The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: Competitions Pt 6: IMHO

[This is the final segment of a six-part miniseries of posts on composition competitions. Competitions are typically a significant part of a composer’s coming-of-age process, and young composers in particular are frequently (in some cases constantly) bombarded with exhortations to apply to everything possible from teachers, administrators, and older composers. In these posts, I’m taking a look at various issues with competitions that many composers have come to see as problems, and which have caused many to stop applying altogether.]


So now that I’ve spent the past few posts on what my boyfriend refers to as a “competition take-down”, it’s time to offer some more constructive suggestions on how I – in my eternally humble opinion – would like to see things run. Mind you, these guidelines mostly hold for ensembles and performing organizations, and not larger institutions.

Call for Scores
First off, drop the whole “competition” thing. Awards and honors should be meted out by large, well-established, well-funded institutions. The American Academy of Arts and Letters, ASCAP, BMI, Columbia University. These institutions can fund a more considerable prize, and there’s significant cachet associated with the awards.

Additionally, removing the competitive aspect allows the organization to avoid whatever costs are associated with bringing on a panel of judges – honoraria, travel, postage, food, accommodations – and keep all decisions both in-house and completely at the discretion of the members and administration of the ensemble/organization, so that the selections are based on the resources and artistic direction of the group.

Multiple Selectees
Rather than making a token gesture toward new music by selecting one or two “winners,” my recommendation is to select either an entire program’s worth of works from the call, or select at least two works per program for your upcoming season. An ensemble that wants to make a commitment to new music should make a true commitment.

By performing works by several composers rather than one or two, your ensemble will be making a much more significant contribution to the music world by giving voice to many composers’ works.

Also, don’t predetermine the exact number of works that you intend to choose. In the event that there are a high number of entries that suit the group well, the option should be available to program more of the submitted works than originally expected. Conversely, if most of the works don’t fit the ensemble’s artistic profile, you should have the option of choosing only those that are best suited to the group. This also allows for infinitely more meaningful interactions between the ensemble and the composers.

Multiple Performances
If it’s something that your ensemble does, perform the selected works more than once! Your composers will LOVE you for it! Your audiences are also more likely to remember the composer, and hopefully seek out more of her works. (And maybe ask for you to program her again!)

Modest Honorarium
I may get an angry mob at my door for this one, but prize money isn’t strictly necessary – especially with a call for scores. However, a modest honorarium never goes amiss.

An honorarium is a nice gesture, as is paying a licensing fee for “rental” or copying or general use of the composer’s materials.

The reason why I’m more in favor of honoraria than prize money is that for many competitions, the prize money isn’t very substantial to begin with. Attempting to raise a bit more, then spreading it equally amongst the selected composers, benefits more of them – whereas a single “winner” would receive a performance and the complete prize, this way gives more composers performances and honoraria that they wouldn’t have received in a more competitive model.

While not strictly necessary, I think that honoraria or licensing fees are important because they send the message that the composer’s work is valuable. Plus: if you intend to charge for admission to your concert, you stand to make money from the composer’s work – they should, too.

Performance Licenses
Definitely have a performance license in place with the composers’ PROs (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC). They’re not expensive, and they offer additional income to the composers. And they make your performance…legal.

Archival Recording
Do offer an archival recording of the performance(s). Be clear about how a composer can use the recording (they can’t sell it), and make sure that they credit your ensemble. If you intend to post the performance on your group’s website, let the composer do the same, provided that they link to your site. Be generous, and be smart: having your performance in the composer’s promotional materials with proper credit gets your group’s name out there even more. It’s free advertising, and great word-of-mouth promotion from an enthusiastic new supporter!

Any recording that you’d like to make commercially available should be negotiated separately with the composer. See my final statement on honoraria.

If you’re going to offer a commission, please do it right.

Raise the funds for a fee that is commensurate with the work you’re commissioning. For anything larger than a duo and smaller than an orchestra, that’s between $500 and $1000 per minute of music.

As with my suggestion for multiple selectees, I wouldn’t commit to a commission up front. I absolutely endorse commissioning, obviously, but my recommendation is to base your commissioning decisions on rehearsals, performance, and interactions with the composer rather than merely seeing one or two scores.

Commissioning is a collaborative process, and selecting a composer – or composers – to work with should be approached with the same care and deliberation as programming the remainder of your season. This should be a composer who you want to create a long-standing relationship with, not someone to prop up for a single performance and then discard.

And please – perform the commissioned work multiple times! You paid for it – get some mileage out of it!

Strict Guidelines
Hopefully you’ll have a flood of entries – especially when it’s clear that you’re selecting multiple works for (multiples) performance(s). In this case, you’ll want to have a set of strict submission guidelines. Unambiguous instrumentation: SATB choir with no extended divisi; violin and piano (not violin, piano, and something else because it’s the closest thing the composer had in his catalog). A clear listing of required materials: X number of scores, engraved with a high degree of quality; recording requirements; a CV listing works, commissions, and selected performances. For electronic submissions, list appropriate file formats.

Any submissions that don’t conform to the guidelines will not be considered. Period.

And don’t hesitate to call out composers who don’t follow your guidelines. Email them and say that because they’re missing X from their submission, their piece can’t be considered. If you’re feeling generous, give them the opportunity to submit the missing components within a limited timeframe. (I accidentally left out a submission component to a large competition several years ago, and they allowed me a few days to email or fax it to them. Although I didn’t win, I was still grateful for the leeway so that my piece could be considered properly.)

And absolutely call out composers who have submitted scores that don’t fit the instrumentation that you’ve clearly listed – that’s poor behavior on the composer’s part, and they need to be told – politely but firmly – that they will not be considered because they did not follow the instructions.

If you want to be my hero, offer constructive feedback on submissions. “We couldn’t select your work because the score’s engraving wasn’t sufficiently legible.” “Your work is good, but doesn’t fit the style of pieces we usually perform.” “The piece may be too rhythmically complex for us to put together and do justice to in the limited number of rehearsals that we have scheduled.” “Your alto line sits a little too low for our ensemble.” It may be time-consuming, but honesty and tact go a long way, and can really help composers to grow musically or to tailor their submissions to groups more effectively.

