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.

Advertising
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.

Thanks!





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