How do you balance working in the music business with composing? Ralph Jackson



Ralph Jackson

President, BMI Foundation and Assistant Vice President of Classical Music Relations at BMI

I don’t have too much experience trying to balance composition and a music business career, though that was precisely what I planned when I first moved to New York in 1979. My idea was to take a leave of absence from the PhD program at the University of Iowa for one year, get a job in the bottom ranks of the music business in New York, compose a lot of music, and expand my musical contacts, all while paying my rent. Things don’t always work out they way we think they will (I did always pay the rent though).

My first exposure to the music business and to New York City was in 1976 when I won a BMI Student Composer Award. BMI paid my airfare, put me up in a fancy hotel on 6th Avenue and treated me like visiting royalty. So my first impression of the music business and the city was that people took taxis everywhere and everyone lunched regularly at the Palm Court. But it was the intense creative energy of the city that really attracted me. I immediately wanted to live, work, and create music here. I thought that a daytime music business job and nighttime composing would be ideal.

Thanks to a recommendation from my friends at BMI, I began a job at Associated Music Publishers/G. Schirmer within a short time. But having never worked in an office before, or even read a music contract, the first weeks were intense to say the least, sort of like being thrust unexpectedly into a chaotic hospital emergency room on a Saturday night. At AMP, my work was both high level (negotiating grand rights contracts with the New York City Ballet) and low (arranging for the shipment of scores and parts to churches and schools). The work did immediately bring me many contacts. In the rolodex I inherited there was a listing for “L.B.” which noted that the phone number was never to be given out and that it was a personal and direct line. I called it one day to find out if it was Leonard Bernstein. I asked if it was he (it was), said thank you, and hung up in a panic (so much for making high level contacts!). Within nine months of moving to the city, BMI ask me to apply for a job in the classical music department. Here the work was both exciting (talking about music on a regular basis with William Schuman) and tedious (filling out thousands of forms, using pencil (!), listing orchestra performances for BMI’s live concert distribution).

But from the first day of working in business, I found that the energy I put into my job left me sapped and with no drive at the end of the day to write music. Without the support system of a school or formal teaching environment, I suddenly didn’t have a passion for composing. I was not enjoying writing music. Certainly there are administrators who are also very successful composers. These are almost always individuals with a tremendous, unstoppable creative urge. They have no choice other than to write music. That was not me. Instead, my passion began to be redirected to helping other composers.

During my first years of working in the business, I did manage to write two works, including a large ensemble piece called “September Rainbow” (1980) which won an award from ASCAP (I may be the only BMI employee to ever have that distinction), and a work titled “The Quilters” (1984) for flute, cello, harp and percussion which was commissioned for the 20th Anniversary of the Center for New Music at the University of Iowa. Interestingly, this last piece that I wrote probably represented me as a person better than any other music I had ever written. But by this time (1985) I was happy, involved, and engaged when I was working on the business side of things. At the same time I was becoming an amateur painter, a hobby which continues to this day. For me, to stop writing music was a good choice. Perhaps someday NewMusicBox will ask me a question about why I think composing is THE most difficult art form. I would like answering that.

Do I miss writing music? No, but I am incredibly grateful to have had that experience. It allows me to connect with composers in an artistic way and I enjoy that immensely.