Garrett Shatzer and the New Lens Concert Series did just this with a piece that I submitted recently to their call for scores. After they’d made their decisions, Garrett messaged me to say that they liked my piece, but it didn’t fit with the other works that they had already programmed for their season. (If you don’t know about New Lens, they pair newer works with works of the past.) New Lens is really doing it right!

None of These
For anyone who has read the lead-ups to this post, it should go without saying that entry fees are an absolute no-no. Plan ahead, and raise the funds your organization needs to make the proper commitment. Electronic submissions will keep postage costs and administrative time to a minimum. Printing costs can be kept to a minimum by reviewing submitted scores that have accompanying MP3s at the computer or on a tablet.

Age limits should be avoided. If you want to be of service to early-career composers, simply say so in your guidelines. Set flexible internal criteria for reviewing a composer’s CV to decide if they fit the profile of what you’re looking for in terms of where they are in their careers.

And leave the composer’s rights alone. If you want to make a commercial recording, work something out directly with the composer. Remember – you’re using their materials, so they deserve to be paid for it.

In Conclusion
I’m sure I haven’t covered everything, but I think that this basic outline can make the entire process infinitely more rewarding for both ensembles and composers, as well as drastically reduce the expenses that a group might otherwise be subject to with a traditional competition.


I write the Composer’s Guide here, taking time away from my composing to do so. If this post helped you in any way, be a dear and click the donate button at the bottom of this post, will you? 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: Competitions Pt 2: Rights Grabs

[This is part two of a multi-part miniseries of posts on composition competitions. Competitions are typically a significant part of a composer’s coming-of-age process, and young composers in particular are frequently (in some cases constantly) bombarded with exhortations to apply to everything possible from teachers, administrators, and older composers. In these posts, I’m taking a look at various issues with competitions that many composers have come to see as problems, and which have caused many to stop applying altogether.]


The subject of competition rights grabs is something I’ve blogged about before on the NewMusicShelf, and I suggest you click on over to read that post, and if you haven’t done so already to read the Composer’s Guide miniseries on copyright.

The rights enumerated in copyright law are the key to an artist’s financial well-being. The only way we can generate any sort of income with our art is to retain as many of our rights as possible, which means that more rights we give away, the less income we can secure from our works.

And yet.

A worrisome number of competitions contain language in their rules and submission guidelines that grants the organization certain key rights to a composer’s intellectual property. Rights that the organization really has no valid reason to have or need. Rights whose exercise could cause severe damage to a composer’s financial well-being should the organization decide to make use of them.

Some examples I’ve seen are:

Right to make a commercial recording
Yeah, ok, I get that the organization or ensemble may be so excited about the winning entry/entries that they want to run straight into the studio to get the performances on disc.


Anything regarding a recording – especially one that will be made commercially available on any level – should be reserved for a separate agreement between the organization and the specific composers involved. It shouldn’t be in a blanket edict dictated to all entrants to the competition at the time of application.

Most of the competitions that use this language also require that the composer waive certain fees and royalties that are normally payable to a composer. Meaning: the organization is claiming the right (by claiming yours) to make money off of a recording of your work without the attendant responsibility of having to pay you for it.

I’ve said this in other posts on this blog, but I’ll say it again: money always flows to the composer.

If someone uses your work, you need to be paid for it. Period. Especially if they stand to make money off of the performance/recording/synchronization. There is no use of your work that should not result in your remuneration. (Except certain educational uses. And music used in religious services – though I strongly disagree with this.)

The mechanical license for a small commercial release (and any sale of a recording constitutes a commercial release – it’s not just recordings sold by big record labels) shouldn’t be waived, especially since it’s not a large fee! When I questioned this point with a competition last year, I was given the excuse that the fee would be small anyway, so I shouldn’t mind waiving it. Sorry, no. If the fee is small anyway, the organization shouldn’t mind paying it.

Remember: the ensemble isn’t doing you a favor by recording your music. If they want to sell it, then they’re using your music to generate a profit for themselves. No one is doing anyone any favors, except the one where you waive your right to fees that are legally payable to you.

I get worked up over this because I see it quite a lot when I look at competition guidelines.

Maybe the organizations who use the language saw it in another competition’s guidelines, and decided to just adopt it into their own because they’re not really sure what sorts of things should go into competition guidelines.

Or maybe there’s a lawyer or businessperson involved in some of these organizations who knows just enough about IP law and the way that competitions are currently being run to think of putting in this language, but not enough to actually understand the potential and actual ramifications of the inclusion.

Namely: that there are significant monetary consequences to the commercial release of a recording of a piece of music. The composer’s only control over recordings of her works extends only to the first commercial release. This is the only time that she can negotiate the mechanical license and royalty rate, or veto the actual recording of the piece if it’s not of sufficiently high quality or not being recorded by performers she wants making this particular recording. All subsequent recordings of that work by other ensembles will only earn her a compulsory license fee, which pays 9.1 cents ($0.091) per copy sold for works under 5 minutes, and 1.75 cents ($0.0175) per minute of recorded music for works over 5 minutes. Beyond that, she will be owed nothing. So, first recordings are important. And you can be sure that a piece that already has a commercial recording probably won’t be eligible for 99% of these competitions, so the vast majority of submissions are unrecorded, meaning that these composers stand to lose something.

While these releases may end up flying under the radar if the distribution is purely physical, entirely offline, and on a small scale, under other, perfectly reasonable conditions they could present a major problem for the composer. If the competition organization is sufficiently tech savvy to get the recording on iTunes – which isn’t hard at all – anybody with an interest in recording the piece can find it if they do even marginal due diligence (and any ensemble working with a real label will get that due diligence from the label’s R&D team), and know that the composer only needs to be paid the compulsory license fee and no more. No permission need even be asked or notification given to make the recording! So whereas our hypothetical composer could have negotiated a reasonable license fee and royalty rate, this competition just screwed her out of hundreds or possibly thousands of dollars in royalties. And if she waived her fees and royalties because of the competition guidelines…..

The only way that a composer could make a decent royalty rate on non-first recordings is if a) the label decides to be uncharacteristically and magically generous, or b) the composer owns the rights to the recording herself, and will consequently earn the full profit from all sales. The latter meaning, of course, that she has either purchased the master, or paid for the entire recording process herself.

