Tag: business

Should I Start a New Music Ensemble?

Nouveau Classical Project headquarters

Nouveau Classical Project HQ

A new contemporary music ensemble is born every 5.6 seconds.* Conservatories have tuned into this trend; for example, Oberlin launched a Master of Contemporary Chamber Music degree, and Manhattan School of Music, University of Missouri’s Mizzou School of Music, New England Conservatory, and other schools have launched music entrepreneurship programs in recent years. I would have loved these programs to have existed when I was an undergrad so that I could have had more guidance with my career early on and been aware of what my other options were aside from the only one I was aware of at the time: become a professor, play concerts here and there. I probably would have started The Nouveau Classical Project sooner and with fewer growing pains.

These days, many musicians are acutely aware of how to start and run a chamber ensemble, at least when it comes to the basics: gather musicians, perform the works of young composers mixed in with established composers, and launch a Kickstarter campaign to cover costs. Due to our friends and our friends’ friends launching their own ensembles, a wealth of information has been passed around in the new music community.

Here in New York—which I must note is the only new music scene I really know about—there are a number of performance opportunities that are accessible to startup ensembles. Smaller venues, such as Spectrum, won’t hesitate to program young groups, and there are many other venues that are affordable to rent. And as noted above, even academia encourages more musicians to launch new ventures.

But I’m wondering if anyone is asking: should you start another new music ensemble?

I’m not trying to be cynical nor am I trying to discourage, but it’s a valid and important question to ask oneself. Google “things to consider before starting a business” or “should I become an entrepreneur,” and thousands of results pop up. I’m sure many of us are aware that establishing an ensemble is essentially like launching a business. However, I do believe that the question of whether or not to start one is not often reflected upon first. I’m curious about this issue because there are so many groups and oftentimes musicians within these groups not only play in multiple ensembles, but also begin their own, and the differences between groups don’t seem to extend much beyond instrumentation.

So should you start another new music ensemble? Consider that our industry is saturated, audiences are small, and funding is limited. It’s essential to think about how you’re going to fit into the world of new music. Can you answer these questions: What makes you different? Will your ensemble convey a specific identity to audiences? Can you get people other than close friends and colleagues to your concerts with what you’re doing? (Because if these are your usual attendees, you may end up with a sad turnout if they are at a mutual friend’s ensemble’s concert on the same evening.)

There are so many emerging groups out there that you may already fit into a preexisting one that could use your skills and talents. Perhaps it would be more worthwhile to seek an ensemble where you can share your ideas and join an already fully formed team instead of pursuing a similar venture from scratch. I know from personal experience and from talking to colleagues that many of us artistic directors love having a team of musicians who are proactively involved behind the scenes. I am extremely fortunate to have built this with NCP over the last two years.

If you do decide to start an ensemble, ask yourself the questions that you would ask if you were to create a business. Your answers will inform your decision and provide a clear direction for your work. Playing concerts is fun, yes, but the work that goes into producing concerts and running an organization can be grueling. If you see things going nowhere it will be difficult to be creative and the whole experience will become discouraging. A few suggestions:

1. Why am I doing this? A simple question but it can reveal so much. Maybe it’s a personal passion or just an interest in the business of new music. You have to get to a place of no return, where you can only imagine yourself creating and being in this ensemble. When you’re consistently staying up until 1 a.m. looking into venues and rentals, this question will definitely come up!

2. What is unique about my ensemble? How will you define your ensemble as being different than the many others? Is it your music, your style, your performance?  There needs to be something tangible that quickly provokes curiosity about your group.

3. Who is my target audience? This is difficult to answer but it’s extremely important. When I started NCP, I wanted an audience that had eclectic interests (makes for better post-concert conversation), so I aimed to target people who enjoyed culture, museums, fashion, and did not currently attend classical music concerts regularly (that is, until meeting NCP!). When I had entered the NYU Stern Business Plan Competition, one panelist noted that the way we were targeting our audience reminded him of the book Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne.  The book uses the metaphors of the red ocean and the blue ocean. The red ocean is where everyone is fighting for the same market share, turning the ocean bloody, while the blue ocean is the market space untainted by competition. Think hard about your target audience and how to get them!

