Tag: finances

Artist Financial Profile: Dr. Lisa Neher, Composer & Performer

Lisa Neher


Since my first Artist Financial Profile featuring Tony Manfredonia, I have been receiving some wonderful messages via Twitter and Facebook responding to the article. Many people seemed relieved and/or encouraged to see a case study of a specific musician’s income—a small chapter in an evolving theoretical Guide to Musician Finances. Some people also mentioned that they have been questioning their own rat-race struggle to achieve financial security in the arts and that the first article helped them start to consider next steps.

Whatever your takeaway, these articles are meant to be helpful. As an author and interviewer, I am trying to display the incomes of these fearless people without emotion or criticism, so that we may all simply look at how they have used money to live and as nothing more than the tool it is.

Let’s break down the taboo some more. Here is Dr. Lisa Neher:


Lisa Neher is a composer and mezzo-soprano currently based out of Portland, Oregon. She received her DMA in vocal performance and pedagogy from the University of Iowa in 2016 and has been working as an adjunct professor of voice, a private voice teacher, a composer, a performer, and a composer-performer. Originally from South Seattle, Lisa moved to Iowa City for her DMA and then to Cedar Rapids to live with her partner, prior to her most recent move to Portland.

Lisa and I spoke over a slightly troubled Skype connection and probably raised more questions than we answered about the money taboo, positioning, realistically “making it,” adjunct teaching, and the ins and outs of working with your PRO. As a “continually emerging” composer myself, I think Lisa speaks for many of us when she wonders how feasible a life as a composer-performer really is.

Lisa, like my other interviewees, has agreed to share her finances with our NewMusicBox readers. We hope that this uncommon practice is informative and valuable to the new music community as we all navigate these mysterious seas together. When I asked her how she felt about sharing her finances, Lisa was honest with her reply:

It makes me feel nervous about having a conversation in an article…but also I’m mad about that nervousness…so I’m like, “Let’s talk about it. This is dumb. It’s hurting all of us.”

The Problems of Moving

For 2018, Lisa’s income as a composer/performer/teacher was affected by her move to a new city. The move was purposeful: Lisa wanted to be in a larger music scene for her own career advancement. Her partner was the first one to get a job that initiated the move. Being a freelancer, Lisa spoke about the difficulty in making connections in a new town, without prior contacts and established support systems. As a private voice teacher, it is almost impossible to build a studio of students from the ground up without being there. Some work was done in advance, like sending introductory emails to local high school and middle school conductors at the start of the school year, but it was easier to reconstruct her private student base by actually being in Portland. Lisa felt fortunate to be sharing fiscal responsibilities with her partner, which allowed her more transition time. She explains that she “would have handled the lead up to the move differently” if she had been on her own.

As a freelancer, much of Lisa’s work and income are built from personal connections and networking face-to-face. Maintaining the normal day-to-day hustle while moving home bases is ultimately problematic. Where do you find the time to network in your new city while you finish up your work in your old town? Moving in June left the summer pretty barren. Adjunct positions for the fall had been filled, and many people do not seek out private lessons until the school year starts up again. Once the fall came around, Lisa was able to start up her studio and get on the radar of professors at Lewis & Clark College to do some temporary adjuncting and subbing for music history courses.

Lisa’s Income

Lisa’s made about $25,560 in 2018 and it breaks down like this:

$12,200 Collegiate adjunct teaching (mostly private voice, some coursework) at three different colleges and universities

$6,500 Teaching private voice lessons (only $500 of that income total was earned in the fall)

$2,160 Composing income (which includes commissioning fees, plus about $120 in ASCAP royalties and $30 from the sale of a score)

$4,700 Performance income (as a mezzo-soprano soloist or ensemble member)

The median household income for Portland is $71,931. During our discussions, Lisa suggested that $60-70k a year is her personal income goal to live comfortably. Keep in mind that Portland, Oregon, is on the high end of the national average (the median income in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is $54,465), and this income is household, which 50% of the time indicates two earners.

It is important to note that Lisa’s 2018 income could have looked much different if she had stayed in Cedar Rapids. Understanding that the bulk of her work was between January and June of 2018, with a bit of extrapolating, it is possible that Lisa’s yearly income could have been closer to $45k – $55k with the same sort of work. Moving to Portland mid-year drastically affected her teaching studio and her potential adjunct income. (She also notes that the adjunct teaching schedule in Iowa, though a great opportunity, was not sustainable for her well-being.)

This is a lesson for freelancers thinking of moving: consider the costs of starting over again. As Lisa expressed in her interview, if it were just her as a single person, she would have had to network in the new city (Portland) far more intensely and have secured an adjunct or arts administration job prior to the move to make moving fiscally possible.

Concerns of Sustainability

Lisa had a lot of concerns about the musician’s eternal hustle. Discussions in new music circles seem to focus on the abundance mindset, networking, creative productivity, and other entrepreneurial tactics. Thought leaders like Garrett Hope (Portfolio Composer), Jennifer Rosenfeld (iCadenza), Dale Trumbore, and Angela Myles Beeching paint an optimistic picture full of ways to advance one’s career. Sometimes this information can be overwhelming, and we start wondering how much one can do in a single day. Lisa is concerned about burn out and for good reason. Is this lifestyle sustainable? Can one meet their income goals without having to become famous, or without having to develop a high-end teaching system or coaching business? We want to believe it’s true, but the sheer amount of things one must do to succeed seems daunting, especially when stacked against actual income.

