Leveling Up, Part 3: Entering the Marketplace

You’ve written a band piece. Now what? If you were commissioned by an ensemble to create something new just for them, a few problems are likely already solved for you: instrumentation, difficulty level, length, and first performance. And you’ll probably get paid, too! It’s a great gig. Another way to enter the world of educational band music is to compose on spec. There is a lot of value to be found in filling your catalog with multiple pieces at a variety of grade levels.

Written By

Garrett Hope

You’ve written a band piece. Now what?

There are a couple of ways you can enter the world of educational band music. The first is to be commissioned by an ensemble to create something new just for them.

When this happens, a few problems are likely already solved for you: instrumentation, difficulty level, length, and first performance. And you’ll probably get paid, too! It’s a great gig.

On the other hand, if a piece of music is too customized for the commissioning ensemble (i.e., the year the ensemble commissions you they have 45 clarinets, 2 trumpets, and an all-state didgeridoo player) it can become very difficult to sell. If a publisher was interested in the music, you will likely be asked to re-orchestrate for a more balanced ensemble.  You may also need to write in cues and to include some doublings you never intended.

There is a lot of value to be found in filling your catalog with multiple pieces at a variety of grade levels.

The second way to enter the world of educational band music is to compose on spec. There is a lot of value to be found in filling your catalog with multiple pieces at a variety of grade levels. The more content you put out into the world: a) the easier it is for people to find you; b) the better you become at the craft of composition; and c) the closer you will get to writing Good Music every time.

You still need to solve a few problems before you begin:

  • Instrumentation: What size ensemble are you writing for and what forces are available? Ensembles with players new to their instruments will have fewer options. (It is unlikely a contrabassoon, C trumpet, or five-octave marimba will be available in Grade 1–2 ensembles.) The best way to learn what instrumentation is available at a given level is to study the scores of popular pieces. Pay attention to the degree of part independence and doubling as well.
  • Difficulty Level: I strongly encourage you to write the music that is pouring out of you! Let your imagine soar. Just be aware that you will likely end up (based on range, rhythmic/melodic complexity, harmonic language, instrumentation) with a Grade 5–6 piece. If you want your music to be available to the greater majority of educational ensembles you will also need to write pieces in the Grade 2–4 range. You do that by referring to the descriptions in the previous article, through score study, and by showing your music to your band director friends. If you’ve completed a piece of music and don’t know what the level for it should be, give it your best guess and then ask three or four band directors for help in leveling it. You’ll get great feedback, too.
  • Length: Young players who have just picked up their instruments have limited stamina. You might have an excellent idea for a Grade 2 multi-movement work that lasts for 15 minutes, but they will likely struggle to sustain that. Attend a few concerts at the elementary, middle, high school, and college/university levels and pay attention to how long the average piece lasts.

There are no special skills required for composing educational music. If you are open to the challenge of crafting well-written music within a few given parameters, start writing!

No matter what, if you want people to play your music you need to build relationships. Through each interview I have conducted for my podcast (and I’ve done almost 170 of them), one consistent idea to building a vibrant career as a composer is mentioned: relationships. To build a strong network, you need to build relationships. You build relationships by showing up at concerts and conferences.

Next Steps

I used to believe that reaching the double bar in my compositions was the ultimate goal, as if finalizing my musical vision through notation meant I had given birth to a new creation and it would go forth into the world.

I was wrong.

The music may be alive, but it’s not living just through notation.

The music may be alive, but it’s not living. After the double bar, you now have the daunting task of entering the market place, getting the attention of directors, and selling copies of your score.

You have to market and promote your music.

What follows are four questions to ask yourself as you go about marketing and promoting your music.

The principles are true no matter what kind of music you write, but I will focus the discussion on the educational band music world.

1) What level of music is it?

This entire series of blog posts started with trying to clearly define what each grade level of music meant. I found it to be an impossible task. Instead, there are guidelines for each grade level. If you have questions about how the leveling system works and want to see some basic definitions of Grades 1–6, read the previous article.

Knowing the difficulty level of your music will help you market your music, because one of the first filters a band director uses when selecting new music is to sort by grade level.

The band directors I know typically program some easier music in order to work on technique and sound production, music at the heart of the ensemble’s level that is accessible yet keeps the students on their toes, and music that challenges them and helps them mature as musicians. Where does your music fit? The answer, of course, is different for every school, director, and ensemble and will likely even differ from year to year. You should be able to confidently describe to a director which ways your music provides challenges to the players.

Knowing how difficult your music is, and answering the next question below, is the first key to marketing your music. A challenging piece for a middle school ensemble may be an easy or on-level piece for a high school ensemble.

2) Who are you writing for?

This question is less about aiming to please a specific set of people than it is about knowing who might purchase your score and parts and then perform your piece.

If you haven’t answered the first question—What level of music is it?—you will struggle to answer this question.

A common answer I hear from the composers I work with as they build their businesses is that their music is for everybody.

Is it? Really?

The surest way to guarantee no one engages with your music is to make it for everybody.

The surest way to guarantee no one engages with your music is to make it for everybody. Knowing who may be interested in your music will help you market your music. It allows you to know who to get your music in front of. Most composers have a limited marketing budget (if any) and limited time. Understanding who we should be reaching out to simplifies the process and makes our efforts more meaningful and cost efficient.

This reduces the number of people we should email. It will increase the effectiveness of any advertising you do, and it will help you know who to speak with at conferences.

Now that you know who to get your music in front of and how to describe the difficulty level of your piece, you can begin to generate traffic.

3) Where are you sending people?

