Tag: self-publishing

Online Score Sales for Self-Published Composers

Empty Staff Paper with staple

“No one’s going to buy your music if it’s sitting on the shelf at your house.” So says Kurt Knecht, composer and co-founder of MusicSpoke, a sheet music distributor focusing on choral music. And it’s true! So, composers: how can you get your music in front of the right musicians in a format that makes it easy for them to purchase, download, and start practicing your pieces right away?

This article will provide an overview of options for self-published composers to sell their PDF (and sometimes, physical) scores and describe the typical audience for each of these methods so composers can evaluate which option might be the best for you and your music. It will also discuss methods for selling your music on your own website, via Bandcamp, or by creating a composer’s collective. Finally, it will explore an alternative path: not selling your music. All of the distributors in this article share two similarities, with a few exceptions for special series or publishing arrangements you can opt-in to. First, composers retain the copyright to their work. Second, these distributors are non-exclusive: composers can sell on other sites.

All of the distributors in this article share two similarities, with a few exceptions: composers retain their copyright; these distributors are non-exclusive

And, a note as we get going: the legacy of systemic racism and sexism is apparent when one browses the distributors in this article. Many of the owners and operators of music distribution services are white men and the catalogs represented on these services often have a large proportion of white male composers. The work to amplify the voices of women, LGBTQ, and BIPOC composers must continue.

Let’s talk about two large distributors first: J.W. Pepper and Sheet Music Plus (SMP) Press. These distributors have name recognition, come in high on internet search results for sheet music, and serve large numbers of customers. However, they offer smaller payments per score (45-50% of list price) to composers, and do not share information about who purchased your music (name, contact info, etc.) with you.

J.W. Pepper’s My Score

Logo for My Score


J.W. Pepper is one of the largest distributors of educational music in the United States, selling everything from method and solo books to ensemble works. K-12 music educators are familiar with the website and often have purchasing accounts already set up and ready to go. My Score is J.W. Pepper’s distribution service for self-published composers. “People know the J.W. Pepper name,” says Isaac Brooks, who heads up My Score. “The My Score composer can be found in results along with traditionally published pieces.” Composer Karlyne Félix works as a music educator and first encountered My Score when she was looking for music for her students. Now she uses it as the sole music distributor for her own works. “It’s very easy to use, accessible, and well-known among the music education community,” she says. The audience of educators also attracted composer Garrett Hope to the service. “I’m focusing my efforts on educational music,” Hope explains. “A big part of marketing is knowing your audience and knowing where they go.”

“A big part of marketing is knowing your audience and knowing where they go.”

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

Signing up for My Score costs a one-time $99 fee. Composers receive 50% of the list price for every digital copy and 25% for every printed copy sold, paid quarterly. There are minimum prices for your sheet music starting at $2 for choral works up to $45 for a full orchestral work. For choral works, a minimum of 5 copies must be purchased, to avoid illegal copying. There is no evaluation process for composers, no quality standards, and no guidelines on notation to follow.

PDF or Print Scores?
Works sold on My Score can be purchases as PDFs or printed scores.


“All digital copies sold by jwpepper.com are watermarked and made available for print through a customer portal called My Library,” Brooks says. “The product can also be viewed through our on a mobile device. The end-user has 3 attempts to successfully print the product, after that it will only be viewable electronically through their account.”

Isaac Brooks in a tie and jacket playing a cello outdoors.

Isaac Brooks, who heads up J. W. Pepper’s My Score

Additional Benefits:

J.W. Pepper has a presence at music conferences, and often offers My Score composers the opportunity to stand at a booth. They offer Webinar training for their composers. One benefit that makes My Score stand out: every work is available as a digital score or a physical score through their print-on-demand service. Professionally printed and bound scores will be fulfilled within 3 days.


“Neutral themes and music of hope are very good to have at any performance.”
Karlyne Félix holding a glass globe

Karlyne Félix

Félix suggests that composers considering My Score keep in mind who they are selling to: music educators and their (often young) musicians. “Neutral themes and music of hope are very good to have at any performance,” she explains.  She says it took a little work to get the hang of uploading music, but that My Score’s team was helpful. “I have been contacted by their support team, at the beginning of my journey with them, to clarify a few edits before the site made my music public,” she says. “I appreciate that, especially being new to the system.” Hope wishes that the editing process for scores was less cumbersome. After scores are added, any changes must be requested via email. “I would love to be able to login and see my catalog and make edits,” he says. However, Hope agrees that the customer service team is responsive, usually making changes within 24 hours. Brooks explains that one reason composers must submit edits through email is that My Score prepares a printable file for every score submitted. “One difference between My Score and SMP Press is that we are preparing the item for physical distribution,” he says. Brooks says that a portal for composers to edit their current catalog is “in the works.”

Sheet Music Plus (SMP) Press


Sheet Music Plus calls itself “the world’s largest sheet music store.” SMP Press is their distribution arm for self-published composers to sell PDF scores. The site caters to K-12 music educators and ensemble directors, private music teachers and their students and individual hobbyist musicians. Composer Juhi Bansal (https://juhibansal.com/) appreciates the popularity of Sheet Music Plus’s site. “It’s a place people are already going and looking for music, so you are exposed to a much larger audience,” she says.

Composer Juhi Bansal

Composer Juhi Bansal

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

SMP Press is free to join. Composers earn 45% of the list price for original compositions and public domain arrangements and 10% on arrangements of their copyrighted song catalog. Commissions are paid monthly once you hit the $20 minimum for payment via Paypal or $40 minimum for check payments. SMP Offers guidelines (not requirements) for how much to charge for scores. They provide guidelines for scores, such as margin sizes and reducing ink on the cover (since customers are printing these out at home).

“I don’t know too many orchestral institutions willing to print and bind the conductor’s score and parts, with their numerous varying page sizes.”

PDF or Print Scores?

SMP Press sells only PDF scores at this time.


Customers receive downloadable, watermarked PDFs.


Bansal finds SMP Press easy to use. “If you’re just starting out and you want to put music up, it’s a good platform to do it. You can have one place where you sell your scores, and direct people to it.” Composer Arthur Breur agrees. “You create your company name, upload PDFs, you can include preview pages, a video or recording, description, select your price, and 24-48 hours later, your piece is approved and ready to sell,” he explains. “Making changes are easy and then it will take 24-48 hours to update.” “SMP Press is a great option for artists who enjoy a ‘set it and forget it’ method to distributing their music,” says composer Brian Nabors. “It definitely gets the music into the hands of the musicians instantly.” He does wish that SMP had an option to sell physical scores and parts, especially for large ensemble works. “I don’t know too many orchestral institutions willing to print and bind the conductor’s score and parts, with their numerous varying page sizes.” Because of this, he binds and ships his orchestral music himself, often using another music distributor, Subito Music Distribution. To enhance search on the Sheet Music Plus website, Breur suggests including the instrument or performing forces in the title field of your piece when you add it to your catalog. For example: “Dance – Piano Solo” rather than just “Dance.” In his experience, this helps customers find your piece when they search the site.

Composer Brian Nabors

Composer Brian Nabors

Next, let’s talk about four smaller, composer-run distributors: MusicSpoke, NewMusicShelf, Graphite, and Murphy Music Press. These distributors offer a higher payment to composers (50-70% of list price), and share information about who bought your music with you, so that you can get in touch with musicians and ensemble directors.


The Logo for Music Spoke


MusicSpoke is a marketplace for music by living composers, with a strong emphasis on choral music. “Our primary customers, in this order, are K-12 choral, university choral, and churches,” says Kurt Knecht, co-founder. Composers are welcome to sell other genres of concert music on the site as well. Juhi Bansal sells her vocal music on MusicSpoke, in addition to selling her music on Sheet Music Plus. “It is more specialized,” she says of MusicSpoke, “mostly choral, a few piano works, and art song. I don’t think it’s a great place to sell string quartets, opera, etc.”

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

There is no fee to join MusicSpoke. Composers receive 70% of the list price, with some slight variations for rare physical copy sales or promotional offers. The vast majority of MusicSpoke’s sales are PDF scores. When MusicSpoke works are chosen for state repertoire lists requiring physical scores, MusicSpoke works with Black Ribbon Printing to print and bind hard copies.

Kurt Knecht in front of an organ.

Kurt Knecht

The process to join MusicSpoke is unique. “We evaluate composers, not pieces,” says Knecht. MusicSpoke has a one-on-one dialogue with each composer to see if they are a good match for distribution on their site. They do not evaluate individual pieces (as a traditional publisher might), but rather add composers to their service and let composers list as many or as few pieces as they want. Knecht says that they do prefer that you have a recording available for any piece you want to sell.

PDF or Print Scores?

Music Spoke primarily sells PDF scores, with the rare option to print scores when works are chosen for state repertoire lists.


Customers receive downloadable, watermarked PDFs, or (rarely) physical scores printed through Black Ribbon Publishing.

Additional Benefits:

Bansal appreciates the reputation that MusicSpoke has built among conductors. “People know it’s a good place to look for contemporary choral scores,” she says. She also like that they don’t have a minimum purchase requirement. “If you want to check out a copy of a score, if you want to teach from it or share it in class, there are no minimums,” she says. That can be an advantage if your goal is getting your music in front of a conductor. MusicSpoke maintains a presence at national conferences, with options for composers to join them at their booth. They are continuously developing a network of composers and conductors to promote the music of MusicSpoke composers. In addition, they curate several series with renowned conductors such as the Charles Bruffy, Derrick Fox, and Joseph Ohrt, and MusicSpoke composers are eligible for these. One note: these special series have an additional three-year exclusivity contract with MusicSpoke due to the special promotional services they receive.


New Music Shelf logo


NewMusicShelf sells and distributes PDFs of concert music by living composers, with a particular emphasis on music for collegiate and professional performers, ensembles, and chamber groups. “I believe chamber, vocal, and choral music work best on this platform,” says composer Jennifer Jolley, who sells her music on NewMusicShelf as well as through Murphy Music Press and ADJ•ective New Music. Composers are welcome to sell educational music, but that is not its primary market. Of the composer-run distributors discussed in this article, NewMusicShelf is unique in the breadth of its catalog across instrumental and vocal ensembles.

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

There is no fee to join NewMusicShelf. For scores sold, there are 2 fees per transaction: a payment processing fee from Paypal or Stripe, which is typically 2.9% plus $0.30 per transaction, and NMS’s 30% distribution fee. This leaves the composer with slightly under 70% of the list price. Composers set their prices, with a minimum of $2 per score. Digital scores sold through NewMusicShelf must be priced less than physical scores sold elsewhere and identically to digital scores sold elsewhere.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for a gatekeeper to talk about ‘quality’ because that is very subjective.”

Of the composer-run distributors, NewMusicShelf is the most inclusive. Founder Dennis Tobenski does not curate based on style or perceived quality. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for a gatekeeper to talk about ‘quality’ because that is very subjective,” he says. The most important criteria for acceptance is the engraving quality of your scores and parts. Tobenski suggests comparing your scores to professionally engraved music or seeking advice from a composer whose scores you admire before submitting. That said, he will provide feedback if your scores are not up to his standards—it is not just a blanket rejection.

Dennis Tobenski

Dennis Tobenski

PDF or Print Scores?
NewMusicShelf sells only PDF scores at this time.


Customers receive downloadable, watermarked PDFs.

Additional Benefits:

“There is a guide to help us figure out how much we should charge per copy of our music. That is a game changer right there,” says Jolley. She appreciates the service because it helps composers sell their music online even if they “have no idea how to implement this on their own website.” NewMusicShelf is Tobenski’s self-described “one man operation,” but he still makes sure to have a presence at conferences, particularly in conjunction with the publication of their print anthologies of music. His mission is to build a community of composers and new music performers.

