Over the coming weeks, I’ll be cross-posting a series of short essays that I wrote at the NewMusicShelf about self-publishing and making good financial decisions as an artist.
So I’ve already written about the problems of pricing and why we should (mostly) stop giving away scores for free, but these two topics are part of a larger issue – the lack of education we receive on the business aspects of the concert music business.
I had a great undergraduate education. I was encouraged to push myself academically, personally, and artistically, and I got way more experience than I had dreamed possible – 17 commissions and over 120 performances of my works during those four years. But I was never formally taught about commissions or contracts or royalties. I was very lucky when I left school to have had a private teacher who was well-acquainted with such matters, and who made it a point to educate me on the business side of things. I was taught how to register my works with ASCAP and maintain my performance records; I was given advice on how to negotiate text setting permissions / royalty agreements with poets; I was shown how to present my works professionally; and I was even taught what expenses I could claim as a composer on my taxes and how to organize them to be prepared for an audit. I’ve also “inherited” two separate filing systems to keep my works and my correspondence organized (I use a hybrid of the two, which I’ve in turn passed along to two people who have hired me to organize their archives). But most young composers I know haven’t gotten that sort of education.
Fortunately, more and more schools are offering courses that tackle business matters, but the culture is still very much anti-business. We would much rather focus our energies on our Art and leave the dirty stuff – the money matters – to others. Or we’ll deal with the money when it starts coming in. Except that it won’t come in if we don’t make it come in. We can’t be ostriches with our heads in the sand if we want to survive as both individuals and a community.
Now, we don’t need to get a whole new degree in all things financial, but we should know some basics, because there are some real consequences if we don’t. Indulge me for a moment and let me continue to draw parallels between the field of concert music and the field of prose writing. There was a recent incident involving Columbia University’s MFA writing program, a very famous, very unscrupulous writer, and a lot of screwed-over young people. These young people were offered very unrealistic returns on a very unrealistic amount of work if they signed a very slippery contract written up by said unscrupulous writer’s unscrupulous lawyers. Some sort of education in how to deal with contracts (consult a lawyer before you sign anything!?) would have served these students incredibly well. You can read a great account of the events, as well as a well-written dissection of the underlying issues here.
Composers need a basic knowledge of contracts and their rights just as much as aspiring novelists. Although I obviously advocate self-publication, I know it’s not for everyone, so composers should be aware of what’s in their contracts with traditional publishers. And film composers are especially exposed to being screwed over, however inadvertently.
Let me offer an example of how contracts with a traditional publisher can cause problems. A friend of mine had a chamber piece published about 30 years ago by one of the major publishers. Standard contract. The contract, however, didn’t stipulate that the piece be engraved or that parts be created. So, whenever anyone wants to buy a copy of the score, they can’t. They have to buy three copies. Of a xeroxed manuscript. Because no one engraved it or made parts. And it costs $110. Who would ever buy that? And because of his contract, he can’t get the rights back to do it properly and sell it himself under his own publishing imprint.
I should hope that that story alone would send every composer on the planet scrambling for a book on the subject of contracts, or a crash course from a lawyer friend. It probably won’t, but a boy can dream, can’t he?
Unfortunately, the most common attitudes I see are either of haughty disdain for any activity that might sully the arts with the stink of financial gain, or a general wide-eyed naïveté when it comes to anything remotely financial. And I can’t figure out which one bugs me more.
Let me eviscerate the former first, though. Ignorance, I understand. That “I smell poo” nose-wrinkling, I loathe. Loathe. Loathe. Loathe.
One of my favorite examples is recent Pulitzer Prize winner, Jennifer Higdon. I heard a story recently from a friend who has attended some rather distinguished music schools. A remarkable number of composition students during his time in school had nothing but snarky things to say about Ms. Higdon because she has… a publicist! How dare she! How dare she hire a professional to bring her performances and commissions, the central goal of composerdom! How dare she attempt to support herself through the career that she has chosen for herself! How dare she!
I really only have contempt for that sort of behavior, and I don’t event try to mask it. I think it’s undignified, and I think it’s petty. It’s a purely negative behavior that benefits no one, and only serves to hold up success to derision. It’s also potentially very damaging to the derider, should his badmouthing reach the ears of someone in a position of power who happens to feel warmly toward her maligned colleague. The world of concert music is a small one; the world of composers even more so.
In the case of the monetarily naive and uneducated, it seems as though the general attitude is that they don’t expect to make much money from their works, and they’re fine with that; but if something eventually happens to come along, surely someone will take care of them. That’s an awfully laissez-faire attitude, don’t you think? “I’m going to write what I write, stick it on a shelf in my apartment, hope somebody performs it (but I won’t go after the royalties if they do), and not try to
But it’s not uncommon. There’s a real squeamishness and embarrassment about monetary gain from art music – very much related to the active sneering at financially successful composers – but turned inward, as if to say, “Who am I to think that my works have some sort of value beyond the purely artistic?” (“I don’t even like to admit that they have artistic value – I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I don’t have the proper humility in the face of my Art.”)