The Self-Promoting Composer

It’s no news to anyone following these pages that today’s musicians face a seemingly impossible predicament: how do we effectively advocate for ourselves and generate the right kind of awareness of our activities—specifically, the kind of awareness that might translate into further opportunities and ever-hoped-for monetary compensation necessary to support ourselves?

For those of us working in the realm of (ahem) “art music”, “concert music”, “contemporary classical” music or similar bizarre descriptors, the deck is stacked against us in several ways. Composers and creators must often compete with the likes of Beethoven and Brahms for performances and visibility, and even those who associate with the new music ensemble circuit will have to compete with Xenakis, Reich, and Kurtag; unlike some other genres of music, the greats of the past become competitors for limited resources just as much as one’s own peers and colleagues. In addition, the concert music world finds itself laughably outmatched by the Goliath of commercial pop music, whose favorite promotion and advertising techniques can’t be ported to the more rarified concert world that lack’s commercial music’s money-making potential.

But Lo! A powerful ally has emerged in recent years: the internet, which in many ways served to democratize the dissemination of music and culture. Yet much remains unchanged: John or Jane Q. Internet User is now only a click away from a given composer’s homepage or YouTube cache, yet this increased accessibility doesn’t magically transmute itself into interest—much less the kind of sustained interest and loyalty on which a creative musician might build a career. And while the aforementioned increase in net accessibility has happily given many composers a voice—by breaking down the barriers that isolate remote communities from urban cultural centers, and by making available websites such as MySpace, YouTube, and Facebook that tie into networking and promotional needs—this situation has also had the effect of flattening the playing field: it’s also a lot harder to make one’s YouTube channel or musician page stand out amidst a glut of similar user-generated content, and MySpace friends don’t always translate into fans who will actually show up and pay for a ticket.

As one might expect, all the worst excesses other commercial spheres can also be found in the emerging “art music” internet scene—and it can be difficult to separate the chaff from the wheat. Email lists are a useful way to keep in touch with one’s base of listeners, yet there exists plenty of new music-related spam and the sale/poaching of email contacts is not uncommon; adventurous record labels with a DIY ethos including Innova and New Amsterdam have been experimenting with the not-for-profit model while ostensibly similar (but far less reputable) vanity labels spam composers with emails that sing sweet siren-songs of how you, too can have music recorded and released by an Eastern European orchestas—all for a considerable fee, of course. The question of how we are to professionally and appropriately conduct our drive for more listeners is thus one whose answer lies somewhere on a sliding scale, and the dearth of established examples on which to model ourselves only makes finding a solution more difficult. Even those widely-cited exemplars of contemporary self-promotion, the Bang on a Can crowd, have pursued promotion strategies requiring the types of funding opportunities and high-functioning urban arts scene that composers working out of Dubuque, Atlanta, or even Chicago can’t hope to apply to their own situations.

Nowhere is the current Wild West of promotional norms more apparent than the internet, which, while vastly improving our ability to communicate, often diminishes the quality of the resulting communication. For composers (a breed not always noted for our tact!), it’s incredibly important to learn how to navigate the often perilous world of the internet, especially as so much of what we do or type on the internet is permanent, and a hastily-scribed caffeinated rant can continue to make its impression felt for years to come.

Every composer eventually adopts a strategy informed by the dictates of circumstance and their own disposition. I myself seem to lack the self-promoting gene and as such my own promotional activities (including those on the internet) tend to be conservative rather than aggressive. I’m not very comfortable with blasting requests to “like” my Facebook page, and I avoid schmoozing scenarios like the plague or else barely weather them like unavoidable storms. I would rather spend my energies creating my work than talking about how great it is, or how it is the only kind of work that is worth doing. Yet I have many colleagues that do not share my hesitations, and I don’t begrudge them their way of doing things; instead, I have to accept responsibility for committing to my own vision as well as find other ways to promote my work that feel more in line with who I am—for me, forming relationships with presenters and ensembles through score submission or one-on-one personal interaction has helped me promote my in absence of the “advertising” species of promotion that is not as much to my taste.

And that’s what much of it comes down to: personal taste. Everything locates itself on a continuum, and for some of my high school and college friends the mere fact that I maintain a composer website is cause for much derision and hilarity. There will always be someone more aggressively self-promoting than you, and there will always be someone for whom one’s own efforts elicit criticism, even derision. I have occasionally read posts on these forums and others that strike me as damningly self-serving, and I have also received angry emails from readers who apparently consider any mention of one’s own musical activities to be tacky despite the context.

