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 (, 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 ( is a group of six Brooklyn-based composers of varying focuses and styles who present concerts together.

• Red Poppy Music ( 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.

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.


The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Marketing & Promotion

I started this essay last week, but had so much going through my mind on the subject that I got a bit paralyzed. So what I’ve decided to do is to spend this week talking about attitudes and general concepts, then spend the next few weeks on potential solutions.

This is a topic on which my thoughts are still evolving in subtle ways, so I fully expect to contradict what I write here at some point, maybe even contradict myself within the confines of this essay. But it’s something that I feel compelled to write about now, even though some of my thoughts are still working themselves out.

One thing is for sure, though: more often than not, I’m annoyed by people’s attitudes toward promoting their works. Most of us are uncomfortable doing it, sure, but there are some logical, perfectly-ok reasons for that which I think we’re all capable of getting over. What bothers me are the bizarre “philosophical” objections to promotion, as though wanting to introduce people to your own music is some horrible moral failing.

Some of this stems from a basic misunderstanding of the concept of marketing, and a general tendency to conflate the concepts behind different types of promotional efforts.

Marketing is a broad term that encompasses a number of different activities: advertising, pricing, interacting with consumers, distribution, etc. In a nutshell, it’s all of the ways that you present yourself and your works (or your business and your products) to the world. (Here’s an interesting pictorial that shows some of the differences.) I think we tend to conflate marketing and promotion with advertising, which is much narrower in scope, specifically a (usually paid) non-personal exhortation to buy a particular product: buy this vacuum cleaner, eat at this restaurant, lease this car.

For a composer, marketing (as it currently stands in my mind) really comes down to a handful of things: learning who your “fan base” is, learning how best to communicate with them, and finding ways to reach more people to connect with.

Much of this business (any business, really) is making connections with people. Because we’re artists, we’re capable of connecting on a very different level through our works as well as through our personal interactions, and it’s through making these connections that we’ll find the most successful and rewarding solutions to our promotional squeamishness.

Most of us are fairly squeamish about self-promoting, and that’s perfectly understandable: as David Smooke points out in his excellent essay on the NewMusicBox, we’ve all been trained not to brag about ourselves, and people get bored listening to someone who talks too much about what they’ve accomplished. Because of this squeamishness, and because composers tend to have an innate shyness, we often drop the ball when we’re in situations where we should say a little something about what we’re doing or have done.

Case in point: a few years ago, I attended the premiere of an opera written by my then-teacher. Afterward, I ended up in conversation with the librettist, who’s won just about every major poetry award imaginable, and he kept asking about my own work and accomplishments. The conversation ended up being disappointingly short because my hypertrophied sense of modesty caused me to repeatedly deflect his earnest interest in me, and ask about him instead – he was the one with the major career, after all! At my next lesson, when I related my impressions of the incident to my teacher, he chided me for having repeatedly attempted to steer the conversation back to the poet – he didn’t want to talk about himself because he’d already achieved major status; I, on the other hand, was just starting out, and he found that much more interesting because I still had my career and major accomplishments ahead of me. It was a perspective I hadn’t considered (especially since I was a little star-struck), but it’s made me a little less reticent to talk about projects that I’m working on – especially when someone asks!

It’s a fine line, being able to talk about yourself and your works in a way that’s appropriate to the occasion without dropping the ball or being a bore. And it’s something that we all need to learn how to do. This is something I’d like to talk about a bit more in-depth, and comments are definitely encouraged. I’m currently working through an approach to this issue that I’ll report in on when I’ve had a chance to test it out.

So on to some specific marketing thoughts:

My Music Should Speak for Itself
One cop-out to promotion that I’ve heard a few too many times is the idea that the music should speak for itself, but the plain fact of the matter is that it can’t unless it’s heard. Yes, the merits of a piece should convince an ensemble to perform your music, but that won’t happen unless the ensemble knows about you / your piece.

You’re going to have to advocate for your own music on some level. And you are, indeed, the most qualified person to do it – you know your work better than anyone else, and you already have a strong, built-in connection to it. The challenge here is learning how to speak for and about your music, and to find the people who would be interested.

I’d Rather Be Writing
This one, I hear a lot. And I understand it. We’d much rather be writing music than dealing with businessy things – it’s why we’re composers and not accountants. But.

As I’ve said before: remember that this is in service to your music. You are searching out opportunities for it to be performed, recorded, heard. Finding performers and listeners who are interested in your music shouldn’t be seen as a distraction or a major imposition. You’re looking for people who will connect with your music.

One idea that I keep coming back to as I mentally chase my tail on all of this is that advertising just won’t work for individual artists. This likely doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but I think it bears saying. Maybe I’ll change my mind on this one down the road, but I doubt it.

Because advertising is by nature impersonal, and the arts are by nature intensely personal, putting an ad out for this or that score, or sending brochures for your catalog to ensembles, isn’t likely to get you the result you’d like. In fact, you’d probably weird people out if you did it.

But beyond that, advertising just isn’t an effective tool in general. Ads usually don’t convince us to buy anything. At best, they let us know that a product exists, and we do our research from there.

Usually, we make decisions on what concerts to attend, what CDs to buy, what performers or composers to follow based on the recommendations of people whose opinions we trust, and the reputations of the venues, ensembles, and composers themselves.

Knowing Your Market
As a composer, you have essentially two primary “markets”: performers and listeners. (There are others, but these are the biggies.) However, your performer market isn’t comprised of all performers of concert music. My music, which is entirely acoustic, probably wouldn’t be interesting to performers and ensembles that specialize in electronic or electro-acoustic music; nor would it likely be a good fit for ensembles that dig on experimental, avant, or otherwise non-tonal music. And I definitely wouldn’t be a consideration for a group that has no interest in music outside of the standard classical repertoire. Each of us has a broadly specific range of performers and ensembles that we can consider our “target market”, and that target market varies from composer to composer. The same is true, although probably less strictly so, with our target listening market.

Our challenge is to figure out what those ranges are. There are people out there who, if they knew your music, would enjoy it, and would be interested in performing your music or following your career. As a marketer, it’s your job to find them – at least some of them.

How can you know which performers and ensembles might be interested in your works? Well, start with their websites. See what they’ve performed before – if your music could fit in with their repertoire, you’ve made your start. The question then, of course, is what to do with this information. And that will be the focus of the next few weeks.

Again, here I’m going to ask for input from performers and ensemble members on your perspectives on connecting with composers; and from composers on how you’ve been successful (or have failed) in the past at making these connections.

Making the Connection
You’ll notice I’m not saying that you should just start mailing scores off higgledy-piggledy. There are approaches here that are appropriate, and I think that the key is in a word that I’m using a lot this week: “connection”.

A short aside: It’s a little weird for me to separate the ideas of marketing and networking because I tend to see it all as making connections with another person. Marketing/promotion, obviously, is more result-oriented: you’re attempting to have a piece performed or heard. But I think that your efforts in these areas are more likely to be successful when you’ve made a personal connection, and that’s where my thoughts on networking start to intrude.

I’ll definitely be talking about networking in more detail later on, but briefly, here are my thoughts in a nutshell: in a networking-type situation, my goal has always been to meet people on a human, two-people-who-could-possibly-become-friends level rather than in a hunting-for-someone-who-can-do-something-for-me sort of way.

And to me, the same goes for connecting with your potential markets: there’s a give-and-take, a mutual genuine interest, that goes with all of this.

Next week we’ll start looking at a few possible approaches we can take toward marketing and promoting our works, both in terms of specific scores and our musical output in general.

So tell me: composers, how do you connect with performers? And performers: how do you connect with composers?

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.