I should note that this little rant doesn’t extend to recordings made for archival purposes. Sometimes an organization just wants to have a recording on file of their performances for the sake of posterity or study or promotion. These uses are non-commercial, and have no significant impact on royalty rates or fees. For archival recordings, no mechanical license fee or royalty is due the composer, though I think that the composer should also get a copy of the recording for their own non-commercial use.

(The same competition that told me that I shouldn’t mind waiving the mechanical license fee, also tried to sell me the line that their recording would be archival, which to them meant that it would probably only sell one or two hundred copies. Sorry – not archival. That’s called a “limited commercial release.” And they’d still be making money off of composers who weren’t being compensated.)

Derivative works
One “competition” that I’ve specifically called out in the past really is a scam, and not just because it charges a hefty application fee and awards only a “Certificate of Excellence in Composition” to its winners. It makes a couple of rights grabs that a few other – infinitely more legitimate – competitions also make: most significantly, to make derivative works based on your submission. Seriously.

There is absolutely no reason why a competition should ever in a million years need to make an arrangement of your work or adapt it for any non-original purposes.

When I see this one, which is admittedly pretty rare, but still out there, the only thing I can think (besides, “Hulk Smash!”) is that someone has decided that they want to make some money by stealing rights to pieces, making arrangements, and selling them as their own work.

Performance Rights
Sometimes the competition claims the right to perform the work – almost invariably accompanied with the language “in perpetuity” (a phrase that makes my blood boil on good days) – royalty-free.

Sorry. No.

As a music presenter, the organization should have blanket licenses already in place with the major PROs, so your royalty will cost absolutely nothing more to the organization than what they’ve already paid. If they don’t have a blanket license in place, that’s a big problem, because it means that the organization isn’t paying royalties to anybody for any of the music that they perform! As someone who has paid these license fees before, I can say with absolute certainty that they aren’t expensive in the least, and are easy to obtain (though the PRO websites seem to have gotten more difficult to navigate lately – ya hear me, guys?)

Those unlicensed performances are – sing it with me, now – not. legal.

There’s no reason to ever waive your right to a performance royalty except maybe in the instance of a performance for charity – and then you should still be asked, and not dictated to.

You agree
All of these rights grabs are predicated on the idea that by submitting materials, you agree to all of the terms and conditions (the guidelines and eligibility rules) of the competition. There’s no need to sign here, here, and here, and initial here because you’ve probably filled out an application form, and you’ve definitely sent in scores for consideration; and as these things are worded, that (especially if you’ve signed an application form with attached guidelines) indicates that you have read and agree to all the terms.

Necessary Rights
There are, of course, rights that competitions need to exercise in order to operate: the right to use your name and likeness in press materials announcing that you’ve won, or in promotional materials for the organization or competition. Possibly the right to make photocopies of your materials for purposes of adjudications (which copies will be promptly destroyed). I’m not entirely convinced that a choral competition should have the right to make sufficient copies of the winning score(s) for the choir for performance, but I might be willing to let it slide. Still, I don’t think it would kill anybody to come up with a copying license fee for this latter instance.

Financial Liability
What I think all of these rights grabs really boil down to is not ignorance on the part of the organizers, or any active desire to harm composers or their financial well-being. Instead, it’s purely an act of looking out for the fiscal interests of the organizations themselves. Money is scarce everywhere, especially over the past few years. And ESPECIALLY in the arts. So if an organization can find ways to generate income (creating a recording, selling concert tickets) while also limiting their financial liabilities (not paying royalties, forcing composers to waive their fees, asking composers to submit scores rather than having to find and pay for them…), then they’re going to try them. It may not be sinister, it may not be intentionally harmful. But it is wrong. Administrators may be trying to avoid yet another expense, but it’s at the greater expense of the composers’ careers.

Which leads to issues of…

Because most of the composers who apply to the bulk of the competitions out there are young/emerging and generally professionally inexperienced, they’re not really equipped to know that there are potential and actual consequences to these rights grabs. And unfortunately, the fact that the rights grabs are becoming more and more common is training these composers to value their work less and less. If the organizations who set themselves up to be supportive of new music and of young/emerging composers will nickel and dime the artists, and insist that they waive their fees and royalties, those composers will be trained to put a low value on their art (and haven’t we already devalued it enough?). This sort of financial hamstringing is absolutely not in the interests of composers or of new music.

Rather than than using rights grabs to stiff young composers out of income that they’re entitled to, competitions should be helping to create professional expectations and standards of behavior. Organizations should be teaching young/emerging composers that they are entitled to be paid for their work, and affirming that composer’s rights are important, not manipulating them into giving up rights and waiving fees because the organization has so generously decided to perform a piece or award some paltry prize money.

This is not just a financial issue. It’s a moral one.


I’m going to be spending a few weeks on the topic of competitions and various elements that I think need to be addressed. These posts will be aimed at both composers, so that they can be aware of various issues before entering any competition or submitting to a call for scores, and competition administrators, so that they can have a composer’s eye view of the issues involved with competitions and awards. The end of this mini-series will culminate in my (ever-humble) opinion on how I think organizations should structure programs like these to be as supportive as possible of composers and new music without putting a greater burden on those organizations and ensembles.

I write the Composer’s Guide here, taking time away from my composing to do so. If this post helped you in any way, be a dear and click the donate button at the bottom of this post, will you? 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: Passive Income

OK, so I should be getting back onto a semi-regular updating schedule here. The past two months have been filled with travel, yearly audit prep at the day job, apartment hunting, and moving, all of which are horribly un-conducive to writing or composing. But such is the way of life – we take these things in stride and get back onto our schedules when the dust starts to settle. In the meantime, I’ve been sketching out a handful of posts on a wide variety of topics, so I should be able to power through a few essays in the next few weeks so that the Guide can get back into full swing.

One of the topics on my mind lately has been streams of income – particularly passive income. So let’s talk about money this week, shall we?

Before we talk about passive income, though, let me define active income: Active income is any source of revenue earned through personal effort – wages, salaries, tips, etc. Commissioning fees are active income, as are any fees or pay we receive from performing, speaking, teaching, copying/engraving, etc. The bulk of our income as composers will be active, and these are the sorts of things that we’ll always be seeking out.

Passive income, on the other hand, is any regular or semi-regular income that requires little to no effort to maintain. This includes royalties and licensing fees. And for our purposes, I’m going to lump in score and recording sales because our profits from these are traditionally regarded as royalties.

