Tag: media

This is the Album of the Future

record collection

I am a composer, performer, music producer, and avid record collector, and I am currently in a complicated relationship with physical media. Like many others, I love the tangible process of opening up a CD or LP, playing it through my home system, and studying the artwork and liner notes as I listen. I hold my own albums to this standard as I release them into the world. I pore over the details of the physical package, driving my collaborators crazy as I attempt to perfect every aspect of its design. After spending several maddening months—and often years—to make an album, the moment of finally holding the object itself is a satisfying final seal, assuring me that I’ve created something permanent.

Yet the age of streaming rages on, my closets are filled with boxes of overstock, and even my mother is more likely to listen to my music online than she is to put on a CD or LP. As much as we like to think of these discs as the sacred vessels of our musical concepts, many of us are questioning whether it is worth the time, money, space, and materials to produce the physical object.

What makes an album such a powerful statement is that the artists and producers craft a complete experience for the listener, not only through a cohesive musical idea but through its presentation: artwork, information, liner notes, and now virtually any form of media. Currently, digital platforms do not allow much room for this, confining albums to tracklists and an album cover: a thumbnail representation of something that could be physical. This has had financial repercussions—by reducing an album’s worth to the play count of its individual tracks, huge corporations have gotten away with paying artists fractions of pennies for their work.

In response to these changing tides, some of us have chosen to dig deeper into the classic formats, releasing our albums on limited edition vinyl and cassette tapes. Others search for new objects to represent their album (beer koozie with download code anyone?). Look no further than Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit Music (2005), a self-contained electronic music circuit and playback device within a CD case, for an eloquent example of physicality as the concept of the album itself.

There have been many creative approaches to releasing albums as physical objects in today’s world, but that’s not what this article is about. I’m tossing any purity I have left aside, and I am wondering: What can an album be now that it no longer needs to be an object?

Florent Ghys’s “This is the album of the future” from his video album Télévision

The album has always been and continues to be a malleable form, having adapted to over 100 years of changes in technology, business, and pop culture. The very first albums were, literally, albums: bound books manufactured to contain several 78 RPM phonograph records, examples of which can be found as far back as 1908. When Columbia Records began releasing 12-inch discs in 1948, the term had already been extended past its original meaning to refer to any collection of musical tracks. Since then, our albums have contorted through a variety of formats, shapes, and sizes and now, residing on the internet, they no longer require a physical container. Artists can release albums at a faster rate and with more ease than before, and the possibilities seem to be endless for the integration of multimedia and interactive elements.

Some are skeptical as to whether some of the newer formats should be identified as true “albums.” To decide for myself, I apply a very simple litmus test: Does the artist call their work an album? If yes, then it is so. I see the changes in how music creators conceive and present this music as the indication of its evolution as a term.

I have been searching for compelling examples of albums that have extended this form within the digital world and collected them here. Some big-budget and mainstream offerings need to be mentioned, but I have chosen to focus on a few specimens from independent artists and labels, and have given them a close and thoughtful listen.

This is by no means a comprehensive survey. I invite anyone with examples of albums that should be included in this discussion to post in the comments below.

Notes from Sub-Underground

Object Collection’s Notes from Sub-Underground (2017)

One of the immediate parameters that is lifted for albums in the digital age is that of length. At one end of the spectrum, an artist can release a shorter offering and present it as a complete concept without feeling the need to fill the entirety of a CD, tape, or LP. On the other end, albums can be very long indeed. Notes from Sub-Underground, a 2016 collection of experimental music put out in the wake of the Trump election, is an awesome example of this. Produced by the music theater group Object Collection, this five-hour-plus compilation is comprised of 62 tracks representing somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 artists. The line-up includes influential experimentalists from across generations including Richard Foreman, Cat Lamb, Phill Niblock, Michael Pisaro, and Matana Roberts, as well as performing groups String Noise, Ensemble Pamplemouse, and my own group Dither.

Beginning with a call for submissions in December, the compilation was assembled in less than two months and released on Inauguration Day, 2017. Object Collection compiled the tracks, did some basic post-production work, and produced a cover and liner notes for digital distribution. Upon its release, in order to download a copy of the album, listeners would contribute an amount of their choosing through an Indiegogo campaign, all proceeds of which were donated to the ACLU. (You can now access the compilation through Object Collection’s website.) While only some of the tracks are overtly political, the collective album effort is what makes this an effective statement.

And it’s a great record. I committed to a complete listen, toggling between sessions on my home computer and on my headphones while on New Jersey Transit. Although the sequence of the tracks is not curated (the song titles are placed in alphabetical order), there is a satisfying flow to the album in its consistent inconsistency. One of my listening sessions began with Mellissa Hughes and Philip White’s “Clinging to a Cloud, an abstracted pop song comprised of autotuned melismas intertwined with synth tones and computer voices. This track flows beautifully into an excerpt from Suzanne Thorpe’s vocal collage “Constituting States,” constructed of recordings of the U.S. national anthem as sung in different languages. The voices swirl around each other and finally resolve, to be interrupted by Jonathan Marmor’s clangorous electronic piece “Easter Helicopter”. Listening to the entire project is a cathartic experience that holds true to Object Collection’s maximalist and DIY ethos.

OneBeat Mixtape 18

OneBeat Mixtape 18: Vols 1-6 (Found Sound Records, 2019)

A collective musical endeavor that approaches the album format as a series of shorter offerings comes from the Brooklyn-based nonprofit organization Found Sound Nation. To document the output from their OneBeat program in 2018, for which they enlisted 24 international artists to create collaborative works, they have produced and released a series of digital “mixtapes,” each averaging around 20 minutes in length. Their concept is to provide an extension (“B-sides”) to the golden record that was included aboard the two Voyager spacecrafts in 1971. They staggered the release of the six volumes, each referencing a stop as the ships traveled deeper into space. The entire project can be found on Bandcamp.

While the eclecticism of the tracks on each volume holds true to the idea of a mixtape, the concept and production of the recordings create a unified offering. (All tracks were produced by OneBeat and recorded during the same sessions.) “Sorabe,” the opening track of Vol 1: Earth composed by Tsanta Randriamihajasoa, groups the Malagasy pianist with Indian vocalist Pavithra Chari, Hungarian clarinetist Zolt Bartek, and Algerian drummer Younés Kati. The track is a jazz-infused tour of each artist’s musical language, emulating the idea of the earth’s bustling “acoustic and organic sounds.”

Skipping ahead, Vol 6: Heliopause is described by OneBeat as a collection of “abstract pieces perhaps only understandable by the most adventurous human ears.” While I don’t find this material to be inaccessible (especially after listening to 5.5 hours of Object Collection) this volume certainly conjures an otherworldly sonic palette that one might equate with the edge of our solar system. Beginning with the more tangible songlike opening of “Outer Space,” each track of the album continues a trajectory deeper into textural and droney soundscapes.

Florent Ghys: Télévision

Florent Ghys: Télévision (Cantaloupe Music, 2014)

There are many notable examples throughout recorded music history of a film being produced in conjunction with an album. The Beatles’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Prince’s Purple Rain (1984) are two of many landmark works which were released separately as film and soundtrack. As home video systems became increasingly popular in the 1980s, artists began to regularly distribute video compilations, live concerts, and documentaries as part of their output. I fondly remember the comedic band Green Jellö (popular on MTV for their heavy metal claymation video “Three Little Pigs”), who claimed in the opening credits of their Cereal Killer VHS (1993) to be the “world’s first video-only band.” (They did in fact release a soundtrack album separately from the video.)

Billing an audiovisual work as the album itself is still a relatively new phenomenon which is quickly being embraced by the mainstream, encapsulated by the success of Beyoncé’s “visual album” Lemonade (2016). Although one might question how these offerings differ from the films and videos made by their predecessors, I see this as a natural arrival point, enabled by current digital platforms: the audio and visual elements of the album are both readily available on the same interface and can be easily conceived, created, marketed, and distributed together as a unified concept.

Bassist/composer Florent Ghys dubs his most recent solo release Télévision (2014) a “video album,” and it is indeed a high-level integration of musical and visual concepts. In this case, the two elements are so intrinsically connected that it’s hard to imagine experiencing the music alone. Working in sync with both audio and video software, Ghys composed the two entities in tandem, providing a direct video corollary to virtually every musical event.

In the opening track “Beauté Plastique,” each new instrumental layer enters with a corresponding visual element, creating a complex tapestry of hockets and contrapuntal lines. The final track, “This is the Album of the Future,” features a tongue-in-cheek video collage of dated advertisements for compact disc players. (Télévision is in fact also available as a CD from Cantaloupe records.) The entire video is an absorbing and effective visual experience which kept me engaged in a way that felt more akin to binge watching a TV series or going down a YouTube rabbit hole than listening to an album of the past.

Rabbit Rabbit: Rabbit Rabbit Radio, Vols 1-3

Confronting the issue of digital distribution, another creative video-based offering comes from Rabbit Rabbit (Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi). Frustrated with online services, in 2012 the duo began a long-term project in which they released a song and video per month on their own subscription-based site, rabbitrabbitradio.com. Although they have now chosen to end their monthly output and focus on larger-scale works, they compiled their three years of work into three albums which can be listened to and watched on Bandcamp.

While maintaining high production values, these videos are intimate and homegrown, often using footage from the recording studio or home performances. They incorporate several candid and personal moments, including a living room session in which their young daughter throws a minor tantrum during the song. Family and friends feature prominently throughout the three volumes. “Paper Prison” is a documentary portrait of Bossi’s father as he discusses his rare book collection. The final track, “Merci Vielmal,” was recorded on a train while on the road with their group Cosa Brava (performed with bandmates Fred Frith, Shahzad Ismaily, and Zeena Parkins). Not only is this music captivating, but you come out of the experience feeling as if you have had a window into the artists’ everyday lives.

John Cage, The Ten Thousand Things, I Ching Edition

John Cage, The Ten Thousand Things, I Ching Edition

John Cage, The Ten Thousand Things, I Ching Edition (Microfest records, 2013)

In the ‘90s, artists such as Peter Gabriel, Primus, and The Residents released CD-ROMs with game-like applications along with their albums, providing an interface for listeners to explore the songs, art, and other elements. Today, our touch-screen devices offer even more potential for interactive music applications. Bjork’s Biophilia (2011) was released as an “app album,” featuring artwork, extensive liner notes, videos, and games associated with each track. Other artists take the interactive model further by allowing the music to be generated in real time. Brian Eno’s most recent release Reflection (2017) exists both in fixed media and as an application that creates a unique and endless version of his composition.