Jennifer Jolley standing near a lake

Jennifer Jolley (Liz Glen Photography)


Tobenski recommends that composers provide a lot of information to potential customers when they upload their scores to the catalog, including a perusal score or sample pages, program notes, links to recordings, and information on who commissioned the work. “Give people too much information,” he suggests. “That’s what people are buying the score based on.” Jolley hopes to see more options for educational music on the platform in the future. “Once they expand, they can make it so their musical offerings are sorted by grade level,” she suggests.

Murphy Music Press

Murphy Music logo


Murphy Music Press is a distributor of composer-owned music for saxophones and wind ensembles, run by composer and saxophonist Sean Murphy.  The site sells everything from solos to chamber music to large ensemble works, at all difficulty levels. Composer Evan Williams distributes his work through Murphy Music Press and ADJ•ective New Music (more on ADJ•ective later). “Both Murphy and ADJ•ective have wide markets,” he says. “Some works are educational and some are collegiate/professional.” Murphy aims to sell to customers seeking a curated catalog. “We sell to the kind of person who buys an espresso coffee versus Folgers,” he explains.

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

There is no fee to join and composers selling through Murphy Music Press set their own prices and earn 50% of the list price. Murphy Music Press pays for printing and binding out of its half of the sales. Composers are paid twice a year. The site includes around 200 composers at present and Murphy is always looking for new members. Composers interested in selling their music on Murphy Music Press can contact Murphy through the web form on the website, and when invited, submit a piece. “I listen to the piece and follow my heart,” he says. “If I think there’s potential I say yes, and if not, I say no.”

Sean Murphy

Sean Murphy

PDF or Print Scores?
Murphy Music Press sells primarily print scores but can also sell PDF scores. The choice is left up to the composer.


PDF scores are watermarked.

Additional Benefits:

Twice a year, Murphy Music Press provides composers with a record of who purchased their music so that composers can follow up about performances, etc. However, they sell a large number of scores to large distributors like J.W. Pepper, and from there, they cannot track sales for composers. Murphy Music Press maintains a presence at conferences such as the Midwest Clinic. Williams appreciates the time Murphy Music Press and ADJ-ective put into marketing. “The biggest benefit for me is not having to dedicate time, effort, and money toward printing, binding, and shipping scores and parts,” he says. “Distributors can also market your music online and at conferences, reaching a wider audience than you could yourself.”

Evan Williams standing near a wall

Evan Williams (Photo by Eric Snoza, SnoStudios Photography)


“Composers can be so bad at communicating. Answer your emails!”

Murphy vets potential composers by researching their presence online. “Be nice!” he urges. He also pays attention to how easy it is to stay in touch with composers. “Composers can be so bad at communicating,” he warns. “Answer your emails!”  Murphy prefers submissions with a score and a performance recording. “It’s hard to market something without a recording,” he says, but acknowledges that with the pandemic, a MIDI rendition may suffice on occasion. He advises that it is easier to sell a piece if it has already been performed, because it adds legitimacy to the piece and creates interest from buyers.

Graphite Publishing

Graphite logo


Graphite Publishing, run by composers Timothy Takach and Jocelyn Hagen, is a considerably more discriminating option for established composers of primarily choral music as well as art song. There are two arms of Graphite: a tightly curated distribution catalog of composer-owned works and an even more select publishing house. They sell primarily secular choral works of all levels, particularly for high school, collegiate, and advanced amateur choirs. While they do distribute some music that is suitable for a church choir, it is not their primary market.

Timothy Takach

Timothy Takach

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

There is no fee to join.  Composers receive 60% of sales for composer-owned scores distributed on Graphite Publishing and 40% of sales for Graphite-published works. To keep overhead low, they sell only PDF scores. There is an open submission process on their website, and scores are reviewed 1-2 times a year. Graphite curates with a philosophy of finding what Takach calls “a balance between excellent craft and innovation of scores and the accessibility of the scores. We’re looking for things that are different, things that enhance the choral experience and our catalog.” So a piece setting the same Sara Teasdale or Emily Dickinson poem that everyone at your graduate program set is likely not be what Graphite is looking for. There is a high bar, and those who are chosen are typically composers who have an established catalog that is already selling. “The gate is open,” Takach explains, “but it’s open just a crack.” “I really appreciate their quick and helpful responses to any questions I have,” says composer Dale Trumbore, who distributes her music through Graphite. “Setting up with any new distributor takes time…but overall it’s a pretty straightforward process.”

Dale Trumbore standing outside near a tree

Dale Trumbore (photo by Lucas Hausrath)

PDF or Print Scores?
Graphite sells only PDF scores at this time.


Customers receive downloadable, watermarked PDFs that include their name, organization, and the number of copies that they are allowed to make.

Additional Benefits:

“I appreciate how Graphite Marketplace has composers rate their pieces in difficulty level on a 1-5 scale, so choral conductors can use that plus the perusal scores to assess whether a piece will be a good fit for their ensemble,” says Trumbore. “There’s a wide variety of music within Graphite, ranging from simpler pieces for children’s chorus to challenging works for advanced choirs.” Graphite maintains a presence at ACDA and NATS conventions and periodically organizes consortiums for groups of their composers. Their model is to “build trust through adjacency,” says Takach. Trust in one composer’s excellence leads conductors to trust the music of other Graphite composers. Trumbore is grateful for this presence at conferences. “That can lead not only to them promoting your work there [at conferences], but to them potentially sponsoring all or part of your registration fee and/or offering times for you to meet conductors and performers face-to-face at their booth,” she explains.

What if you want to be fully in charge of your catalog and sell and distribute yourself? Bandcamp is one way, and selling your scores directly on your website is another. These methods require the composer to take on the work of building and maintain an online store and getting PDF or print scores to their customers.


Bandcamp logo


While many of us think of Bandcamp as a way to listen to and purchase music albums, composers like Sean McFarland use it to sell their scores. “It’s an excellent place to pair your audio work and physical work together,” he says, “and for me, the communities that I’m most interested in connecting with are doing a lot of their listening in Bandcamp already.”

Logistics, Fees, Criteria:

McFarland appreciates how easy it is to get set up with Bandcamp, and the fact that there are no gatekeepers evaluating you or your music and deciding if it is worthy. “All you need is an email, and that’s it!” he says. Composers can sell their sheet music in the “merch” section of their Bandcamp page. Bandcamp is free to set up, and charges a 10% fee for all merchandise sales plus transaction fees of 1.9% + $0.30 for Paypal or 2.2% + $0.30 for credit card payments  (https://get.bandcamp.help/hc/en-us/articles/360007802394-How-much-are-transaction-fees-for-digital-sales-).

PDF or Print Scores?
It’s up to you. If you sell print scores, you will have to print, bind, and ship them yourself.


Bandcamp is not set up for automatic downloads, which McFarland views is a plus: “It is more personal and connective anyway,” he says. He emails scores to customers after they have made a purchase.


McFarland find the organization of information a little “clunky.” “The platform is not exactly meant to sell scores, so you have to get creative with the track organization to make it look reasonable,” he explains.

Selling Scores on your Own Website

There are as many ways to sell your music on your own website as there are composers.

There are as many ways to sell your music on your own website as there are composers. To give perspective on ways this can work, I spoke to Reena Esmail through her assistant Melanie Eveland, Jennifer Wagner, Alex Shapiro, Stephanie Ann Boyd, and self-described New Renaissance Artist Elizabeth A. Baker about how they each approach selling their scores and other materials and services.

Why sell your music yourself?

A major reason to sell your music on your own site is to earn your full sales commission. “I like to keep my money,” says Baker, who sells her compositions, recordings, books, and consulting services through her website. She also emphasized the importance of retaining creative control of your work. “We live in a time when you can self-publish your albums; you can self-publish your own work. You don’t need other humans to put your stuff in a warehouse and take a big percentage of the pot.”

Elizabeth A. Baker holding a small object in front of her face.

Elizabeth A. Baker

Another aspect that came up with every composer I spoke to was the ability to build relationships with customers.  “A significant benefit for composers handling their own score sales is the direct contact they will have with the people who purchase the materials,” says Shapiro. This often leads to future collaborations, commissions, and residencies. Boyd adds, “If they are exploring contemporary music, they are probably someone who wants to ask questions of a composer.”

Logistics, Fees:

Esmail and Wagner design their websites on WordPress and use the WooCommerce plug-in for sales. WordPress’s ecommerce sites begin at $45/month, with no additional cost to add WooCommerce. WooCommerce charges 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction for U.S. credit and debit cards, and an additional 1% for non-U.S. cards. They both do their score delivery and licensing individually, separately from the website transaction. “We like to see the orders that come in and provide a personal level of service to musicians,” says Eveland, Esmail’s assistant. Wagner sells both PDF and print scores, and works with a reliable printer with a fast turnaround time for physical scores. In some ways, she wishes customers could automatically download scores, but on balance, she likes the connection made by sending the email. “It allows me to personally thank them for their purchase and wish them a lovely season with their students,” she explains. She uses MailChimp “sparingly” to let past customers know of new works of music or particularly special opportunities.

Reena Esmail

Reena Esmail (photo by Rachel Garcia)

Shapiro sells physical and PDF scores. She uses a PayPal shopping cart on her website and charges one set shipping and handling fee for print and digital scores. PayPal charges a 5.4% + $0.30 transaction per transaction, but there are no monthly fees or set up costs. Shapiro’s customers receive a custom email with a private web link to download their PDFs. She prints chamber music in house and outsources larger ensemble works to be printed. Shapiro’s works are also available through many distributors and retailers, giving her publishing company a far larger domestic and international footprint than it might otherwise have were her scores only available through her website.

Boyd designs her composer website and store, Femoire, on Squarespace and uses their built-in ecommerce functionality, which includes a score preview function and the option to sell downloadable PDFs. Squarespace’s Business plan costs $18/month plus a 3% fee per transaction. For users selling more than $3200 annually, they offer Commerce Plans starting at $26/month with no transaction fees. After customers purchase music on Boyd’s site, they can automatically download their music.

Stephanie Ann Boyd

Stephanie Ann Boyd

Baker uses Square and appreciates the business management tools the platform offers. “Square is like accounting software,” she explains. “It offers scheduling, it offers online booking, inventory management, and it helps me with invoicing. I can print out very coherent reports which allow me to work with my financial planner.” Square stores begin with their Free option which has no monthly fee and charges 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction and offers additional features at Professional ($12/month), Performance ($26/month) and Premium ($72/month) options.


To reduce illegal file sharing, Shapiro embeds metadata into every digital audio file, always watermarks her digital perusal scores, and often watermarks her PDFs to reflect who purchased them. Boyd and Wagner watermark the score previews on their sites but not the purchased copies. Baker takes a different view on preview scores altogether. “All these quick view perusal scores nonsense is giving too much away,” she says. “I am heavily against it. I know a lot of specifically white male conductors and composers are going to say, ‘No, we need this, because I need to know your stuff.’ No. I have a website, you can clearly get a better picture of someone through a walk through their website than a single score.” Baker’s music is not notated in standard notation so she does not watermark purchases. “I make things that are unstealable because people stole my stuff in the past,” she explains.


Of course, if you are selling yourself, you really are going at it alone. Shapiro warns, you’ll be administering your catalog, hold your engraving to a high standard for print and digital scores, deal with printing and binding, purchase materials, and process and ship orders—all by yourself. She suggests hiring others to help you with some of these tasks so that you still have time to compose.

