Wednesday, December 30, 2015

5 New Year’s Resolutions for Composers

2015 was awesome! I had premieres of several works, worked with wonderful musicians for the first time, and attended some fabulous performances of my music as well as of works by a wide range of composers. However, in reminiscing over my activities of the past year, I found that I didn’t devote as much time as I’d like to other aspects of my career.

I’ve created my 2016 New Year resolution list to augment my current activities, and offer it here in case these can help other composers as well: 

1. Think like an entrepreneur.

Whether we realize it or not, composers are business owners. We create our own unique product, which we then need to market to performers, music organizations, and supporters. The sooner we can consider ourselves as entrepreneurs, the sooner we can start running our careers as such. There are a number of resources (both online and in print) that help in developing the skill set of successful entrepreneurs. In particular, businessman/motivational speaker Brian Tracy has recorded several videos on his YouTube channel that address various aspects of thinking like an entrepreneur, including this great short clip on the daily habits of successful people.

Another angle is to stay informed on the latest advances in the music field. I’m a member of ASCAP; this performance royalties organization sends out a daily email with links to articles on the web that affect their artists. These emails cover a wide range of topics, from copyright issues and ongoing negotiations with digital streaming services to social media marketing strategies. It is worthwhile occasionally checking out Musical America Worldwide's website too; this organization’s front page covers news in the music world. Sign up for their email newsletters as well, as every few months or so, they put together special reports that go in-depth on particular topics. Editions in the past few years have been devoted to social and mobile marketing, copyright issues, developments in digital publishing formats, fundraising strategies, and 30 key influencers in the performing arts.

2. Go to LOTS of events.

There’s no better way to get musically inspired, as well as to check out what other living composers are writing, than to go to concerts. I’m lucky to be living in a major city with a thriving musical scene – Chicago is home to a host of soloists, chamber groups, choirs, orchestras, and opera companies, many of which perform new music on a regular basis. The city also has several concert presenters that bring guest artists to town. Most concert series and organizations offer student discounts, which is very advantageous for students studying in Chicago; for people out of school, it can be worthwhile to sign up for email alerts from various ensembles and performance venues for special discounts on tickets (I typically receive mailings from 25-30 organizations every month about upcoming concerts). In addition to concerts, I seek out a variety of events to attend. Dance, theater, even art exhibits – inspiration can come from anywhere.

3. Make a new connection each month.

Attending events is a fantastic way to expand anyone’s musical horizons, but making connections is equally important – meeting people who might be future collaborators, friends, and supporters of your career. A good challenge to give yourself is to make at least one new connection at every event you attend. Take this a step further than just handing out your business card (which people still do these days): set up a coffee meeting or lunch date. Having quality one-on-one time is where you can find out what interests you each have, and where you might find potential to collaborate on a new project together.

4. Brainstorm projects you wish to explore in the next few years.

It can get very easy to slip into a pattern of writing pieces for commissioners and ensembles that have their own requests and requirements for a new piece, ignoring your own desires of what you want to compose. While these commissions can be very fulfilling and help to pay the bills, it is important to dream up projects that you want to do. Otherwise, you inadvertently run the risk of having your career basically run by others. Every few months, take yourself to a coffee shop, turn off your phone, take out a pen and pad of paper, and brainstorm a list of possible projects you wish to explore. This list can be as general or specific as you like. At the very least, writing a list will help you realize pieces you want to write; at the most, you can get inspired to reach out to your connections and discuss how to bring your idea to life. Either way, when a group approaches you about a possible commission, you’re more apt to be able to propose something back to them that reflects some aspect of your dream list.

5. Make new commissions happen.

One of the main money-making avenues for composers continues to be commission fees. Ideally, a commission offers a composer enough financial support that you can pay your rent, purchase food, etc. without being otherwise employed while you compose the piece. A successful freelance composer is able string enough commissions together to make this lifestyle a viable way to paying their bills. It can take years (or even decades) for composers to reach a point in which he/she can make this a reality, but if you can keep this in mind as your goal, then you’ll be more motivated to seek out commissions.

Commissions can take all sorts of forms – you can apply to organizations like the Fromm and Koussevitzky Music Foundations; the Barlow Endowment and Chamber Music America also have commissioning programs. This route can be very financially rewarding, but typically only a handful of composers are annually awarded these commissions. You can also find individuals or concert presenters to commission a piece on behalf of an ensemble; however, this route is not all that common, and you need to cultivate a strong list of supporters. A more proactive route that you can do yourself is to try your hand at building a consortium commission in which you bring together multiple groups of the same instrumentation to take part in commissioning a particular project; this approach allows all groups to pay less to join the consortium, and you get more performances of your piece (which will ultimately earn you more money in performance royalties). There are some great examples of consortium projects on the web: Benjamin Taylor’s solo saxophone consortium; Roshanne Etezady’s consortium for saxophone and percussion; and wind ensemble consortiums for Daniel Werfelmann, Simon Hutchinson, and Alex Shapiro.

Final Resolutions

Every composer needs to find his/her own path to a fulfilling career. Take a few minutes before midnight on December 31st to write down a few of your own resolutions, and have a happy and productive 2016!