In business, traffic is what leads to sales. A brick and mortar store that is difficult to get to, has poor parking, and is in a part of town that feels unsafe will struggle to generate traffic. Likewise, a poorly designed website that has an obscure address (URL), is difficult to navigate, and doesn’t provide safe and easy ways for band directors to purchase your music will not prosper.

Ideally you want to control the traffic. Some marketers refer to this as owning the traffic. If conductors are clicking on your links or searching you out, do you know—or have control over—where they end up?

Part of the problem with Facebook is that we own zero of the traffic that comes to our pages. But we do own the traffic that comes to our own websites from, or through, Facebook. The goal should always be to get people to your website.

It’s fantastic if your Facebook composer page has hundreds, or even thousands, of likes, but have those likes translated into sales of scores, performances, or new commissions? Probably not. Don’t confuse social media interest with controlling traffic. Do everything you can to send people out of social media and onto your website where you can build an email list and (hopefully) sell a score.

Clever URL names don’t work well.

Be sure your website looks good, is easy to navigate, gives visitors what they’re looking for, and has an easy to remember or find URL. (YourName.com is always the best choice; clever names don’t work well. My first URL was frogmanmusic.com, which no longer exists—why would anyone ever click on or trust that?)

4) Have you made it easy for people to buy your music?

When people are ready to make a purchase online, they want to make the purchase now! If you have your music for sale on your website (recordings, scores, or whatever), make it easy for them to make the purchase.

Here are some tips:

  • Create a large “Buy Now” button for each piece you want to sell. Don’t make the conductor who visits your site and is interested in acquiring a copy of your score search for the purchase link. It should be big and easy to find. Maybe even put it on there twice, once on the top of the page and again on the bottom.
  • Create a storefront. If you have a WordPress website, there are several plugins that will enable you to create a storefront that allows visitors to make a purchase. These plugins can also track inventory, create item pages, create and accept coupons, calculate shipping and tax, and generate receipts with unique order numbers. The WooCommerce plugin works great and is relatively easy to set up. If you don’t know how to do this, hire a freelancer from fiverr.com to set it up on your site—it’s money well spent. If you are going to run your own storefront, you will need to purchase an SSL (secure sockets layer) certificate from your website host to make your website and the storefront as secure as possible. The last thing you want to do is expose the credit card numbers and personal information of those who purchase your music.
  • No matter which platform of website you are on (WordPress, Joomla, Wix, Squarespace, custom built, or something else—and some of these come with built-in storefronts), you will need a way to process payments. Remember, the goal is to make it easy for those who are interested in purchasing your music. Therefore a cumbersome payment processor with many levels of clicking might cause people to walk away halfway through. Online marketing and sales experts call this phenomenon shopping cart abandonment—and you don’t want to cause those who have ALREADY made the decision to spend money on your music to get frustrated and walk away. I personally use PayPal, Stripe, and Square between my multiple businesses, but other frequently used processors include Amazon Payments, Braintree, and Samurai. Each processor offers a different set of benefits and has a different cost structure. They earn money by taking a percentage of each transaction and adding on a service fee—these are the same as the credit card processing fees every brick and mortar store has to pay whenever you make a purchase. Choose the one with the lowest fee structure that also integrates with your storefront and/or website platform. (Nothing is universal.) If you plan on selling your scores, parts, and recordings at conferences and in-person events, you will need a payment processor for that as well. Square and Clover are almost ubiquitous. If you live in the U.S., I guarantee that you have made a purchase at a restaurant, farmer’s market, or small business using one or both of these methods. They allow you to create invoices and process sales from your tablet or smartphone.
  • If you are traditionally published, you can still create the “Buy Now” All you need to do at this point is make that button a hyperlink that sends the customer to the purchase page of your publisher or an online retailer. Remember: make it easy and eliminate as many steps and clicks as you can.
  • A regular problem self-published composers encounter when selling to educators is the processing of purchase orders. Most school districts have very strict policies regarding how a purchase can be made—don’t expect the director to simply use their personal credit card and submit the receipt for reimbursement. It’s often not that simple or easy. A purchase order (often abbreviated PO) helps large organizations, such as a school district, systematize purchases from all vendors. They are documents specifying what is being purchased, the quantity of each item, and the price. When a vendor or business accepts a PO it becomes a legally binding contract to fulfill the order. Contrast that with an invoice (or receipt), which is written by the vendor and describes what the vendor will do or what the vendor did. POs, on the other hand, are written by the buyer and describe exactly what they want and how they want it. Very small businesses, like yourself as the composer selling a score, can struggle to process a PO because it increases the paperwork and might require you to set up special processing with your bank. The vendor may also require other things from you, such as a W-9 and your business EIN (tax number). One solution is to get your music into the online storefronts of music distributors and retailers who already have systems in place to deal with POs. Both SheetMusicPlus and J.W. Pepper offer the option to sell your music on their site for a fee or percentage cut of every sale. (By the way, J.W. Pepper is the largest online retailer of educational music.) There are also a number of co-ops and other distribution platforms and storefronts popping up for self-published composers. These include NewMusicShelf, MusicSpoke, ADJ∙ective New Music, Graphite, and the Independent Music Publishers Cooperative. Some of these are exclusive, but all of them have figured out how to make it easy for all interested parties to purchase music, including schools that have to use purchase orders.
Don’t be afraid! The world needs your voice.

Lastly, and most importantly, don’t be afraid! The world needs your voice. Many people struggle with the transactional nature of selling music. However, if you’ve taken the time to build a relationship first, it’s less about selling and more about having a dialogue about your compositions.