Now, while passive income will likely be much less than active income, it shouldn’t be ignored for a number of reasons. One is the simple fact that passive income is INCOME. Why pass up the opportunity to have money come to you without having to work hard for it just because the money you have to put out effort for is greater? For this reason alone, I think that ignoring passive income is silly. By making your scores (and hopefully professional-quality recordings, as well) available for sale, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to bring in revenue that you really don’t have to work for. Sure, you may have to mail out the scores themselves, but compared to the effort that goes into writing a piece of music or rehearsing for a performance, sticking a score in an envelope and walking it to the post office is nothing! At the very least, the effort is commensurate with the amount of money you’ll earn for each sale.

Also, each sale you make will likely lead to additional passive income.

For example, when you sell a score, it’s entirely probable that the person buying it intends to perform the piece. And with performances come what? If you said royalties, you’ve been paying attention. Gold star! More income you didn’t have to work for. At all. You sat back while someone else did all the work of buying the score (which you got paid for), learning and rehearsing the piece, and getting up on stage in front of who-knows-how-many people and performing it. Then nine months later, ASCAP or BMI wrote you a check. All because you made your score available for sale and took the few minutes to address an envelope, slap a stamp on it, and pop it in the mailbox. Or maybe your scores – like mine – are available digitally, so you just checked your email, saw you had a sale, and moved your earnings from PayPal to your bank account. (An ING reasonably-high-yield savings account with pretty damned good interest rates. Oh noes! My little moneys are making more moneys!) Such herculean effort!

Up-front effort
OK, I’ll admit that passive income isn’t completely effortless. You have to put in some effort on the front end to make sure that you can earn it.

With physical scores, you have to engrave the score and either have copies on hand or be prepared to have the scores printed and bound on demand. But because you’re a professional (or working to become one), your scores are nicely engraved to begin with, and you’ve done the minor research you need to do to find a printer in your area that can service your needs. Since I just moved, I need to find a new print shop, or start farming it out to Limes or Subito or another company that’s been actively courting me for a few months now via Twitter. (If y’all are reading this – I haven’t forgotten about you!) Then you create a simple page on your (up-to-date) website letting people know how they can purchase your scores. You can even set up simple PayPal buttons that process payment automatically and collect shipping information that is emailed to you within nanoseconds of the sale being made. (This is almost obscenely easy to do, by the way.)

With recordings, of course there’s the effort and expense of the actual recording (provided that you’re the one bankrolling the project, as in my own planned series of recordings), plus cover design, packaging, etc. But that’s the expense of making the recording. Making it available for sale is as simple as setting up an account with CDBaby and letting them set you up with iTunes and Amazon. Click click, tippity-type, submit: done.

And with digital scores or recordings, you need to either set up a store-front or find an online retailer who fits your needs (for recordings, see my CDBaby comment, like, one sentence ago). Creating your own storefront, admittedly, can be time-consuming, though it’s getting easier and easier with all of the open source options out there. I’m a relentless DIY-er, and found the process incredibly rewarding and worthwhile. And how nice that I don’t have to give a cut of my sales to anybody but PayPal?

But once these initial setup steps are done, they’re done! Your works are out there. You’re not guaranteed any sales, but at least you have the option now. The only guarantee is that if your scores aren’t available, you won’t make any sales at all.

I think one of the biggest reasons to pursue passive income streams is the fact that they can be leveraged to create active income. At the very least, they lead to additional passive income, as in the royalty scenario. Or, if you have multiple recordings, a person who likes one recording of yours may buy another, and may continue to buy any subsequent recordings that you put out.

And also: In my experience, the purchase of a score and subsequent performance of the piece has a significant chance of leading to a commission of some sort.

My song cycle at least a moment was commissioned by a harpist who had discovered Starfish at Pescadero through a Google search while looking for a piece with instrumentation similar to George Crumb’s Madrigals, Book III. After requesting to buy a copy of the score, she performed Starfish, and immediately after the performance commissioned at least a moment. There was even talk of a companion piece, which I may still write because a) I want to, and b) I have the text setting permissions, so why waste them!?

Recordings, too, can be leveraged to create performances, score sales, additional recording sales, and even commissions. I leave it to your capable imaginations to come up with examples of how a person listening to a recording of your music can lead to additional passive or active income.

Speaking of passive income: see that “Donate” button down there? Be a dear and click that will you? 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.


It’s my blog, too!

The Composer’s Guide seems to have largely taken over my blog, which I’m mostly fine with, but I feel the need to inject a bit more “me” into it, if y’all don’t mind.

Life has been incredibly hectic the past few months, mostly in good ways.

Earlier this year, I arranged Growl for full orchestra, which I’m very proud of. It’s my first real orchestral piece (that I’ve actually finished and also claim in my catalog), which earns it the lion’s share of my pride (pun not intended). But it also marks a significant shift in my thinking about orchestration, both in terms of mechanics and plain ol’ confidence. My history with writing for the orchestra goes back almost 10 years at this point, and I’m sure that’s a whole blog post in and of itself (and maybe about six months of therapy, to boot). Suffice it to say that my confidence in this area was low to begin with, and was further undermined by a few ill-timed and careless remarks by a former teacher. Fortunately, studying with David Del Tredici and being with Darien Shulman (whose orchestrational chops are amazing) have cured most of my deficiencies in mechanics and confidence. So, anybody looking for a 5-minute, ostinato-driven, ominous-sounding orchestral piece with a title that’s both evocative and inspired by a spam email, gimme a call!

