Publishing, Self-Publishing, and the Internet

FRANK J. OTERI: Let’s get back to this issue, to these four key words, which I think are sort of a mantra for our whole session this afternoon. For the composers out there who are self-published, how many of you feel that you are sufficiently capable, as self-published composers, to promote your own music? Let’s see a show of hands. Wonderful. Bravo. How many of you feel that you are sufficiently capable to distribute your music? A couple more hands… And I want to talk about what those means of distribution are, but I want to go through the rest of the list. How many of you have made income on your self-published music in the past year? Even more hands go up. This is interesting, because that was number three on the list, but we seem to be getting larger. So, maybe everyone will raise their hand now: How many of you have been able to generate commissions as self-published composers? This is very interesting – so you have a reverse pyramid effect happening, and the key is, how do you make that connection? You’re able to get the commissions, you’re able to generate income, you’re less able to distribute the work, but what’s really, really difficult is promoting the work. We’re dealing with a society at this point that has information overload beyond belief. It’s impossible to promote anything to a large segment of the population, given all of the options that are out there. So, I would like to have the person who raised her hand for “successful promotion of your music” – you’re on the line. [audience laughs] Tell us your secrets! Come on down. [She joins panel]


Jennifer Higdon Joins the Panel
Jennifer Higdon Joins the Panel
photo courtesy of the Women’s Philharmonic

FRAN RICHARD: Jennifer Higdon.

JENNIFER HIGDON: How do I get myself into these positions? I think actually some of the rules I go by have to do everything with that Joan said earlier today. Being a performer, because I’m a flutist, has helped me a lot because I can play my flute works – I can’t play the piano works, but I can play the flute works. I try to always be articulate, but the thing that I think helps me the most is thinking about the performers, and thinking about whether a piece is succeeding. If a performer doesn’t come up to me and say they want to do the piece again, I know I haven’t done my job. I don’t ever start a commission without thinking about the performers first – always, always. And I do five or six commissions a year. So, what I do for promotion – and I know you all aren’t going to believe this – it’s totally word of mouth. I don’t advertise or anything. I figure if my music isn’t getting out there, than I’m not doing something right in the writing of the notes, so I let word of mouth do the entire thing. And people find me. I don’t have a Web page, if you can believe this. I’m going to have one soon, but people find out how to contact me a lot of times I think through ASCAP. I think they call the office at ASCAP and say how do we find this person? So, the promotion is totally word of mouth. I mean, at some point I’m sure I’ll probably change that, but I want to be able to get the music out quickly, and, as a performer, I’ve had not such good experiences with the established publishers. I played with Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center three years ago, and we did a piece by a very major composer with a very major publisher, and we couldn’t get the music. And that to me was the ultimate lesson. I said, I don’t want my music to be that inaccessible to people. So, when people call up, and they want something, I get it out immediately. And if they’re students, I send it to them for free. If they can’t afford to buy the music, I send the music out to them. Some school in South Africa wrote me and said, we don’t have money, we have a library, we really would like some music. So I made a huge package and sent all of my music to that little school in South Africa. And they’ve played about four or five of the pieces. So it’s little things like that. But just being out there, you know, attending things like this, meeting performers, and talking to people. But I always think about the performer when I’m writing, and that really has done a lot.

FRAN RICHARD: Five years ago, I commissioned you through the ASCAP Foundation to write an orchestral piece. You were not the only one – there were three composers. Tell them what you did to promote it.

JENNIFER HIGDON: I just sent the scores out to people. Well, I have to say, even when I was writing the piece I was thinking, all right, what’s going to speak to the audience and what’s going to speak to the orchestra. I thought about that a tremendous amount, and I thought about what I’m bored by in music and what I’m excited by. I really compared notes with what my emotional reaction is, and then I sent out the scores. I sent the scores to orchestra conductors, which actually led to one or two other performances, and I did one thing that – actually, this one little thing had a domino effect. There was a listing…I think it was actually an AMC opportunity update that had come to me a little late. The Louisville Orchestra had a competition connected with Indiana State University, and Indiana had sent their submission to AMC late, so when I got the newsletter, the deadline was that day. So I called up the university and said, I know the deadline is today, but can I FedEx a score to you tomorrow? I was going to have to drop everything I was doing and FedEx that score out, and they said sure. And they ended up selecting the work. Well, unbeknownst to me, they had a music critic there at the festival, David Patrick Stearns, who writes for USA Today. And he really liked the piece a lot, so when the end of the year came, and he was writing his classical picks for 1997, he chose that work. So suddenly this piece got a mention in USA Today. Well, all sorts of orchestras starting calling at that point and asking to see the score, and they didn’t all perform the work, but a couple did. And so that one little orchestra piece has been played so much, it’s scheduled for a concert in Wichita, which I found out about accidentally by just kind of surfing the Web. I saw this piece was scheduled. [audience laughs]