Alex Shapiro in front of a collection of computer terminals and electronic keyboard instruments

Alex Shapiro


Esmail has found that score sales are only one, smaller part of her income streams. “We have noticed that score sales are a lagging indicator—not a leading one,” says Eveland, Esmail’s assistant. “It has not been our experience that a concert composer can set up an online store and hope to build an income that way without already being known through other sources.”

Shapiro suggests setting up Google Alerts for your name (in quotes) and each piece in your catalog (the title in quotes as well). This allows you to track performances you might not be notified about otherwise. Boyd’s emphasis is on reducing what she calls “consumer friction.” “Think about how you shop online, pay attention to the brands whose shopping experience you enjoy, and try to re-create that,” she says.

“If you don’t have an organized way of managing inventory and shipping, you won’t be productive.”

Baker advises composers to choose a method that helps you stay organized on your end as a seller. “It’s not about having the most sleek website, it’s about what’s going to work on the back end: delivery of content. If you don’t have an organized way of managing inventory and shipping, you won’t be productive.” She also urges composers to get set up like a business: create articles of incorporation, assign successors (especially now, during a pandemic), and work with a lawyer and a tax professional who is also a certified financial planner. “Set up everything the right way and put in the initial investment,” she says.

Wagner reminds composers to keep their customers in mind as they write, especially for those writing educational music. “If you are going to self-publish, you need to be on the cutting edge of what teachers need,” she explains. “If you supply teachers with the tools to be successful, then profit will come organically.”

Jennifer Wagner outside

Jennifer Wagner

A hybrid model that combines aspects of a small music distributor with selling your music yourself is to create a composer collective such as ADJ•ective New Music.

Composer Collectives: ADJ•ective New Music

ADJective New Music logo

Composers can band together and create a collective of like-minded colleagues to sell and cross-promote one another’s music. This is the model of ADJ•ective New Music, a publishing and distributing company begun by composer-performers Jamie Leigh Sampson and Andrew Martin Smith. “The idea from the beginning was that a rising tide raises all boats,” says Sampson. “If one composer does well, then people will come to our website and see the works of others.”

Composers should create their own collectives.

ADJ•ective’s roster currently includes 14 composers and has a model in which they expand every other year and only with a few composers, by invitation, at a time. “We don’t have the capacity to have an open call for new members,” Sampson explains. Rather than wait for their next period of expansion, Sampson suggests composers create their own collectives. She shared how ADJ•ective works to supply a potential model for other composers.

Jamie Leigh Sampson

Jamie Leigh Sampson


The ADJ•ective website features a store for score purchases and rentals. ADJ•ective composers retain their copyright, can choose to sell or rent physical and/or digital scores, and receive 50% of the net profits of sales and rentals. Sampson and Smith invested the profits from the first several years of the business into purchasing printing and binding equipment and industry-standard paper at various weights. They print and bind physical scores in house. ADJ•ective shares information about who purchased works with composers.


At this time, ADJ•ective does not watermark PDFs, partly because their volume of PDF sales is fairly low.


“ADJ•ective is special because we are a composer’s collective, so we advocate for each other and are often involved in group commissions, projects, or festival appearances,” says composer Evan Williams, who sells his scores through ADJ•ective and Murphy Music Press. ADJ•ective composers have pooled resources to share booths at conferences such as the Midwest Clinic and ADJ•ective has a podcast, Lexical Tones, which is hosted by collective member Robert McClure and which features guest musicians involved in contemporary music. “Collectives help bring legitimacy,” says Sampson. “We have the old guard thinking if you’re not published, you aren’t legit.” A composer’s collective, she says, offers the best of both worlds: artistic ownership and control with the power of a group advocating for your music. They are planning to expand this partnership to include performers in the future.

One Final idea…What about NOT selling your music (most of the time)?

Because I love to rock the boat, I asked composer Melissa Dunphy to share her “radical” (as she puts it) approach to score distribution with me. Dunphy, best known for her social justice-inspired choral music, makes all of her self-published scores free to download on her website. Trusting in an honor system, she asks anyone charging admission to their concert to get in touch with her for an invoice and she charges them $1.50 per digital copy. For free recitals and church service performances, her music is free, provided she is informed of performances so that she can list them on her website and online and report them to ASCAP.

“It makes no sense for me to create ‘artificial scarcity’ by placing a barrier on the distribution of my sheet music.”

“The vast bulk of my income comes not from sales of scores, but from commissions and performance royalties,” Dunphy explains. “Given this situation, it makes no sense for me to create ‘artificial scarcity’ by placing a barrier on the distribution of my sheet music, such as a price or copy protection. Rather, I should want my music to be distributed as widely and easily as possible, to create more opportunities for performances and commissions. I should especially want music students, many of whom will become music professionals and educators (and many of whom don’t have a lot of money, as I know from experience), to have free and easy access to my sheet music.” She feels her career has benefited from this model and that it is “particularly well-suited to choral music because choral directors on the whole are social creatures and born networkers and very game to try new music from living composers.”

Melissa Dunphy

Melissa Dunphy

While she does feel that instrumental music has to be approached a bit differently: “more direct marketing, more specific networking to individual performers,” she also points out that “for solo or chamber works, you’re only selling a single copy or a few parts, so the potential revenue to be gained from putting a price on your sheet music would be even smaller.”

Dunphy’s sacred choral music is not available for free. It is published with a traditional publisher because of their connections to churches and religious communities that aren’t in her network, and she feels that her publisher works hard to market her music, which she appreciates.

Even More Options:

Score Exchange is an online music distributor with no fee to sign up, and no editorial criteria to pass to be accepted. Composers retain their copyright, and Sibelius users can take advantage of their built-in “publish on Score Exchange” function. Composers earn a percentage of the list price, beginning at 45% and increasing as your monthly sales exceed $200.

Black Tea Music describes itself as a “boutique music promotion, publishing, and management representative for composers and new music-inclined artists.”

Subito Music Distribution is a service that allows you to sell or rent your works while retaining copyright of your music. One benefit is that they will print and bind parts at industry-standard sizes. There is a $50 fee to join and $50 annual fee subsequently. Composers begin with 5 titles in their catalog and may add 10 more during the year. Composers receive 55% of retail sales.

Other options to take payments online include Stripe which charges no set up or monthly fees and a 2.9 % + $0.30 per transaction fee, Sellfy, which charges $19/month and no transaction fees for up to $10,000 in sales per year, and Shopify which combines website creation and ecommerce and begins at $29/month plus 2.9% + $0.30 per transactions online.

Empty Staff Paper with staple


“Working with distributors rather than publishers has allowed me so much more freedom for future projects.”

So composers, is your music sitting on a shelf at your home? Are you ready to change that? As you evaluate options, Tobenski suggests, “Composers should genuinely ask themselves, what do I do, and where does it fit? Don’t try to shoehorn yourself into some place.” And you can take advantage of the non-exclusivity of many of these distributors. “I like using several methods because the audience for the different genres of music varies greatly,” says Jolley, who distributes music through NewMusicShelf, Murphy Music Press, and ADJ•ective New Music. “Working with distributors rather than publishers has allowed me so much more freedom for future projects,” says Trumbore. “Freedom to make arrangements of existing works or even withdraw works from my catalogue if I feel they aren’t representing my best work anymore. The tipping point in deciding to use a distributor came when I started to resent that score sales were pulling time away from my creative work. Freeing that time back up is well-worth the cut that a distributor receives from my sales royalties.” And of course, choosing a distribution or sales method is only the beginning. Arthur Breur reminds readers:  “You have to market to let people know about your music.”

My hearty thanks to everyone who contributed their voices for this article: Kurt Knecht, Isaac Brooks, Karlyne Félix, Garrett Hope, Juhi Bansal, Brian Nabors, Arthur Breur, Dennis Tobenski, Jennifer Jolley, Sean Murphy, Evan Williams, Timothy Takach, Dale Trumbore, Sean McFarland, Reena Esmail, Melanie Eveland, Alex Shapiro, Stephanie Ann Boyd, Jennifer Wagner, Elizabeth A. Baker, Jamie Leigh Sampson, and Melissa Dunphy.

Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.

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Leveling Up, Part 3: Entering the Marketplace

You’ve written a band piece. Now what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Steps

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

I was wrong.

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

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

You have to market and promote your music.

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

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

1) What level of music is it?

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

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

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

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

2) Who are you writing for?

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

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

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

Is it? Really?

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

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

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

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

3) Where are you sending people?

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

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

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

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

Clever URL names don’t work well.

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

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

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

Here are some tips:

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

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

Michael Torke: Life After the Ceremony of Innocence

Composers who are still in their 20s and early 30s have arguably never been as prominent as they are right now. But what will happen to them when they turn 40? Or 50? The future is impossible to predict with any certainty, though there will likely be many different scenarios—some composers will remain very strongly in the public eye, others will remain active though less visibly so, and a few will probably drop off the radar altogether. In, say, the year 2036, many listeners might be more focused on the young composers of their own time, some of whom have not yet been born. (I won’t even venture a guess as to what kind of interface those listeners will employ to hear this music.)

But only a generation ago, most composers were ignored until they turned at least 40—orchestras would not program their music, opera companies would not commission them, publishers refused to sign them, radio stations would not play their recordings (if there were recordings), and on and on. In a field that has long been dominated by tried and true repertoire, taking a chance on someone who had not been sufficiently vetted was long deemed too much of a risk. Of course, the history of Western classical music has had some very famous exceptions to this paradigm and the boy wonder Mozart remains the standard-bearer for many music lovers. But again, what if Mozart had lived beyond the age of 35? Would that have changed the way we think about his music today? This question, of course, is completely unanswerable. (At least, we will know how today’s wunderkind composers will fare twenty years from now—in 2036!)

All of these questions were on my mind when, after many years, I finally had a chance to have a long talk with Michael Torke in his small studio apartment overlooking the United Nations where he spends a little less than half of the year. (The rest of the time he’s based in Las Vegas.) Torke is someone I have known and whose music I have admired for decades. And once upon a time—actually back when we were both in our 20s—he was a towering figure in the new music community. At the age of 21 and while he was still an undergrad at Eastman, Torke’s Ceremony of Innocence—a 22-minute quintet—was performed at Tanglewood. Another one of his undergrad compositions, Vanada, received its premiere at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. Early into his first year of grad school at Yale, a major international publisher—Boosey & Hawkes—began courting him. Then after dropping out of Yale and moving to New York City, a whirlwind of activities occurred in rapid succession. An orchestra piece of his was performed at Carnegie Hall and he ssigned with Boosey. At 25, he became the de facto composer-in-residence for the New York City Ballet, and before he turned 30, he was given an exclusive contract on a major international recording label, London/Decca’s Argo imprint (which was owned by Universal Music Group), and the CDs they issued of his music were in regular rotation on many classical radio stations all over the world. While Torke was still in his early 30s, which was around the time I first met him, an opera of his was televised in the UK and he was even commissioned to write an orchestra piece for the opening of the Olympics in Atlanta.

“There was a lot of attention towards me,” Torke acknowledges at the outset of our free-ranging conversation. “I’m in my 50s. I’m not quite one foot in the grave, but it does kind of feel like it’s all over. I’m glad that the royalties will pay my bills and that I have enough new work, but boy, it sure seems like a different world we’re living in.”