An interesting example of a generative album experience comes from Microfest Records’s release of John Cage’s The Ten Thousand Things (2015). In the 1950s, Cage composed this set of pieces to be played independently, in any combination, or reconfigured in a variety of ways. Microfest produced The I-Ching Edition of the album which consists of a fixed version of the piece, accompanied by an application (delivered via thumb drive) that allows you to generate unique versions the composition. Each rendering is constructed from performances by pianists Vicki Ray and Aron Kallay, bassist Tom Peters, percussionist William Winant, and an archival recording of Cage himself reading his lecture “‘45 for a Speaker.” Each new version of the piece uses the same recordings, but is unique in its organization.

One of the most satisfying things about this piece is that the spoken material in Cage’s fragmented lecture describes the same compositional techniques that you are hearing in real time. The chance aspect of the application itself adds yet another layer. The creativity of this format, the top-notch performances, and the charm of hearing Cage masterfully read his lecture make for an enthralling aleatoric experience.

Ironically, many of these innovative application-based albums have fallen victim to operating system upgrades. We can still get Bjork’s album through Apple’s app store, but similar offerings from Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, and Philip Glass seem to have become obsolete in less than ten years. These apps were either never updated, or they were seen by the record companies merely as short-term marketing tools. There also just haven’t been a huge quantity of app albums made, as the financial overhead required to create these programs is still prohibitive for most independent artists.

With so much trial and error required, it is not a surprise that album formats have needed to pass a high threshold of popularity and mass consumption in order to achieve longevity. This is one reason that physical albums are still relevant today—they survive as permanent objects on the sidelines of a constantly changing and merciless digital landscape.

What is the album of the future? I hope for an interface that is as accessible and navigable as the current streaming platforms, one that allows artists to configure a unique experience for their listeners, and one that empowers us to control its monetization. (Bandcamp is well ahead of the pack in this regard.) The ideal platform would not only provide easy access to music, art, text, and all types of media, but be malleable so that new elements can be integrated as they arise. The next sea change in business and technology will surely provide new and unforeseen formats for our music, and within it artists will continue to innovate, adapt, and respond.

How to Exist: 20 Years of NewMusicBox

An interview takes place in a study-type room, with a man sitting on a couch, another man with his back to us sitting in a chair, and a woman in a blue dress behind the camera filming

Forgive me if I begin this look back at twenty years of NewMusicBox and its times by opening a different, older, but resolutely print magazine. In October 2000, about 18 months after NMBx’s founding, The Wire, the UK-based magazine for new and exploratory music, reached a milestone of its own: issue number 200. It marked the occasion with a directory of 200 “essential websites”: sites for record labels, venues, artists, discussion groups, and more. Nearly two decades later, the idea of trying to write down any sort of meaningful index to the web seems extraordinarily quaint; but at the start of the century, before Google transformed how we think about information, such things were not uncommon. Back then—and I’m just about old enough to remember this—it still felt as though if you put in a few days’ work, you could pretty much get a complete grasp of the web (or at least of that slice of it that met your interests).

Within The Wire’s directory, among a collection of links to 18 “zines,” sits NewMusicBox. Here’s Christoph Cox’s blurb:

Run by the American Music Center, an institution founded in 1942 [sic] “to foster and encourage the composition of contemporary music and to promote its production, publication, distribution and performance in every way possible,” NewMusicBox’s monthly bulletins do this admirably, and, with recent issues exploring topics as various as the relationship between alternative rock and contemporary classical, the funding of new composition, and the world of microtonality, regular visits are worthwhile.

NMBx’s presence on this list isn’t surprising. (Although I hadn’t looked at this issue of The Wire for many years myself, I was confident the site would be in there.) The online magazine of the AMC (and later New Music USA) has always been close to the forefront in online publishing. What is surprising—and just as telling—is that aside from a few websites devoted to individual composers (Chris Villars’ outstanding Morton Feldman resource; Eddie Kohler’s hyperlinked collection of John Cage stories, Indeterminacy; Karlheinz Stockhausen’s homepage-slash-CD store-slash-narrative control center stockhausen.org), almost no other sites in The Wire’s catalogue are devoted to contemporary classical music or modern composition. The sole major exception is IRCAM, whose pioneering, well-funded, and monumental presence (especially through its ever-expanding BRAHMS resource for new music documentation) gives an indication of the level NMBx was working at to have achieved so much so early on.


Although NMBx was at the forefront of online resources in 1999, the idea of an online publication for contemporary American music had been circulating at the AMC for some time. A long time, in fact. In 1984—just two years after the standardization of the TCP/IP protocol on which the internet is built, and when the web was still called ARPANET—the AMC’s long-range planning committee wrote, “The American Music Center will make every effort to become fully computerized and to develop a computer network among organizations concerned with contemporary music nationwide.”[i] This seems like an almost supernatural level of foresight for an organization that was still at that time based around its library of paper scores. That is, until one recalls the number of composers, especially of electronic music, who were themselves at the forefront of computer technology. One of these was Morton Subotnick, a member of the AMC board and one of new music’s earliest of early adopters. Deborah Steinglass, currently New Music USA’s interim CEO, but back then AMC’s Director of American Music Week (and soon to become its Development Director), recalls a meeting in 1989—the same year that Tim Berners-Lee published his proposal for a world wide web—in which Subotnick introduced the potential of computer networks for documenting and sharing information to the board, whose members were astonished and incredulous.[ii]

From its beginnings, NMBx was about making composers heard.

Yet they were moved to take it seriously. Carl Stone, another composer-board member who was involved from an early stage, reports that early models were an ASCII-based Usenet or bulletin board-type system that would allow users to exchange and distribute information nationwide.[iii] This idea evolved quickly, and ambitiously. A strategic plan drawn up in 1992 and submitted in January 1993 states that during 1994, the Center would “create an online magazine with new music essays, articles, editorials, reviews, and discussion areas for professionals and the general public.” Alongside Stone and Subotnick, the early drivers of this interest in technological innovation included fellow board members John Luther Adams, Randall Davidson, Ray Gallon, Eleanor Hovda, Larry Larson, and Pauline Oliveros.

This is not to say that everyone at the AMC was an early adopter; Stone says that one of his main tasks was “to keep driving the idea of an online service forward. While it might seem obvious today, there was significant resistance to an online service in some quarters. Some people felt it would be dehumanizing, expensive. They couldn’t see the coming ubiquity of computers in our daily life.” A key role in maintaining this drive, Steinglass tells me, was played by the AMC’s Executive Director Nancy Clarke. Clarke, a music graduate from Brown University, had worked as a music program specialist at the National Endowment for the Arts before coming to the AMC in 1983. According to Steinglass, Clarke was very interested in technology and was sympathetic to the predictions of Subotnick and others. It was she as much as anyone who pushed for and implemented an online presence for the AMC.

The fruit of these discussions (and several successful funding bids written by Steinglass) was the launch of amc.net in the first half of 1995: the same year as online game-changers such as eBay and Amazon, but months before either. In fact, the AMC’s website (designed by Jeff Harrington) proved to be one of the world’s first for a non-profit service organization, a testament to the vision and ambition of Clarke, Stone, Subotnick, and the rest of the AMC board. By June 12, according to a letter from Clarke to the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust (one of the site’s funders), it was already receiving a respectable 20,000 hits a month.

Yet the goal of a web magazine devoted to contemporary American music—meaning all sorts of non-commercial music, from jazz to experimental, as well as concert music—remained incomplete. In that same June letter, Clarke lists the services amc.net was providing: they include a catalogue of scores held in the AMC’s library; a compendium of creative opportunities (updated daily); listings of jazz managers and record companies; a forthcoming database of composers, scores, performers, and organizations; and that mid-’90s online ubiquity, the guestbook. But no mention of a magazine.

The idea was reinvigorated in 1997. Richard Kessler arrived as the AMC’s new executive director and amplified the need for the AMC—and indeed other music information centers like it—to do more than offer library catalogs and opportunity listings. “We’re supposed to be about advocacy,” is how he describes his thoughts at that time. “And not just [for] composers, but also performers and publishers and the affiliated industry.”[iv] To achieve this, Kessler reasoned, the AMC needed to switch its attention away from its score library and towards ways to give a voice to composers across the spectrum, particularly those working at the margins of the established scene. “There are composers out there who, if they’re not published, people don’t know who they are or what they’re doing,” he says.

Planning documents and funding applications produced shortly after Kessler’s arrival in July 1997 discuss the development of “a twice-monthly web column” that would provide “first person” perspectives on American music by experts and practitioners within the field.[v] At this stage an online magazine does not seem to have been in anyone’s mind, although it was suggested that these columns would be supported by chat forums, links, and other materials. Kessler was clear about what he wanted this publication to do, whatever form it might finally take: it should give “a palpable, well-known voice to the American concert composer, broadly writ. I also wanted it to affirm the existence of those artists. Can you play a part in ensuring that those artists will exist in that [online] space? Not only for people to discover them, but also for the artists themselves to feel like they do exist.”[vi]

By late spring 1998, the “American Music: In the First Person” proposal had evolved into an idea for a multi-part online newsletter. Planning documents from May of that year introduce the idea of a monthly internet-based publication “serving as a communications and media vehicle for new American music.”[vii] These documents are aimed more generally at creating an “information and support center for the 21st century,” but the presence of the magazine is regarded as the “linchpin” in that new program.

After this, things moved quickly. On July 1, a conversation between Kessler and Steve Reich was published on the AMC’s website. This was the first of a series of interviews entitled “Music in the First Person” (and which still continue under the title of “Cover”): it is interesting to note how the “first person” of the title shifted from the author of a critical essay or column, as proposed in May, to the (almost always a composer) subject of an interview. In the same month, Frank J. Oteri was approached—and interviewed—for the job of editor and publisher of the planned magazine, a position he took up in November. NewMusicBox published for the first time the following year, on May 1, 1999, featuring an extended interview with Bang on a Can, an extensive history of composer-led ensembles in America written by Ken Smith, “interactive forums,” news round-ups, and information on recent CD releases.

NMBx has grown up alongside the internet itself, and often been close to its newest developments.