In late June, I spent a long weekend in Minneapolis for the ChoralConnections conference, sponsored by the American Composers Forum and Chorus America, and presented in tandem with CA’s annual conference. It was a great few days filled with wonderful presentations and panel discussions, really cool composers and choral folk, and maybe a bit too much booze. Of course, I totally dug on Bill Holub’s copyright / licensing / contracts / self-publishing presentations, and I wish that every composer had been at this 5-hour, intense session. I also wish that every composer had witnessed Stephen Paulus’s 20-minute, espresso-fueled rant on why every composer should charge more. (Lemme tell ya, that’ll light a fire under ya.) One of the most interesting parts of the conference was dubbed Composer-Conductor Speed Dating Sessions: 10 composers and 10 choral conductors in 3-minute speed-dating-style meetings. These were really great opportunities to meet new people who are genuinely interested in commissioning and programming new choral music – and there are a surprising number of them out there! Every one of those little three-minute meetings was about an hour too short! I was fortunate to continue to run into many of the conductors I met throughout the rest of the conference, which was very nice. I think, though, that the event that was the most fun and will probably be the most fruitful was after the conference had ended – an evening of dinner and drinks with a group of composers, conductors, publisher representatives, and all-around good people that lasted well into the night, and would surely have gone on longer except that the bar closed…. And I should give a special public thanks to two great friends for helping to make the trip possible for me: Ed Windels, an excellent composer and great friend; and Harriet Bart, an incredible visual artist and wonderful host and friend.

Then back to Minneapolis a few weeks later for the wedding of two good friends, Chris and Alissa Brody – I feel like I know Minneapolis far too well, now!

And now I’m in the middle of possibly the craziest month of the past few years. I’m in the middle of moving in with Darien – after having been together for 6½ years, we’re finally packing up our things and our cats and putting them all in the same apartment. On top of apartment hunting, packing, finding movers, and trying to remember what companies I need to change my address with, I’ve got six (SIX!) commissions, two websites I’m designing, an EP of my choral music that ‘m hoping to release in the next month (more on that soon), and a concert to plan/execute for the end of August (again, more soon).

Sheesh! Gotta get to work….

The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business: The Benefits of Entrepreneurship

Welcome to week two of The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business. I’d like to spend this week addressing some basics and laying a bit of groundwork before we launch into some of the meatier topics I have planned for the coming weeks. The two things I want to address first are:

1. The importance of entrepreneurial thinking to a composer
2. The attitudes that shape our views of money and business

Entrepreneurial Thinking
Composers – artists of any stripe, actually – as a general rule have a love-hate relationship with money and doing business. More often than not, we’re willing to spend whatever it takes to get the latest notation software; to prepare and mail materials for whatever award / grant / competition we’ve set our sights on; to travel to this or that residency or performance; to buy the computer / printer / speakers / piano / keyboard / office supplies we need to write and produce our scores.

Yet when it comes to the thought of taking in money, we’re strangely repulsed at the idea. Some of us flat-out hate the thought of charging money for a copy of our scores, or ascribing any monetary value whatsoever to our art, based on some moral code that we’ve devised (or more likely unwittingly inherited) that places all art outside the realm of the almighty dollar. And some of us are just scared – pardon my phraseology – shitless at the prospect of asking another human being to part with their hard-earned cash for something that we just made up!

Yet that’s precisely what we need to learn to do.

When someone asks us, “How much for a copy of the score to [title of your piece here]?” we need to be able to give them a number. Because that person has just offered us their hard-earned cash in exchange for something that we just made up, purely by virtue of the fact that we did just make it up, which is no insignificant accomplishment.

As I pointed out last week, and I’ll probably point out every couple of weeks here until you’re all sick of it: you (or your parents) probably dished out a substantial amount of – to keep a good phrase going – hard-earned cash for your musical education. You probably laid out more cash for Finale or Sibelius or whatever your notation software of choice happens to be. Then there’s the computer that runs said software – not cheap. The printer – hell, let’s join the 21st Century and give you an all-in-one – to print/scan/copy your scores. For the tech-savvy among you: the MIDI keyboard controller. Your speakers – gotta hear that MIDI! The desk that it all sits on. And for those of us that insist on having one: a piano (or three, as the case may be for some of us with a problem [hides face in shame]).

These, folks, are commonly referred to as “investments”. You (or your parents or other loved ones) have invested a LOT of money into your career as a composer. So whether you set out to be or not: You are a business.

And like any other type of business, you have “overhead” – recurring costs that are necessary to keep your business in operation: the costs of paper, toner, electricity, the internet connection you’re using to read this, postage for those competitions you insist on entering every year, etc.

So I think it’s high time that we started thinking a bit more like the businesses that we are.

And what is the basic goal of any business? To take in more money than we spend. To operate “in the black”, as it were. In other words, to make a net profit.

I’m sure that as I write the Guide, I’ll be littering it witch caveats and disclaimers – little notes to remind you that these are my interpretations of the way things are, and my suggestions for how I think they should be. This is one of them. So as I talk about net profits, investments, overhead expenses – all the fun businessy terms that I’ll do my best to explain as we go along – I’m not expecting that they’ll come to dominate, or even make an appearance in, the way that composers discuss or think about their works. “Hey David, what did your latest quartet net you?” No thanks to that. But these things should be a part of an entrepreneurial composer’s personal stock-taking.


Well for one, shit happens. Like audits. Those vague, menacing spectres that are always mentioned in hushed tones to scare you….mostly away from attempting to make any money at all at composing. But if you know what your business expenses are, and you know what you can claim as business equipment (remember those speakers, the computer, keyboard, printer, and desk? oh, and the three pianos?), you’re already in much better shape than most. By being aware of your career as a business, and being responsible about record keeping, audits, while still not anyone’s favorite thing in the universe, can be made a lot less stressful.

Also: fires and natural disasters. If you do your composing in your apartment like me, you have renter’s insurance (or whatever type of insurance suits your situation) in case the unspeakable happens. And when I say “you have renter’s insurance”, I mean, “If you don’t have insurance, get some now!” (Seriously, your Performing Rights Organization – ASCAP, BMI, SESAC – has discounts for home and renter’s insurance on their member benefits pages. Check them out. It’s cheap, and it’s smart.) So if something awful should happen, you’ve got your business equipment insured, and that’s one less thing you have to worry about in an awful, stressful time.

All shit-happens-doom-and-gloom aside, there will also come times in your career when you’ll need to do an effective cost-benefit analysis.

For example, Illinois State University recently green-lighted a full recording of my choral works. The elite chamber choir, which I used to be a member of in my undergraduate days, will be recording all of my choral works to-date over the next few years. I proposed the project to them after having done an extensive analysis of what the project would cost balanced against a conservative, multi-year projection of CD and download sales; and, after having presumably done the same analysis – albeit with more experience to draw from -, they agreed to the project. We still have some points that need negotiating, and contracts are yet to be signed, but the project is a go. And I flatter myself to think that one of the reasons that the School of Music agreed to the project – aside from our long-standing, fruitful relationship – was that I could reasonably demonstrate that the project would be mutually beneficial – both monetarily and in terms of our individual goals (another discography credit to my name; a marketing tool that could open doors to more choirs for me; a recruitment tool for the School; and a demonstration to the School’s/University’s donors that ISU’s alumni are active, successful, and still involved with the school).