But of course it’s far from all over. About a month ago I heard a new recording featuring David Alan Miller conducting the Albany Symphony Orchestra in two recent Torke concertos. I was floored by the music and was determined to finally have a chat with him about it in front of a video camera. In these works, Torke seamlessly synthesizes the frenetic pop-savvy process-driven post-minimalism of the music for which he first became known (pieces like Vanada, as well as The Yellow Pages, Bright Blue Music, Slate, and—a piece I still treasure more than almost anything—Four Proverbs) with an expansive romanticism that is more akin to standard repertoire classical music. This is the music that had been his first love growing up and he actually first attempted to incorporate such a sound world into his own musical vocabulary back in the 1990s, but was ultimately not satisfied with the results.

“I wrote a piano concerto that I called Bronze,” he remembers. “I performed it myself at Carnegie Hall and then I wrote something that Lincoln Kirstein commissioned, Mass. Both were kind of regressive, because I thought I wanted to write a piece that sounds like it’s in that era. Why not? You know, we live in a post-modern time where history means nothing. And if they’re doing it in the visual arts, we should do it. Those pieces, of course, failed miserably.”

There have been many other transformations for Torke since that time as well. At the dawn of the 21st century, after releasing five all-Torke CDs, Decca/London discontinued Argo. Suddenly all of Torke’s recordings were out of print. It took him a few years, but by 2003 he was eventually able to license and re-issue them all on his own Ecstatic Records label, an outlet that serves as the repository for most of the subsequent recordings of his more recent music. In 2004, he completely severed his ties with Boosey & Hawkes, becoming fully self-published through his own company, Adjustable Music. Torke’s emergence as a completely DIY composer might ultimately prove to be a prescient business decision now that the music business has changed so much.

“All those industries have collapsed,” he claims. “Boosey is a ghost of what it was. If you’re a composer signed by Boosey, the kind of promotion that they would do for you today is a fraction of what they did for me back in the ‘80s. They worked hard on my behalf and I’m so grateful. It was just thrilling what they did. … And at one time, there were the big record labels. They still exist, but thanks to the digital revolution that all has collapsed, too. … There were these big institutions that were gatekeepers and it was highly criticized, because there were the select few and if you were a Boosey & Hawkes composer, you were suddenly promoted around the world. If you had a record contract, people knew of you. If you didn’t, what options did you have? So it seemed really undemocratic. It seemed unfair. It seemed like there were tastemakers making these decisions that could be wrong. It seemed almost corrupt. Now we have the democracy of the digital world. Everyone is on equal footing. The problem with that is that who are the tastemakers?”

These days, Torke maintains a careful balancing act between writing music and getting it out into the world. As he explains:

When I have a new release, I send it with personal letters to the music directors of 250 classical radio stations. And they write back and say, “We loved hearing from you. We’ll take a listen.” And then when it’s on the radio six to twelve months later, I see it on my BMI statements. There still is money there. And that helps also because, who knows, some choreographer’s driving down Highway 1 in California, and they hear it and then that might lead to some dance piece that would have grand rights. So the publishing is still really important in classical music. And I’m still able to monetize it to the extent that I can make a living at it. … I would say it’s probably three-fifths composing and two-fifths doing the business side. I keep a stopwatch so I keep track of all of this.

It’s a sobering wake-up call about the real life of a composer who is still at the top of his form and wants to remain in the game. And while it’s a far cry from what many composers initially experience in the ceremonies of innocence through which they are first welcomed into the music community—that first big award, the initial commission, the early critical raves—it is the future for the overwhelming majority of people who write music. But still, if there’s a way to get it to reach people, like the early works of Michael Torke so convincingly did and like his recent works should, it is totally worth it.

Michael Torke in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
at Torke’s Tudor City pied-à-terre in New York City
September 28, 2016—1:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  These days there’s a ton of attention being paid to younger composers—both in terms of how many of them are being commissioned by high-profile institutions and how many are covered in what’s left of the media. Once upon a time, composers never seemed to be paid attention to until after they were 40 years old, more likely 50.  Although you were the exception to that rule—you were a super star in your early 20s. But now you’re in your 50s.

Michael Torke: I feel disconnected from everything. That might be partly because of the decisions I’ve made.  I don’t have a teaching position.  I’m not married.  I’m not raising a family.  I live in two places. Whenever I’m in Las Vegas, people think I don’t live in New York.  And when I’m here, all my Las Vegas friends forget about me.  You can be kind of incognito, which serves me well because I like privacy.  I like to work on my projects. Promotion is something I find really grating. I don’t really like to do that.  Maybe I’m just getting old.

I was unaware of the fact that everyone is heralding young composers.  This is news to me, but maybe it helps explain things. When thinking about conductors, I knew that there was this cult of the young.  And so maybe that does relate to what you’re saying, the cult of the younger composers.  Here I’m in my 50s. I’m not quite one foot in the grave, but it does kind of feel like it’s all over.  I’m glad that the royalties will pay my bills and that I have enough new work, but boy, it sure seems like a different world we’re living in.  We live in a new century, a new time.  Maybe this is one reason that there’s a lot of attention paid to the younger generation, if that is true.  I’m not really complaining, it just feels different.

When I was in my 20s, there was a lot of attention towards me.  I remember at the time what some people said when Boosey & Hawkes decided to sign a younger composer.  This was at a time when they weren’t doing that.  They had done some recent signings—it was around the time when they got Leonard Bernstein and Elliott Carter. Steve Reich was maybe the youngest one that they were looking at.

A picture of a very young Michael Torke.

This is one of the earliest press photos of Michael Torke.

FJO:  Aside from it being extremely out of the ordinary that they found you so early, though, what is perhaps even more unusual I think, now decades later, is the actual music you were composing at that time. It is very strong music and of course you still acknowledge it and it still gets performed, but you were still a student when you wrote some of it, like Vanada.

MT:  I was an undergraduate at Eastman. Then I went to Yale for one year and I wrote The Yellow Pages and Ecstatic Orange, and then after one year, I came to New York and got out of graduate school. Not that I hated school, although I was tired of it, but there were things that were happening—Boosey & Hawkes, New York City Ballet wanting to do stuff, commissions were coming in. So I thought I could try making a career of it in the city that I wanted to be in.

FJO:  So, to step back.  There are only two pieces in your catalogue prior to Vanada: the solo piano piece, Laetus, which I’ve studied the score of although I’ve never heard anyone play it; and Ceremony of Innocence, which was played at Tanglewood and won a BMI Student Composer Award. Those couldn’t have been Opus One and Two.  What were you doing before that?

MT:  I started composing at age five and had private lessons starting from about seven.  I was writing pieces all the way through. When I was the bassoonist in our youth orchestra in Milwaukee, I convinced the conductor to have me write a piece for them.  And he was like, “O.K., we’ll do it!”  That was in my youth of being very pushy with everything. I remember they were doing the Bartók Third Piano Concerto and I said, “So the soloist comes in the week before.  I know the piece.  How about I come in and rehearse with you?”  “Oh, you’d do that for us?”  So I got to do it.  I was always doing things like that—pushing and pushing and pushing. Maybe that’s the difference today, just being off in another orbit.

So I was writing pieces. Most of them were chamber pieces, but the first orchestra piece was the one for that youth orchestra. They played it and it got a review in The Milwaukee Journal.  It was kind of cool. I was in high school. Then I went to the Interlochen Music Festival for two summers, ’77 and ‘78, and wrote pieces there.  One composition won all the awards that you could win as a teenager. I would enter and so the name was starting to get around.  Then I went to Eastman.  But all of those pieces were kind of juvenilia.  They were written in a kind of a neo-classic style.  I love Stravinsky and Bartók.  I remember my first day at Eastman [being asked], “What composers do you like?”  Stravinsky and Bartók is what I used to say.  And they’re still favorite composers of mine.  That hasn’t changed.  But the music has changed.

FJO:  So you didn’t say Chaka Khan.

MT:  No, that came later.  I was a classical music nerd and didn’t know a lot about pop music, so when I started listening to it seriously, in about junior to senior year at Eastman, I thought about it in a different way from my classmates who grew up with pop music.  That was kind of why it made such an impact.

FJO:  But how could you grow up in the United States in the ‘70s and not hear pop music?

I was a classical music nerd and didn’t know a lot about pop music, so when I started listening to it seriously I thought about it in a different way.

MT:  I did, obviously.  Everyone does.  But I didn’t take it seriously.  I thought that there was this dichotomy—classical music was the real stuff and popular music was the stuff that you hear on the radio and on TV all the time.  I wanted to be a serious guy.  That was how I thought as a 14-year old.  Then when I was at Eastman, I thought about things like why is it that so much contemporary music, especially touched by modernism, seems to come at the ear at a distance [stretches his hand far away].  It’s way out here and you think about it, and then you enjoy it.  And then I said, if you listen to Tchaikovsky, it’s here [moves his hand closer toward him].  You think about it, and you enjoy it.  And if you listen to pop music, it’s here [moves hand right up to his face].  That seems to be a quality that is important.  So we should embrace whatever that is.  That was the thing that got me going.

FJO:  It wasn’t also the excitement of the actual sound of the music you were hearing?

MT:  Well, yeah.  I don’t know quite what makes it here [gestures hand in front of his face again].  It’s very presentational, and it’s short.  It doesn’t develop, and it’s disposable.  Those were qualities that I admired, but I wasn’t interested in disposability.  I wasn’t interested in non-development.  Modernism taught us that we have to find new ways to express things, even if they’re difficult to hear.  And I was thinking popular music isn’t difficult to hear and yet it seems to resonate with the culture.  So, why is difficulty a virtue?  I didn’t understand that.

FJO:  I’m not sure I know what that word disposable means.  I’m not sure that those folks who were doing it would have considered what they’re doing to be disposable.  And certainly now, 50 years later, the music of Elvis and The Beatles has probably continued to resonate with people more than any of the other music that was written at that time.

MT:  One could say that those are the exceptions, but in classical music, all this stuff that survived from the 19th century were the exceptions, too.  So, you can’t make that argument.  But I think that if you were a songwriter in the 1970s and you were writing a lot of songs, you wanted to get into the Top 40.  You wanted to make a lot of publishing money. Then three years later, if it was never done again, that wouldn’t bother you.  That was the nature of the business.  Whereas, I don’t think anyone writing a symphony would say, “Oh, I hope I hear it twice, and I hope I never hear it again.”  Or let’s say, if you never heard it again, that would bother you.  You would say, “Well, maybe that symphony isn’t working.”  So I think there was a difference.

FJO:  It’s very funny you say that.  Lewis Spratlan, who won the Pulitzer Prize in the year 2000, said to me back then that after he got a performance of a piece of his he would move on to the next piece and not worry about the older pieces. He was somebody who really did not push his music, although he has always been extremely dedicated to his craft and is extremely skilled at what he does. Some of these pieces are extraordinary, and people have only started to become aware of them since he won the Pulitzer. There were very few recordings of any of his music before that.

MT:  So maybe it didn’t bother him.

FJO:  I don’t think it did.  In fact, the piece that wound up winning the Pulitzer was something that he wrote in the 1970s for an opera company that folded and so it was never done.  A quarter-century later, a concert version of the second act was performed by Dinosaur Annex in Boston and that’s how he won the Pulitzer, but it was due to the advocacy of Scott Wheeler, who had been one of his students, not him.

MT:  But here’s the difference.  When that guy in the ‘70s was trying to write Top 40 for radio, he was interested in one thing.  Not artistic expression.  He was interested in money.  Lewis Spratlan wasn’t interested in money. He was interested in artistic expression.  And those are two big differences.

FJO:  Wow, I think there were plenty of songwriters who cared more about artistic expression than money.

