Envisioning Transitioning—From 9-to-5er to Full-Time Composer

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Until the day arrives when the government wises up and subsidizes all those who create music, many composers are dependent on at least one other source of income in order to keep the notes flowing freely. Some composers teach. Others are gifted performers in their own right and fashion a living that way.

Quite a few music creators, however, follow in the footsteps of Charles Ives and have regular 9-to-5 employment wholly unrelated to the work they do as composers. The pay is steady, the hours good, and it sure is nice to have health insurance. But what about that Great American Symphony you keep meaning to write? It sits on your music stand, perpetually in sketch mode, beckoning when you walk in the door after a long day at the office. You gravitate towards it…but wait! Buffy the Vampire Slayer marathon reruns are on TV tonight! You have to watch it. And, well, the symphony waits another day.

It may be tempting to walk into work, announce that your music simply cannot wait any longer, and bid adieu to your fellow co-workers. Indeed, it can be liberating and ultimately may provide you with the time you need to write. Before you take that job and shove it, though, there are a few things you might want to keep in mind.

Take inventory of your marketable skills. The skills and experience you learned on the job don’t suddenly vaporize the moment you quit. For instance, your mastery of Microsoft Office, knowledge of the intricacies of Quickbooks, and HTML wizardry may seem ordinary to you, but those talents could come in handy when you’re between pieces and want to earn a little extra cash. You may not want to think about going back into an office before you’ve even left, but it will prove useful down the road. Plus you’ll need those skills to maintain an effective office for sending scores, applying for grants, and updating your website.

Reach out to your network. You’ve developed circles of contacts in your workaday life—let people know where you’re headed, what you plan to be doing, and how to reach you. The same goes for performers, conductors, and other musicians that you know, especially those who have performed your music already. Organize your contacts in a logical way, whether it’s on your computer, PDA, or good old-fashioned black book. You never know where the next opportunity is going to come from, and the more people you can keep in touch with, the better.

Make a budget. When that steady paycheck disappears, you’ll still need to eat and pay the rent. What about loans, credit card payments, and other expenses that you incur on a regular basis? You may not need to live in a palace on Park Avenue, but think carefully about what you need to earn in order to live—and work—comfortably. After all, you may save money by sharing an apartment with three roommates, but will you be able to compose when one of them is playing the stereo, another is watching TV, and the third is gabbing on the phone? And speaking of earning income…

Keep track of expenses. You’re working for yourself now, which means greater freedom but also increased vigilance when it comes to spending your money. It’s definitely cool, but do you really need the latest iPod? And if you do need it, are you saving your receipt and categorizing it as a business expense? You should, if you are a legitimate composer. What about office supplies, that Finale software upgrade, and all you’ve spent in postage shipping your scores around the country? Business expense, business expense, and business expense. That means those items are tax-deductible come April 15. Travel and health insurance are also deductible. How about the time you took that conductor out for a $100 lunch, trying to convince him to program your latest opus? I’d recommend cheaper eats, but in any case, 50 percent of meals and entertainment are deductible. Keep all your receipts, and consider getting a separate credit card with perks that you use solely for business expenses. This makes it easy to keep business and personal purchases separate, and those frequent flier miles can come in handy the next time a struggling new-music ensemble can’t afford to pay your way to your premiere.

Plan ahead. So you’ve quit your job and you’re all set because you’ve got a nice fat commission that will occupy you day and night for the next four months. What about afterwards? What if the commission is postponed? Think about what you hope to achieve in the long-term—is there a particular ensemble you’ve always dreamed of writing for? After writing your 18th band piece, would you like to finally write that first string quartet? Cultivate those connections now, because definite plans could take a while to materialize. Always try to have something “in the pipeline.”

Keep to a schedule. It doesn’t matter what the schedule is, as long as it’s yours. Some composers feel most inspired in the morning, so they write until noon and then handle other affairs the rest of the day. Some are night owls and do their best work then. Some go days, weeks, or months without writing a note, and then produce pages of material in just a few days. Whatever works, but unless you’re truly a free spirit and can only create music when the inspiration hits just right, a regimen will probably do you good.

Know your worth. After you’ve contacted your network and let everyone know that you’re devoting more time to writing, you may actually find yourself deluged with commission offers. Or are they really “commissions”? Before you know it, you’ve agreed to write six different pieces for friends, relatives, your cat—all of which are artistically worthy projects but pay next to nothing. Composers with day jobs may undervalue themselves because they don’t “need” the money that may result from a commission—they are simply happy to write a piece and have it performed. When you are writing for your living, however, you need to budget your time and cash flow so that you have enough income at the right times. Consult others to see what the going rate is for a composer of your stature and experience so you can negotiate accordingly. Meet The Composer’s Commissioning Music: A Basic Guide is another good resource. Consider both the tangibles (money, number of performances, approximate time commitment) and the intangibles (possible exposure, new contacts, artistic worth of the project) before making a decision about an offer.

Be a “composer plus.” When you had that day job, it was all you could do to squeeze in the time just to write. What about the other things that can make a performance special—and lead to increased visibility and connections for you down the road? Do you conduct or teach? Perform? Explore the possibility of transforming your commissions or performances into mini-residencies, with you at the center of the action. Now you can take the time to be an active participant in the performance of your music. Often additional funding is available for these activities.

Market your existing catalog. Make your music work for you and keep the cycle of performances going. Now is the time to shop your music around and generate those elusive second and third performances. Set time aside to research possible performers, for an initial investment of time and money may pay off exponentially—the more performances you have, the more people hear your music, which means more possible opportunities down the road. Consider investing in a website with sound and score samples. A targeted e-mail with links to your site could be a cost-effective way of showing your wares.

Update your press kit. That hairstyle in your photo is so ’90s. Revise your bio and keep it current. Get a new photo if necessary (you don’t need to spend mega $$$—a few nice high-quality shots taken by a friend with a digital camera who knows what he or she is doing should suffice). Make sure your program notes, CDs, and any other press materials are updated and ready to send out the door at a moment’s notice.

Keep your chops up. If you’re between pieces, now is the time to attend those professional workshops you never had time for while you were working. Explore the world of artist colonies. Heck, visit your local library. A world of wonder and inspiration awaits you. Leaving the stability of a full-time job is a courageous decision, and being a composer can certainly be a full-time job in its own right. Hopefully you’ll be so successful that the next article you read will be one that gives advice on hiring personal assistants.

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Philip Rothman
Photo by Jake Lipman

Philip Rothman is a freelance composer and arts consultant in New York City. He was formerly Director of Grantmaking Programs at the American Music Center.

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