Maria Schneider: Navigating Comfort Zones

Maria Schneider creates extremely beautiful music, but it’s full of beneath-the-surface complexities.
Read the interview…

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.

A Successful Business Model

Frank J. Oteri: One of the things that helps people go further into the world of your music is being able to hear your pieces again and again through recordings. You have an interesting history with recordings. You turned the music business on its head when you won a Grammy for a CD you released through ArtistShare, which is a new kind of record company paradigm. I know that you had been recording for Enja; one of those older CDs, Allegresse, is one of my favorite recordings. How did the ArtistShare relationship come about?

Maria Schneider: I did three albums with Enja, and they gave me back my ownership [of the master recordings] so I’m now putting them out through ArtistShare. The thing with those records was they were expensive to make. For me to record it the way I wanted to record it, I had to put in more money than the record company was willing to pay. They were selling a lot, but I wasn’t seeing the amount of money I was putting in coming back. It was going to the record company.

I started to realize how record companies work. The reason they take such a huge amount of the profit on a CD isn’t because it goes to the record store, the distributor, the record company, the printing, and paying mechanical royalties. The reason is that for every record that they make money on, they’ve got who knows how many losers that only sell a few which doesn’t even pay for the printing, let alone the recording or whatever. So they have to. They’re like a credit card company that’s charging big fees because they’re going to take a hit on a few people that don’t pay their bills and go bankrupt.

But I got really frustrated with losing money. And that’s when this friend of mine, Brian Camilio, came up with an idea. At that time, the whole file-sharing thing was giving everybody major emotional trauma: How are we going to make money on records when everybody’s just file sharing? I was in Germany, and Brian calls me on my cell phone and says, “Maria, what’s the one thing that nobody can file share?” And I said, “I don’t know.” And he said, “The creative process. I’m going to start a web-based business where we share the creative process and people can be part of making the record. They can pre-order and participate in different ways.” At first, the whole thing seemed so abstruse to me. I just couldn’t quite wrap my brain around it. And then, when it finally became evident to me that I needed to try something, he and I sat down and started going through the numbers. O.K., if I sell a record on ArtistShare for $18 a CD, ArtistShare is taking 15 percent. I’m not paying a store. I’m not paying a distributor. So I’m making, like, a $15 profit on a CD. If I sell 20,000 CDs, which is what I was selling through a record company, at $15, that’s $300,000. Holy kazoos!

So then Brian—he was so brilliant—he’s like, “Who are the people that listen to your music?” I said probably a lot of composers. “O.K., we’ll do a composer participant where for $95 they get access to the scores and you do all sorts of interviews about how you compose the music.” All of a sudden, [we thought about] everything that was saleable about the record, including real estate on the record booklet: gold participant—you get your name there. For some people $10,000 is not a lot of money because they’re in the business world, but they’re dying to be part of the arts. Somebody like that might give that kind of money. Lo and behold, it turned out that there are people out there in the world that give that kind of money. A man became executive producer of my last record for $18,000 basically to help me out, but also to come to the recording session and feel like he was part of making something he believed in happen. And so I’m managing to pay for these outrageously expensive records. I’ve got to start cutting my costs down, because I’m making the money and then I spend it. But I’m paying for it, and I’m making some income back from these records now, which before was never happening. And I own everything.

It’s so gratifying; it’s a wonderful feeling this day and age. But I shouldn’t speak in a cocky arrogant way about it because it could change tomorrow as we enter the second Great Depression. Who knows? But I’m able to make music that is artistically the music that I want to make and have it be financially viable. I haven’t applied for grants to put a recording together. I’m trying to do it like a good little capitalist would do it and turn a profit, and I’m managing to do it. We’re not looking for handouts. If somebody gives a big chunk of change, they’re getting an experience and getting gratification. That man that gave the $18,000, when I was nominated for a Grammy, I said, “Who am I going to take to the Grammys? I’m going to take John Koerber.” So I invited him to Grammys, and we went. It was really fun.

FJO: Now, when somebody puts in a huge amount of money, don’t they own a part of the recording?

