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 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 just 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 individuals and as a community.
Now, we don’t need to get a whole new degree in all things financial, or seriously divert ourselves from our artistic pursuits, but we really should know some business basics, because there are very real, very severe 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 whole lot of screwed-over young writers. These young people were offered what they should have realized were very unrealistic returns on a very minimal amount of writing 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 an account of the events, as well as a great 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 these composers should really be aware of what’s in their contracts with traditional publishers. And film composers are especially exposed to being screwed over. While the intentions of our potential collaborators or publishers probably aren’t malignant, certain lines in a contract, while seeming innocuous enough, can do a lot of damage.
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 concert music 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?
There are several flavors of poor attitudes toward mixing music and money. And by “mixing music and money” I mean “behaving as though composing music is a serious career and not a hobby”.
One attitude is of active distaste for any semblance of financial success. For example, a friend of mine recently told me about various attitudes held by some of his former composer-classmates toward recent Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Higdon. (Bear in mind that Ms. Higdon hadn’t yet won the Pulitzer at this point.) This handful of composers always spoke deridingly of her because she has a publicist. Apparently the fact that Ms. Higdon treats her career as a career, and actively pursues performances and commissions, makes her less of a serious composer. Because, really – how dare she behave as though being a composer is a real job? A job that, like any other real job, brings in a paycheck?
I’m not totally sure where this particular (pardon my language) shitty attitude comes from. It could be simple jealousy that X is making money while I’m not. It could be jealousy that X is successful while I’m not. It could stem from the (stupid) belief that artistic and intellectual pursuits “transcend” monetary value and monetary considerations, and that money pollutes such pursuits. (Though I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that those who hold this particular belief adore Bach, whose correspondence shows a particular preoccupation with getting paid, and Mozart, who died a pauper because he couldn’t manage his finances properly.)
All of this begs the question: how, then, is a serious composer expected to support him/herself? Surely composers need to eat, pay rent, and clothe themselves like everyone else? If not, I’ve been going about this whole being-a-composer thing all wrong! Is making a living from non-compositional pursuits more noble, so that the more time I spend teaching or at a desk job or behind a Starbucks counter, and the more time I consequently spend not composing, the more of a serious composer I become? Because that seems to be the implication.
Or maybe the attitude is more of self-defense, or, rather, defense-against-self? “If I believe that I’m above the lowly pursuit of money, my ego will be less bruised in the long run because I’ll have less immediate failure to face.” Essentially: “If I don’t try, I can’t fail.” That might just be it.
Another attitude is maybe more understandable, though equally troubling – that of bafflement and intimidation. A lot of young composers I know don’t know how to go about dealing with the practical aspects of being a composer. They’re bewildered by taxes – what is deductible? what constitutes a valid expense? –; they don’t bother registering their works with performing rights organizations; they haven’t the foggiest idea of how to market their works, and are too embarrassed to attempt it in the first place. Anything that has the ring of “business” to it scares them out of their wits. Better to lose money every year on their taxes because of ignorance than bother with keeping receipts and learning what they can and can’t claim as an expense. Better to let royalties go unclaimed than take the time to register them with ASCAP or BMI, or potentially do it wrong and have to fix it. And better to let scores sit quietly on shelves or in piles than to let performers and ensembles know about them.
Much of this has to do with embarrassment over ignorance of basic, practical matters, just as much as it has to do with the fact of the ignorance itself, I’m sure. Embarrassment is the cause of many a vicious cycle. It’s easier to seem as though you don’t care – or to actually not care – than to ask someone for help and risk coming off as ridiculous or stupid (which is all in your head, and not the other person’s, I can guarantee).
What baffles me is that in training to be a composer, we spend tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars on tuition, private instruction, and software, and we apparently don’t expect to recoup those losses. And losses they are. Huge, glaring financial losses. Financial losses that follow us for decades if we’ve taken out any loans to pay for school. So what gives?
I think both of these attitudes start with our teachers in many ways. Not just because we’re not actively taught about businessy-type stuff, but also because few of us see our teachers as human beings – they show up in the classroom, impart their knowledge, and then magically cease to exist once they walk out the door. They’re almost not real to us. How shocking is it to run into them in the cereal aisle at the grocery store, or waiting in line at the bank? We’re not often given a sense that their practical struggles are similar to ours. We’re not privy to the day-to-day side of their composing careers: how did this commission come about? or that performance? What sort of negotiations went into making this project come to fruition? Quite often, we only see their works performed on campus, anyway – so we don’t even know if they have real careers! Not to imply that they wouldn’t. I was just never given the impression that my teachers in undergrad got their works performed except for the odd performance on campus. It was only when one had a work performed by the Chicago Symphony that my teachers’ composing careers even made a blip on my radar. I was never sure what any of them were writing – or even if they were writing – at any given moment.
I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to listen to my private teachers do business over the phone. I’ve been kept abreast of their trials and tribulations with negotiating commissions and haggling fees. I’ve seen them request extensions on deadlines to finish orchestration. I’ve worked with some of their publicists and agents, even. I’m very lucky in that respect. Students don’t often get to see their professors as people – the only reason I saw David Del Tredici as a multi-dimensional human being during my time as a grad student at the City College of New York was because I was already his friend. Had I been just a student, I wouldn’t have known anything about the practical side of his career. Extremely fortunately, I’m his biographer as well, so I’m more and more intimately acquainted with the practical side of his career every day!
There’s much more to be said on this topic, but my word count is getting a little crazy. So, in brief conclusion: as a community, we’re badly in need of some basic business skills, and it’s time we took responsibility for our careers and started acquiring those skills!