I’m also always coming up with other hare-brained schemes like the choral disc, but ones that often don’t get off the ground because the expenses would most likely far outweigh the potential return. One that I’d love to make work would be a concert tour of my art songs a la the upcoming tour by composer Dale Trumbore and soprano Gillian Hollis of Dale’s beautiful art songs. Presumably Dale and Gillian planned their tour weighing the costs of travel from city to city against the benefits that they anticipated from the performances and CD sales.

Dale’s CD and her tour are both excellent examples of a composer having an entrepreneurial approach to her career, and both will only benefit her in the long run.

With only about 700 words left before I reach my weekly word limit, let’s talk about some of the attitudes that often cripple us when it comes to thinking about our composing careers as actual careers, where they come from, and how we can combat them so that we can be a little more…mentally healthy.

1) “What’s your real job”?
One small, but soul-crushing question that most of us have to face regularly after we say that we’re composers is: “Yeah, but what’s your real job?” And most of us sheepishly start talking about the thing we do to pay the bills while we’re trying to get our composing careers in gear. It’s this ego-undermining-yet-well-meaning question that gives me my little thing about day jobs.

As I mentioned in the comments section last week, I’m going to have a multi-part section on The Composer and the Day Job (or some such title) in coming weeks/months, but in my rapidly-diminishing word count, I’ll just say that for those of us with day jobs who consider composing to be our primary career regardless of our current primary source(s) of income, remember that composing is a “real job”, and there’s no shame in supporting yourself in a job that is not your primary goal in life.

I’ll be discussing this idea in much more depth in later chapters, so allow me to leave this where it lies for the moment, and consider for yourself if/how this attitude may be affecting you.

2) Teachers
Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not knockin’ teachers. But we get our attitudes somewhere. We get our politics from our parents (sometimes as a reaction against our parents’ politics), and we get our career prejudices from our teachers. It’s a pretty linear progression.

And sometimes we need to examine the ideas we inherit from our teachers, because those ideas aren’t always appropriate to our generation, just as the ideas that our teachers inherited from their teachers weren’t always appropriate to their generation. And as the concert music scene evolves as rapidly as it has been with publishers taking on fewer and fewer living composers, the economy cutting into so much grant and award money, and the internet and social networking reshaping the way we interact with our audiences and performers, a lot of those ideas are going to need to be questioned.

3) The Romantic Era
I cannot tell you how much I loathe the idea of Composer as Tortured/Sensitive Soul. Gag me! It’s really obscene how much this idea has poisoned artists over the past two centuries.

We’ve become reliant on others to do the business things for us that we can easily do ourselves, and in so doing have allowed our ability to be treated like rational adults to be completely undermined. Rather than content providers (to be a little blunt) who should be adequately compensated for our work, we’re seen as a nuisance by the established content distributors (publishers), who – when they do notice us – offer us horrible contracts with pitiful terms because we’re not expected to know better. And…we don’t. Because we’ve let ourselves become too removed from the “real world” because we indulged ourselves in the Romantic notion that an artist should lock himself in his garret to write and abscond from the world around him.

I think that this is the most dangerous of these attitudes because it’s quite far-reaching, and has penetrated far beyond our own industry.

4) Selling Out
I was part of an online conversation a few months ago in the comments section of an article over at the NewMusicBox that sort of got me started on the path to writing this series. It certainly sparked a number of blog posts that you can find here with little difficulty; but there was one I never got around to writing, and it’s about the phrase “selling out”, which came up in that discussion. Unfortunately, all of the comments were lost just as the debate was winding down when NMB overhauled their site, and the comments from previous articles were lost to the ether. Pity, ‘cos it was one hell of a discussion, and I wish I could refer to it more specifically throughout this entire series.

But one commenter, because the topic of the article was selling scores rather than giving them away, equated the idea of commerce with that of “selling out”. I don’t think I’ve ever been as angry as I was when I read that particular comment. I pride myself of my civility, but I was really ready to take this person to task because I have such strong feelings about the phrase “selling out”. I think it’s petty, uncharitable, and born solely of jealousy at another artist’s success in the face of one’s own lack of success.

I also think that the spectre of being labeled a “sellout” is a major stumbling block for some composers when it comes to trying to achieve success in our field. I’m sure we can all conjure up names of composers who have been – for whatever reason – labeled as sellouts, and see why this fear is so prevalent. I’d really like to see this attitude disappear and the term “sellout” wiped from our vernacular because it’s so uncharitable toward our colleagues.

5) What else?
There are certainly many more of these attitudes lurking in the crevices of our music-addles brains than I’ve managed to cover here. And since I’ve already blasted through my 2000 word limit for this essay despite my extreme brevity in addressing some deeply-ingrained and incredibly-subtle negative ideas that we have to contend with, I’d like to continue the conversation in the comments section below. Are there other things I’ve missed? Anything I’ve overlooked? Any causes or solutions that you can see to any of these pervasive issues?

See you in the comments, and I hope to see you back here next week!

I write the Composer’s Guide here once a week, taking time away from my composing to do so. If you find value in this blog, please do leave a tip or a small donation on the way out. Thanks!

Doing Business: Copyright

A composer colleague of mine asked me to say a few words on copyright, on which I think I have a few reasonably intelligent things to say.

Copyright, in my opinion, is a much-maligned, almost-always-misunderstood, wonderful necessity to creative endeavors. That said, it’s very easy to misunderstand the concepts behind copyright, and there’s much in modern society to make things even more confusing.

First, what is copyright? Copyright is a group of rights automatically granted to the creator of an intellectual property (for our purposes, a musical work). At its most basic, copyright is the right to create and distribute copies of the original work. (And let me just point out that it’s copyright, not copywrite – a work is not copywritten, it is copyrighted.) However, there are subsidiary rights that come with the “right to copy”, such as:

• the right to create derivative works
• the right to perform or display the work publicly
• the right to transmit or display the work by radio or video
• the right to sell or assign all or a portion of these rights to others

These are some awfully important rights, and they’re often overlooked.

