The business of being a composer
An aspiring composer can spend years at school learning all there is to know about everything from counterpoint to contrabassoons: technical tools for creating music. However music schools and conservatories often gloss over the “business” half of training their students in the “composing business”, which can leave emerging composers stuck for years as they try to figure out exactly how to transform their string quartets into rent payments.
Fortunately, as part of the 2012 MATA festival held in New York this April, emerging composers had the opportunity to gain valuable insights into the sometimes-opaque business of being a composer. Yotam Haber and David T. Little, directors of the MATA festival, say MATA initiated this conference to address this glaring gap in many composition students’ education.
“More often than not,” says Haber, “conservatories and universities do not adequately prepare composers for the real-world aspect of being an artist. We created this workshop as a forum for composers to engage with four panelists who navigate on a daily basis the financial, legal, and creative pitfalls of writing music today.”
Emerging composers had the opportunity to gain advice from a panel of industry professionals, including the CEO and President of the American Composers Forum, John Nuechterlein. He was joined by master engraver-publisher Bill Holab; the program manager at New Music USA Scott Winship; and Frank J. Oteri, composer and editor of the New Music e-zine NewMusicBox.
And the main message from the day’s discussion?
“Relationship building,” said Nuechterlein. “Composers need to think carefully about how they can build relationships that will eventually pay off in either more commissions or more performances. Specific ways to do that range from good social networking to simple but effective thank you notes and letters. Being smart about where you spend your free time has led many composers to a life-changing event.”
Developing relationships with fellow composers was also emphasized at the conference. A composer needs to “be a business person” according to Haber, and part of that means cultivating relationships not only with musicians, ensembles and advocacy groups like the ACF, but importantly, with other composers. “Composers are also critics and can offer valuable feedback to their colleagues,” agreed Holab. Nuechterlein elaborated, saying, “Sharing ideas and perspectives with colleagues is always a helpful exercise.
Composers are wired for creativity, and can often be very helpful in thinking about performance and audience-building in new ways.”
The panel generally returned to this point, affirming that composers needed to work together to take advantage of the shifting public perception of new music from something elite to something accessible. Holab succinctly summarized that: “all boats rise with the rising tide”.
Discussion also turned to the importance of taking full advantage of advocacy groups, such as ACF, New Music USA, MATA, and other organizations who exist to promote the work of their members, as well as offer opportunities to disseminate music to a wider public.
“Despite the growing ease with which composers can promote themselves and their work,” said Nuechterlein, “organizations are still critical to help composers, especially emerging composers, connect with professional development, financial and legal resources.” Furthermore, composing can often be a lonely endeavor, and organizations such as these can often encourage emerging composers by helping them to feel that they are “part of the composer community”.
At the core of all of this however was a reminder from Holab that a big part of any composer’s success was to “be bold and true to yourself. Go with your strengths”. This, perhaps, is an important message that can easily get lost amidst the flurry of activity and dark moments of uncertainty that surround the business of being a composer.
For photo above. L to R: Yotam Haber (MATA); Frank J. Oteri (NewMusicBox); John Nuechterlein (ACF); Scott Winship (New Music USA); Glenn Cornett (New Spectrum); Bill Holab (publisher/engraver). Photo credit: Timothy Hansen