Composers need a lot of things in order to be successful, including good ears for sound, plentiful performance opportunities, and above all imagination. But what we also need is stuff, and lots of it; and as another poster on this site recently alluded to, those supplies can be pretty expensive. With such a diversity of needs (and budgets) among composers working today, it would be misleading—if not outright pernicious—to suggest that there is some kind of cookie-cutter checklist that would work for everyone.
So maybe the best way to begin involves separating one’s composerly expenditures into categories. To give an example, my own list would be approximately as follows; keep in mind that my main needs as a composer involve being able to print and distribute notated music, so a composer who isn’t primarily working in a notated medium would likely have a very different list. In any case, I find that I have three main categories of expenditures.
CDs and Packaging
Paper Clips, etc.
Services and Other Expenses:
Software and Updates
This list is pretty bare-bones, but already there are several high-price items on it. Notice that many of the durables could be replaced by patronizing your local copy shop; on the other hand, if you can make a few calculated investments in equipment you might never need to go to that copy shop again. If you live down the block from a reliable store and don’t have to print on demand terribly frequently, it may be in your short-term interest to take your business there. But on the long term it’s really worth it to get away from the two biggest copy shop money pits: large format papers and binding. In my experience, it is these two areas where big chain stores like Stinkos will usually gouge the consumer the most. It’s for this reason that I encourage any composer who can afford a latte every morning to seriously consider investing in a home print shop. So now let’s look at how much of an investment this might amount to.
Printing. Many composers already own a printer, but not one that can handle the sizes or thicknesses of paper that the job demands; so that means paying for the copy shop and the printer. These days, the most inexpensive HP laserjets that will accept 11 x 17 run for about $1,500 retail, and these would be almost ridiculously adequate for any job your home print shop could serve up. That’s pretty steep, but there are now some cheaper laserjets that handle 11 x 17 (check out Brother’s all-in-ones, which print large format for under $300). Especially with discount and auction websites, having a quality printer at home doesn’t have to feel out of reach.
Binding. I would recommend investing in a coil binding system, which is far superior to the similar comb binding option; the coils are dirt cheap and after a while you’ll be amazed you ever paid someone two bucks a pop to do it in the store. Importantly, make sure the machine has open ends, sometimes only available on the mid- and higher-priced models; this ensures that you will be able to bind large format scores. To my knowledge, the cheapest models to offer this feature retail at just under $300.
Paper Slicer. This is the cheapest, most easily-obtainable device that many people overlook, and at only a $25 to $50 investment it would be a crime not to own one.
Translation: it’s possible to have a very functional home print shop for well under $1000. That figure may still seem large to some, but it’s not something that has to be purchased all at once. Being freed from the copy shop will save a lot of time, hassle, and eventually, money—in fact, I estimate that in my case it only took a little over two years to recoup the costs of my new equipment, whereas I still would have been shelling out an exorbitant fee at the copy shop without anything to show for it except for a stack of blotchy scores that may or may not have been bound correctly.
While this post is merely an overview, I hope it points those who are looking to invest in their own copy equipment in the right direction. While patronizing a copy shop is often a necessity, if you are in a position to make a solid investment in your future as a composer don’t hesitate to take the plunge.
Lastly, if spending even 200 dollars on a printer is out of the question (I know it was for me when I was a student), why not go in with some friends? For students especially, not having to worry about business hours can be a great help, and getting together with some colleagues for a music-prep party sure beats braving most every copy shop I’ve ever been inside of!