4. Am I prepared to spend the time and money I need to get this done? Ya gotta spend money to make money. And I’m sure we’re all aware, this stuff takes time!

5. Am I willing to do this for the next ten years? It’s a long game. It’s going to be a while before you draw a salary. (Any day now!)

These are the questions I’ve found to be relevant to my experience with NCP over the past six years. It’s true that you don’t know until you try, but some thoughtful questions like these might provide a clearer direction for your artistic endeavor.

*This is not true because I made it up. But doesn’t it feel like it sometimes?

The Medium

Over at The New York Times, Alina Simone blogs about the wearying grind of the self-promoting musician. After her record label went bust, she spent a year tirelessly promoting her new album by herself–“a year during which I wrote no new music,” she says. While Simone comes from the world of popular music, this grind is all too familiar to many musicians in the concert music world, where the infrastructure is even more skeletal. It’s sometimes easy to forget that the currently celebrated DIY ethos was born out of necessity, not principle.

Simone laments the loss of a time when labels insulated musicians from the need to self-promote. Musicians could be “quiet” and focus largely on their craft instead. This resonates with the old cliché of the composer toiling away in his studio, far from the cares of the world. (This cliché has a male pronoun.) I used to think of this endangered entity as Composer 1.0. Meanwhile, Composer 2.0 was social, gregarious, more interested in collaboration than isolation. Composer 2.0 seemed to be doing pretty well, at least in comparison.

I have had mixed feelings about this. There was always something a little obnoxious about Composer 2.0, the way they could seem to elevate cult of personality over musical substance. Something about the entitled way they truly believed they deserved their success, as they surpassed other composers who offered deep craft but more understated charms. But then, there was a kind of passive entitlement about Composer 1.0 too, how he expected the world to come to his door and recognize his genius, and how he devolved into a bitter shell when, for some reason, that didn’t happen.

These are straw people for sure! But I see a bit of myself in both, and maybe you do, too. Both seem like symptoms of the same thing, an inevitable consequence of what happens when there’s no buffer between artist and audience.
Simone concludes her article by suggesting that educational, cultural, and governmental institutions ought to be more open to supporting popular music as an art form. As a solution, I’m more than a little skeptical of this. For one thing, as genre distinctions get messier and messier, in some ways this has already happened. For another, Simone doesn’t seem to realize quite how stretched thin these resources already are, especially in the United States. Finally, she neglects to mention that the skills involved in securing this kind of funding–grant writing, legal wrangling, donor schmoozing, etc.–are just as specialized and time-consuming as entrepreneurial ones.

Instead, Simone’s article suggested to me that it might be a good idea to imagine a new middle ground between artist and audience, a new medium. But it’s hard to imagine who will occupy that role. Who will advocate for our music, if not us?

They’re Finally Catching On

One of the most important and far-reaching developments with composers over the past fifteen years or so has been the ability to self-publish one’s works. With the confluence of the advent of powerful personal computers, professional-level notation software, large-format printers, and the ability to reach musicians across the world through one’s own website, self-publishing has moved away from a cottage industry model to a very real and feasible option for many composers who do not become affiliated with a major publisher. The pros and cons of taking this route are myriad, but it has evolved into composers making a choice between little-work/little-gain (publisher) and way-more-work/way-more-gain (self-publisher) and, up until relatively recently, those have been the only two choices a composers could make.

Two of the major challenges with going the DIY self-publisher route center around production and distribution. Most composers are comfortable creating professional-grade score and parts and running them down to the post office as occasional one-offs, but as orders become consistent it can be daunting to keep up with such demands. Two of the most successful self-published composers, Jennifer Higdon and John Mackey, have to spend a considerable amount of their time in that role; Mackey beautifully describes the situation in a great 2009 blog post about self-publishing:

Is that difference of 400%-900% worth the time it takes to print, fold, staple, and mail a set of parts? To me, the answer is yes, but to a lot of composers, the answer is no. All of this takes a lot of time, and a lot of composers, understandably, would rather just compose and not worry about the business aspect of it. They just want to write the music, give it to a publisher, and not think about it anymore, and whatever income they collect, no matter the amount, is just a nice bonus. Most of those composers probably have other jobs—like teaching—or wealthy families to make that possible. I like to think of it like I also have a “day job,” and my day job is publishing my own music.