MT:  Like James Taylor, he’s interested in expression.  O.K., you’re right. But I do think all of those guys had a more commercial edge.  Even The Beatles, when John Lennon had ten years of doing his solo work, he was like, “Why don’t I have a number one hit?”  And I thought, “You don’t need a hit; you’ve accomplished everything.” Then I realized, “Oh, it’s because he’s doing commercial music.”

FJO:  Well, did he want the money from the hit or did he want the popularity?

MT:  It’s different, but it goes hand in hand.  Again, that isn’t something the classical guys are thinking about.  Fandom?  I mean, maybe the younger composers are today.  Maybe Verdi did.  But is anyone writing to have millions of people throw themselves at you? That’s a different impulse, isn’t it?

FJO:  You don’t think that Stockhausen was all about having fans, and the cult of personality?

MT:  I do think that modernism had this great alliance with fashion in a kind of weird way, so yes. But anything post-modern, I don’t know.  Maybe I have to think more about it.  I do think that there are different impulses going on.  I like that you’re challenging me.

Michael Torke sitting on the couch in his New York apartment.

FJO:  Alright, let’s accept it for what it was in your mind back then. So you have this epiphany. All of a sudden you’re listening to this music that’s here for you and is very immediate.  And you think that as a composer, you need to do this, too—not out of an interest in being rich and famous, but simply to write a really good piece that reaches people in an immediate way.  So what did that mean to you as a composer?  How did that change what you were writing?

MT:  It meant that we needed to hear what was going on, rather than think about it. Other composers have said this better than me. I was hugely influenced by minimalist composers like Reich and Glass.  They said, “I want to write something with a key signature.  I want to write something with rhythms you can understand.  I want to write something where the melodic contour could be easily understood.” These are things where the elements of the music are much closer.

FJO:  For Glass and Reich, it was essential that the structure of the piece was audible.  Back in the so-called classical period, most pieces had very discernible structures.  It got very complicated in later generations, but if you grew up with that music and were immersed in it, you could always tell when the themes come back in a Haydn symphony.  But I think Glass and Reich took that idea of an audible structure much further by the way they used repetition—a phrase getting longer and longer in Glass’s early music or two voices going out of phase with each other in Reich.  You can hear that happening even if you’ve never studied music theory.  What you were doing with your early pieces is a fascinating extension of that concept—repeating a phrase and then making one or a few notes in it a half-step sharp or flat by changing keys, which alters where the melody sits in relation to the tonic center. It’s a completely new approach to harmonic modulation.

MT:  You can modulate by taking your material and going up a fifth. That’s transposing.  But what if you had all the same notes on the staff, but just changed the key signature? That would throw off all the intervals, because you’re introducing differences in the seven steps of the scale.  The half-steps are now falling in different places.  It’s a small change. If you went through the cycle of fifths by just changing the key signatures rather than changing the notes, you would come up with something that you could hear and that would be something a little bit different—fresh, or whatever you want to say.  So that was the idea.  Again, it was trying to find a new way to put notes together that didn’t need to be explained.  It’s fun to explain it, but it could be heard right away.

FJO:  The time when you were writing that stuff, we now look back on it historically and describe it as post-minimalism.  But when you were doing this initially, you were still a student and minimalism still wasn’t really looked on favorably in many academic establishments. It was talked about disparagingly, if at all. I wonder how aware you were of other composers who were trying to take the next logical step after minimalism.

MT:  Was I aware of it?  Well, insofar as I was aware of John Adams’s music. At the time, he was said to be a second generation minimalist.  You remember that?  I think it’s really funny, because we lump them all together now.  Well, maybe we don’t.  Anyway, I wasn’t aware of what other people were doing so much.  My idea was to invent new ways to put notes together.  I didn’t care if anyone else was doing something; I just wanted to do my own thing.  That was the point of view.

FJO:  So how did your composition professors react to that?  I remember reactions to minimalist-inclined music at Columbia when I was an undergrad.  It mostly wasn’t friendly.

MT:  Well, I went to places that were very open-minded.  Remember, at Eastman, you got a different teacher every year.  There was a visiting professor who was very resistant and that’s a story we can tell off-camera.  But, in my senior year when I was working on Vanada, I had Christopher Rouse as a teacher and he was a huge influence in shaping that piece.  I originally had that opening material and then I went into a softer kind of slower second group, and he said, “Why do you go into a new tempo?  It should all just be one thing.”  One tempo, one idea, monothematic, and I thought, “That is a strong idea.  I’m going to do it.”  I have Chris to thank for that.  It actually has nothing to do with minimalism, even though you might say that it does.  It was unifying the focus of what I was trying to say.  And so, thank you Chris.

FJO:  What’s so interesting about this is his own compositional aesthetics are very different from yours.  He writes very expansive music. But I suppose, now that I think about it, his music has an insistency that relates it to what you ultimately did in that piece, at least conceptually if not aurally.

I thought that if you want to make a career, if you want to get out there, focus in on your strengths.

MT:  Yeah, our music sounds very different, but you can trace back the similarity of focus and drive.  Then at Yale working with Jacob Druckman, he just loved everything that there was.  One of the great educators, so open.  I had another teacher who said, “Well Michael, let’s concentrate on your weaknesses.  I see you haven’t written any vocal music.  I see you haven’t written for solo cello.  Why don’t you do that?”  And I remember thinking, because I was always so arrogant, why would you focus in on your weaknesses?  That didn’t make any sense.  I thought that if you want to make a career, if you want to get out there, focus in on your strengths.  Then I thought, well, as an academic, for education, he is saying a very prudent thing.  But as someone who wants to strike out, you can see why I would be resistant.  That’s why I only lasted a year at Yale.

FJO:  Now, were you there at the same time as—

MT:  Julia Wolfe.  We were classmates.  I didn’t know her that well.  She was always friendly.  I didn’t really make any friends that year.  It was kind of a solitary year.  But she was always filled with wide-eyed energy.  We never got that close, but I always liked her.

FJO:  What’s so interesting is that you, Julia, Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Aaron Kernis are all roughly contemporaneous and you all went to Yale. Even though you all have distinctive compositional voices, you were all responding to similar things.

MT:  Maybe some.

FJO:  Well, for starters, the idea of taking minimalism somewhere else.  And then you all had an openness to popular music and finding ways of incorporating aspects of it into your own music on your own terms.

MT:  I think that’s right.

FJO:  I think that it was the zeitgeist.  But this was obviously before there was a Bang on a Can and there was no codification of this kind of eclecticism.

MT:  Right.  David, Aaron, and Michael were all just a little bit older.  At the time when I graduated from Eastman, I had an offer to go to Columbia.  And remember, my dream was to live in New York—that was the end all, be all.  So of course I’m going to accept Columbia.  And everyone said, “No, you’ve got to go to Yale.  That’s where the things are happening.”  People like David Lang, who I knew from Aspen and we overlapped at Tanglewood together in 1983.

FJO:  When Ceremony of Innocence was performed there.

MT:  That’s right.  David said, “You’ve got to go to Yale.  Are you out of your mind?”  So, at the last minute, I called back Yale and said, “Is your offer still standing?  And if is it, I’d like to come.”

FJO:  Was Martin Bresnick the connector for everybody?  Or was it Jacob Druckman?

MT:  They were both talked about as being people you should work with.  But at the time, Jacob was the king of the new music world.  He was writing an opera for the Met.  He was the composer-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic and was running the Horizons concerts there.   It seemed like he had his finger on the pulse of everything.  What I didn’t know was how open-minded and enthusiastic he was about everything.  I thought, “Well, he’s kind of a neo-Berio guy with his music,” but no—his music was one thing; his world view was really wide.

FJO:  Just as your music starts getting paid attention to in the so-called real world, you drop out of school and you move to New York, but then it seems like all these significant milestones in your career start happening all at once.  The commissions from the New York Youth Symphony and the Brooklyn Philharmonic, so you have a performance of your music at Carnegie Hall and another one under the direction of Lukas Foss, who was extremely influential. You’d already had your music performed at Tanglewood.  Soon after that, Boosey & Hawkes approaches you.  Then New York City Ballet enters the picture.  Things that other people wait decades to have happen in their lives seemed to happen to you in only six months.

MT:  The other component, which was a little bit later, was when Decca Records decided to do the imprint of Argo and Andrew Cornall took an interest in me. Imagine a guy coming to New York, taking you out for dinner, and saying, “We’d like to record all your music.”  That will never happen again.  It never happened before.  It’s ridiculous and of course, relatively speaking, that was short lived—from ’89 until maybe you could say ’97—but still it was so crucial for getting the music out.  Another thing that happened in 1985 right when I got to New York was the ISCM World Music Days.  Do you know that festival?  Is it still going on?

FJO:  I’m now on their executive committee.

Imagine a guy coming to New York, taking you out for dinner, and saying, “We’d like to record all your music.” That will never happen again.

MT:  Oh, good.  Congratulations.  I have to thank them because they picked Vanada to be done at the Kleine Zaal at the Concertgebouw.  It was the first trip I ever made to Europe.  This was in October of 1985, and what I learned later was that Boosey & Hawkes heard about it and they were there at that concert.  That was one of the key things making them interested.  It was a real turning point, which I didn’t know.  I just was excited.  It was a good performance, I was excited to be in Europe; I met a lot of people there.  But that was key.

FJO:  This is great to hear.  Ellen Taaffe Zwilich credits the performance of her String Quartet at the 1976 ISCM World Music Days in Boston, which was the only time it ever happened officially in the United States, with putting her music on the map. It’s very interesting to hear how many people’s careers were established this way. Of course, you know that Boulez’s Le Marteau Sans Maître was premiered at the World Music Days back in the 1950s and so was the Berg Violin Concerto, in 1936, the year after Berg died?

MT:  Are you serious? I didn’t know that. That’s huge.

FJO:  You’re in illustrious company.

MT:  Yeah.

FJO:  And it’s interesting that this is what put you on the radar of Boosey & Hawkes.

MT:  There’s also another element.  I went to the MacDowell Colony for the first time in June of 1984.  This is before I started Yale.  And who should be there among the composers but David Del Tredici, whose music I admired.  To me, he was a superstar.  At the time, he was a celebrity in my mind.  I just couldn’t imagine I’d be in the same room with David Del Tredici.  We played four-handed piano together.  And I was like, boy he’s so friendly.  What I learned was that David Huntley at Boosey & Hawkes said to David Del Tredici, “Can you secretly get some scores of Michael’s? We want to look at them, but we don’t want to ask him because we don’t want him to know that we’re interested.“ And so David said, “Could I have some scores?”  I said, “Sure, why not?”  So that was happening behind the scenes. It’s weird, because that would have been before ISCM, so I don’t know how it was that they had first heard my music.

FJO:  I imagine someone from Boosey & Hawkes attended the ASCAP Young Composer Awards and BMI Student Composer Awards ceremonies. Reps from the major publishers still attend them. And you won both of these awards. Ceremony of Innocence won.  Someone probably also showed up at Tanglewood when Ceremony of Innocence was performed there.

MT:  Yeah, that could be.  And then Vanada won, too.

FJO:  Often pieces win these awards before they ever get performed. Did Vanada win before or after it was played at ISCM?

MT:  It won before it was played.

FJO:  That’s probably why they showed up at ISCM, to hear it.

MT:  Yeah, maybe.

FJO:  Very interesting.  I want to talk about the recordings, but I want to stay with publishing and with orchestral performances a bit more, because all this happened before you were 25. Nowadays, as I said at the beginning of our conversation, everybody’s programming emerging composers, but back then it was really not the way business was done.