Freelancing as a composer and a vocalist also has its particular challenges. Lisa expressed a certain “fixed” cost for much of the work she does. Small to medium-sized choirs and ensembles that hire her as a performer only have so much wiggle room for negotiating her artist fee. When teaching private voice lessons, she can only flex rates so much depending on the going rate of the area. Many times, for gigs, she has to either accept the fee at the rate the organization offers it, or not take the gig. Lisa also found that her peers don’t like talking about those fees, maybe because they are lower than where they should be.

“With gig work, there seems to be a specialized kind of not talking about [money].”

ASCAP and Performance Royalties

For each of these financial profile articles, I am trying to find a small focus area within what are pretty natural conversations during the interviews. With Lisa, there was a lot of mystery surrounding performance royalties. As I have been writing this piece, Lisa started to get more sizeable royalty checks from her PRO. I felt that readers would benefit from learning about her experience with increased performances of her works and submitting performances to ASCAP.

As Lisa was discussing the mound of performance documentation she submits, and all of its tediousness, she was ultimately wondering if the work put into claiming performances was worth it. She speaks for us all when she says: “ASCAP royalties… I can’t predict what will get royalties and what won’t.” No matter which PRO organization we are personally affiliated with, I am sure many of us feel this way.

I myself recently submitted a ticket to ASCAP asking about how payouts worked, specifically for educational concerts, and what I learned was (quoting from the email I received): “Performances given under Educational licenses are credited or not credited according to a random sample by date used only in the Educational field. Only performances that take place on sample dates will be credited.“ Luckily, we were also able to get some clarification from ASCAP thanks to a phone call with Cia Toscanini, vice president of concert music. Here is a summary of our conversation about performance royalties for both education and professional concerts.

The email I received above is accurate. Concert programs from educational performances (at colleges, universities, schools, etc.) are collected from licensees and ASCAP members and compiled in a year-long survey. Then a sample survey is done of all concerts within a specific time range and performance royalties are paid out from those performances that fall within the sample. ASCAP samples October 1 through September 30; publisher royalties are paid out in the following March, and writer/composer royalties are paid out in April. In Lisa’s case, some of the publisher royalties were not paid because the performance was not claimed as a publisher. Don’t worry, she still has time to correct that. Toscanini stressed that everyone should register as both a writer and a publisher, and claim performances as both, to receive maximum benefit.

The census for professional concerts (non-educational) is different in that every performance is collected and paid, so long as they are claimed by an ASCAP member or submitted by a licensee and the licensee is up to date on their payments. ASCAP has primers for members that are basically an extremely thorough checklist for concert music performance claims. They can be found here. BMI offers similar resources.

Lisa was generous enough to share her ASCAP royalty activity, especially upon the good news that she received more this year. Here’s the breakdown, for those wondering how it might work out:

In 2018, I was paid $64.03 as a publisher and $64.03 as a composer = $128.08 for 1 performance of my large mixed chamber ensemble piece Twister by Durward Ensemble at Kirkwood Community College in August 2017.

Note that these payments came about three-quarters of a year later. Lisa also registered as a composer ($50 one time fee) and a publisher (another $50 one time fee), so that she received 100% of the royalties for her activity, instead of just 50%. For those wondering, Lisa only gave her publishing company a name for ASCAP (D.C. Al Platypus) and has not set up a truly separate business.

As I was writing this article, Lisa was excited to do even better this past year (2018) with her ASCAP royalties. She also was willing to share these figures:

I just got payment, in April of 2019, for two other 2017 performances, but this will go into tax year 2019 (which begs the question, what took them 18 months?)

October 2017, my marimba solo Icy Celestial Bodies was performed at Cedar Rock House in Quasqueton, Iowa; November 2017, Icy Celestial Bodies was performed at University of Northern Iowa in a faculty concert; November 2017, my marimba duo Thaw was performed at the Sacramento State Festival of New Music in California.

For these performances, I was paid $506 as a composer and $391.26 as a publisher. No idea why those numbers are different.

After speaking with Cia Toscanini, we figured out that a few things affected Lisa’s ASCAP income. First, some of the performances were not claimed as both a writer and a publisher. It is important to do both to receive 100% of the royalties. Delayed payment from the yearly schedule as previously described, usually comes from licensees not paying their fees on time, delaying the payout for the creators.

Lisa also claimed six other performances in 2017 with no royalty payouts. It is possible that these payments are still in the queue somewhere, waiting fee collection, or that they were not part of the sample survey. Only two of those were performed in an educational setting, unless the libraries and museums that were performance spaces were part of an educational institution.

ASCAP does have a messaging system built in to the member section of their website (as I am sure does BMI), and they will get back to you via email when you ask questions. It is worth asking, as performance royalties can be a great side income early on, and as your performances increase, have the potential to become a substantial part.

