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.