Over the past few years some composers have been looking for a middle ground between the “legacy” publisher/DIY self-publisher dichotomy—they aren’t interested in giving up 50% of their royalties and 90% of their sheet music sales, but they’re also turned off by the amount of time and effort a successful self-publishing endeavor requires. The options for a “third way” have been few and far between, primarily because there are few printing houses that are set up for dealing with the vagaries of printing sheet music and the fact that a self-published composer is just one person and few distributors will deal with individuals (most state up front that they only deal with established publishers).

That does not mean there haven’t been notable exceptions on this front. An early variation on the traditional publisher model was created by Bill Holab, who left the world of the brick-and-mortar publishers to start his own hybrid business overseeing a stable of composers and facilitating their various engraving, distribution, and management needs while allowing them to keep their publishing royalties. Recently this model was taken up by one of those traditional publishers with the introduction in 2011 of Project Schott New York, a pilot program from Schott Music Corporation and European American Music Distributors, LLC that has selected a list of composers and has created an online distribution system for selected works by those composers.

On the DIY side, there have been a couple of options that have worked to various degrees. Back in 2006, I came across the Houston-based composer Karim Al-Zand’s website and discovered that he was using the print-on-demand book publishing website Lulu.com. It looked promising but the fact that the largest size paper you could have your works printed on was 8.5″x11″ made this option less than desirable. Another publisher, Subito Music, has attempted to tap into the growing self-publisher population by offering both printing and distribution services for composers not published by Subito themselves. During my interview with Lisa Bielawa she told me about working through their printing service—she would order scores and parts in bulk and then sell those herself—and she seemed quite satisfied with them.

So far these have been publishers and print houses trying to capitalize on the growing self-publishing trends, and now it’s the distributor’s turn…and it looks pretty damn good.

A few days ago, I came across a Facebook ad that mentioned a new printing and distribution service (imagine, a Facebook ad that was actually pertinent!). I followed it and discovered that J. W. Pepper & Son had initiated a new service called My Score. On the face of it, it looked promising: it is directly aimed at self-published composers, offering printing and distribution as well as the ability to create a profile page on their website to direct interested parties to individual composer’s catalogs. A one-time charge of $99 will get you in the door and there’s a $25 yearly fee—unless you sell over $400 of music, in which case the fee is waived. More importantly, the composer keeps the publishing royalties and the print music split is much better than any publishing agreement I’ve heard of—25% of print sales and 40% of digital sales (compare that to your industry standard 10% for all sales with a typical publisher)…and the composer sets the selling price (Pepper does state pricing minimums).

After several colleagues asked if I could delve further into this service, I contacted Ian McLoughlin from J. W. Pepper & Son with several questions: How long has this been going on? What made you decide to start this? What about composers who don’t cater to educational markets? Can I see an example of one of the composer pages?

Here’s his entire e-mail response:

We decided to create My Score because of the growing number of smaller “Self-Publishers” and composers who needed an outlet to sell their compositions. J.W. Pepper & Son has always prided itself on having an extensive list of available compositions, but in the past 10 years, there has been a noticeable movement toward self publishing, and J.W. Pepper has not been able to represent these smaller publishers. My Score now gives these smaller publishers the option to be represented in the J.W. Pepper database.

The service is only about two weeks old and we have about 20 composer/self publishers signed up already. Take a look at www.jwpepper.com/myscore/hirschmusic as an example.

Composers can distribute any work they would like to! Traditionally, Pepper markets to educational institutions and churches but if someone comes to us and needs a piece of music and it is in print, we will get the music for them.

My Score was created for the composer/self publisher that needs to get their music out to the masses. We have created a platform where the composer/publisher gets their own URL so they can market their compositions. We have given them a place for a bio, picture, social media links (You Tube, Twitter, Facebook) and their own website if they have one. If the composer does not have their own website, the provided URL would be a great place to start. For only $99, you get a platform to sell and promote your music. It would cost more to create their own site and maintain it!