Are there any principles that might guide our actions in the seemingly valueless, relativist vacuum of the internet? I would submit that we as composers need to be paying more attention to our internet activities as public relations first and foremost, with “self-promotion” emerging as a happy symptom of good relations. The way in which we present ourselves is often as defining as the activities to which we seek to draw attention. In addition, many “effective” self-promotion strategies (especially those copped from the pop world) are not founded on good relations; these strategies are ultimately doomed unless they return to the service of the good relations that make someone want to check out a music sample or link, which however visible and in-your-face means absolutely nothing if one has presented his- or herself in a way that turns others off to the message.

Composers need to find the kind of composing that inspires and sustains them, but more importantly we need to discover ways of being, working, and moving in the world that we can be proud of, and in turn can sustain a lifetime of creativity. The vagueness of composer etiquette (and “netiquette”) ensures that tensions will arise (witness last week’s discussion of self-promoting links in Alexandra Gardner’s thread), but the same tensions are also quickly defused when we approach sources of tension with openness and a little common courtesy.

5 thoughts on “The Self-Promoting Composer

  1. jeidson

    Great post, Dan – thank you for bringing up some points about self promotion that I have been struggling with for the past several years. The self promoting part of the business as a composer has been tough for me to acclimate to – I would much rather edit parts and staple scores (or get a root canal) than convince strangers to perform my latest piece. Some of this is tempered by working with friends and colleagues whenever possible, but to “make it” at the level that I desire you need to cast a wide net beyond the people you interact with every day.

    Perhaps some of the reluctance in promoting my work is tied to Rob Deemer’s self doubt article last week. If I have finished a piece and sent it off to performers then I am certainly confident that it is the best work I could do, but the hucksterism of constantly pushing the work always makes me feel a little bit sleazy.

    Alex’s companion article today talks about several networking possibilities that I do heartily embrace, namely Twitter. I’ll usually post a link to a new score or blog once when freshly posted, but I am not entirely comfortable spamming the same link over and over in an attempt to illicit more viewers.

    -Joseph Eidson

    Reply
  2. danvisconti

    First of all, I’ll take that root canal over editing parts any day! Not my favorite part of the job, and neither is promotion. It sounds like you have some comparable feelings.

    One practical point that has helped me in talking about my work: I realised that a lot of my reluctance has to do with not wanting to “push my stuff” on other people, so I avoid just that. If you spend time just talking to people, you will eventually have reason to mention what you do, and if there is returned interest things might just blossom to the point where you’ve begun to make an impact–perhaps not enough to tip the scales this time, but you’ll have somewhere to pick up the conversation next time. So I think you should listen to your reaction to all this because your our feelings usually give us some great advice in situations like this.

    Also, it is very important for people to come to want to work with you for their own reasons–this pull is much stronger than a connection based on a pitch. We need to articulate these reasons and let others feel it is *their* idea in order for them to have real personal investment in the project.

    Your hesitation may just be a sign that you are on to something important about how to present yourself!

    Reply
  3. mclaren

    Rather than describing the task as “almost impossible,” though, it seems fair to point out that composers today have more ways of making the general public aware of their work than ever before.

    last.fm, amazon.com, iTunes, YouTube/Vimeo…the list goes on and on.

    A cutting-edge composer 30 years ago had to basically put out a scratchy limited-release LP on consignment and hope. Today’s composer has a vast range of much better options.

    Reply
  4. jmgerraughty

    Man, this post hits close to home! I’ve just started in on the PhD, and as I get closer and closer to graduating, the ideas of “the next step” and “self-promotion” are beginning to get overwhelming! I’ve taken to the Internet (mostly Twitter and Facebook) to do what I can to get myself out there, but I can’t quite figure out how posting all over Twitter turns into commissions and notoriety. If there are any more experienced composers out there who are willing to share their stories of how they got from college to career, I would love to hear about them!

    Thanks,
    Jason

    @jmgerraughty
    http://www.jmgerraughty.com

    Reply
  5. Tom Myron

    “…it is very important for people to come to want to work with you for their own reasons–this pull is much stronger than a connection based on a pitch. We need to articulate these reasons and let others feel it is *their* idea in order for them to have real personal investment in the project.”

    This is the whole game in two sentences. Frame it and hang it on your wall.

    Reply

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