NMBx has grown up alongside the internet itself, and often been close to its newest developments. The original “Music in the First Person” interviews that began in 1998 were published with audio excerpts as well as text—a heavy load for dial-up era online access. A year later, the April 1, 2000, interview with Meredith Monk introduced video for the first time. And on November 22, 2000, NMBx released its first concert webcast(!). This was a recording, made by then-Associate Editor Jenny Undercofler a week before, but the first live webcast came only a little later, on January 26, 2001—almost eight years before the Berlin Philharmonic’s pioneering Digital Concert Hall. The innovations continued: with its regularly updated content, comments boxes, and obsessive (and often self-referential) hyperlinking, NMBx was a blog almost before such things existed, and certainly long before anyone else was blogging about contemporary concert music. Composer and journalist Kyle Gann and I started our respective blogs in August 2003, although it was a little while before I wrote my first post about new music; Robert Gable beat us both by a month with his aworks blog. In fact, Gable introduced our particular blogospheric niche to the wider world in a post he wrote for NMBx in October, 2004; within weeks, Alex Ross had joined the fun, and the rest is …

Many early innovations were brought to the table by Kessler, who saw potential in webcasts, discussion groups, and more, but this is not to say that the early plans for NMBx didn’t also feature some cute throwbacks. Among them, plans for link exchanges (links to your work having a great deal of currency back then), and elaborate content-sharing schemes with external providers before YouTube, Spotify, and Soundcloud embedding made such things meaningless.

From its beginnings, NMBx (and the wider organization of AMC) was about making composers heard. In the late 1990s what this meant and how it might be achieved was still seen through a relatively traditional lens. One funding application mentions that in spite of recent advances in technology and society, “many of the challenges that faced the field decades ago remain more or less unchanged.” It goes on to list them:

  • the need for composers to identify and secure steady employment
  • the need to educate audiences and counter narrow or negative perceptions of new music
  • the need to instill institutional confidence about the importance of new music—whether from orchestras, opera companies, publishers, media, or record companies
  • the need to encourage repeat performances of new music
  • the need to secure media coverage of new music[viii]
At this stage, the internet was still regarded by many as a tool for amplifying or augmenting existing models of publication. The editors had to field questions about whether the magazine would ever be “successful” enough to launch a paper version.

At this stage, the internet was still regarded by many as a tool for amplifying or augmenting existing models of publication and information sharing. In the same year as NMBx was launched, I joined the New Grove Dictionary of Music as a junior editor and ended up part of the team that oversaw Grove’s transition from 30-volume book to what was then one of the world’s largest online reference works. For several years after 1999, we were focused on making a website that was as much like the book as possible. (This was harder than you would imagine: Grove’s exhaustive use of diacriticals, for example, made even a basic search engine a far from simple task.) As far as maximizing the opportunities of the web went, this extended largely to adding sound files (that were directly analogous to the existing, printed music examples) and hyperlinks (analogous to the existing, printed bibliographies), along with editing and adding to the existing content on a quarterly basis.[ix] My experiences at Grove were echoed in NMBx’s office. The editors had to field questions about whether the magazine would ever be “successful” enough to launch a paper version; one planning document (perhaps trying to assuage the fears of the screen-wary) reassures that “anyone who wishes to download a copy of the magazine for printing and reading at a later date will be able to do so free of charge.”[x]

Clip from Billboard, 2001

Just a few years into the new century, however, things began to change in ways that hadn’t been anticipated, even by those at the forefront of technological application. Blogging in particular had revealed two powerful and unexpected abilities of the web: to complicate our understanding of truth and to amplify the functions of style, personality, and connections within the new media economy. In the second half of the decade, these were supercharged by the arrival of social media.

This changed what it meant to be heard. Continuing to exist as a composer was no longer about accessing authorial gatekeepers—becoming audible through major performances, broadcasts, and publishing contracts—but about telling personal stories of identity and representation, and about shining a light outside of the mainstream. These changes were anticipated early on at NMBx—the forum discussions from that very first “Bang on a Can” issue centered on the subject of audience engagement—and continue to be reflected in its features.

Continuing to exist as a composer was no longer about accessing authorial gatekeepers but about telling personal stories of identity and representation.

Oteri and Molly Sheridan, who replaced Undercofler as associate editor in 2001, have guided NMBx to its 20th birthday—a remarkable continuity of leadership for any publication, online or off! Along the way, they have directed many stages in its evolution—including several site redesigns—and launched many innovations. The major facelift came in 2006, and with it a move from monthly “issues” to a rolling schedule of articles and blog posts that was more in line with the stream-based style of the growing web. By now, NMBx was essential online reading for anyone interested in contemporary American music, and hot on the heels of this redesign came another enduring innovation: the launch of Counterstream Radio in March 2007. Advertised on its press release as “Broadcasting the Music Commercial Radio Tried to Hide from You,” Counterstream caught a mid-noughties trend for online radio stations, but has endured better than some others.

Sheridan at work on Counterstream Radio

Sheridan at work on Counterstream Radio

Yet although Frank (currently composer advocate for New Music USA, in addition to his NMBx work) and Molly (now director of content for the organization more broadly) have always had a strong idea of the best direction for NMBx, the debates in its pages are often sparked by practitioners themselves. (From the beginning, readers were invited to participate in forum discussions around a wide range of field issues or tied directly to individual posts; some of my strongest early memories of NMBx are of the lively conversations that would take place below the line.) To that extent, the site remains focused on what composers want to read; and judging by some of the recurring themes in NMBx’s 20-year archive of articles and blog posts, what composers want to read seems to be: how to get your work heard; how to create (even write for!) an audience; and how to engage with modernity and/or technology.

Even more importantly, there have also been, from the start, debates about representation. Concert music has been slow to confront its problem with race, for example, but it has been part of the conversation at NMBx for years: perhaps appropriately, since as changes in representation have come, one must hope that new music will lead them. Musicologist Douglas Shadle’s recent article on “Florence B. Price in the #Blacklivesmatter Era” is a valuable contribution, but even more pertinent has been the voice NMBx has given to living composers of color—from the early interview with Tania Léon in August 1999 through to the most recent of all featuring Hannibal Lokumbe, with many opinion pieces like Anthony Greene’s “What the Optics of New Music Say to Black Composers” along the way.

NMBx has been led by the compositional community, but it has been able to reflect that community’s concerns as they have played out in the wider world as well.

In areas like these, NMBx has been led by the compositional community, but it has been able to reflect that community’s concerns as they have played out in the wider world as well. As someone involved in the world of new music not as a creator but as a critic, observer, and occasional programmer, features like these are immensely valuable to keeping an eye on my own privilege, and to pushing me to open up the margins of my own understanding. Greene’s observation that “new music has done very little to change the expected optics of classical music, which is why new music’s identity problem is what it is today” is a powerful caution against complacency.

To take another example of those optics, the subject of gender representation and the problems faced by women in the contemporary music world were first addressed pre-NMBx, beginning with Richard Kessler’s February 1999 interview with Libby Larsen. They have remained in the foreground ever since, suggesting that the question remains current, but very much unresolved. A search for “gender” in the NMBx archive brings up almost 200 items, yet this isn’t even everything—it leaves out Rob Deemer’s widely read 2012 list of women composers, for example. (Forty-one items have also been tagged with the word “diversity,” though this list is not a free-text search, and only goes back to 2012.) The debates at NMBx wove in and out of conversations in the wider world. In 2002, guest editor Lara Pellegrinelli—who had recently written for the Village Voice about the lack of women musicians involved in Jazz at Lincoln Center—published a series of posts by women musicians, each headed “How does gender affect your music?” (Jamie Baum’s response: “When asked if gender has had an influence on my compositions, my reaction was of surprise—surprise that I hadn’t been asked that question before, not in 20 years of performing.”) Blogger Lisa Hirsch’s extended article of 2008, “Lend Me a Pick Ax: The Slow Dismantling of the Compositional Gender Divide,” added essential concert and interview data to the debate, highlighting the difference between post-feminist fantasy and harsh reality; and composer Emily Doolittle, with Neil Banas, offered an interactive model to highlight “The Long-term Effects of Gender Discriminatory Programming.” A widely derided column in the conservative British magazine The Spectator of 2015 (“There’s a Good Reason Why There Are No Great Female Composers”) prompted a suitably damning response from blogger Emily E. Hogstad (“Five Takeways from the Conversation on Female Composers”) that deftly drew together several moments across both new and historical music, and in the wake of 2012’s International Women’s Day composer Amy Beth Kirsten enriched the discussion with a call for the death of the “woman composer.” This last article attracted more than 100 comments and extensive debate, but the one that attracted so much interest it briefly crashed NMBx was Ellen McSweeney’s “The Power List: Why Women Aren’t Equals in New Music Leadership and Innovation,” a nuanced response to Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and its applicability to the world of new music. Tying questions of both race and gender together was Elizabeth A. Baker’s remarkable intersectional cry, “Ain’t I a Woman Too,” from August last year.

Perhaps most indicative of all was Alex Temple’s 2013 piece, “I’m a Trans Composer. What the Hell Does That Mean?” Temple’s article (originally published on her own website) is explicitly a follow-up to other NMBx contributions on gender, two of which are mentioned in its opening paragraph. It adds layers of nuance to the debate, both around the question of male/female binarism, as well as the question of whether compositional style can be gendered. No, says Temple to this latter, but:

I have noticed that certain specific attitudes toward music seem to correlate with gender … While I don’t think of my work as specifically female, I do think of it as specifically genderqueer. Just as I often feel like I’m standing outside the world of gendered meanings, aware of them but never seeing them as inevitable natural facts like so many humans seem to do, I also tend to feel like I’m standing outside the world of artistic meanings.

In its combination of raw experience and careful self-reflection, Temple’s article is exemplary but not unique to NMBx; an equally honest and unmissable piece, this time on musico-racial identity, is Eugene Holley, Jr’s “My Bill Evans Problem.” For those of us—including me, I confess—who have found ourselves under-informed about trans issues, Temple’s article provided a welcome introduction: not only to the terms of that discussion, but also for its possible ramifications for artistic creativity and self-expression (articles published since, including Cas Martin’s “An Ode to Pride Month,” have added layers of their own).