The best part about our service is that we can provide the customers a printed or digital copy of the composer’s music. I believe we are the only service out there proving print and digital services.

My Score was not created as a way to replace the traditional composer/publisher relationship. We would recommend that a composer still try and have their works published by a publisher because a publisher will be able to market their compositions across the world and sales will be much greater with a publisher. My Score is for the composer/small publisher that has not been picked up by a publisher yet but still wants to make their music available.

I showed this to my studio last night and, while there were many questions, I came away impressed with the composer’s page as well as the individual work pages. The “marketplace” interface in which customers can purchase music looks very similar to Amazon (even to the point of allowing customer reviews). They allow for audio and video links within the individual work pages as well as PDFs from the uploaded scores. Ian let me know that international composers can sign up for the service as well (answering one of my Japanese student’s questions). Finally, there’s integration within social networks (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) so you can have links from the Pepper page to your website and social networks.

To be honest, I’m excited about this on two levels. On a pragmatic level, this looks like something I could use—with my teaching and many other projects, I don’t have the time to go all in on a self-publishing model, but I’m also not interested in signing everything away to a major publisher—so this option is very attractive to me as a self-published composer. On a more conceptual level, however, this is also big news because it’s the first time (that I’m aware of) that a major distributor has recognized the growing strength of self-published composers in our industry and is willing to allow the individual to jump into the marketplace. I’ll be very interested to hear any other responses or questions about this and especially any reactions from composers who are using the service. The comments section is yours for the taking.

Me, Myself, and My Publisher

Small change

Over the holiday break I took advantage of the days off to complete a few tasks that had been hanging over my head and which I really didn’t want following me into the New Year. First and foremost, I finally registered what is called in the state of Maryland a “trade name” (otherwise known as a DBA), and opened up a business checking account under that name. Why does this matter? Well, for almost a year I’ve had a respectably sized royalty check from ASCAP that I have not been able to cash because it’s made out to my publishing company. When one receives royalties from ASCAP, 50% goes to the individual (that’s me), and the other 50% goes to the “publisher” of the individual (composer John Mackey has a very good essay on this topic). As a self-published composer, the publisher is still me, but when you join ASCAP you have to declare a publishing name in order receive 100% of your royalties. So I receive one check made out to my name, and another check made out to my publisher name. The check made out to me is, needless to say, long gone, but the other check has been languishing on my desk, whispering, “cash me…please?”

You know what? It was so ridiculously easy to do this! I cannot even believe how long I’ve been putting it off. Composer Alex Shapiro has written about this process for NewMusicBox in the past, but there appear to be even fewer steps involved now than just a few years ago. Keep in mind that the actual forms and departments that one visits to register a DBA differ from state to state, so some preliminary research will be necessary (it did take a while to hunt down the proper form online). Once I had the very simple one-page form filled out, however, I went downtown to the Department of Assessment and Taxation (you can also do it by mail but it takes at least eight weeks), and was in and out the door in less than 30 minutes! From there I took my new trade name confirmation paper and that ASCAP check over to the bank, and opened up a business checking account right there. I was home in time for lunch.

In many ways, this has not changed life much at all—I have been running a business for years as an individual, using my social security number, filling out a Schedule C with my yearly taxes, and paying quarterly taxes, all of which will continue since this new “business” is a sole proprietorship, and will continue to have my social security number attached to it. The thing that has changed (besides having another ATM card to fit into my wallet) is that I finally have a way to keep my business money separate from my personal money. In the past it has all been thrown in the same bucket, and while I am quite organized about keeping track of what’s what, some of that burden has been lifted now that there is a new bucket. It will be much easier to keep track of business income and expenses, and make things clearer for the IRS as well. Plus, if the business grows, there are plenty of tools and resources available to help make expansion possible.

There are other business structures that one could choose in place of a sole proprietorship—one could incorporate, start an LLC, or for those interested in starting a non-profit organization, register a 501c3. Each has advantages and disadvantages, so it depends what your needs and goals are.

Composers and performers out there who own businesses—please do share what type, and any advice you might have for others!