a year over 10 years. That’s one copy every 3.5 or 4.25 days, respectively.

Now, of course selling solely through our own website rather limits our exposure. We’ll want to get the album in front of as many people as possible. So, let’s put our imaginary album up on CDBaby, which seems to be the most well-respected of the independent music distributors.

As I understand it (please correct me if I’m wrong), CDBaby charges $4 per CD sold, regardless of the gross price, and 25% ($0.29 minimum) for MP3 downloads. They also partner with iTunes and other services for digital distribution; iTunes takes 30%, on top of which CDBaby takes 9%, leaving you roughly $0.63 per $0.99 track. In actual numbers, this all means:

On a $9.99 CD through CDBaby: $5.99.
On a $0.99 track through CDBaby: $0.70.
On a $9.99 album through CDBaby/iTunes: $6.36
On a $0.99 track through CDBaby/iTunes: $0.63.

You’re going to get much wider potential exposure (potential exposure – there are no guarantees, here) for a smaller cut of the profits. That’s the game. And these are reasonable cuts for distribution.

So to go solely through CDBaby and iTunes (you can’t sell directly through iTunes yet at this stage of the game – you still need an intermediary like CDBaby), you’d need to sell 1,333 hard copies of the CD or 1,258 copies of the digital album.

So if we split sales evenly between your site and CDBaby, you have to sell 1,039 copies, or 208 copies per year for 5 years, or one copy every one and a half days over the same period.

Notice I haven’t touched on the number of individual tracks you’d have to sell in order to break even. It’s a lot. But the bulk of your sales are probably going to be albums/discs. Individual tracks will serve to speed you to your goal. And you want to meet your goal sooner rather than later. The further you push back the date where you break even, the longer you’re out the initial investment. And the idea is to spend money to make money, not to spend money period.

If you don’t expect a return on the recording, then it becomes a “vanity project”, which does very little for your career but still manages to make a sizable dent in your pocketbook.

I think I’ve finished with the math portion of this little blessay.

But all of this math and blathering on about investments and costs/returns is my way of speculating about self-produced recordings being the way of the future for concert music.

My scores may be my musical representatives to performers and other composers, but recordings are my ambassadors to the world at large, especially since there are potentially lots of people who may enjoy my music but who aren’t geographically able to make it to concerts of my works. I have most of my works recorded in live performance, but typically the recording quality (and sometimes the performance quality) isn’t up to snuff, and I don’t want garbled, noisy recordings with weird rhythms and wrong notes to be people’s introduction to my music. Consequently, I’m planning a series of recordings over the next few years. It will be time-consuming, and probably fairly expensive, but ultimately worth it, I expect.

I’ll keep you all posted.