The continuing presence of articles like these brings us back to the core purpose of NMBx as the AMC envisioned it back in 1997: to allow composers to feel like they exist. In 2019 that is not only a question of allowing composers to feel like they exist as composers, within the framework of institutional support and recognition, but as people, within the framework of a more humane, more complete understanding of what we are as a society. In recent years, one or two online publications have found ways to discuss difficult social questions within the context of contemporary music; it’s rarer still to see it done with the same level of peer-to-peer sharing of knowledge and experience. NMBx, built in the best days of the web, was there before them all.

In the twenty or so years since we started to pay attention to it, the internet has concatenated every part of our private and public lives. Art, culture, sport, business, and gossip no longer appear separately, like supplements in our weekend newspapers, but together, on the same screen as dinner plans, memes, and conversations with our friends. Since the advent of Twitter, different things have become even more closely braided within the same scroll-stream, units differentiated only by the volume at which they declare themselves from our screens: #ClimateCatastrophe, #FiveJobsIHaveHad, #WorldPenguinDay read three hashtags in close proximity on my TweetDeck right now.

This is not altogether a bad thing. In the 1980s and ’90s, before this whole online thing really took off, musicologists and critics would fret about the disassociation of classical “art” music from life, and of musicology from society. Popular music was better at inserting itself into and complementing people’s lives. Film, literature, and theater were also good at it. Yet music, it was argued, was somehow still regarded in the abstract. It was partly in response to this that the scholarly movement that came to be known as New Musicology was born, having as its aim the study of music within its social context, music as a social creation. Today, music inhabits very much the same space as everything else in our lives (just as music is increasingly made out of the components of those lives). NMBx’s blogs and features, which place the day-to-day stories of actual new music composers at the center of the discussion, are a perfect reflection of this. The internet, with its indifferent reframing of everything as #content, has played no small role in this change in how we see the world. Few people talk of New Musicology now. Not because its premises were wrong, but because they have become standard practice. In this, as in so much else, NewMusicBox has long been ahead of the curve. Here’s to existing, always.

Thanks to Jeff Harrington, Richard Kessler, Debbie Steinglass, and Carl Stone for sharing with me their recollections and documentation of the early days of NMBx and amc.net.

[i] Quoted in American Music Center, 1992: “The Arts Forward Fund: Request for Proposal,” n.p. (“Proposal Summary”).

[ii] Deborah Steinglass, email to the author, April 5, 2019. According to Steinglass, Subotnick “also talked about the future of transportation, and how the US would have highways filled with electric vehicles none of us would actually have to drive.”

[iii] Carl Stone, email to the author, April 10, 2019.

[iv] Richard Kessler, Skype interview with the author, April 5, 2019.

[v] I am grateful to Richard Kessler for sharing these and other documents with me, and for permission to quote from them.

[vi] Kessler, Skype interview.

[vii] American Music Center, 1998: “An Information & Support Center for the 21st Century: An Action Plan.”

[viii] American Music Center, 2000: “A Proposal to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to Support an Online Information and Communications Infrastructure for New American Music,” page 10.

[ix] I am happy to report that since my time at Grove – or Oxford Music Online as it is now known – these ambitions have expanded greatly.

[x] American Music Center, “An Information & Support Center for the 21st Century,” page 5.

How to Promote Your Album

Welcome to The Basics of Publicity: Part 4, the gripping conclusion to my four-part series on promotion and marketing for musicians! In my previous posts, I’ve talked about how to consider your public-facing brand and the key points to hiring a publicist, the ten most important things to know about social media marketing, and the core media assets you need and how to get them on any budget. For this final post, I’m going to talk specifically about recordings and how to promote them. This will incorporate many of the practices and concepts from my earlier posts, and hopefully it’ll give you a sense for how those ideas translate into real-world action. To further drive the points home, I’ll offer some case studies from my more than ten years promoting recordings for EMI and Warner Classics.


For the purposes of this post, I’m not going to go into the actual recording process—that’s something I’ll leave to the many extraordinary producers, engineers, studio technicians, and others who specialize in translating the glorious sounds of your music into a true-to-life, impactful recording. What I’m going to focus on is how to take that lovely digital file/CD/LP/cassette tape/wax cylinder, and give it the best potential shot at being heard by the most people possible. Because there’s nothing worse than pouring your soul, time, and money into an album and then having no one hear it.


Also for the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume we’re talking about a traditional “album” that features 40-70 minutes of audio recording. The rise of high-quality digital music files, streaming outlets like Spotify, video distribution platforms, even virtual reality, all open up new and exciting possibilities when it comes to recorded sound. I could write a separate post on each of these, but for most people, the standard is still going to be a traditional recording that can be distributed online but also packaged into a physical CD. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming…

The moment you start thinking about the recording itself is when you need to also be thinking about how you’re going to promote it.

Many people make the mistake of waiting until the recording is finished before they begin thinking about promotion, but I cannot stress enough: the moment you start thinking about the recording itself is when you need to also be thinking about how you’re going to promote it. There are a few very important considerations you need to be thinking about the second you decide you want to make a recording:


Gone are the days when a world-class performance of a beautiful piece made for a newsworthy recording. There are simply too many new recordings being released each month, and the only way to cut through the noise is to have a story to tell about your album that will get people interested and engaged before they hear a single note.

As laid out in my first post, having a story that people can talk about and tell others is the beating heart of any kind of modern promotion. The same is true of a recording: Why is this music so important to you that you want to make a permanent record of it? If there are a variety of pieces on an album, what common theme ties them together? If it’s new music, what are the stories and ideas (both musical and non-musical) that might make it stand out in people’s minds?

If the only answer to these questions is: “Because it’s great music and a great recorded performance of it,” then you may end up with a fantastic album, but it’s one that will be very difficult to promote in a meaningful way.

An example: piano duo Christina and Michelle Naughton recorded an album entitled Visions, which featured Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen, a Kurtag arrangement of a Bach chorale, and Hallelujah Junction by John Adams (a mentor of theirs). The story of the album revolved around different musical approaches to the idea of spiritual joy – from Messaien’s ecstatic transcendence to Bach’s serene confidence to Adams’s reckless ebullience. Having that story angle in place helped to tie the program together and provide a clear, concise message about what people could expect from the recording, and how they could talk about it to others.

The story of your album should determine all extra-musical aspects of it—the title, cover design, liner notes, and any other marketing materials—and answer the question: “Why should people care about my recording?”


Once you’ve got the story of your album in place, you want to think about organizations that might be interested in that story, and in helping you to tell it. Partnerships can boost sales of an album (if your recording centers around music written in response to visual art, for example, is there a gallery of that artist’s work that might be willing to sell your CD in the gift shop?), help with social media (if you’re featuring the music of a living composer with great social media, can they post about your album?), and can help add to the publicity by further validating and adding additional angles to your story, and making the entire campaign feel like more of an event.

An example here is an upcoming album from pianist Tanya Gabrielian, featuring piano transcriptions of Bach solo cello and violin pieces. Tanya suffered a severe spine injury while doing martial arts as a teenager and spent a painful month in the hospital, where the recordings of these Bach pieces helped her maintain her sanity and get through the low points of her experience. So for the album, she’s partnered with various chapters of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, putting on performances at their various local branches where she’ll play the album music in hopes that it will provide the same support to NAMI patients as it did for her during her time of struggle. It’s an example of a partnership that emphasizes the core story of the album (the healing power of Bach’s music), while also providing performances that can be pegs for local media outreach.


There was a time when you couldn’t put out a commercially successful album if it wasn’t on a record label—physical distribution and PR/promo/marketing outlets were simply inaccessible to the common folk. Now the internet has changed all of that, and you can easily put your album on CDBaby and get your music out across all digital platforms like iTunes, Spotify, and more. So why should you even consider a label? Well there are pros and cons…

Pros of a Record Label

  • Physical Distribution: While there are fewer and fewer retail music shops with a physical building, if you want to be in them you’ll need a label—or at least label services—to get your CD shipped out and sold in those stores.
  • Grammys: Getting a Grammy Award is a long, complicated, and opaque process, and you’re VERY unlikely to have it happen unless there’s a label handling it and managing the process, not to mention advocating for your recording within the industry.
  • Recording/Packaging Support: Some labels will help defray some or all of the costs of recording (depending on your contract) and possibly the packaging design, photo shoot, video production, etc.
  • PR/Marketing: Major labels—and some of the boutique ones as well—have dedicated PR and marketing teams, with the contacts and experience to help with the work promoting your recording.
  • Prestige Factor: This one is more amorphous, but there is a certain degree of prestige in having a respected label release your album—it shows that other people believe in you, and you’re not simply doing everything on your own. This is especially true of a major label. If you self-release, realize that some of the larger media might not take you as seriously as they would if your album was on a label they knew and trusted. (Of course, if you’ve already had previous albums that they’ve covered in the past, this can be less of a concern.)

Cons of a Record Label

  • You make no money: If you release on a label, don’t expect to ever see a return on that investment. The most wildly successful niche recordings sell a few thousand copies, and even with the best record deal ever, you’ll only see a fraction of that income.
  • You lose some control: Depending on the label and the deal with them, you might lose artistic control over the presentation, title, story elements, etc. of your album.
  • All labels are not created equal: Some are better at some things, others are better at other things. You want to learn the ins and outs of each and determine what you need from them before signing on, otherwise you can get stuck in a relationship that isn’t beneficial to either side.

Photo by Jonathan Velasquez


Okay, you’ve got a story, partners, maybe even a record label. Now it’s time to start putting a promotional plan in place.

1. Assets

Since you’ve already (I’m sure) read my third post on assets, you know all about photos, videos, and more. But you should also consider these in the specific context of your album, as they can be vital when it comes to promotion and telling the story of your album. Will you create music videos (even just having a two-camera setup in the studio during the recording, which you can pair with the studio audio track)? Can you make an intro video that features some performance footage, as well as interview footage of you telling the story of the album? Are there any “bonus tracks” that won’t be on the final album, but that you could offer exclusively to media outlets in exchange for a feature on the album?

An example of this is a video we shot with violinist Ariana Kim around her self-released album Routes of Evanescence—a recording entirely of contemporary violin works by women composers. We wanted to get some exposure around International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, so we shot the video quick and dirty in her apartment, and offered the exclusive to a major violin blog, which ran this great story as a result. It was an example where an asset led directly to promotional exposure because it was tied into the story of the album.