MT:  Certainly in classical music, there was so much emphasis on the older people doing it.  So that was unusual from the publishing point of view.  But then Peter Martins went to Boosey & Hawkes and said, “Who is the young Stravinsky?”  That was, I think, what he said.  Well, there is no young Stravinsky, but they said, “We’re interested in this person who we are now representing.  Take a listen.”  So he purposely asked to work with someone young.  O.K., that’s outside of music, but there was always interest in youth, because if you have a relationship with someone young that can last, it’s like putting a young judge on the Supreme Court, it’s going to last for a long time.  You know, it’s a good investment.

FJO:  But maybe part of why that was happening and maybe why a lot of young composers then weren’t being paid attention to is because the whole self-publishing thing hadn’t yet exploded. The internet wasn’t around for most people yet.

MT:  Right.

FJO:  So if you wanted to reach someone like Peter Martins at New York City Ballet—

MT:  You couldn’t.

FJO:  Unless you were at Boosey & Hawkes or Schirmer, which had established relationships with all these key tastemakers.

MT:  And you couldn’t reach Boosey & Hawkes.  I had a friend whose dream was to be a Boosey & Hawkes composer.  He said, “Michael, don’t even try.  If you make a submission, it’s going to go nowhere.  I’ve tried a million times.  I have the best connections through Ned Rorem and all of that.”  I didn’t know there was all this behind-the-scenes stuff.  I never wanted to be with a publisher.  Steve Reich and Philip Glass said the only way you’re going to make it is to start your own ensemble and work your ass off for 20 years, and if you’re lucky, at age 40, you might get some attention.  And that was what I wanted to do.  So when Boosey & Hawkes finally came knocking officially, I thought, “Do I even want to talk to them?  Because that isn’t the game plan.”  But they said, “We can do a lot of stuff for you, and in Europe, too.”  And I thought, “How can I say no to that?”  So I said O.K.

FJO:  But other tastemakers were already paying attention to you as well. The endorsement of Lukas Foss was significant; you were an untested composer and you were given the opportunity to write for an orchestra. What’s even more interesting, though, is when young composers get a break to write a first orchestra piece it rarely sounds like their subsequent music since they’re still finding their way.  Yet those early orchestra pieces of yours, Ecstatic Orange and Purple, sound fully formed.  They’re remarkably consistent with your compositional language—clearly extending minimalism on the one hand, clearly acknowledging standard repertoire music, while also embracing the immediacy of pop music and unabashed tunefulness. These are qualities that people associate with your music to this day, but you were only 24 years old at the time.

MT:  Well, I look at it as not really being fully formed at all.  I was just sitting around experimenting. But to the extent that those pieces are still played today, that probably means that they take up some kind of musical real estate.  So I’m grateful that those pieces landed so well.

FJO: The other thing that’s so unusual about these pieces is the whole backdrop of associating different types of musical content with color.

MT:  Synesthesia is this phenomenon of mixing the senses in some primitive part of the brain. In my case, I experience color when I hear music.  I hear it in keys and pitches.  So therefore, the prerequisite is having perfect pitch so that when you hear something you know what key you’re in.  Whether it is a hyper-association I developed at age four or five when I first started listening to music or whether it truly is a physiological phenomenon of truly mixing up the senses, I don’t know. Did you read Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia? I’m in it.

If you write a piece in D major that never modulates, but the piece is only six or seven minutes long, that isn’t some great accomplishment. Try doing that if it were 55 minutes long.

There’s still a lot of investigation into all of this.  Sometimes in my interviews, I put down the whole notion of synesthesia because how it informed my music is very different from what the scientific and musical community who want to talk about synesthesia think.  If I think that D major is blue, to me that’s irrelevant to the world.  In fact, it’s indulgent.  So what.  Big fucking deal.  When I was in school, someone taught me that the way to create form is to establish some kind of concept of a room.  Then you move out of the room, and then you come back in it.  Sonata form is that way.  You have the exposition, the development moves out, and the recapitulation is coming back to that center.  But I said, wait a minute, if you’re at a great party on Saturday night, why would you ever leave the party?  So the idea is why do we need modulation?  Therefore, if D major is blue, and I want to write a piece in blue that never modulates, then what you’re doing is you’re celebrating the non-modulation, so you can call it Bright Blue Music as a way to say something about the form.  That’s what my idea was.  But they don’t want to talk about that. They want to talk about what it’s like to experience blue.  To me, the actual physiology of it is of no interest at all.  To me, it’s the form, whether those pieces work by never modulating. I don’t know.  Modulation is one of the great tools we have as composers.  I don’t believe that it’s some great virtue to never modulate.  I love modulating.  At the time, I was just working on something.  I can be very self-critical.  If you write a piece in D major that never modulates, but the piece is only six or seven minutes long, that isn’t some great accomplishment.  Try doing that if it were 55 minutes long.

When Torke was in his 20s, he explained on Japanese television how his unusual perception of synesthesia relates to his music.

FJO:  But it’s interesting that you were exploring harmonic stasis as well as changing keys without transposing melodies around the same time.

MT:  Well, I was thinking about modulation, I guess.  Or the lack of it.

FJO:  A piece like The Yellow Pages keeps changing keys.  It would be a rainbow if you were going to give it color name.

MT:  Well, the truth is it’s anchored in G major, which is yellow. It modulates, but it comes back. It clearly in my mind is yellow.  Again, these are semantic concepts where I would see if I could make it relate to music.  They’re not always consistent.  It was just the way that it got me to put notes together.

FJO:  Ha, I didn’t realize there was a synesthetic connection with the title.  I thought it was a goof on the fact that the Yellow Pages is a phone book that goes through all different kinds of companies in the same way that you’re going through every key.

He was saying don’t write tonal music. I have no patience for that kind of directive.

MT:  It’s a musical alphabetical order, so it is like the Yellow Pages.  And it’s written in G major, which for me synesthetically is yellow.  Also, I had a professor at Yale who said if you go into the pawnshop of tonality, you pay a steep price.  Well, I just did.  If you went to a pawnshop, all the pages would be yellowed because they would be old.  So that was my little quip on that professor.  Because what he was saying is don’t write tonal music.  I have no patience for that kind of directive, so I was making a joke—an inside joke.

FJO:  The other interesting thing about The Yellow Pages is that it is a piece that you kept thinking about ten years after you initially wrote it when you added two additional movements to it: Blue Pages and White Pages, which is weird because The Yellow Pages was a fully formed piece and was already out there getting performed by different ensembles. But the goal was to create something even more significant, a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts—The Telephone Book.  It’s interesting how seamless those three movements fit together even though in the intervening ten years your compositional language had evolved.

MT:  Thank you, but I don’t know if all three work.  There was a dance piece made to all three movements, and that’s when I thought maybe it does work.  But there was some resistance, since The Yellow Pages does its own thing.  Why bring in these other things?  It’s almost like when you make a movie sequel—come on, that’s just a cynical thing of trying to cash in on all of that.  I think that even my publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, was a little resistant.

FJO:  I think this idea of playing out a process three different ways is an innovative way to deal with the structure of a multi-movement piece. So many of your early compositions are single-movement pieces. But there’s another early piece that you originally conceived as a multi-movement piece, Slate, in which you present the exact same material untransposed in four different keys. It takes the concept of The Yellow Pages to yet another level.

MT:  There was joke behind it, too.  Because while working with City Ballet, what I realized is that choreographers listen to the ictus of everything.  They listen to the attacks.  I said arrogantly that they’re not really listening to the harmonies or what’s actually going on in any kind of horizontal way.  That’s a terrible thing to say, because it’s untrue.  They listen to the essence of the music, and they make creative, beautiful pieces for dance.  But in my arrogant state, I said, “What if I wrote four movements where all the attacks were exactly the same, all the orchestration was the same, everything was exactly the same, except I changed the harmonies just slightly?”  That would force a choreographer to concentrate on the harmonies because everything else is the same.  Lincoln Kirstein heard that piece, and he said, “Now that’s an idea.”  That’s what led to him wanting to work with me.  He commissioned the Mass and also he had commissioned another ballet that didn’t happen—he wanted Puss in Boots to be done, but that fell to the wayside.

FJO:  But Slate has lived on as just one of the four movements which is one of the great disappointments for me as a listener since it destroys the whole form of the piece.

MT:  Well, that was in ’89 and around that time Decca came calling.  And Andrew [Cornall] said, “O.K. Michael, it’s an interesting concept.  We’ll record one of the movements.  I guess maybe the first movement would be the best one to record.”  I said, “Couldn’t you record all of them, and even separate them on an album?” No.  That was, you know, God speaking from above. So that’s what we did.

FJO:  Well, now you have your own recording label.

MT:  I could do it.

FJO:  Do it.  Please.

MT:  Thank you, because I kind of thought that idea really failed big time.  I didn’t know whether it was worth doing.

FJO:  It’s totally worth doing.  I’ve looked at the score.  At one point, many years ago, I even convinced you to give me a MIDI-mockup of it and I’ve listened to it. It would be great to hear it with actual musicians.

MT:  All right, I’ll work on that.

The CD cover for the very first all-Torke CD on London/Decca's Argo imprint shows four identical images of Michael Torke with four different color backgrounds.

Curiously, even though the recording of Slate that was released on the very first all-Michael Torke CD on London/Decca’s Argo Records only featured one of the four nearly-identical movements of the piece, the cover for that recording, reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s famous silkscreen portraits of celebrities, consists of four identical images of Torke against four different color backgrounds.

FJO:  Since we’re talking about something you perceived as a failure, even though I don’t think it is, I’d like to get back to this teacher who told you to concentrate on your weaknesses. I’m really glad that teacher told you to write vocal music and that you eventually did since some of my favorite pieces of yours are the vocal ones, especially Four Proverbs. I still hear those tunes in my head more than 20 years later.

MT:  Wow.  Thank you.

FJO:  Part of it is that the melodies are really catchy and they repeat.  But another reason I think is that my brain is trying to process how you matched syllables to pitches, which is very peculiar.

I have these invented ways to push the notes around that I want people to be aware of; I want them to hear it.

MT:  The idea was that I have these invented ways to push the notes around that I want people to be aware of; I want them to hear it.  So you have a little flag attached to every note with the syllable from a proverb, which has incredible meaning, and then they get all mixed, but then they come back together.  I thought that those flags would help the listener’s ears, the reinforcing nature of a word being attached invariantly to a note.  I thought that that would be self-reinforcing and help matters.  If there’s this notion of an additive process in music, what about adding not from the beginning but adding from the end where it’s the last syllable, the last two syllables, and the last three syllables working up this way, so it gets more and more in focus.  That was one thing I played around with.  I played around in the second proverb with the notion of something Robert Morris taught me at Eastman of three levels of hierarchy where mathematically you can have something going at its original duration, and have something happen the exact augmentation above it, and then four times the original where there’s this property where the attacks all line up.  It’s a mathematical thing that he showed me.  And I thought that would work in my music because you could actually hear that.

FJO:  Even though there’s all this math behind it, it’s really effective prosody. You can also hear every word, even if they don’t quite make sense when they’re jumbled up.

MT:  Another piece, Five Songs of Solomon, is kind of like the Slate idea.  I asked Margaret Lloyd, “Which are your two best notes in your range?” And she said, “The E-flat in the top space of the treble staff and the A-flat a fifth below.” So I wrote the same song five times using those intervals.  Everything is the same formally, but they’re all in slightly different keys. It’s exactly like Slate.  When you hear it, it sounds like French salon music, but then, by the time you’re on the third song, you’re like, “Wait a minute!  What’s going on in the meta-thing?”  Then you hear the overall architecture, which I hope is satisfying.

FJO:  Let’s get back to that record company deal with Decca.  How did it happen?