MS: No, no, no. We aren’t selling shares. It was just a kick for him. This man also helped an actor put up a one-man show. There are people like that in the world that just love doing it. He brings his friends to hear the band, and the band loves him. He took the band out for dinner one night. He’s a magnificent person, and I’ll tell you, it’s fun when you find people in the business world that want to connect to the arts world. It’s like, wow, this is a really cool world we live in where some people just want to make music they like happen.

But here’s the thing: When people give that amount of money, or people pre-order a CD on good faith that that CD is going to be good, you cannot disappoint those people. So I’m sitting there in a continual state of stress. It’s like, “OK, I’m writing this thing. Oh God, I hope these people like it.” Musicians aren’t used to feeling their butts being on the line when they make a recording. My financial butt is on the line because if it really tanks, if critics hate it and it tanks, I’m the one who’s going to take the hit.

FJO: It’s so interesting hearing you say if critics hate it, it’ll tank. Do you really think critics still have that much influence? Perhaps I’m living in a world that’s beyond the world of the second Great Depression. A world where everybody says records are not going to exist in another five years and nobody cares what the critics say because nobody reads them and they’re losing their jobs left and right. We’re each fending for ourselves and every now and then through a variety of circumstances that can’t easily be defined something catches on. In a way, even though this is a new paradigm, it’s sort of old fashioned: your making physical recordings and getting them out there and hoping people write about them so that then people will buy them.

MS: Well, word of mouth is also really important, people talking about it if they like it. But in a way it’s really old, because it’s the patron model. You know, Mozart. The executive producer and people that became gold, silver, bronze participants are sort of like music patrons that get their names in the book at the American Ballet.

FJO: But when you talk about record sales, are you’re talking about the sales of physical objects or are you talking about sales of downloads as well?

MS: All of it, downloads, CDs. We also did what we call the Maria Schneider Orchestra featuring you. It’s like the old Music Minus One records. When I record now, I always put the soloist in the booth. So we mix a version without the solo tracks, so people can get the downloads of those, plus interviews with the guys that played the solos on the record. And then they get the PDF music in every key for every instrument, so that they can play along with the band and solo on all the solos. So we have that for players. You know, we have all these different things. So collectively, all these different participant offers are what recoup the expense and make it possible for me to make a record.

FJO: This segues into the whole publishing realm. I know that ten years ago you were represented for a time by Universal Edition.

MS: Just for one book. And I think that I’m going to try to get that back, too. It’s on my list of things to do, because on my website I sell single downloadable scores with me talking about the music for $30 a score. That [Universal Edition] book goes for—I don’t know—30-some dollars for nine of my scores and I get 10 percent of it. That’s three dollars and some cents for nine scores as opposed to $30 a score for one. I don’t know why anybody would do it that way if they could do it the way I’m doing it.

FJO: And you don’t have to print the paper either, the user does.

MS: Yeah.

FJO: So there are people purchasing these scores, downloading these scores, and theoretically playing them as well, which brings us back to the beginning of this talk. You wrote all this music for your own ensemble, and now you’re writing this piece for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra which is sort of more anonymous since you don’t have the same personal connection to each of the players. But the same is true of all the people out there who can buy these scores and perform them. Have you heard other performances of this music by other groups?

MS: A lot of what I do and how I make my living is being a guest conductor with radio groups in Europe or college and university groups here and abroad, so yeah, I’ve heard a lot of people play my music.

FJO: But even when you’re not involved in the performance or not even there, maybe you’ll hear a recording?

MS: Yeah, it happens a lot. I just looked this morning and somebody in London and somebody somewhere else bought a couple of different scores. So they’ll be performing my music. Then sometimes they’ll say, “Oh, can we record it.” And I say, “Sure, send me a recording. I’d love to hear it.” And sometimes it’s really great; sometimes it’s not as great; it depends. But usually when I work with a group—for instance I’m going out to Michigan for a day—they work hard on the music. I’ll polish it up a little bit and then we’ll do a concert.

FJO: So in terms of what you want to write for other people, have you ever thought about writing for smaller forces, or for even larger forces in the future?

MS: Ugh. You’re giving me nausea. I don’t like thinking about the future. What I will say is that, in terms of my writing, I do it one day at a time because it gives me anxiety to do anything else. I just kind of see what comes, and when something feels good, and it seems like it’s going to be something fun and exciting, I say yes. And if it doesn’t, I say no. So what I would say in my gut is that there are some exciting things.