What makes copyright so important is that it allows composers to control when and how their works are used, and in the process hopefully make a living from it. Let me offer a few examples.

A composer can assign (all or a portion of) her rights to a particular work to a publisher in exchange for distribution and a royalty on sales. The publisher now owns the right to create and distribute copies of the work and generate a profit from those copies. The composer, in exchange for this assignation of rights, is entitled to a royalty on each sale. We’ll not go into the details of royalties, and my opinions on assigning rights to a publisher, in this essay – I could go on for ages, but that’s not what we’re here for. This is the most common way for a composer to leverage her copyright to earn money.

Slightly more complicated is the assignation of rights to a record label. Copyright for audio recordings (or phonorecords, as they’re outdatedly referred to in copyright law) is in some ways counterintuitive, and I’m still learning the ins and outs of some of the finer points. Suffice it to say that the copyright to the piece of music remains with the publisher or composer, but the copyright for the recorded performance belongs to the record label. The composer and publisher are entitled to royalties in this case, as well, although they’re much, much smaller.

The first recording of a work is the only recording that the original copyright holder has any substantial control over. If a piece has never been recorded and commercially released (archival recordings, meaning recordings that have never been released for sale on any level, don’t count as a commercial release, and don’t count toward/against this requirement), its composer or publisher may refuse permission to any performer or label that wants to record it, and the composer or publisher may negotiate mechanical licensing fees, royalty rates, and other fees associated with the use of the work for the recording. However, once that first commercial recording has been made, any other performer or record label may record it without permission, and are only required to offer a “compulsory mechanical license fee”, which is a whopping $0.091 for works under 5 minutes, and $0.0175 per minute for works over 5 minutes. It’s not a lot. At all.

You can see why leveraging control of copyright can be important here. Let’s imagine that I allow a pianist to record one of my works and make it commercially available on a disc. The performance isn’t very good, and the recording quality is sub-par at best. It sells maybe five copies a year. I negotiated a fair royalty rate with the pianist, but with such pitiful sales, it doesn’t matter since it’s not selling anyway, and the recording is bad enough that I don’t want it representing me, so I don’t actually want it to sell. Along comes Deutsche Gramophon (since we’re playing out a litle fantasy here), and they decide they want to put it on a compilation disc. Since the piece has already been commercially recorded and released, I can’t negotiate a decent royalty, so when the recording turns out fantastic and sells like hot cakes (ahh, fantasy), I’m paid literally pennies per copy. (This scenario could then be turned to my advantage, but that’s not a copyright issue; instead it’s a marketing one – another discussion for another day.)

I should point out here, albeit briefly, that there is a substantial difference between performance royalties, print royalties, and mechanical royalties. Performance royalties are paid by a Performing Rights Organization such as ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC, and are paid for live performances of your works. Print royalties are paid directly by your publisher (if you have one), and are for sales of scores and printed music only. Mechanical & digital royalties are paid through a mechanical licensing agency like the Harry Fox Agency (there are several others) or directly from the record label/recording artist if you aren’t registered through an agency, and are for CD and MP3 sales only. Some finer points: mechanical/digital royalties get paid only for sales because CDs and MP3s are assumed to be for private use only (listening in your home, your car, on your iPod). However, when a bar plays a track from a CD, or a piece is broadcast on the radio or on TV, it suddenly becomes a public performance, and is paid as a performance royalty through your PRO. “Live performance” isn’t limited to human beings on stage in front of other human beings; it is any public display (remember that in the bulleted list above?) or presentation of the work, and is consequently paid as a performance royalty.

Derivative Works
Because I’m the owner of the copyright, I’m able to make derivative works based on the original piece. I can take my piano piece and arrange it for orchestra or Pierrot ensemble or string quartet. I can also create an orchestral suite on themes from my latest opera. Since I created the original work, I have the right to do with it as I please.

However, when I assign those rights to a publisher, they have the right to create derivative works – or, more likely, hire an arranger to create derivative works. I’m now in the position of having to ask my publisher for permission to arrange a piece that I wrote in the first place.

Let’s move outside the scope of music for a moment, and think about novels to explain a bit further. If I were to write a short story or novel centered around a young wizard named Harry Potter, I’d be in a world of hurt because that character – that intellectual property – is owned by either J.K. Rowling or her publishers (it depends on the wording of her contract, which I’m obviously not privy to). Any fiction that anyone might write starring the Boy Who Lived would be considered a derivative work, which is the purview of copyright.

Similarly, any piece of music I may write that makes use of a theme or themes by Benjamin Britten would be considered a derivative work. If I were to orchestrate one of his piano pieces, I would be creating a derivative work, and consequently violating his publisher’s copyright.

Conversely, if I were to authorize the creation of a derivative work such as a choral arrangement of an art song, I would still be entitled to a royalty since I’m the creator of the original work. I can authorize arrangers to create multiple versions of a handful of my pieces with varying instrumentations, and offer them for sale under my own publishing company. I’d owe the arranger a portion of the royalty (depending on my contract with him), but I would in turn have a larger catalog to leverage. Or, you know, I could do it all myself and not owe anyone else royalties.

Performance and Transmission
One of the cornerstones of a composer’s income, aside from commissioning fees, is performance and broadcast royalties. Every time a piece of mine is performed publicly, I’m entitled to some sort of royalty. If this provision weren’t a part of copyright law, my works could be performed anywhere and by anyone without benefiting me in the slightest.

Now, some composers may not have a problem with this because they’re just happy to have their works out there. However, the problem isn’t just that I’m not making money off of a particular performance: it’s that the performers/presenters/performance venues are profiting from my works while I’m not. Allowing non-creators to profit from the creator’s work creates a huge inequity. In fact, it creates a huge disincentive for the creators to stop creating. If everyone but me makes money off of my work, why should I continue to do it?

And there, folks, is the crux of copyright in the modern age. By not enforcing copyright, creators are put at a huge disadvantage. I, for one, would appreciate being able to make a living at the career that I’ve put over half of my life into. Just because I love writing music doesn’t mean I should do it without compensation. This starts to segue into another conversation about commonly held views and misconceptions about creators. And it’s a conversation that needs to be had – loudly and in many venues.

