While many of the questions I’ve asked the composers I’ve been interviewing have focused on topics directly or indirectly related to the artistic side of their careers, I have also been inquiring about their experiences with the business of having a career as a composer. After the many stories I’ve heard already, it is hard to imagine too many career paths outside of composing that would allow for such a myriad of options. It is these options and the subtle decisions each composer has to make about them that makes jumping into this career so daunting and exciting.
There isn’t just one facet to the “business” of being a composer, and even the term “business” is up for grabs; for some it means additional income on top of another job (teaching, administrating, performing, conducting, or many others outside of music), for others it means primary income that allows them to live and prosper, and for still others it has little to do with financial gain and more with simply making sure that performers can play their music and audiences can hear it. In my experiences so far, I’ve found that a majority of composers tend to fall within the first category. This situation can be relatively more financially stable than the others, but it can also mean that there’s less time to compose.
That being said, I have been very surprised at how many composers I’ve talked to who are making it on their own just through the proceeds of their compositional output. This challenges the impression I had even a few years ago that it was only the blessed few who had already built up a successful career over many years who could survive on their income from their composing. Today, however, that is not the case. Many emphasize the importance of commissions for new works in their own careers, pointing specifically to the helpful commissioning guide available at the Meet the Composer website as being an important tool when encouraging and educating commissioners. In addition, most have cultivated a good working relationship with one of the two primary performing rights organizations—ASCAP or BMI—and have learned how to use those resources effectively. A few composers have become quite successful in serving as their own publishers—some by working out deals with distributors and others by being their own distributors through online orders through their websites.
The fact that there are so many different ways for composers to not only generate income but to sculpt their own careers into whatever shapes work best for them can be both a blessing and a curse; it requires knowledge and experiences that are still not nearly emphasized enough in the educational curricula throughout the country, but it can also allow for a rich and diverse population of creative artists who are not forced into a cookie-cutter career path. The most challenging aspect of this situation is that there isn’t one right answer for everyone or even each person individually—some may decide to go back to teach after years of freelancing, while others have given up full-time careers in order to focus on their composing.
What’s your take on this? Are your experiences different than those I’ve already listed? Should we even worry about the business side of composing?