I had been so bad when people called me for classical things. I’d been so terrified, so I didn’t even return their calls or their e-mails because I felt like I couldn’t say no. I don’t have the courage to say no yet, so I would just avoid them and pretend like I lost the e-mail. I was just terrible. But I finally couldn’t escape Dawn because we met for breakfast and I love Dawn. So finally I said yes. And what I discovered was it was so fun to do this Dawn Upshaw/St. Paul Chamber Orchestra project. I loved trying to figure it. It felt like I was just a kid again. What I discovered is that instead of collapsing under feeling like I’m becoming a beginner again, I actually thrive feeling like a beginner, which was good. My ego can handle the bottom rung of the ladder. So after avoiding him for a very long time, I accepted a commission from David Harrington for the Kronos Quartet. I’ve never written a string quartet before, so that I’ve got to work on next year.

Peter Sellars and I are going to meet. I love the idea of collaborating with such a creative, rich soul as this man. He’s amazing. So we’ll see what that turns into. That’s something I want to investigate because it could take me to a new place. I think I’m ready for something so unique as what that could be, if that even happens. And I love dance, so I also would love to do something in the realm of dance. Plus I have some ideas for a project that isn’t going to financially benefit me, but will be for a charity. But I don’t want to say what that is yet. And next year I would also like to start writing some new music for my band, because I would like to keep that going.

FJO: Your bringing up Dawn Upshaw and Peter Sellars raises an aesthetic issue that goes beyond jazz and classical music. You’ve worked with singers in the past, but they’ve never sung actual words, so this is perhaps an even bigger departure for you.

MS: Yeah, that was scary. I thought I didn’t know how to write for words, so finding the text was the hardest part. But what I discovered was that the words give you the rhythm. You know, there’s one tune that starts: “Clara strolled in the garden with the children.” You can’t say, “Clara strolled in—the—gaaaardenwith.” You have to go, “Clara strolled in the garden with the children.” The words also give you the emotional feeling. And they even sometimes give you the feeling of where the melody should go, to rise and fall with the way you would say the words. The emotional landscape of the poetry also tells you what the harmony needs to be, and how the piece needs to build. When I write instrumental music, it could be any of the 12 notes in any possible rhythm ever. Suddenly, I had certain limitations. In many ways, I would say it was easier, even though it was loaded with many more details because they needed to know for every note if it’s mezzo-piano, piano, this accent, this cutoff, this slur, this little rest—all this stuff that was just so labor intensive compared to when I write for my band. So I was happier writing this music than I’ve been in a long time writing music.

FJO: Since you bring up limitations, I know you’ve also done some arrangements of standards like “Over the Rainbow” and “The Days of Wine and Roses,” that great Henry Mancini tune which in your version of it, if you’re not looking at the titles, you don’t necessarily know what it is. I’m wondering how those came about and how the limitations of taking a pre-existing melody effect what you write.

MS: It’s funny, unless somebody commissions me to write an arrangement, I don’t arrange that much. My first love is composing. Sometimes I feel a little guilty winning those Downbeat Awards for arranging because I feel like I’m not really an arranger. There are some people out there who are such masterful arrangers. I think they’re sort of awarding me for orchestration, but arranging is really an art. It’s not easy to take a tune and switch the harmony and make it something really, really unique and special.

There’s a guy in England who just passed away who to me was one of the great arrangers—Steve Gray. The most amazing reharmonizations ever! He did a version of “A Train” and every chord is, like, to-die-for beautiful. Have you ever heard his stuff? A lot of people haven’t. And Bob Brookmeyer, when he arranges, oh my God! To me he’s a composer, but he’s equally stunning as an arranger. And sometimes I like to hear him arrange because you can hear his stamp over those songs so much.

I did an arrangement of the “Love Theme from Spartacus,” which I still love to play sometimes. Maybe some time I should do a whole album of just arrangements, but not from a business standpoint. Gil [Evans] discovered this. If you go to Europe, and you do a tour, and you’re performing arrangements and they’re recording that stuff for radio, you don’t get any royalties. If you do your own music, you’re making decent money on royalties. The fact that Gil’s whole career was based on doing arrangements sunk him financially. So, you know, I have a little bit of that business side of me that says, I think I just want to compose.