MT:  I don’t know exactly, except that this is the story that I always say: The invention of CDs gave a false feeling to the big record companies that they were more successful than they really were—especially in classical music, because everyone replaced their vinyl with CDs. And all of those big companies said, “Wow, we’ve got a great business. Now that we have all this extra cash, let’s do a new music imprint.”  And Andrew Cornall, who was one of the big Decca producers at the time, said, “I want to run that.”  And so he was given Argo.  And he said, “I want to identify some British composers and American composers.”  At the time, he identified two Americans—Aaron Kernis and me.  And he identified Mark Turnage and now I can’t remember the other guy.  You would know him.

FJO:  Graham Fitkin.

MT:  Yes.  And it seemed like at the outset there were only four composers he was interested it.  Then it got bigger and bigger.  He branched out to people like Michael Daugherty, Julia Wolfe, other people got involved, over in the U.K. even more.  But I don’t know how he got interested in it.  Did Boosey give him stuff?  I had no relationship to Decca or to him.  He was a complete stranger to me.  Once we started working together, it was fabulous. We’re still friends. The Concerto for Orchestra that I wrote for the Liverpool Philharmonic in 2014 was because of him saying, “We want to do some big commissions, so we’ll go to Michael.  I worked with him years ago.” That’s how that came about.

FJO:  Wow. The important connections you establish early on are often the ones that help you throughout your career. A lot of these connections developed because you were a house composer with one of the biggest blue chip music publishers in the world and then had this record contract with one of the world’s largest media conglomerates. But the world has changed and these once seemingly all-powerful publishers and record companies have a lot less influence. At the same time, you’re now self-published and run your own record company.

MT:  All those industries have collapsed.  Boosey is a ghost of what it was.  If you’re a composer signed by Boosey, the kind of promotion that they would do for you today is a fraction from what they did for me back in the ‘80s.  They worked hard on my behalf and I’m so grateful.  It was just thrilling what they did.  I didn’t even know all the things they did for me. My arrogance just took it all in stride.  And at one time, there were the big record labels.  They still exist, but thanks to the digital revolution that all has collapsed.

FJO:  But from being on Decca, you got radio airplay all over the United States—and I imagine all over the world.  It put you on the map with large audiences even more than the orchestra and ballet commissions did. Now there’s also a shift in how the media works.  So reaching an audience requires a completely different strategy, one that hasn’t really been figured out yet despite what some spin doctors claim. Still, some folks today can’t believe the way things used to happen.

There are so many billions of people doing billions of things. What’s good? What’s bad? I don’t know.

MT:  That was the way the world worked.  There were these big institutions that were gate keepers and it was highly criticized, because there were the elect few and if you were a Boosey & Hawkes composer, you were suddenly promoted around the world.  If you had a record contract, people knew of you.  If you didn’t, what options did you have?  So it seemed really undemocratic.  It seemed unfair.  It seemed like there were tastemakers making these decisions that could be wrong.  It seemed almost corrupt.  Now we have the democracy of the digital world.  Everyone is on equal footing.  The problem with that is that who are the tastemakers?  Who are the ones pointing to what you should hear?  I miss going into Tower Records and having, just in the pop world, the new releases.  I knew what to listen to.  How do you follow pop music today?  I don’t even know.  Maybe that’s because I’m old.  Maybe you can just surf around on YouTube.  But there are so many billions of people doing billions of things.  What’s good?  What’s bad?  I don’t know.  That wonderful democracy that we all speak about, I wonder if that goes hand in hand with art, because we’re always trying to make distinctions in art and we had a lot of help in the old century.

FJO:  The other part that we haven’t talked about yet is how to make money in this new environment.  You have your own publishing company.  You have your own record company. Are you able to sell recordings and scores?

MT:  Yeah.  I was lucky because I was set up by the old system where the monetization of what I was doing enabled me to concentrate on composing.  I could make a living at it.  Remember that this digital revolution was gradual.  So, as I was learning about the business, I learned how to monetize what I was doing better and better.  A simple thing like having works going forward from 1992 be my copyrights—rather than Boosey & Hawkes’s copyrights, but they would administrate them—was huge in terms of turning the money around.  But I just didn’t know that.  I learned the whole do-it-yourself thing on the job. So I had a publishing company in 1992.  That was before any of this stuff we’re talking about, so I was set up for that.  But then it occurred to me that I actually could do better than Boosey & Hawkes administrating my copyrights if I had a boutique guy like Bill Holab do it.  That happened as late as 2004 when I was saying no to Boosey even being an administrator.  And the whole recording thing? What’s great is that everyone can make perfect records.  Everyone and their aunt and their aunt’s dog can do that.  That’s really great.  But no one cares anymore.  And there’s certainly no money in it.  So why we make recordings today is as a promotional tool.

The one thing that’s left with recorded music is radio.  Because BMI pays very well with radio.  Better than ASCAP.  So when I have a new release, I send it with personal letters to the music directors of 250 classical radio stations.  And they write back and say, “We loved hearing from you.  We’ll take a listen.”  And then when it’s on the radio six to twelve months later, I see it on my BMI statements.  There still is money there.  And that helps also because, who knows, some choreographer’s driving down Highway 1 in California, and they hear it and then that might lead to some dance piece that would have grand rights.  So the publishing is still really important in classical music.  And I’m still able to monetize it to the extent that I can make a living at it.

A shelf with bundles of Torke CDs grouped together with rubber bands.

FJO:  Now I wonder about the kinds of things that you can do now that you’re on your own and don’t have any gatekeepers telling you what to do, like the kinds of pieces you can write.  You wrote this massive piece for ten pianos a couple of years ago, which I imagine is the kind of piece that a publisher would have rejected out of hand. “Are you out of your mind?  We’ll never be able to get another performance of that!  It’s a one-time deal, so we can’t invest our resources in publishing that.”

MT:  Yeah, right.  The fact is that you don’t have to worry about things like, “Well, we can’t engrave that because no one’s ever going to do it.” It’s already engraved by the time I put the double bar by virtue of the great programs like Sibelius that I use.  But I think even more important than that, which I’m saying in a kind of lopsided way, is that you can do these deals with these funky outfits like this woman who has this zany ten-piano group in Miami and has no money.  How did she hear of me?  She was the rehearsal pianist at the workshop for my Metropolitan Opera commission.  That’s how we met. She called me up a year later and said, “I have this idea for ten pianos.”  I said great.  She raised a little bit of money, and I said the way to make it work is that we’re going to record it right then and there.  We’re going to record the concert, but we’re going to do a patch session, and I want the rights to that recording to put on my label.  And so we did a deal.  I can do the piece, which I thought would be fun, and I could have the recording.  I thought it would an easy piece to monetize.  Think about it.  Every music school, how many pianos do they own?  There’s a piano in every practice room.  What would it take to move ten pianos into one room?  Nothing.  What would it take to get ten pianists?  There’s 50 pianists at every music school.  It should be played across America in every conservatory.  It hasn’t yet, but why couldn’t it?

FJO:  Because most pianists are trained to be soloists and they don’t want to play with anybody else.

MT:  Yeah, well, that kind of idea is going down a little bit.

FJO:  O.K. there are other things.  You’ve written a bunch of band pieces and have issued them as a series.  The big publishers have now caught up with the band world, but once upon a time they totally ignored it and focused mostly on trying to get performances with big orchestras and opera companies. But the band world offers incredible opportunities for composers in terms of getting multiple performances, multiple recordings, and simply selling lots of sets of scores.

MT:  It’s huge and there’s tremendous respect for composers who are doing it well.  They’re like heroes, the real great practitioners like Frank Ticheli or John Mackey or Eric Whitacre.  But I write these weird pieces that are rhythmically difficult, and band directors say, “Oh, I like the sound of it.”  But then they start rehearsing it and then they don’t want to play it.  I have a piece called Bliss that just was re-recorded because I revised it. I sent it to 347 band directors across the country.  That’s me doing what a publisher used to do.  And ten percent wrote back.  One percent said that they might like to play it.  And I think I got maybe three or four rentals.  A friend pointed out that that’s success.  But I thought I would write this—okay, somewhat challenging—piece that every university band would want to play.  And it didn’t quite work out.  So, is that a failure?  No.  Do I stand by the piece?  Yes.  But as far as capitalizing the band market as a way to monetize what we’re doing, I think I’ve failed.

FJO:  Writing personal letters to 347 band directors takes a long time. That’s a lot of time to be taking away from writing music.

MT:  Well, if you don’t, you can’t write music. As my friend Jim Legg once said, you can’t write music 24 hours of the day.  If you don’t have a wife who’s demanding time and you don’t have children’s diapers to change and you don’t have a teaching job, there’s no excuse not to do this stuff.

FJO:  So what’s the balance?

MT:  I would say it’s probably three-fifths composing and two-fifths doing the business side.  I keep a stopwatch so I keep track of all of this.

Michael Torke's spare work desk contains just a lamp, a computer with an oversized monitor; a digital piano is off to the side.

FJO:  I just heard the new recording that the Albany Symphony did of two of your recent concertos even though you don’t call them that.

MT:  That’s true, but that’s what they are.

FJO:  These piece reminded me about a dichotomy that started happening in your music about 25 years ago. Back then it seemed like there were two different Michael Torkes. There was the Michael Torke who did this very-much-part-of-the-zeitgeist, rhythmic, post-minimalist stuff that I personally found very appealing as a composer since it connected to things that I was interested in.  But then there was this other Michael Torke who was really interested in the standard repertoire and wanted to write really lush, romantic music.  Back then there were these distinct polarities, but I think in these pieces you’ve finally merged these two strands somehow.

MT:  If that’s the case, then I’ve finally solved one of the biggest problems of my life, because I think that you’ve identified it.  In 1990, I wrote a piano concerto that I called Bronze.  I performed it myself at Carnegie Hall and then I wrote something that Lincoln Kirstein commissioned, Mass. Both were kind of regressive, because I thought I wanted to write a piece that sounds like it’s in that era.  Why not?  You know, we live in a post-modern time where history means nothing.  And if they’re doing it in the visual arts, we should do it. Those pieces, of course, failed miserably.  They were highly criticized. Boosey & Hawkes did that, too.  So, by 1992, when I wrote the first piece after that little period, which was Music on the Floor, I remember Steven Swartz said, “He’s back to his rigorous style.”  And I thought, “O.K., you tried something and it doesn’t work.  You have the humility to say we all fail, and you move on.”

Pianists need repertory. They’ve run out. In the past, composers fulfilled those needs. Now we’re off doing other things and we say we can never appeal to them.

But look at the industry.  There are incredible piano concertos that all the great soloists play in all the cities and with all the orchestras.  And yet you know, in the Janet Malcolm piece on Yuja Wang that just appeared The New Yorker, she said that she wants to branch out now and maybe play the Messiaen Turangalîla. Well, that’s not a concerto.  It’s good that she’s doing pieces like that, but what she’s really saying—between the lines—is “I’ve run out of pieces to play.  What else am I supposed to do?”  What if someone could write something that is fresh and well-orchestrated, that audiences can get excited about, pianists want to play, and conductors respect, meaning the notes are well put together?  It’s not like you’re going to try to imitate Brahms or Gershwin. All the intellectuals will say, “You can’t just cop another style.”  What if you write it in such a way that people say, “That’s his style”?  You’re fulfilling this thing.  Pianists need repertory.  They’ve run out.  In the past, composers fulfilled those needs.  Now we’re not.  We’re off doing other things and we say we can never appeal to them.  You write some turgid piano concerto or some experimental thing that everyone respects, but who wants to play it?  It may sound cynical, but I’m trying to do a very hopeful thing.