Where do the waters get muddied?
A few things start to muddy the waters here, and it can be difficult to discuss them rationally, or to separate the exact problem from what seems to be the problem.

One problem that people have with copyright is that it seems to benefit large corporations more than it does the individual. Now, in many cases this is true. But not true enough to abolish copyright, as some would like to do. One of the difficulties here is that corporations have the resources to lobby congress to revise copyright law to benefit them more and more. It’s happened more than once. The Disney corporation and the Gershwin estate have had an active hand in pressuring members of congress to extend copyright further and further so that they can maintain a hold on their previously-copyrighted properties. These extensions do next to nothing for individuals. I, for one, will never benefit from the extensions, because I’ll be at least 70 years dead by the time my copyrights expire. My estate might benefit from them, but not to the degree that Disney will benefit from owning Mickey Mouse or the Gershwin estate from owning Rhapsody in Blue. This seems to be the public face of copyright to most. I’ve seen lots of comments threads in lots of blog posts and news outlets decrying copyright as a purely corporate tactic to make even more money at the consumer’s expense. Because they don’t understand the true nature of copyright, many people can’t see how it benefits the individual and encourages creation.

Even creators themselves often have issues with copyright because they don’t really understand it. Many young composers and artists see copyright as an impediment to their being able to get their works seen and heard. It is only if you make it. One of the ways that people are trying to loosen copyright is through things like the Creative Commons license. I know more than one composer who mistakenly thinks that Creative Commons is a substitute for copyright. Clearly they don’t understand what they’re talking about. Even Creative Commons makes a big point of saying that it’s not a substitute for copyright. It’s an appendage to copyright.

Creative Commons is a licensing tool. Notice that it’s called a Creative Commons license. Take a look at the different types of CC licenses and then take a look at the rights granted by copyright law. Look familiar? If not, look again. CC allows a creator to grant particular rights to non-creators – various distribution rights (with attribution, without attribution, for/not for commercial use) and rights to create derivative works.

I, for one, would never use a CC license with regards to my work. I prefer to take things on a case-by-case basis, and grant permissions where I deem it appropriate. But that’s my own choice, and isn’t right for everyone. I’ve had pop remixes done of some of my art songs, I’ve had my scores used as the basis for an entire body of work by a visual artist, and I’ve had one of my choral works recorded professionally. In all three cases, I’ve assigned rights as needed, and had absolutely no problem with legal issues. People who want to use my works in some way come to me, ask my permission, and I grant it. It’s that easy. I don’t need a one-size-fits-all license from a faceless entity, thanks.

Obviously this isn’t all there is to know about copyright. There’s lots I don’t know, and that I’m still learning. But I do know that copyright is the thing that will allow me to generate income from my works and actually have a career as a composer.

Disclaimer: I’m obviously not a lawyer, and my writings here shouldn’t be construed as legal advice.


Well as of today, I can add another major project to my list of major projects for the coming year. Dr. Carlson, the Director of Choral Activities at ISU, is ready to proceed with recording a full disc of my choral music starting in the Spring! We’ve been talking about the project on and off since December, and now that she knows her choir for the year, and she knows what her other commitments will be, she’s ready to go ahead with the project. So amongst writing Only Air, raising money for it, planning the new concert series (which is finally starting to get off the ground), and hopefully recording my song cycles this Winter, I’ll be planning the choral disc as well.

Considerations for this project are:

a timeline for recording
my monetary commitments
the recording contract
how many pieces will be on the disc / how many new pieces I have to write to flesh out the disc

I’ve been considering these things for a while, and I haven’t come up with solutions for any of them quite yet. But now that the question is no longer academic, I can come up with a solution in no time.

Putting the “Fun” in Fundraising!

Since Dr. Block got back from his trip yesterday, I requested the presented materials from him again. Hoping to have it by the end of the week so that I can send out the completed JFund app by Monday. It doesn’t need a postmark until next Friday, but for once in my life I’d like to get an application in before the last possible second.

I also spent a significant chunk of yesterday afternoon working on the commissioning contract, making edits from the copy I marked up at the bar last week. It looks as though it will be about 5 pages, but I’m considering cutting a few lines that deal with payment since ISU isn’t the one paying me for the piece. The main items that remain are the commissioner credit in the score/programs/marketing materials/etc and the specific date(s) and number of the performance(s). I’m hoping for three performances, but I’m not holding my breath – I’m not the only thing that they’ll be playing next year.

I also spent some time looking at potential funding sources in addition to the JFund. The MAP Fund is a possibility, and there are a few funders that popped up on a search of LGBTQ foundations/philanthropists. I’m kicking around the idea of a Kickstarter thing for this, but I’m still unsure of whether or not to save that for the recording sessions I want to do starting in December. Basically what I have to decide is this:

1) Do I want to potentially do two separate funding drives for two separate projects within two or three months of one another?
2) Do I want to do ONE funding drive for just one of the two projects?
a) Which Project should that be?
i) The commission will potentially be partially funded from JFund and/or the Secret Music Foundation and/or any other granting organizations we decide to apply to.
ii) I *could*, if I were so inclined – and this idea does sort of appeal – fund the recording with the commissioning money.
iii) However: It might be nice/smart to put that money (whatever it ends up amounting to) in a savings account or toward some investments. I *do* have my financial future to consider.

I’m leaning much more toward doing a Kickstarter project for just the recording so that I can bank the commissioning fee. Keeping the funds separate seems smarter, especially in the long term.

On the other hand, were I to try to fund part of the commissioning fee with Kickstarter, there’s a real possibility, I think, for greater exposure and a wider funding base since there’s a larger social issue involved.

I’m also going to pick the brain of my friend who’s the Director of Development for the ISU College of Fine Arts to see what he thinks/suggests.

I’ve also decided not to try for the VCCA this Fall. If I’m going to go to Brush Creek in the Spring, that’s two of my four weeks of vacation days eaten up right there. I may be better served keeping some of my days in reserve. I can always take a day here and a day there in the meantime to do work.

Permanently Live

My performance on Friday with Rob Frankenberry of “Permanently” went quite well, I think. We may have been a little rushed, but slight nerves will do that – especially considering the last-minute program change and the fact that we had only run through it three times prior to the day of the concert. But I’m quite pleased with the result and the audience’s reception of the song!


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.