2. Performances

This is an area where many people fall short when planning their album. I cannot stress enough: having performances of your album repertoire (even if it’s a few pieces within a larger program) is a VITAL part of a successful promotion plan. Fewer and fewer media outlets will cover an album release on its own, but if you have a live performance that features the album, then they can cover that and talk about the album in the context of the performance. Plus, performances open up the possibility of post-concert CD sales and signing sessions, which are where the majority of album sales happen these days.

At the very least, you want to have a record release performance—ideally in as established a venue as you can find, in a market where you have an existing fan base. You want it to be packed, and you should invite as many media outlets from the area to come as possible.

If people enjoy hearing it live, they’ll be far more likely to want to take it home with them.

The ideal setup is one where you have a full tour that includes as many major cities as possible, and that starts off with a record release performance. (Do NOT have the release “street date” be at the end of the tour. Please don’t do that.) If that’s not feasible, then as many performances as possible featuring as much of the album repertoire as you can fit in, is the next best thing. Contact each venue to set up CD sales/signings after each performance, and bring a stack of albums along with you so you don’t run out! Square card readers or similar allow you to process credit cards so you’re not just relying on cash.

Regardless, get the music on your album performed! If people enjoy hearing it live, they’ll be far more likely to want to take it home with them.

3. Social Media Timeline

Since I’m 100% certain you’ve read my second post about social media, and that as a result you’re now a hyper-engaged, digitally savvy social media maven, let’s talk briefly about how to promote your recording on social media. You want to put a timeline in place from start to finish, with as many different assets as you can, leading up to the release. Here are some ideas to get you started:


  • Photos of the scores you’re preparing
  • Video of you practicing for recording sessions
  • Photos and videos of you in the recording studio
  • Pre-order links when they go live
  • Release a single track to give a taste for the album
  • Unveil the cover image in a post
  • If you did a photo shoot for the album, reveal the new photos in a gallery
  • When you first get your advance CDs, share a photo of it
  • Video of you talking about the album’s story, and why you’re excited about it
  • Livestream of you answering followers questions about the album
  • Advance media coverage


  • Share all of the buy links for the album in a single post (or link to a website page where they’re all present)
  • Video of you inviting everyone to listen and pick up a copy
  • Photos/video from the release performance
  • Share any media coverage that runs at the time of release
  • Share intro video


  • Share album reviews with pullout quotes
  • Photos from your tour, CD signing sessions, etc.
  • Highlight specific tracks, tell the stories behind them, record videos of yourself performing them, etc.
  • Roll out music videos for work on the album

These are just a few ideas to get you started. Anything you can think of related to the album can be fodder for social media.

Also, as I mentioned in my social media post, you want to think if there are people you can ask to share some of your more significant posts. Obviously any partners in the album should share, but even the recording studio, related music publishers, composer societies, your conservatory…the more the merrier, and many will share if you just make the ask!

4. Promoting Your Recording

This is where the rubber hits the road—trying to get media to cover your album. Of course, you can consider hiring a publicity/promotion company to do this for you (and you know how to do that, because you read my first post which gives advice on hiring a publicist), but many don’t have the budget for that, in which case you’ll have to do it yourself. Here are some tips to get you started:


  • You should plan to start promotion eight to twelve weeks out from the release date. Any smaller of a window and you’ll risk missing opportunities.
  • You’ll want to have the finished recording in hand when you start promotion, so work backwards from there when planning a street date, performance, tour, etc.
  • In planning the recording, editing, mastering, album package design, etc., always build in a week or two extra for buffers in each step. Trust me.

Press Release

  • I know press releases have lost some of their impact in the digital age, but it’s still useful to have all of the info in one place for a promo mailout, when pitching, etc.
  • Put together a document that has the album cover image, name of the album, names of performers (or just you as the album artist), release date, label (if applicable), a paragraph or two introducing it and saying what the story is, a track listing, and links to any videos, photos. Put your contact info (or the info of whoever is promoting the album) at the bottom.

Media Targets

  • Spend some time brainstorming a list of possible media outlets—blogs, newspapers, magazines, radio stations, etc.—that might be interested in your album. If outlets have covered you in the past, add ‘em to the list. If you have a possible direct connection to any writers or producers, add ‘em. Again, read my first post for more general media strategy advice.
  • If you have a label, they should have a list of outlets they send promo CDs to. Get that list, and add your contacts to it.
  • Put the whole list into a spreadsheet with media outlet name, contact name, address, email, any notes about past history with them, or possible angles unique to the individual or outlet.

Promo Mailing

  • Six to eight weeks out from release, you’ll want to mail out copies of the CD to as many of the media outlets on your list as possible, so that they can have a chance to listen to it well ahead of street date.
  • A NOTE ABOUT UNSOLICITED MAILINGS: If you aren’t on a label and aren’t in the habit of just sending out CDs to people, then you need to be careful here. While ultimately the most efficient way to go about a promo mailing is to send out the CDs to everyone who might be interested, and then follow up with an email or phone call after the CD has arrived, just be aware that there will be the occasional person who will take umbrage at having a CD sent to them without their having asked for it. If you come across someone like this, just apologize, and then if they’re still listening go ahead with your pitch.
  • In addition to CDs, you should have a digital version of the album to distribute as well—even just a Dropbox link to a folder that contains Mp3 and WAV files of the music, a hi-resolution JPEG of the album cover, a PDF of the liner notes, and a Word document of the press release. That way, you can send that to people if they say they prefer digital versions.


Once you’ve distributed the music to each of the outlets on your list, you’ll want to email and/or call them with a pitch on how they might cover your album. Some tips on different outlets:

  • Newspapers: If it’s a newspaper that runs reviews, pitch them to review it. If they don’t run reviews but have concert reviews and are in a location where you’re giving an album tour performance, pitch them to review the concert, but also send them the album so they can include a mention in their review. You can also pitch for an interview feature to run before the performance, talking about the upcoming concert and album release.
  • Magazines: If they review albums, pitch for a review, otherwise pitch for an interview feature around the recording. See what different sections they have.
  • Websites/Blogs: You can pitch anything from an album review to a video exclusive, interview feature, guest post where you tell the story in your own words, etc. The sky’s the limit here, and many online outlets will be willing to work with you if you’ve got creative ideas and compelling content.
  • Radio Stations: Pitch for airplay if they program music similar to what’s on your album. If you’re touring to their area, you can pitch local stations for on-air interviews, pre-recorded interview segments, or in-studio performances. Some stations have websites or social media that offer possibilities for album promotion if you can’t get it on the air.
  • TV: If you’ve got a really compelling human interest story around your album, then you can pitch local TV channels around your tour markets to have you in for an interview or performance segment—particularly if they have cultural news coverage segments.

This is just scratching the surface. Ask your colleagues where they’ve gotten album coverage and see if you can secure similar hits for yourself. Find albums that have a similar repertoire or story to yours and check Google News searches to see what kinds of media coverage they received. Check the social media feeds of comparable artists (or their record labels) to see if they post about media coverage that might offer leads.

Pitching is an ongoing process, and you might find out about leads months after the album is released. Don’t be afraid to still reach out and see if they’d be interested, as you never know when a big feature might be right around the corner.

In Conclusion

When it comes to album promotion, you get back what you put in. The more work you do, the more results you’ll get, and while you might not have unlimited time to spend on it, you should at least budget a solid chunk of time for planning and execution. Again, there’s nothing worse than putting out a recording and not having anyone listen to it, so I hope that this guide will at least give you some guidance on things you can do to get your music heard by as many people as possible.

Thanks for reading this post and my other ones, feel free to stop by www.unison.media and drop me a line!

Photos, Videos, Website: The Tools You Need and How To Get Them

Welcome to Post 3 in my series on the basics of how to promote and market your music! In Post 1, I covered the basics of publicity and how to think about the story of your music, and in Post 2, I laid out the ten most important things to know about social media.

Now, I’m going to talk about assets: the tools you need before you can do any sort of publicity or marketing around yourself and your music. The primary materials you’ll need are photos, videos, audio recordings, a bio, and a website to tie them all together.

There are two things you must consider about all of your assets:

1) Do they accurately represent you and your music?
2) Are they of high enough quality?

The former extends directly out of the work done in Post 1, as you must understand your unique brand and story before you can determine how best to represent that in a photo, video, etc. If part of your story is your commitment to contemporary music, but all of your videos feature you playing Bach, then there’s a disconnect there.

The latter will of course depend on what you can spend on these assets, but even if you’ve got a limited budget, there are ways to get high-quality tools without breaking the bank.


Even though we work in music, we still live in a visual world. When it comes to promoting yourself, the reality is that you’ll probably be seen before you’re heard, and that’s why your photos are so important. People will judge you (both consciously and unconsciously) based on what they see, and will act upon those judgments, so you need good photos that visually represent your music and personality.

For instance, are you fun-loving and easy-going? You probably don’t want photos of yourself dressed all in black, with dramatic lighting and pensive stares into the abyss. If you’re a performer, do you want your instrument in the photo or not? If you’re a composer, do you have scores with you? Will you wear formal or informal clothing?

Your photos should depict to some degree what people will encounter in your music, so think about your story and how you want to tell it (Post 1) before you invest the time and money in photos.

Ideally you should have 3-5 promotional photos, including a headshot for programs. Things to keep in mind:

  • You want a mix of portrait and landscape images.
  • Ideally at least one photo has some blank space where writing can be placed for marketing materials, album covers, social media banners, etc.
  • You can have black & white images, but I recommend focusing on color.
  • You want to keep an easily shareable folder of your photos (Dropbox is great, and throw in a copy of your bio too!), including sub-folders that have the photos in Hi-resolution JPEG (for printing, newspaper/magazines, programs, etc.), Low-resolution JPEG (for websites, social media, emailing to people), and TIFF (super high-resolution, for billboards, posters, etc. – these won’t be used often, but good to have when this degree of quality is available).
photo gear

Photo by Jakob Owens

BUDGET: Champagne and Caviar

A full-day, professional photo shoot can run well over $5,000-10,000, and can include the following:

  • Photographer (obviously)
  • Assistants (to help with lighting, setup, etc.)
  • Hair & Makeup (can be combined into one person sometimes)
  • Stylist (they will bring their own clothes, or borrow from showrooms/fashion houses)
  • Studio rental (unless the photographer has their own space)

For a shoot of this scale, you’ll want to work closely with the photographer in the lead-up, sending a “mood board” of images that inspire you and that you’d like them to keep in mind during the shoot. If you have a clear concept in mind, then the more that you can communicate to the photographer beforehand the better, as they can then assemble a team that can best realize that vision.

