When I was an undergraduate composition student at the University of Michigan, I observed two composers who were masters of self-promotion: Michael Daugherty, my composition teacher, and Derek Bermel, a graduate composition student. Both had the confidence and ability to walk up to just about anyone and engage them in a conversation about their music. Both composers’ promotional abilities were amazing to watch, and very difficult for me to emulate. Granted, I hadn’t been composing as long as either Daugherty or Bermel to have much experience in promotion, nor did I have as many pieces to peddle. But it was more than this – I was very shy and found it painfully hard to talk up my music to others. Over the years, I came to terms with my shyness, and have found my own groove for promotion given my personal strengths and limitations: I employ a mix of email cold calls, monthly newsletters, meetings over coffee, and good, old-fashioned concert-going and hand-shaking.
Exploring my own past makes me wonder, what constitutes “shameless” self-promotion? Are all forms of self-promotion shameless? What’s non-shameless? And by whose measurement? Let’s consider an example. A fictitious composer writes several new works. No one knows the music exists except for a few of the composer’s friends and family. He decides to program the works at a local venue that he rents for an evening. He then starts a social media campaign via Facebook, Twitter, and emails with an increase in announcements during the weeks leading up to the concert. He purchases advertising time on a local classical music station, hangs posters at some local universities and stores, and sends out personal invites to music critics and supporters. Is anything that I’ve listed shameless, or just good business? Or is shameless doing something beyond what I’ve described?
Over the years, I have met several individuals that expressed the opinion that if someone is a composer, then this must mean that he/she shamelessly self-promotes. There are certainly people out there (and not just composers) who many would feel go over the line; for instance, they hound concert presenters via emails and phone calls to be programmed on a concert series, sometimes multiple times per year (or even per month). While it is important to get one’s name in front of presenters so they remember you when they make their programming decisions, at what moment do your actions cross the line?
Each of us should occasionally assess how much self-promotion we’re doing, and how people are responding to it. If you are very aggressive in your promotion, but find your attempts aren’t turning into that many performances, then perhaps you need to tone it down. Alternately, if you aren’t getting a lot of performances and aren’t promoting your work at all, then you need to step it up. Ultimately, we all need to find our own self-promotion groove that not only works for us, but also for those we are trying to interest in our music.