Continue the Discussion

If this article series speaks to you, I urge you to begin building your network of financial confidantes. Before you have to invoice someone, before you negotiate commissioning fees, before you set your rates, talk with your colleagues and mentors, if they are willing. Find like-minded individuals in similar situations and talk actual dollars. You may be surprised. You may find reassurance. Hopefully you will both be encouraged to protect your worth.

Financial knowledge and literacy doesn’t happen overnight. Tackle one thing at a time, when you can. I know my interview with Lisa has encouraged me to register with ASCAP as a publisher—I’m not sure why I was holding back! But I will save figuring out the royalty distribution formulas for another day.

Stay informed, and be an advocate for your artistic and financial worth. The next article in the series will feature the ensemble loadbang, to give us some financial insight into the nonprofit ensemble world. For all of those interested in freelance life with a performing ensemble, it should be a very interesting interview and a fun article!

Artist Financial Profile: Tony Manfredonia, Game Music and Orchestral Composer

A black-and-white photo of a man with a teal tie

Let’s Talk About Money, an Introduction

You can learn just about anything on the internet. For musicians, there’s a trend in talking about, teaching, and practicing entrepreneurship—an essential skill for anyone who wants to make a life in the arts. To clarify, entrepreneurship, in the artistic sense, has evolved to encompass everything from the hard and soft business skills needed to run your career to starting your own business.

People like Angela Myles Beeching, Mark Rabideau and 21CM, Garrett Hope, David Cutler, and Andrew Hitz realized that students and professionals needed tools and discussions centered around anything but practicing for the next audition. These resources are now great and many, but they all side-step one thing: the money.

  • How do we create and advocate for sustainable, liveable wages when we are confronted by the biggest taboo of the 20th century: talking about how much you make is rude.

    Adam Schumaker
  • Tony shows up to compose every day he can, regardless of the fact that composing currently holds the title of “secondary income.” However, his commitment to his long-term goal of being a full-time composer has paid out.

    Adam Schumaker

As musicians, how much are we making? How do we negotiate for more? How do we create and advocate for sustainable, liveable wages when we are confronted by the biggest taboo of the 20th century: talking about how much you make is rude.

At some point we need to know what is reasonable, what are the lows and highs in our region, and whether or not we can live off of it. If you avoid talking about the financials of being an artist, you do a disservice to anyone who wants to come up into the trade. Falling in line with the status quo leaves the younger generations of artists clueless, all the while perpetuating the position of power held by those who control the money. The taboo of money talk stems from a complicated history, but sits with corporations trying to get the best bang for their buck out of employees, so profits can soar and owners can become rich. Yes, it’s a dramatic generalization but let’s go with it so we can inspire change.

There is no one way to make a living in music. There really are too many paths to talk about. But knowledge is power, so I have recruited three amazing musicians and one ensemble who have generously agreed to openly discuss their finances and how they make it all work. This is not intended as an instruction manual but as a way for you to learn, compare, and set your own goals—and hopefully develop your own ways of finding financial success through your art with more perspective and clarity.

For this series of articles, I will interview Tony Manfredonia, game and orchestral composer; Lisa Neher, composer and mezzo-soprano performer; Loadbang, the new music ensemble; and Pamela Z, an electronic music composer and performer.

For this installment, meet Tony!

Tony Manfredonia Talks Money & Lifestyle

Tony is two years out of his bachelor’s program at Temple University, married with no kids (at the moment), living in Petoskey, Michigan, (despite hosting the Bayview Music Festival, it’s not generally a music mecca), has no plans to pursue a graduate degree, and is making a living primarily from being a church music director and a concert and game music composer. Tony and I had a wonderful talk via Skype, and it is highlights from that discussion that will be laid out here. Tony has also allowed me to share some personal financial data with you all, so let’s all take a moment to appreciate his openness and bravery.

Last year [2018] Tony made approximately $50,000 pre-tax. For Petoskey, Michigan, this is good! The median household income is $39,690. It’s also slightly above the average male wage for the Northwest Michigan region. But dear readers: although comparing numbers is helpful to know where one sits, it doesn’t define your experience. Tony’s wonderful wife, Maria, has been working through some medical problems and many of their “extra” resources have gone to appointments with specialists and a long list of medical expenses. Thankfully, with Tony’s income, and Maria’s work (when her health allows), they get by just fine and hope to start saving for a house once the medical bills lighten up.

Here’s the breakdown of Tony’s 2018 income. Again, thank you to Tony for sharing and breaking down the taboo:

$35,000 Music directing at a Catholic church, full-time (organ, choir, planning mass)
$13,600 Game, film score, and concert music commissions
$1,400+ Composition lessons, weddings, funerals (the numbers are still coming in)

It’s also helpful to have a general idea of what Tony’s workweek is like. It is interesting and inspiring to see how he maximizes his time blocks to do various things by focusing them together. However, he only has one day off a week.