If the photo shoot is being paid for by a record label, presenter, or other entity, then you’ll likely sacrifice some of your own personal vision, but still don’t be afraid to speak up—ultimately, these photos are a representation of you and need to feel accurate in that regard.

You’ll also want to negotiate how many finished, edited photos you will get from the shoot, and what type of usage license you have for those photos (some will charge extra if you want to sell the photos, or use them on CDs/books/other merch that will be for sale).

BUDGET: PB&J Everyday

If you don’t have enough cash on hand for the full-on David LaChapelle treatment, fear not—there are plenty of options.

  • Professional photographers: Ask friends and colleagues whom they’ve used, and also ask what they paid (if you’re comfortable doing so), so that you have a sense of what to say when the photographer asks for your budget. The range will vary widely here, but if you hire a younger talent that’s just starting out, then you can often negotiate a lower rate and also get more finished photos out of them.
  • Use a friend: Instead of paying for a professional photographer, you could use a friend (or friend-of-a-friend) who is a solid amateur photographer and just pay them a few hundred bucks (or treat them to dinner or a bottle of nice Scotch) to shoot you. Pro-tip: bring someone else along to hold a reflector to fill in any shadows on your face.
  • Freelancers: If you don’t have friends (sorry) then other options are to ask local university film and photo departments, or go on websites like UpWork or Fiverr to find cheap freelancers; just go through their photo portfolios beforehand to make sure you like their work.
  • Equipment rental: If the photographer doesn’t have a pro-level camera, you can easily find a local photography store that will rent you top-of-the-line SLRs and lenses for very affordable day rates, so there’s no excuse to skip professional equipment. You can also buy various lighting and backdrop setups on Amazon, and then just return them after the shoot for a refund.
  • Locations: You can use an apartment or home if you have access, a rooftop can work wonders in an urban environment, or just go outside and find a non-populated area (though city parks can sometimes be risky as officials might stop you or issue a ticket).
Rink shoot

Photo by Jakob Owens

Whatever route you choose, just make sure that your photos are as professional as possible, and don’t look like you set up an iPhone on a table in your bedroom. Even a few hundred dollars can get you fantastic images that will carry you through the early stages of your career.

A note about post-production

Looking beautiful is nice, but being airbrushed to within an inch of your life can be a dangerous proposition. Photographers can do anything in post-production these days, but if you look completely different from your photos, then when people meet you that’s what’s going to stick in their mind—not your music. So skip the Kim Kardashian treatment, just a minor clean-up is sufficient.


In recent years, video has become one of the most important assets you can have from a promotional standpoint. A good video can be shared easily, used on your website, social media, presenter sites, embedded in articles, and more. It can be a powerful, compelling representation of your music and, if done right, can be useful for years to come.

So please, PLEASE do not have the only video material of yourself be a shaky iPhone video of your recital, shot by your mom in the third row.

There’s no excuse to not have at least a relatively high-quality video of your music in performance, and these days, you can make it happen on a shoestring. Regardless of budget, one thing that’s important to remember: You want to do everything in your power to have a minimum of two cameras shooting footage. That will give a more varied visual and professional feel to the video, and from a practical standpoint it will allow you to cover mistakes or jump edits by switching between the two cameras.

Another note: In general, video is less about the details of the performance, so you can get away with an imperfect interpretation. Audio recordings should have a higher standard here, but a beautiful video of a really good (but not world-beatingly-great) performance is worth keeping and using, since people will mostly view these on computers or phones, and won’t focus obsessively on the minutiae of the performance.

video camera

Photo by Jakob Owens

BUDGET: I live at the end of the rainbow and collect pots of gold

As with photo shoots, if you have money to spare then you can make a huge production out of a video shoot—director, multiple cameras, sound team, lighting, space rental, hair/makeup/styling, and more. Unless you have experience with video production, you’ll want to leave the technical details to someone else who can project manage the entire affair, and instead focus on the performance and creative elements, as those are where you should have more say.

BUDGET: A leprechaun took all of my money

You can still get solid video content with a budget of a few hundred dollars, and even one good video can go a long way. Some tips:

  • Hire amateur videographers: You can find videographers in a variety of places these days, from the film/media department of your local university, sites like Craigslist, local job boards, or just by asking around. Ultimately, as long as they know how to work the equipment, the footage they get will be professional enough to create a solid end-product with a competent editor.
  • Rent equipment: As with photo shoots, you can affordably rent a pair of digital SLR cameras with a wide angle and portrait lens, two tripods, and a solid portable sound recording setup, for very affordable rates at your local photo/video store.
  • Locations: You’d be surprised at where you can get a good-looking video. Rehearsal rooms, apartments, basements, backyards…obviously the more interesting the space the better, but if you don’t have the budget to rent something then go with what you have access to and focus the footage on the performance and performers by using lenses with tighter focal lengths.
  • Editing: You can learn a lot about editing (and shooting for that matter) online via YouTube and education sites like SkillShare, and both FinalCut and Adobe Premiere are very user-friendly editing programs. That said, you can also hire editors for very affordable rates on sites like UpWork and Fiverr. As long as you like their previous work, they should be able to edit a two-camera music video in a few hours (though definitely make sure you use someone who has experience with music videos).

People are always looking for video content these days, so if you can’t get someone else to pay for your video production then it’s worth investing a bit of money and doing it yourself – even if just to get a video of your most compelling piece or performance (or just a movement or excerpt). It’ll go a long ways towards getting yourself out there.

video production

Photo by Jakob Owens


I’ll speak more on this at length in Post 4, which will deal entirely with recordings. For now, suffice it to say that you want to be careful when it comes to audio assets, as they are the purest representation of your art form (and your business, given that you’re a professional musician). If you’re not ready to invest here, then hold off and create a few videos instead, as you can get more promotional use out of them in the short term, and the bar is lower in terms of people judging the sound and performance.


Wiser minds than my own have written on this subject, and there’s not much I can add to those words other than just to say that your bio will always be a negotiation between factual information about yourself that should be included to show your history, achievements, and the momentum of your career, and the more descriptive elements that speak to your unique brand and story, and why people should care about you and your music.

One other note: it’s worth having a short and a long bio on hand for each season, as both will have different uses.


Photo by Jakob Owens


Once you’ve got a bunch of great assets, you need to pull them all together, and that’s where your website comes in.

First things first: YOU NEED A WEBSITE. And it must be fast, functional, and responsive (meaning it looks good whether on a desktop, tablet, or mobile device).

This is not optional. A website is where you can curate and present your music and brand in a space that you control, and it gives you the ability to filter the content around yourself so only the best is on display.

With the options available to you, there’s no excuse not to have your own website at this point, as it can be built for free and maintained for a few dollars a month.

BUDGET: My swimming pool is full of gold coins

I don’t care if you are literally Daddy Warbucks, personally I don’t think you should spend more than a few thousand dollars on a website. As a musician, there are limited functionalities that you need from a site. To have someone custom-code a site from scratch is simply overkill at this point; you’re not building the next Facebook here. You should save that money to invest in social media or better assets. Or buying a solid gold donkey statue.

What’s most important is to have a content management system that you can update easily to add concerts, news, press quotes, etc. And you’ll want most if not all of the following pages:

  • HOMEPAGE: I advocate for a scrolling homepage that includes snippets of key info from other areas of the site (a few news items, upcoming performances, some key press quotes, photos, videos, social media, etc.). The more people have to click, the more you’ll lose them, so you want as much info available to them the second they land on your site.
  • ABOUT: Here’s where you can put your bio, other personal info, and a link to your press kit (hi-res photos, bio text, link to videos, etc.). If you have special projects, those can also go here or on their own page.
  • REPERTOIRE/WORKS: If you’re a performer, it can be useful for presenters to be able to see a list of what you play. And if you’re a composer, you’ll definitely want a page with info on all of your compositions, including links to score rentals, recordings, video and audio samples, etc.
  • NEWS: Here you can have posts about big performances, projects, or announcements. You’ll want to add in something every few months at least, just to show that things are happening on your end. These don’t have to be long blog posts; they can simply be a headline and a few sentences, plus photos or videos if you like.
  • SCHEDULE: Here you can list concerts (or performances of your music), with some brief info and a link to where people can purchase tickets. This is the most important page to update, as most people are going to come to your site to learn where they can experience you live.
  • MEDIA: Photos/Videos/Recordings – these can each have their own independent pages, or can be put on a single page with different sections, depending on how much of each you have. But you want people to be able to see and hear the beautiful assets you’ve created (again, only select the best of each), feel that you’re a professional who cares about how you are represented, and engage with your music via these assets.
  • PRESS: This is where you list recent reviews/interviews/pull-out quotes. Essentially it exists to show that people are talking about you and that your career has traction. This will be mostly for presenters and industry people visiting your site, so they can see what kinds of outlets are covering you. If you’re a young artist with no major press coverage yet, skip this page for now.
  • CONTACT: If you have booking, management, or PR, you want to list them here so people can reach out to them directly about you. You also want a contact form leading to your personal email address (or representative) so that people can get in touch directly – don’t list your actual personal email on the site though; you don’t want strangers to have access to that.

If you have those pages, you’re basically covered in terms of the info people would come to your site to get. You can of course add other pages around different aspects of your career, extra-musical interests, charities and causes, etc., but these are the core functionality pages you need in there.

BUDGET: I live in a van down by the river

Thanks to glorious advances in modern technology, you no longer need need to hire someone to build you a custom site. And if you want someone else to do it for you, you should be able to get someone to build you a great site for under a thousand dollars.

There are numerous DIY website platforms out there, but for the moment Squarespace is BY FAR the easiest to use. Wix and Weebly are both far less polished and can lead to messy, amateur-looking sites. Webflow is more complex and customizable, but is probably much too complicated for most artists.

I recommend building off of one of the templates on Squarespace – it’s very user-friendly, tightly coded, and easy to update. Downsides are that you have limited customizability, and Squarespace sites can look similar (though a lot of tweaking can be done on the Style Editor section). You’ll have to pay $150-200 in hosting each year, but that’s true of any website.

WordPress is another platform that people often use (my own company included). It’s far more powerful than Squarespace/Wix/Weebly, and infinitely more customizable, but it’s much less user-friendly if you have no experience with web development and design. And you have to constantly update it to avoid potential security breaches, so if you don’t know how to do that then you should avoid WordPress, or hire a developer to build and manage the site. (Again, you can find very affordable options on UpWork for this, and don’t need to spend more than a few thousand dollars here.)