FRAN RICHARD: Tell them about the CD, also.

JENNIFER HIGDON: I got the tape from the Oregon Symphony, and I bugged them about getting a good quality tape, I was able to use that to apply for a bunch of different grants, and it led to a Guggenheim, and a Pew Fellowship in the Arts, which is a $50,000 grant, actually. It led to several other orchestra commissions, including the Philadelphia Orchestra. I got a commission from that orchestra just because someone in the orchestra had played some of my music somewhere, and they heard a tape of this piece. They went to the music director and said: “We’re considering all of these composers for commissions for the centennial of the orchestra, why don’t we consider her work?” So they just called me on the phone, randomly one day. I didn’t even send the score to them cold – they called and asked for a score, and I sent it in. I forgot about it, and about one month later I was walking down the street – I had just come out of Curtis, and the first flute player, Jeffrey Khaner was running down the street, jumping up and down motioning to me. And I thought, what’s wrong with Jeff? He goes tearing across three lanes of traffic, almost getting hit, and he said, the Philadelphia Orchestra is going to commission you. At which point I promptly fainted. No, just kidding. [audience laughs] But, you know, I know the Philadelphia Orchestra went around to a bunch of publishers and asked for scores. They went to a lot of publishers, it turns out, but, for some reason, they made the effort to reach out to people who were self-publishing and ask for scores, and as a result, I got this huge commission for a concerto for orchestra.

And the thing about CDs – I answered another opportunity update in the AMC newsletter, I guess it was four or five years ago. Some guy was saying he wanted to make CDs of composers who are also performers. And I thought, this sounds a little too good to be true. So I actually sent in a resume, that’s all he asked for. And he called me back and he said, I’d like to make a CD of your music and I’ll pay for it. And I said, no kidding! [audience laughs] OK! I’ll do it. I’ll do the legwork. I’ll get the musicians. I’ll practice all the pieces. And then I had to practice my music, but you know what, it was OK. It was great because getting someone to pay for your discs is next to impossible. But the other works that I’ve had recorded have come about from little groups that have heard of a piece of mine, they heard it somewhere or someone told them about it – word of mouth again. They asked for the music, and I sent it to them. Usually in those instances I send the music for free, if I think it’s really going to lead to something. And they decided to record it. I think I’ve had four or five pieces, just single pieces, recorded on other discs. And of course, that gets radio airplay, and then someone else hears about it, and it’s a little bit like a domino effect. But it actually has been a conscious decision not to go with a publisher. I have been approached by several publishers, but Philip Glass once told me if you want to make a living as a composer, keep the rights to your music. So, despite the fact that I was tempted a couple of times, I stayed on my own. So, it’s a little bit of work because, you know, you’re doing the printing, the Xeroxing, the binding, the mailing, the bills, and everything else. But for me, it has worked, and I think some of that has to do with just thinking about the musicians. I think that is just so important. They’re your link. Without the musicians, the composer can’t speak to the world. So…does that kind of answer a question? [audience laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: [to audience] You had a question?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Yeah, I had a question about the distribution part. Do you make certain numbers of copies right away?

JENNIFER HIGDON: It depends on the piece. If it’s something that I know is probably going to sell, like a flute piece, because now people know that I write flute music, I go ahead and make lots of copies.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: What’s “lots”?

JENNIFER HIGDON: It can be anywhere from 10 to 100. And something else that happened, once the distributors of flute music discovered that I had this music, people were coming in and asking for it, they started calling me, asking how they could get it. So, Flute World in Detroit, which is probably one of the biggest clearinghouses for flute music, calls up with orders all the time, big orders, really big orders.