Monday:          Compose 7 a.m.-3 p.m., Lessons approx. 3-5 p.m.
Tuesday:         Compose 5-7 a.m., Church music 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m.
Wednesday:    Repeat Tuesday
Thursday:        Composing all day
Friday:          DAY OFF – focused time with his wife Maria
Saturday:        Compose in the morning, Church (mass) in the evening
Sunday:          Church services all day

Tony hustles. Sometimes his days are long, and his “weekend” is only one day NOT on the weekend. In between all of this, he still finds time to work out and cook—two things that are very important to his and his family’s well being.

Tony's home studio setup

Tony’s home studio setup

What I also find to be inspiring is that Tony shows up to compose every day he can, regardless of the fact that composing currently holds the title of “secondary income.” However, his commitment to his long-term goal of being a full-time composer has paid out. From 2017 to 2018, his composing income has doubled. Also observe that Tony’s primary income is condensed into four days, leaving room for his craft and saving some commuting miles. His primary income also offers opportunities to increase his pay through extra wedding or funeral planning and performing. These types of situations are perfect for a music portfolio career.

Most all music careers require you to maintain a “gig mentality”: keeping your brain creatively thinking about and pursuing the next gig. It can be difficult to find the energy for this while working a full-time position, so for artists, it’s important to find work scenarios that allow a little freedom, flexibility, and autonomy. To keep the side income growing, it’s also important to be in a continuous state of networking.

Networking Strategies

These “composing” timeblocks that Tony adheres to are also peppered with very important tasks, including targeted networking. Since Tony lives in a more rural area, far from busy music scenes, he relies heavily on active networking and leveraging his contacts. During our conversation, he frequently spoke about keeping up with his contacts by scheduling time to respond to emails and keep discussions going with past and future collaborators. (Tony prefers to use Workflowy to keep his to-do list organized. I have found Google Keep to be another effective digital list-making tool.)

In my own interactions with Tony, I have always felt very comfortable communicating with him, whether it be via email, Twitter direct messages, or phone/Skype. One of the reasons I feel Tony is a strong communicator is his ability to take interest in others, and to have a great exchange. The conversation is never one-sided. Tony has taken the natural, positive approach to networking (vs. the infamous “schmoozing”) by being deeply interested in others first, and finding connection points second. This type of networking is easier on the psyche and can lead to easy collaborations. You also can realize quickly when your activities/styles/projects don’t align.

Through scheduling a to-do list of keeping up with contacts, Tony keeps himself in the forefront of his collaborators, and potential collaborators, minds. More importantly, Tony also constantly meets new members of various music communities which keeps his network fresh. This is why attending concerts and meeting people is high on Tony’s to-do list. He currently dispels the myth of the late-night composer by composing early in the day and leaving his evenings open for family, friends, and concerts. Tony makes sure to introduce himself to performers and conductors wherever he goes, keeping his ears open for potential collaborations, and following through to keep the conversations going.

At some magical point in the networking timeline, conversations turn into projects, and projects turn into viable income. But instead of an employer offering a salary up front, we composers and performers are asked to quote our rates. This causes anxiety for many, but the funny thing is, this practice is no different from any other service industry. However, most people don’t wonder why they are paying a plumber so much.

Self Worth & Fee Negotiation

Artist contracts, fees, and rates will likely always be something of a Wild West: a land full of no rules and shady propositions. But to be financially viable, everyone has to cross this territory. When speaking about fees, Tony said that he starts with the New Music USA rate calculator, but immediately noted that those rates are the ideal, and often the reality is lower. And this is the guiding principle: quote higher and negotiate to a reasonable fee.

We also spoke about the battle of having the lowest fees. To that, Tony said, “People try to grab gigs by lowering their rates” but continued with an alternative idea: “You’re going to find more gigs by raising your value.” This value isn’t about money grubbing; it’s about being an advocate for liveable wages and quoting the client your worth.

Your Worth is a culmination of what you need to live, and the time and money you have already invested into your craft and equipment. Many musicians spend 12 years studying an instrument, 4-8 more years in schooling for a degree in their craft, and countless hours practicing their craft – all for no pay. The investment is huge so you should always quote your worth to potential clients.

Tony’s approach to fees allows him to be more selective with the projects he takes on, without joining the rat race of fee lowering to get the next gig. This allows him to position himself as a serious professional, receive fees that allow him to create a liveable, and growing wage, and decide when he wants to take on a project for a friend, or for a value that is not in dollars.

To receive appropriately sized fees, it takes some negotiation skills and finesse. There’s no magic formula, but Tony has a few tips that keeps him happy with the fees he receives. 1.) Quote higher than you think, so you can be happy with a negotiated price; 2.) understand what your peers charge for like-projects, and; 3.) have a benchmark for what you want to make per hour for the project. My favorite thing that Tony said regarding fee negotiation:

There should be a part of you that feels a little uncomfortable…maybe it should feel uncomfortable because it helps you grow.

I asked Tony if he ever wrote commissioned pieces “for free.” He said he gives himself “1-2 projects a year.” He doesn’t take these pieces lightly. They are typically for friends/colleagues, fit his overall goals (concert music or game music), and have guaranteed performances, or in the case of a game, great distribution and publicity. These pieces also help Tony build his portfolio of work.

