As a businessperson in the arts, the most important thing you can do is to continually expand your catalog of works. No amount of marketing or networking or promotion will help you in the long run if you don’t constantly work to build your catalog. (Conversely, you can build your catalog all you want, but it will be for naught if you don’t do sufficient networking etc.)
So for those composers who moan that all they want to do is write, they’re at least doing something right!
As with any other facet of running a business, there are several strategies for how you can expand your catalog, and you can pick the strategy that best suits you – or you can build your own strategy using elements of others.
Casting a Wide Net
One strategy for catalog building is to cast a wide net. In a nutshell: write pieces with a broad range of instrumentation: a piece for solo flute, a string quartet, some art songs, a piece for orchestra, a piano trio, some duos, etc.
While there are several advantages to this strategy, its greatest strength is that you’re not putting all of your eggs in one basket, in terms of performance possibilities. If you write solely for solo piano, there’s zero chance that a string quartet will program your works, and a much lesser chance that you’ll come up on the radar of non-pianists for commissions. By casting a wide net, you have a much broader base of potential performers and commissioners.
Also, writing a broad range of works can show versatility, if that’s a quality that you value (some juries and panels do). Again, if you only write for solo piano, some performers may question your ability to write for their instrument.
Casting a wide net also allows you to resist being pigeonholed. I know plenty of composers who resist labels as a “choral composer” or “song composer” or “band composer”. It can be difficult to avoid these labels out in the world (in certain circles I’m known as a “choral composer”, and in others I’m known as a “song composer”, and in others yet I’m known as a “cabaret singer”), but writing a broad range of works can help to ameliorate that, if you see it as being a potential problem.
There are, of course, drawbacks to this strategy: some composers will feel that it lacks focus. Writing for a wide range of ensembles for the sake of writing for a wide range of ensembles does lack focus if you don’t want to write for the ensembles that you’re writing for.
And if you keep up this wide net strategy for too long, or take it to mean that you can never write for the same group of instruments more than a few times, you can limit an ensemble’s choices of works in your catalog.
Another option is to take a more targeted approach to the instruments or ensembles that you write for. There are any number of living composers I can think of who write a range of works, but also have certain areas of focus: John Mackey, David Rakowski, and Daron Hagen. John has a significant output for band, David for piano, and Daron for the operatic stage, although all three have much larger ranges.
To take David Rakowski as an example, he has a wildly impressive catalog of works for solo piano, including his books of Etudes, and the Preludes that he’s currently at work on. But he’s written a ton of music that’s not for solo piano. Following him on his various web presences, it’s clear that he manages this huge catalog by writing regularly.
This strategy is easiest to pursue when you have easy access to performers. For example, if you’re friends with an accomplished flautist, you have a unique opportunity to write extensively for the flute, either as a solo instrument or as part of an ensemble (especially if they’re already a part of one). And the more of an advocate that flautist is for your music, the greater the benefits to taking this course. That flautist can recommend your music to their friends, colleagues, and students, and when you make all of your flute music available and easy to find, you’re encouraging sales and performances, which can obviously lead to more performances and commissions. The flautist might also make mention of you on their various web presences. Or if they record with any sort of regularity, you may end up on one or more of their discs.
If you have a friend who is active in the World Harp Congress or the International Society of Bassists or any similar performer organization, and you write regularly for that friend, you are much more likely to have your works heard by an extremely wide range of performers. Or if not heard, at least spoken about.
Assuming that you show a real aptitude for writing for a particular instrument or group of instruments, you are more likely to gain a loyal following amongst that community. And that targeted ability can give focus to your catalog, and affords performers within that community more options to perform your music, as well as more entrees to your work.
Whereas casting a wide net may seem unfocused or limited, the targeted approach can more easily allow you to be pigeonholed, and you run the risk of limiting interest from performers outside of the area(s) that you’re targeting.
A hybrid of the above to strategies may be the more obvious path: giving special attention to one or two or three areas while also continuing to write for a broader range of ensembles.
Commissions often put us in a position where we end up focusing on one or two areas, so we may feel a need to cast a wider net when we’re not working on these pieces. For example, I’m frequently commissioned by my alma mater to write new choral works. It’s great because a) I get paid, b) I get to write music I like, c) I get to work with great performers and good friends, and d) I’m expanding my catalog. Unfortunately (as I often see it), it puts me in the position to be considered as primarily a “choral composer” if I don’t make sure to keep my catalog sufficiently diverse. I love writing for choirs of all types, but I can’t imagine writing primarily for choir. The same goes for art song: I love writing it, and I frequently get commissioned to write more, but I love writing for chamber ensembles and the orchestra too much to limit myself to just art song or just vocal music in general.
In this position, I find it smart to write between commissions whenever possible to build my catalog as much as possible, and in directions that I feel are important to me. For example, I’m between commissions right now, so I’m pursuing two different paths: one is a choral music project that I’m collaborating on with several other composers, and the other is a group of instrumental duos that I have long-term plans for. Sure, with the first project, I’m going down one of my well-worn paths, but the project as it’s working out is a solid business decision. But the second project broadens the area where I feel that I’m under-recognized, despite having a solid catalog.
And in addition to building my catalog, these projects are, in their own way, “practice”, but that’s a GIGANTIC post for another day.
I see the hybrid approach as being about balance – balance between focusing on one area and broadening your catalog. But without that flautist friend who advocates for your work at every conference and performance, how do you find it?
One option is to monitor your performances. If you find that one piece or a group of pieces in a specific instrumental area is getting more attention than the rest of your catalog, you can consider writing more in that area. These areas of interest are ripe for the targeted approach.
Or if you start to feel hemmed in in one area or another, you can consider making forays into other instrumental combinations.
Having a catalog of substance extends beyond mere instrumentation, however. You’ve created a catalog that includes vocal works, small and large chamber pieces, works for band and orchestra, and maybe even some stage works, but there’s also the important element of timing. If your works mostly clock in between three and seven minutes, you’re probably not showing your range well. You’ve written a dozen or so short pieces for trombone and piano for this great trombonist who loves your music – maybe it’s time to consider writing a larger work for them/the instrument.
Or the reverse may be true – I have a friend who feels that the concert music community is suffering from severe ADD, as evidenced by the over-inundation of the scene by works shorter than eight minutes. Consequently, few of his works are shorter than twenty. He’s done himself no favors by primarily writing works that take up a quarter or a third of a standard program since performers can’t just try him out – they have to commit to a lot of rehearsal and devoting a significant portion of their concert to his one piece.
And although this is a minor consideration: is most of your music slow? fast? Do you usually start a piece like this or like that? Do a significant number of your works end on a quiet, contemplative note? Or maybe they all end with a bang? Think about it.
Beyond the strategies I’ve outlined here for expanding your catalog, and the reasons for each, it’s just flat-out important to continually add to your list of available works. The more works you have available, the more performance and commissioning opportunities you have, and the more stable of a career you’re able to build for yourself. Writing two dozen works, then trying to push those onto performers over and over will get you next to nowhere unless you’re incredibly lucky. But by having lots of works ready for performers, while you still need luck, you’re creating more of that luck for yourself.
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.