Music: What it means to be a composer today

MusicYesterday I received a royalty check in the mail from one of the publishers that publishes my works.  When I opened it and saw that it was for a small amount, I had a literal throw my hands up in the air moment.  I felt mad – as composers, we work hard to create a work that we are proud of, and we look for people to perform it and enjoy it.  Then we might get picked up by a publisher who will take on the responsibility of marketing and promoting our piece to a wide audience in exchange for a royalty check once or twice a year, and we imagine that fame and fortune are just a score sale away (well, maybe not…!)

With such small-ish royalty checks, composers like myself certainly cannot make a “living” from publishing music with publishing companies.  So what does it mean, then, to be a composer today?  What does it take to make a living as a composer, or is this even a reality for most composers?  It seems that at one point in the history of composers it was pretty straight forward (and of course I’m generalizing here….).  Go to college.  Get some music published.  Get a university job.  Get great performances of your works at your university and other universities and with ensembles. Collect royalties.  Repeat.  But for today’s composer, it’s not so simple.  There is a glut in the market of composers – there are so many composers graduating from undergrad and grad schools these days that it becomes incredibly hard to be heard above the din of so much music being written and performed.  And as composers we want to get our music heard – we want to get commissioned to write great music for great ensembles, and then repeat this experience again and again.  We want to be that ensemble’s favorite composer, or we want those choral conductors to program our new a cappella work.

But I sit on the flip side of this as well.  As a choral conductor, I choose repertoire each season for my community choir to sing.  Not only do I have access to countless great living composers who are writing amazing music, but I have centuries of music to choose from when I’m programming.  And truthfully, there isn’t enough time in the day to thoroughly investigate all of those great new composers.  There’s just too much music and not enough time to program it all.

So, how do I stand out as a composer?  Besides writing the best music possible, how do I become that composer that is programmed and performed?  With that small royalty check in my hands, I realized that it’s all a matter of luck.  We put our music out there with the hopes that someone will perform it/buy it/program it, but going the route of publishing means that it’s out of our hands.  Sure, I still actively promote all of my music, whether I’ve self-published it myself or even if I’ve signed a contract with another publisher.  But at the end of the day we hope that our works will stand on their own two feet (and that our piece fits into the program that the ensemble/director is planning!)  And of course this isn’t just about publishing but about finding the best way to gain exposure for your music.  There’s no magic bullet, no exact answer.  We as composers just have to find our way along this road of music and learn a lot by trial and error.

In the meantime, I just keep filling that musical pipeline, finding commissions and grants and most importantly meeting great performers who love what I do.  And I realize that you can’t put a price tag on music.  Behind that royalty check are a bunch of performers that I didn’t know that got to know my music.  There are audience members that got to hear my music, maybe for the first time, and hopefully enjoyed it.  Because at the end of the day, we write music because we have something to say, something to share, and hope that it makes an impact on someone.  And I’m grateful for the chance to reach a broader audience.

So I’ll take my royalty check and tuck it away in my personal project account for a future project like recording a new CD.  And I’ll continue to write because I love it.   And I’ll continue share my music with performers and audiences.  And repeat…