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!