Let’s Talk More

Tony invests a lot in his self-worth—perceived and realized—and it shows with his increase in activity between 2017 and 2018. At the time of our interview, it appears that Tony is taking charge of his career path and finances through consistent networking, strategic acceptance of projects, and an already well developed and growing financial literacy.

The confidence to hold your rates at a standard, and negotiate as necessary, takes a certain comfortability with talking about money. Setting financial goals and seeing the paths to get there takes an honest awareness of your financial situation—how money comes in and how it goes out. Income generation is always important, but budgeting can help you gain control of the money flow early on. It is hard to do both of these things in a vacuum. Although society thinks talking about money is rude, being more open about our cash flows allows us to take ownership of our financial futures, see what’s ahead of us, and find ways to leverage the tool of money for our use. This is especially important for musicians in career paths that are complicated, non-linear, and have no consistent expectations.

For your financial success, here are a few tools to start budgeting:

For those who are more DIY, here’s a budget template of my own design, using Google Sheets, for personal or for business use: Make your own copy here.

You Need a Budget. Loved by many, this is an affordable budgeting software. At $83.99 a year, it’s cheaper than Netflix and pretty sophisticated.

Mint. A free app, this connects to your bank and cards and helps you track your expenses when they happen.

Personal Capital. Like Mint, but with investing options!

What Are You Trying to Decide in Your Career?

Composer-musician speed dating.

Composer-musician speed dating at the 2015 New Music Gathering in San Francisco. Photo by Shaya Lyon.

I’m giving a talk at the New Music Gathering in Baltimore this January, and I need your help. More specifically, I need your problems. I want to hear about a big decision you’re trying to make in your career as a musician. My talk is on how understanding a few economic principles, specifically Baumol’s Cost Disease, can help us make decisions in our careers as artists. I’d like to use real world examples if I can, which is where you come in.

If you’re on board and have a decision to make, please drop me a line and include a brief description of the issue you’re facing: [email protected].

If you’re curious about what on earth I’m talking about, then read on.

I gave an early version of this talk at last year’s New Music Gathering at the San Francisco Conservatory, and it was a big hit. We talked about some of Baumol’s original work from the 1960s, his updated book from the debate over healthcare reform, and positioning the performing arts alongside healthcare and education as part of advocating for new music. We talked about building a community as an artist, and how to think about the relationship between fans of your work and your bank account.

But the core of our discussion was about time and productivity. Baumol’s key insight was that some work gets more productive over time as a result of technology, and has done so at a fairly consistent rate since the industrial revolution. That would be things like manufacturing, etc. Some other work, like playing an instrument, doesn’t. It takes just as much time for a string quartet to play a piece as it did 200 years ago. Since making art doesn’t get more productive, in the context of the whole economy it gets more expensive over time.

This has all kinds of neat implications that economists have studied for big businesses, but almost nobody has thought about what it means for individual working artists, much less about how understanding this corner of economics can help us to thrive.

That’s what I’m trying to do with this talk at the next New Music Gathering. Right now the music industry is changing so much, and so fast, that nobody has “the answer”. Nobody’s business model seems appropriate to anyone else. But I don’t want us all to have to stumble around in the dark. And the economics of cost disease makes some fairly reliable predictions about how our art making and the business stuff we all have to do these days will relate to each other in the future.

In an arts ecosystem that’s changing as much as ours, I’ll cling to anything with as much predictive power as cost disease seems to offer. And I’m trying to use it to help artists feel confident making big decisions.

Should I get on Spotify? Should I work with a publisher? How much time should I devote to teaching? How much should I work on contest submissions? How many LPs should I press? How much should I charge for my work?

If you’ve got a big decision about this or any other question, I want to hear about it. I want to understand how you’re thinking about it, and try to help. If you’re willing, I might share a version of your story in my talk next month.

I love helping artists (this is part of why I work at New Music USA in the first place), and hopefully our conversation will be useful for you. After the New Music Gathering, I’ll report back on what I learned.

Thanks in advance for your stories and your help! I look forward to hearing from you: [email protected].

When Entrepreneurship and Artistry Conflict

Open for Business
First, I need to thank Alex Shapiro for her response to my first post in this series. It was my hope to spark discussion around this topic, and if the comment section of her post is any indication, that seems to have happened. I debated to what extent I should respond directly to Shapiro, but since I am still laying out my argument, I will touch on only a couple of points directly while covering others more broadly. I really enjoy a good debate, so I will respond to comments as much as I am able.
Following my previous post, “You’re an Artist, Not an Entrepreneur,” I had a number of discussions online and in person about the role of entrepreneurship in new music. Among the different points brought to my attention, two kept cropping up over and over again.

The first was that, despite what I or others might think about the increased focus on entrepreneurship, it’s become a necessity. I talked with Peter Witte, dean of the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance (my alma mater), about this, and he made some important points. “We surveyed our alums, all of them,” he explained.  “Over and again, across the decades, was a refrain: I graduated not knowing how to start my career…. Teaching students, even if just a two [credit hour] elective, about how to start, that seems almost an ethical issue for me.”