In Conclusion

These are the core assets that you need to effectively promote your music, both via publicity and social media, as well around your performances via presenter pages. Even if you’re at the very start of your career, it’s worth investing a minimum amount money to get these done as professionally as possible, as they will make a major difference in how you are perceived, and whether people take you and your music seriously before even hearing a single note.

I’ll conclude the series next week with a separate note on recordings and how to promote them. Until then, my internet friends…

Who Counts as an Expert?

When you read about music industry issues in the news, does it feel like it’s connected to your life? Do you see yourself reflected or hear your concerns included? These questions were on my mind most recently last week, as rapper Jay Z was joined by a crowded stage of pop superstars to roll out the music streaming service Tidal. It’s something I think about every time a big music news story bubbles up.


Among the general population, there seems to be a sustained level of interest in the business of making music that extends beyond our appetite to understand other industries. It’s regrettably difficult to find news coverage about the people who grow our tomatoes, sew our clothes, or assemble our smartphones, but people are still uniquely fascinated with the people who make the music they enjoy.

And yet much of the public conversation about important issues in the music business seems light in nutritional value, or narrowly focused on the concerns and actions of a handful of superstars. If you’re working in a genre or music subculture that isn’t based around mass-market assumptions, your concerns may be absent. We can all read dozens of hot-takes on the latest celebrity copyright kerfuffle, but how many of them examine whether a young composer whose work has been infringed has any meaningful recourse, if she can’t afford expensive legal representation?

One reason for this dynamic is that journalism has been going through many of the same upheavals as other creative industries. Few publications have dedicated reporters assigned to the music industry beat anymore, let alone with a labor emphasis—such topics get passed on to arts critics, or business and technology writers. I’ve only ever really worked in music, so no one would expect me to be able to explain subprime lending or email encryption. But business and technology journalists are often tasked with explaining complicated systems and revenue models, without any specialized training or background.

While some have taken on this challenge and done an admirable job, it’s not surprising that others end up making basic errors—confusing record labels with publishers, or compositions with sound recordings, for example.

FMC Chart: money flow-radio

Infographic from Future of Music Coalition’s “Music and How the Money Flows

There’s also a reliance on faulty conventional wisdom; Future of Music Coalition has published research that squarely debunks common myths, like “musicians make all their money from touring,” but I could spend my entire work week trying to correct these myths every time they appear in popular media and I wouldn’t make much of a dent. Plus click-driven revenue models often incentivize writers to prioritize celebrity controversies over an examination of how non-superstar musicians (the vast majority of us) are impacted.

A parallel factor may be the trend towards “explainer journalism” sites, which “have built their core identity around explaining complicated issues or situations to a well-informed general public” as Henry Farrell, um, explains. The inherent claim to expertise in this mode of writing doesn’t exactly encourage intellectual humility or the weighing of different theories, but encourages boldly assertive claims as an exercise in self-branding and generating traffic.

This is an era that rewards simple explanations: TED Talks that prescribe neat solutions, the ability to learn “everything you need to know about X in one chart.” It’s nice when such things exist, but it’s easy to lapse into a preference for falsely totalizing narratives, and “expertise” is awarded on the basis of whether you can offer such a narrative (bonus points awarded if you can work in an affirmation of entrepreneurial progress that’s basically compatible with our prevailing neoliberal power structures).

But artists know that things are more complicated. You might even argue that making a life as a musician or composer is partly about getting comfortable with constantly navigating that complexity. We know that an approach that works for one kind of musician is not necessarily going to work for peers working in different genres, or different roles with different assumptions about scale. Strategies or business models that might work perfectly well for a chamber music ensemble may not suit a composer who doesn’t perform. We know that rather than the conventional story of an old model of the music business being replaced by a new one, there’s always been a range of many different models, and we choose the models that align with our abilities, skills, interests, and available resources.

But while adopting “it’s more complicated than that” as a default epistemological position will help you understand what’s going on, it can be challenging to find ways to tell these more complex stories. Not long ago, I was speaking to a TV journalist who wanted to know whether or not our copyright laws were “antiquated.” Now, it should be clear that this is kind of an absurd question to pose as a binary either/or. US copyright laws amount to hundreds of pages, assembled over decades, revised over and over again. I explained that while some current provisions might be due for revision, many others continue to provide important protections for creators and for the public interest. Alas, the journalist really wanted a yes-or-no answer, and when I was unable to give her one, she ended up not quoting me on that issue. It was hard to blame her—she only was allotted two and a half minutes.

Another example: the popular sci-fi novelist and tech blogger Cory Doctorow in his mostly un-recommendable new book Information Doesn’t Want To Be Free suggests an axiom for aspiring artists: “Fame won’t make you rich, but you can’t get paid without it,” a variation on the “obscurity is the real problem” adage we heard endlessly during the file-sharing battles a decade ago. This is, of course, demonstrably false: most working musicians and composers have always been obscure by the standards of mass culture. In fact, there are thousands of professional musicians who will always remain ultimately anonymous to many of the consumers who enjoy their work: touring sidemen, session players, etc. Obscurity alone isn’t so much of an issue if obscure musicians and composers are able to obtain a fair price for their obscure labors, whether from the open market, from grants and commissions, or other revenue structures. But Doctorow’s willingness to speak in such sweeping generalities about an industry he’s never worked in hasn’t been a barrier to his self-positioning as an expert on the music business. It may have worked to his advantage, actually.

This leads me to another observation about perceived expertise: working at the intersection of music, technology, and policy means reckoning with the fact that each of these three arenas carries its own ongoing battles with sexism and racism. What this means for me as a white, college-educated man is my opinions are immediately given an assumed legitimacy in many forums. I can opine about technological issues in music and policy and no one will patronizingly ask me whether I know how to code, to borrow an example from Astra Taylor and Joanne McNeil. I may not be able to oversimplify complex dynamics, but at least I look like an “expert.”

If this all sounds rather disheartening, I do see opportunities to push back. Musicians and composers are always the best experts about their lives and livelihoods, and they seem to be more and more willing to tell their stories. As busy, frazzled, and overextended as journalists and editors often are, my experience has been that most genuinely want to get it right and like hearing the thoughtful, factually grounded perspectives of artists of diverse backgrounds, including the kinds of people who will never be invited to stand on stage next to Jay Z.

The need to hear those perspectives is also a reason why sites like NewMusicBox and others that allow creative workers to speak for themselves are so fundamentally important, and I’m delighted to be contributing this month.

Kevin Erickson is communications and outreach manager for Future of Music Coalition, a non-profit research, advocacy, and education group based in Washington, D.C. With roots in the Pacific Northwest indie-punk tradition, his experience spans many facets of the music ecosystem, including all-ages music advocacy, alternative interdisciplinary arts spaces, community radio, and brick and mortar independent music retail management. He remains active as a musician, producer, and engineer at Swim-Two-Birds recording studio.

Robert Dick’s The Other Flute Mocked on Network TV

Robert Dick Photo by Carla Rees Dawson

Robert Dick
Photo by Carla Rees Dawson

Composer and flutist Robert Dick, or rather his much-praised manual on extended techniques The Other Flute, made an unexpected appearance on network TV this week thanks to a Jimmy Fallon sketch. The segment was devoted to a short stack of books that Fallon suggested “you probably should avoid reading this year.”

It’s perhaps naive to expect sharp, music-based humor during late night television, but the 50 seconds Fallon devoted to talking about the book consisted exclusively of sexual innuendo and character assault related the book’s title and the author’s name. During Fallon’s final remarks on the book, he turns the author shot towards the camera and asks, “Does he look like a dick to you?” The audience cheers.

(Fallon’s comments on The Other Flute begin at 2:18.)
The responses under the YouTube posting of the segment are peppered with an uncharacteristic level of smart criticism, and now Dick himself is asking friends and colleagues to reach out to the Tonight Show and support his appearance on a future episode to play The Other Flute and “blow the minds of the national TV audience.” Those who wish to add their comments can contact the show online via the network’s website or Fallon’s Facebook page.

Meanwhile, it’s a book about modern flute technique. Can someone write Fallon some better material at least?

Unfamiliar with Robert Dick’s pioneering work? Catch up with this NewMusicBox piece or buy his book.

UPDATE: Robert Dick offers this further personal insight into the matter.

When I first saw the sketch “Do Not Read — THE OTHER FLUTE” on the Tonight Show, I was incredulous, hurt and angry. This was the same, lame, “dick humor” that I first encountered at age 5. And the jokes were way far from the best I’ve heard (or sometimes made). Then I realized that, in its own bizarre way, a unique opportunity had fallen out of the sky. Because my public persona is really funny and entertaining, I might have the chance to speak up for everyone who has been mocked for being different in some way. Can you hear me, Willy the Whale, with your three voices, shot dead on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House? (I might have gotten the whole multiphonic idea from you, pal!)

And, I might have the chance to play my music for a huge audience and to show the world just how cool creativity really is. That’s why I’m asking everyone to contact the Tonight Show through their FaceBook page or to Tweet them (#InviteRobertDick @FallonTonight) to let them know that you’d love to see me on the show and that I will rock them to the core of their being.

The outpouring of support has touched me deeply. Oft times, we creators in the non-commerial realm feel that very few are listening to our music — in the last couple of days I’ve felt, as never before, that my life and work have made a difference to very many people. I’m truly humbled and grateful.

So please keep the flood of FaceBook posts and Tweets going to Tonight. If its going to happen, it will happen fast, so please act right when you read this.

With gratitude,
Robert Dick

The Media and the Message

When I read Kenneth D. Froelich’s article “Lessons From The Central Valley” back in June here on NewMusicBox, his experiences presenting new music in Fresno resonated with my own as a presenter/producer, publicist, and music journalist and sparked some additional thoughts about audience development and the media.

(For those already knowledgeable about publicity and marketing, some of this may seem obvious or old hat. But I’ve learned from interacting with musicians, composers, and presenting organizations that a lot of them aren’t all as well versed in this sort of thing as I might have supposed, so my hope is that this will be useful to at least some of you.)

One of the lessons Froelich mentioned was to “shop local,” noting that when promoting an event, providing a local connection or angle is helpful in gaining the attention of the media. That’s true for all local journalists, not just those covering music or the arts, and there’s an important corollary to that.