I agree. To reiterate, I don’t think that teaching some basic entrepreneurial skills is by itself a bad thing. The issue I see is that some discuss entrepreneurship as though it is the cure-all for the difficulties musicians face financially. Perhaps even more troubling, though, is that in promoting certain business practices there doesn’t seem to be a discussion about how they may conflict with artistic pursuits.

The second point concerns the definition of the word entrepreneur in and of itself. I happily concede that the word at one time specifically meant a music promoter, but most all contemporary definitions directly reference business, and that is the context in which I will be using the word.[1]

I am aware, of course, that meanings change; there are many examples of the word entrepreneur being used in new contexts today, such as “social entrepreneur.” However, if we are to discuss being an “arts entrepreneur” as a way to create your own job or to advance your career, we are using the word in a business-oriented context. Moreover, that is the context that universities seem to be using as they implement entrepreneurial education. A quick survey of institutions[2] shows that many partner with the business department, use a more specific arts management approach, or include concepts in course descriptions such as market analysis, branding, networking, etc.

What I hope to do in this essay is address some of these business practices and elucidate potential conflicts with the arts. At the risk of repeating myself (something I do a fair bit in my performing), I am not saying that any of the following practices are inherently wrong or completely incompatible with the arts. Instead, I want to get us thinking about some of the pitfalls of an entrepreneurial mindset before we rush headlong down that path.


The concept of branding is ubiquitous. In virtually every organization or project that I have been a part of, someone has brought up the topic of branding. Perhaps that is because, at its core, branding can be an extremely effective tool to communicate quickly and effectively who you are as an artist to those who may not know much about you.
For a quick primer on the process of branding, Entrepreneur magazine has a succinct article, “The Basics of Branding.” As they describe it, the process of branding involves “self-discovery,” something that is a big part of growing as an artist. Moreover, there is nothing particularly wrong with the questions one might need to ask while developing a brand strategy. Here are examples from the article that I have translated a bit for artists:

  1. What is your goal/are core values as an artist?
  2. What is it that you have to offer an audience?
  3. How is it that colleagues and audiences perceive you?
  4. What qualities do you want them to associate with you as an artist?

Not bad at all. In fact, we should all have some sort of artistic vision that we are striving toward. It’s in the implementation that things start to get a bit trickier.

For a brand to be effective, it must be consistent and integrated into every aspect of your “business.” There are good aspects to this, such as having visual consistency on everything the public sees. Other communication becomes more difficult. The voice of your brand might be well suited to your website, but it would also need to be considered in tweets and pictures posted to Instagram.

Moreover, branding applies to products, or in our case, artistic output. My brand might be as a minimalist pianist, but what happens when I start venturing outside those boundaries a bit? That would necessarily diminish my brand value. Yes, I can choose to update or refresh my brand, but I’m not sure I want to do that every time I pull out something new. Art doesn’t always want to fit nicely into a brand message.

There is one other aspect of branding that I find to be a bit frightening, and that is how branding connects with others. Again, to quote the article, “The added value intrinsic to brand equity frequently comes in the form of perceived quality or emotional attachment.” Perceived quality doesn’t sound so bad, but in branding it has nothing to do with actual quality. Effective branding means that even if my artistic output is not better than most of what’s out there, that’s O.K. because you perceive the “R. Andrew Lee” brand as better. Worse is the emotional attachment. I want people to experience an emotional connection to my art, not my brand.

Again, not all branding is evil, and the larger the artistic organization the more important branding becomes. But where branding is designed to draw the attention of a wide audience, art is more intimate. Branding distills all aspects of an organization into a few simple ideas; art is more complex. By all means, use the strategies of branding to get your name out there, but realize that the best practices of branding may not always be suitable for what you want to convey as an artist.

Social Media

I love social media. I’ve been on Facebook since the days when you needed a university email address to sign up, and I’ve been hooked on Twitter ever since my wife convinced me to join. Social media has also been good for my career. I’ve also gotten several gigs (including my NYC premiere) through Twitter, and I even found a co-producer for an album. By most accounts, I’m doing this quite well.

Likewise, social media is one particular area of 21st-century entrepreneurship that seemingly holds great promise. The ease of building your network and promoting yourself (again, all at virtually no cost[3]), means considerably more opportunities to further your career. And success is certainly possible, I can’t deny that, but business practices have perverted our concept of how that should happen.

What is the motivation for a business to become active in social media? To put the question another way, how does a business use a social medium to increase sales? First, there needs to be some enticement for a potential consumer to “follow” or “like,” which may be in the form of discounts/special offers, pithy posts, interesting links, or eye-catching pictures, consistent with brand messaging of course. Typically, a business isn’t interested in connecting with customers in any meaningful way so much as increasing its reach. That in turn raises brand awareness. Yes, it’s valuable to have customers who know about new offerings, and particularly nice to have followers promote those to their network, but at least as important is keeping the business in the forefront of the customer’s mind. That way, when it comes time to make a purchasing decision, the odds increase that they will turn to you.

Sort of dark when you spell it out that way, isn’t it? Let’s put it in an artistic context. Increase followers through incentives/clever posts, post often and consistently within your artistic brand, increase awareness of your work and get people excited to promote what you do, and then enjoy the CD sales when your new album drops.

I’m not going to say that this doesn’t always work; any organization worth its salt has someone overseeing social media. The problem is that I’m not sure that’s the best way for an artist to approach social media.

People connect to other people. Actually, people desperately need to connect with other people. That is how you should use social media. Start following a bunch of people on Twitter[4] and then take an interest in them. Start conversations. Listen to other people’s music. Post about things that are meaningful. Post about trivial and ridiculous things. Just try to be human (and meet these people in real life when the opportunity presents itself). When people connect with you as a human being they become far more likely to take an interest in you as an artist. There are enough people trying to build a network of important people to promote themselves; don’t be that person.


You don’t want customers. You just don’t. A customer is someone who is willing to purchase something because it has an equal or greater perceived value than the price. That’s a battle being lost by the music industry on all fronts. We can and should do what we can to increase the perceived monetary value of what we do, but that is a difficult fight, especially for someone struggling to build a career.

Instead of customers, you should have supporters. Where a customer makes a value calculation for a product before a purchase, a supporter willingly parts with money to help sustain your work. Obviously this is a big part of running nonprofit organizations, which rely on donors to continue operating, but it can be extended to any transaction.

Instead of selling tickets to a performance, tell people about how selling tickets sustains your ability to keep performing in the first place. Instead of hawking CDs, explain how sales determine whether you can make any albums in the future, which in turn helps make your music available around the world. Don’t sell a product; ask for support.

Plus, the supporter/artist model is far more significant than a producer/consumer model. A consumer typically has no interest in whether a business thrives or collapses; they simply want value for their money.[5] A customer is also someone to be catered to, someone whose needs must bet met by your products/services. A supporter, however, has a vested interest in seeing future success. They are not only loyal but will often work to help you attain success. They also are less concerned with having their needs met and more concerned that you are fulfilling your artistic vision. We should be creating something of value for those who help pay the rent, but treating them like customers is bad for everyone involved.

Paying the Rent

At the end of the day, though, for all this discussion, money is still a necessity. And for all your ability to hustle, there will still be opportunities to play/compose music that isn’t artistically satisfying but that will satisfy creditors. And here is the fundamental disagreement between Alex Shapiro and me. As she writes, “But seriously: no authentic, talented artist—you included, Andrew—is ever going to forget the importance of the quality of the art that they create just because they wish to earn a living from it.” I disagree.

I think the pressures to survive monetarily can be overwhelming and unrelenting. I think that artistic integrity and a paycheck are all too often at odds with one another. I think that there are many, many people who have seriously contemplated walking away from the arts entirely because it was too financially difficult, myself included.

Yes, we have an obligation to give the next generation of artists all the tools we can to help them build their careers, but we also have an obligation to make sure those tools don’t stunt their artistic development. An amazing entrepreneur will earn a living. The same cannot be said of amazing artists, and that’s what scares me.


1. Even within a business context there is disagreement about the word. An article from The Economist, “What exactly is an entrepreneur?”, summarizes the problem. The definition Aaron Gervais and I seem to be using aligns with Joseph Schumpeter’s view that true entrepreneurs are innovators. The more common definition being anyone who is self-employed or runs a small business.

2. I based my survey on a market analysis prepared for Clarion University. I also looked at a few other institutions not listed in this document.

3. The issue of cost was one point of contention between Shapiro and me. I know that to be active on social media requires equipment and an internet connection, all of which cost money. That said, these are not costs I had to incur specifically because of social media involvement. I already had the phone and connection, as do the majority of Americans. So the cost exists, but they are general costs most people have already incurred. Digging further a bit, concerning her points on recording costs. 1) Costs of lessons and instruments are costs of being an artist, not specifically of producing a CD. 2) The cost to produce recorded music can be almost zero. A cheap recording will still sound that way, but most people don’t realize how expensive it can be to produce an album. We need to do a better job of educating the public on that. 3) Finally, I had argued that distribution costs were virtually zero. The cost to produce a recording notwithstanding, once I have a digital file I can get that to anywhere in the world (that has an internet connection) through any number of free services. (And for all the talk about Spotify, it seems that YouTube is where teenagers go the most to listen to music.)

4. One mistake I see with social media is trying to be active everywhere and at all times. For an individual or new organization, it makes much more sense to discover what particular service is the best fit. I adapted quickly to the particular etiquette of Twitter, but there are a number of services that still seem foreign to me. Each service has a different etiquette and connects users in different ways, so just like in your art, don’t try to be all things to all people.

5. A common exception would be when a consumer wants to support a local business over a large company. They are willing to pay higher prices for the value they see a local business adding to the community. In that case, I’d argue that they are no longer consumers but instead supporters.

Composer Operating Costs

Calculator and Money, by 401(K) 2012 on Flickr

Calculator and Money, by 401(K) 2012 on Flickr

As many of you are well aware, June 1 is a pretty significant date in the composing world because lots of grant application deadlines fall on that day. Like many other composers, I spent a good chunk of May writing proposals, updating all of my resume/CV/catalog of works documents, printing, binding, and assembling packages. At this point, I’m on a first-name basis with my local post office workers. Boy howdy, I’m glad all that stuff is finished! At least for a couple of months, until the application deadlines pile up yet again.