“The media” is not a monolithic entity. It’s made up of a variety of outlets (each with a particular focus) and individuals (each with their own personality, interests, preferences, and so on). Knowing the specifics about each outlet and each individual can help you to target your communications more effectively, and even to develop angles and story ideas that may be of interest specifically to those individuals.

In my work with the Mizzou New Music Initiative, we’ve been fortunate to have local newspapers and radio pay a good amount of attention to our signature event, the Mizzou International Composers Festival, from the beginning.

That’s partly because Columbia, a college town with a population of 115,000, roughly equidistant from St. Louis and Kansas City, has a lot of local media for a city its size. There are two newspapers: the Daily Tribune and the Missourian, which is published by Mizzou’s School of Journalism and is not a campus paper, but rather a daily covering local, regional, and national news. The J-school also plays a role in the operation of the local NBC and NPR affiliates, and the market is served by affiliates of the other broadcast TV networks and a total of 15 radio stations.

It’s also because rather than just sending out press releases and hoping for the best, we’ve made an effort to identify and interact with specific people in the media who have taken an interest, and to keep them informed about what we’re doing.
For example, Aarik Danielsen, the arts editor of the Tribune, also is a musician and composer. When MNMI presented its first summer festival in 2010, it was clear immediately from our first contact that he had a genuine interest in what we were doing, so we were pleased to assist in arranging interviews, provide photos and links to online media, and do whatever else we could to help him cover the story.

For that first festival, Danielsen wrote a couple of stories for the Sunday edition, supplemented by online-only interviews, and he’s continued to produce extensive and substantive coverage of the festival each year. He and the paper’s other arts reporter, Amy Wilder, have written about various other events and profiled students and faculty members involved in MNMI, too.
Over at the Missourian, ongoing relationships are more difficult to develop, since the student reporters change assignments each semester and eventually graduate. However, when we learned that editor/faculty member Elizabeth Brixey had been a fellow in two National Endowment for the Arts journalism institutes and is an amateur French horn player, we began sending information specifically to her, which has led to reporters being assigned to cover several stories about the Initiative.

Now obviously, not every media outlet is going to have a musician or composer in a position of editorial importance, so we’ve undoubtedly had some good luck there. But the basic principle—look for specific people who may be interested in what you’re doing and then get information to them—still applies.

Contrary to some stereotypical views of public relations, there’s nothing inherently manipulative about this. You can’t force a reporter to cover a story—you can only appeal to their interests and then help them get the information they’re seeking. And although some journalists are understandably wary of professional publicists trying to “spin” them, most are glad to get pertinent information in a timely fashion, to have their phone calls returned and questions answered promptly, and to get some help in setting up interviews, obtaining photos, and so on.
Froelich’s essay also noted that in Fresno, “a smaller, economically disadvantaged market, nothing beats traditional media” and that social media had not been particularly effective in selling tickets for his series.

The conventional wisdom is that older people consume more traditional media like newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio, while younger people flock to social media and get more of their news from the internet. While my experiences suggest that’s generally true, there’s no real reason one has to choose between traditional and social media; a comprehensive communications plan should include both.

The first year I worked on the Mizzou International Composers Festival, most of our time was spent reaching out and pitching stories to traditional media, but the social media part of our plan has grown in importance in each subsequent year.
For the last two years of the MICF, we’ve even laid out a social media schedule for the weeks leading up to it, as well as during festival week. Tweets and posts to Facebook are scheduled throughout the day at regular intervals, with enough room in between for spontaneous and serendipitous updates, retweets and reposts of select messages from various participants, and communicating with other users.

The prescheduled messages cover all sorts of topics, including links to information about each of the composers and performers; videos and streaming audio; ticketing information; background about the Initiative and the MICF; and more.
While we can’t really attribute an increase in ticket sales specifically to social media efforts, the festival has enjoyed modest gains in attendance each year, so the overall plan seems to be working.

However, the really interesting thing is that in looking at who follows our Twitter account, we discovered that a vast majority of followers identify themselves as being involved in some way with music, including many composers, but also musicians, ensembles, educators, and presenters.

So we’re now trying to find ways to make use of that information going forward—for example, how best to employ Twitter as we solicit applicants for the resident composer spots at the 2015 MICF.

If we hadn’t developed an active social media component to our communications plan, or taken the time to analyze our followers list, we might not have discovered that so many people were paying attention through that particular channel. The takeaway is that as social media continues to evolve rapidly, the benefits may not be obvious at first, but instead may reveal themselves as you go.

Perceptions of Success

Several months ago I wrote a post entitled “Perceptions of Opportunity” that looked at how important it was to ensure that opportunities for composers to further their craft and have their voices heard were neither limited nor perceived to be limited. In a similar vein, perception seems to be a driving force today in how composers, performers, ensembles, and the media understand “success” within the new music community. In order to get a sense of what that perception is and how it works, one first has to agree on a definition of success. How does one actually become successful in our field? And what does that even mean?
From my humble vantage point out here in western New York, the answer to those questions depends on what kind of success we’re talking about. If we’re discussing personal satisfaction (having the opportunity to create, perform, and disseminate one’s art), that’s one thing; if we’re discussing financial stability (whether directly through one’s own creative work or through other means), that’s another. Both of those either affect or are affected by the content of one’s own work (and, of course, they’re not mutually exclusive).

Where the situation can become more troublesome seems to be found with the type of success that is based on exposure and notoriety. That notoriety can take obvious forms, such as the winning of a major award, a particularly positive review or article in a newspaper or magazine, or a significant commission by a respected ensemble or performer. But notoriety can grow subtly as well, through a gradual inclusion into the national discussion in print or online media, social networks, or by word of mouth.
Gradual notoriety and exposure can happen organically over period of years and come from a variety of sources or with consistent repetition from a few, high-profile individuals. This is, of course, not a new idea by any stretch; most of the composers that we would today label as “masters” were championed by others in print, in the classroom, and on the podium. What separates today’s composers from those in the past are the numbers; just as the number of composers have risen, so too have the conduits through which audiences can discover and explore new music. This expansion in numbers has created a growing need–or at least an opportunity–for guidance and, for lack of a better term, taste-making.

Over the past several years, there have been a number of composers, performers, and ensembles that have caught the attention of those in the media whose influence can have a sizable impact on the artists’ reputation within the greater musical community. It would be very easy to infer that if those artists are able to garner continued attention from the media, then their music must not only be of high quality but of superior quality when compared with the work of those who are not being noticed…and therein lies the rub.

Considering the small number of individuals whose judgements, opinions, or programming decisions can truly alter or affect public tastes, it’s very easy to come up with false inferences in both directions. If a particular style or musical sensibility becomes prevalent in the media–be that print, online, or radio–or on the concert stage, some observers may infer that that style or concept is “the one to pay attention to,” while other observers may fairly or unfairly assume that if that style has been embraced by the media, then it is automatically suspect and possibly invalid.

Public exposure and notoriety–what some might call a “surface level” success–is neither harmful nor beneficial in and of itself. If nurtured wisely and not taken too seriously, then it can be used to improve current projects and provide opportunities for new ones. If taken too seriously (from either the vantage point of the artist or the audience/onlookers), it can twist expectations, alter interpretations, and breed unhealthy reactions. It is hoped that with realistic expectations from artists and audiences and a wide-open, broad-based, and truly investigative media, the new music community can de-emphasize the surface-level successes and emphasize those successes that emanate from the content itself.

New Music USA Announces New Grantmaking Strategy

New Grantmaking Strategy
Responding to changes in the ways artists create music and connect with audiences, New Music USA (publisher of NewMusicBox) has unveiled a preview of planned changes to its grantmaking strategy. The organization will reconfigure five of its current funding programs into a unified channel of flexible support for a wide range of new music projects. Awarded applications will then be promoted through dedicated, media-rich pages on newmusicusa.org, offering a new way for the public to connect with New Music USA-supported artists.

The program will offer an open call for applications from individual artists or organizations twice a year. Approximately 150 to 200 awards will be made annually, ranging in size from a minimum of $250 to a maximum of $20,000. The total projected award amount for the program’s first year is $650,000.

Today’s full announcement is available here.

A help site is currently available to answer questions. Additional details will be announced in July.

A Critical Gap

After the deluge of new music concerts over the past few weeks, the dearth of dedicated new music critics in Los Angeles has felt particularly frustrating. Since Alan Rich’s retirement from the LA Weekly in 2008, Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times has been pretty much the only game in town. Swed is not everyone’s favorite person in the world, and he’s earned his fair share of criticism over the years (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for starters).

Now, I don’t point this out to impugn Swed personally, but rather to demonstrate what a large target he is, simply by virtue of being the classical music critic of the Los Angeles Times. In particular, local musicians have often contended that he doesn’t pay enough attention to local music, outside of a few standbys like the LA Phil. But while I might make different choices in his position, I’m not sure they’d be choices that would make anyone happier, since it’s simply not possible for one critic to review everything that’s going on in a major metropolitan area. Whoever the critic is, they’re going to have to make choices, choices that will most likely reflect their own personal preferences and biases (not to mention the preferences and biases of their employer). You’re bound to disappoint someone.

What’s the solution then? A few bloggers have valiantly tried to fill the gap, including Brian Holt (Outwest Arts), Nick Norton (New Classic LA), Daniel Corral (Auscultations), and George Wallace (A Fool in the Forest). But because these blogs are the work of aficionados with lives and careers outside of music writing, they’re not always consistently updated.

Norton and Corral are also active composers themselves, raising the question of impartiality. Should critics exist separately from the music scenes they orbit, or should they be immersed in it? More and more lately, the latter option has started to seem more attractive to me. Any loss in objectivity could be offset by gains in depth and insight. The danger is that a composer’s perspective may be too myopic to relate the work of another composer to a more general audience (and academic journals already exist for specialized audiences). But I can imagine a third sort of critical stream that exists between journalistic writing and academic writing, one that doesn’t pretend to be impartial, one that is willing to be personal, maybe even a little bit messy and absurd.
Matador Oven/Adam Overton’s Ripe for Embarrassment: For a New Musical Masochism, a deeply silly and highly perceptive essay, strikes the kind of tone I am envisioning. But it’s still about John Cage and Overton’s own work–it seems difficult to write about anything except yourself and dead people. What would happen if we relaxed these mental blocks and (gasp) wrote about our friends?