Having blown through an impressive amount of composer-y office supplies during this process (I maintain that half the battle of being a composer is having the ability to procure oddly sized and/or obscure office supplies), I made a trip last weekend to replenish my dwindling reserves of paper, CDRs, and padded envelopes. No matter how many times I run this errand, the final price at the register never fails to take my breath away. And the same thought always comes up:
“Damn, being a composer is expensive.”

I’m not talking about just office supplies. I mean pretty much everything about having a career as a composer—with the exception of the actual composing part, that is—costs money. Perhaps super-successful composers with major publishers are in a different position, but I suspect that even they are not immune to this phenomenon.
There are numerous “composer operating costs” (most of which apply to performers as well) that kick in during and/or after the largest expense of all, education. For instance, there is travel (to concerts, auditions, and other events), professional development (workshops, festivals, conferences), concert tickets, membership fees, self-promotional stuff (website hosting, etc.), and computer hardware and software, to name just a few items. And the more advanced the career, the more expensive it can become; a copyist to help manage the composing workload, or a publicist to assist in getting the word out about a new CD release can add up to big bucks. With increasing success, it seems as if rather than the expenses decreasing, they simply transform into different expenses. All of this is obviously above and beyond the basic human need for food, shelter, and clothing.

I am continually impressed with the resourcefulness and creativity of many composer colleagues regarding the ways they combat the potential “composer money pit.” There are composers who live in extremely low- or no-cost housing situations, some have armies of student interns to help with various tasks, and one composer I know is an absolute genius at scoring complementary music gear from manufacturing companies.

Throughout history, composers (and plenty of other types of artists) have received support in many different forms. Tchaikovsky had a benefactress, Nadezhda von Meck, who sent regular infusions of cash, for example. Whether it is the generosity of a mysterious sponsor, an inheritance from a well-to-do auntie, or the help of a spouse, an institution, or an entire Kickstarter campaign, every one of us has received financial or in-kind support of one form or another (and probably in many forms) at different points in our careers. I think it’s important to remember all of the people who have played a part in helping us get to wherever we are in our creative paths, and to recognize that behind every artist who “makes it” is most likely a sea of individuals who provided support along the way.

The Tax Season Shuffle

Piggy Bank and Calculator

Photo by Images_of_Money on Flickr

Oh, month of March, how I dread you! This is the time of year when I assemble all of my tax information; I just finished, so all of this is fresh in my mind (and annoyingly in my dreams!). While I really ought to—and every year resolve to—tackle this project in February, I will seek out pretty much every possible diversion (down to pencil sharpening, which I don’t even do during composing procrastination!) to avoid the drudgery. Preparing tax returns is one of my least favorite activities on planet earth.

However, when the organizing and tallying of income and expenses is over, I have nice, neat lists of the previous year’s financial landscape. The good news: my income has gone up (almost) every year I have been claiming independent composer-hood. The less-good news: as one might expect, expenses as a whole also go up! The interesting part, from an “historical” perspective, is how the level and type of expenses have varied over the years; it’s not only a sort of personal financial journal, but also a reflection of changes in technology and in career development. It would be interesting to see a ten-year-or-so analysis of expenses incurred by a selection of self-employed artists at different ages and career stages. A few alterations in my own recent expenses popped out this year:

Postage expenses have plummeted, especially in the past two years.

Hurray for digital submissions! It makes me smile every time an application process can be completed totally within the digital realm, not to mention when a request for music can be fulfilled by attachments and/or links. Weirdly, I still feel like I visit the post office a lot, but I spend less than ¼ of what I used to over the course of 12 months.

The same goes for office supplies.

Again, yay digital submissions! Buying fewer padded envelopes and fewer spindles of blank CD-Rs is wonderful, as is having a little extra shelf and closet space as a result.

Travel expenses have gone down.

This is not so much because I travel any less, but more because travel expenses are more often reimbursed. Needless to say, this is awesome! (Note: Even if airfare and hotel are reimbursed, it’s still possible to deduct the GSA M&IE per diem rates for the days spent away from home.)

Meals and “Entertainment” are up.

Another function of age and career advancement, I suppose, is that now there are more actual work-related meetings over nice meals.

Contract labor and professional fees are up… a lot.

Sometimes a lawyer needs to be involved in a negotiation. Sometimes a composer needs a copyist. Or a PR consultation. I am accustomed to having a collection of 1099-MISC forms in my tax documents, but 2012 was the first year I have had to prepare them for others!

Anyway, what I’m really curious about is what your methods of keeping track of all this information are. How do you do it? Do you manage your records on a weekly, monthly, or yearly basis? Do you use one software program, several, or maybe just pencil and paper? I find these forms very helpful, but I have a hard time keeping expenses updated on a monthly basis, and end up spending a long time dealing with most of the previous year (which involves information scattered over several sources) in March! Help!