FJO:  It’s so funny to hear you say that since, when we began this thing, you said that you’re in this little corner off to the side.  It sounds like you’re totally in touch with what’s going on.

MT:  I think to have the impulse of trying to write for that industry is out in left field; I don’t know if there’s another composer thinking that way.

FJO:  But if it’s not about being that ‘70s pop songwriter that you don’t want to be who is trying to have a few hits and make money, what’s the reason for doing it?

MT:  So you’ve connected all the dots, Frank. I’ve even thought of that.  What would happen if pianists did play Three Manhattan Bridges and it was circulated in the concert halls around the world?  And there was a 15-year phenomenon where I made a lot of royalties.  Then after that, it was kind of forgotten because maybe I wrote a new concerto or there are other composers doing even better things.  That wouldn’t be so bad.  Because after all, 15 years from now, I will be 70.  And maybe I’ll have slowed down. That might be a nice run.  So maybe I’m thinking exactly like the ‘70s Top 40.  And so maybe that’s the way to go.

The view from the window of Torke's studio apartment showing the United Nations and the 59th Street Bridge.

Part of the time Torke was composing Three Manhattan Bridges was in his New York studio which has this view of the 59th Street Bridge.

Fair Trade for Sheet Music

I’m an entrepreneurial composer. I’ve never shied away from the fact that I have good business sense, and I’m always looking for ways to use that sense to further the cause of my music and of new music in general. Over the years, I’ve owned and operated eight separate businesses, most of which relate to music, all of which have had significant impacts on my career, and seven of which I still run.

In my currently active businesses, I act as composer, publisher, engraver, vocalist, web designer, retailer/distributor, and writer. As a vocalist, I specialize in 20th and 21st century art songs since I love performing new works and feel a deep commitment to helping promote the music of my peers. I’ve been designing websites since 2005, and it’s partly through running this business that I’ve come to learn what I have about conducting my musical businesses.

In 2010, I founded a company NewMusicShelf.com, which is a digital retailer/distributor for self-published composers. The site is intended to be a centralized hub for composers to be able to sell their works, and for performers to find scores outside of the traditional publishing system. The service currently represents 25 composers and over 300 of their scores. Right now I’m in the process of redesigning the site and attempting to more fully automate the ways that I accept new composers and new scores.
I’m fascinated with the business aspects of the arts, and a new and exciting business idea is just as likely to keep me awake late into the night as a new and exciting musical idea is.
Creating an Economy

Deep Sea Food Chain

Deep Sea Food Chain by Bruce Mahalski. Photo courtesy of Pieter Pieterse on Flickr.

I’m really excited to have put a new pricing structure into effect on my website because it allows me to place a value on my scores that I can feel confident about. In a world that increasingly relies on the economy of free, it’s important to establish that some things aren’t free, and in fact have an actual dollar value associated with them.

I sincerely believe that we, as a society, can’t claim to value something—be it an object, a service, or our culture in general—if we refuse to ascribe an actual price to it or to some part of it. As my web design business grows, I realize more and more that those clients who pay a higher design fee inevitably value my time more, and treat me with more respect. And so must it be with what we do as composers and performers. We must know our worth, relative to any given situation, and be prepared to ask for what we deserve. Or, in those instances when we charge less than we should, make it clear that we’re working at a discounted rate.
This isn’t to say that we should never do anything or give anything away for free, or that we should always charge the highest fee possible—on the contrary, it’s to say that we must know when free is detrimental to our growth and the growth of other composers. Giving a score to a performer friend, or writing a little birthday ditty for free won’t break the bank, and it’s not going to cause the world to walk all over us. But to allow large institutions—or even small venues—to continue to bully us into accepting “exposure” or “experience” as payment has to stop. So, too, must the practice of organizations and ensembles offering us the vague half-promise of a performance if we pay them so much for their consideration, send them a free score, then—on the off chance that our work is selected for performance—provide parts free of charge, and cover the complete costs of our own travel, lodging, and food because the organization requires our attendance as a requisite for performance.

There are times when free or discounted are appropriate; and there will be times when each of us takes on a project or participates in a festival or series of workshops where we’re not paid for our time or reimbursed for our expenses, but we get something larger out of the experience. But in the long run, we have to accept the fact that artistic fulfillment doesn’t pay the bills. It’s possible to be artistically fulfilled and still get paid: one does not preclude the other.

We also need to accept that the concert music world is a micro-economy that is comprised of a number of smaller sub-economies (orchestras, chamber ensembles, opera companies, new music concert series, etc.), and that it also overlaps with other, often larger, micro-economies (academia, film, advertising, etc.). Our micro-economy, like so many others, is fairly fragile while at the same time remarkably robust.

Fragile, because our contributions to society/culture/education/community are often seen as either unnecessary or frivolous—luxuries that can be foregone when people decide they don’t want to pay for them anymore. Or, as is more often the case, provided gratis when people can’t or don’t want to pay for them anymore.

Fragile, because we’ve made ourselves almost completely dependent on the largesse of the moneyed few rather than forging our own financial paths and bolstering our micro-economy with solid financial planning and institutional/administrative dynamism (as opposed to what Terry Teachout’s has described as “administrative sclerosis”).

Yet robust, because our community is made up of individuals and organizations that want our art to survive and flourish, and are willing to do whatever it takes to make that so.

Unfortunately, it’s what makes us so robust that ultimately leads to our fragility. We’re willing to work for free…so why should anyone pay us?

Our reliance on granting organizations and the privately wealthy to maybe give us some funding—almost always with strings attached—has crippled our industry. We’re also crippled by the ridiculous fact that most of us refuse to see concert music as an industry in the first place. The court of the Esterhazys is gone. We’re on our own now, and government and institutional funding is dwindling because we’ve allowed ourselves to be marginalized, internalizing the ideas that a) what we do is not truly important in a global sense, and b) we’re above thinking about money because we’re Artistes and should not trouble ourselves with such mundane and vulgar matters.

We’re not above it, and we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we are. We’re each surrounded by people who value what we do, and it’s those people who can help us to rebuild and reshape the industry of concert music into one that values itself and stops apologizing for needing to be paid. We need to be an industry whose practitioners go out into the world with a confident sense of purpose and cultural relevance, who don’t rely solely on long-shot institutional or government funding or alms from the rich, and who aren’t either terrified or disdainful of basic business practices.
We can spare a little of our creativity and a little of our time to forge new paths to revitalize this industry that people keep saying is dead. Concert music will never die, but wouldn’t it be nice to get it off of life support?

Fair Trade


Photo courtesy of Keith Fahlgren on Flickr.

While our cultural/educational/societal/whatever-al contributions are too often seen as unnecessary luxuries (that people are unwilling to actually forego), we also live in a society in which a significant number of people value fair trade coffee and are willing to pay more so that workers in that industry are paid a living wage (or close to it). It is not my intention to belittle the efforts of fair trade organizations, or to put the well-being of coffee pickers and traders (and workers in other fair trade industries) beneath that of composers living in the First World, but rather to point out that it’s worth the added expense of a score or a concert ticket if the composer or performers are paid fairly. In fact, we should be proud to pay composers or performers what they’re worth instead of continually shaming them into accepting a lower fee—or no fee at all—because we can’t bring ourselves to budget properly, or to actually place a true value on the efforts of these highly trained artists.

I’m curious to know what would happen if an organization advertised the fact that it pays its artists and collaborators fees that are respectful of the artist’s work. To me, it would demonstrate a deeper commitment to the arts than any mission statement ever could.

What We Can Learn from Novelists

Lots of Books

Photo courtesy of zimpenfish on Flickr.

I follow the book publishing industry very closely and am a devoted reader of several blogs written by authors who are in the vanguard of self-publishing, and I can’t help but see the parallels between our industry and theirs.

Traditionally published (or legacy published, as is the common nomenclature amongst “self-pubbed” writers) novelists receive the bulk of their income from advances. An “advance” is a payment against future sales (technically: an advance against future royalties), and sometimes covers more than one book. The advance is, on one hand, technically a loan to the author that assumes a certain volume and velocity of sales of the books under contract (this loan is rarely called in if the book doesn’t sell well); and on the other, it’s a gamble on the publisher’s part that the books will recoup the publisher’s investment and earn additional royalties. The majority of legacy-published authors often don’t earn much beyond their advance, and the book goes out of print after the first run. Historically, rights eventually revert back to the author, who may then either find a new publisher for the book or publish it themselves.

Traditionally published composers receive the bulk of their income from commissions. Or teaching. Or anything but score sales. Traditionally published composers receive no advance against sales because music publishers are unwilling to guarantee a single sale. Composers receive $1 upon signing a contract with a publisher because contract law stipulates that there must be some monetary “consideration” involved in such transactions. Awesome.

Legacy published novelists retain many rights when they sign contracts with a publisher—all non-North American rights, translation rights, and movie/TV option rights remain with the author upon signing a contract. A novelist may license her work, or some part of it, to publishers in other countries or to production companies for a limited time to possibly turn her work into a movie or TV series. (If the production company fails to create a movie, etc., within the stipulated timeframe, the company must re-license the work, often for a larger fee.)

Composers, upon signing with traditional publishers, usually hand over worldwide rights to their work. In perpetuity. Royalty rates for print sales are stipulated in the contract (typically a measly 10%, with many contractual opportunities for the publisher to pay less), but no other rights reside with the composer, including the right to arrange the work.
Self-published novelists earn no advance. The bulk of creative income comes from book sales, though they, too, have licensing options, and production companies are increasingly seeking out self-published authors because they’re easier to work with than legacy publishers.

Self-published composers walk the line between traditionally published composers and self-published novelists. On the one hand, they make the bulk of their income from commissions, but have the option to earn income from sales, although they’re unlikely to have anything near the sales volume or velocity of a self-published novelist, who has the Amazon/Kindle/B&N/Nook/Kobo/Sony/Smashwords/etc. platforms at her disposal. Self-published composers need to do significantly more work to stay afloat than indie writers; but compared to traditionally published composers, they earn a significantly greater income from significantly fewer sales.

One need only look at Alex Shapiro, John Mackey, or Stephen Paulus—to name but a few—to see a self-published composer who belongs to the industry of concert music: excellent artists who aren’t afraid or disdainful of doing business. So in that spirit I’d like to share my own thought process on how I price my music.

Coming Up With a Viable Price Structure for Sheet Music

Cash Register

Photo courtesy of Cheon Fong Liew on Flickr.

As a mentioned at the beginning of this essay, I recently put a new price structure into effect for my music. This past fall, I redesigned my website, as I do every few years. One of the biggest changes I made was to remove the “Store” page in favor of emphasizing commerce on the “Works” pages themselves. Every piece that I have ready to be printed and shipped, or at the very least downloaded, has a picture of the score cover with pricing information, links to buy print and digital copies, and sample pages.

Along with the reworking of the site came a necessary reworking in my pricing structure. My former price structure was…well…completely unstructured. I had based my prices more on a feeling of what I should charge than on anything concrete or measurable, which led to near-paralysis for days and weeks on end as I agonized over pricing every piece. For years, I didn’t put a dollar amount on a lot of scores, leaving them instead to be dealt with later.

I’d known for years that I should base my prices on what it costs me to print them, but that meant that I had to figure out my printing solution. Was I going to invest in the equipment to do it all myself and figure prices according to my supplies and time, or was I going to farm it out to an existing print company and base my prices on theirs? The former would cost much more up front, but would save money in the long run. It also would take considerable time, especially learning the processes on the front end. And every mistake would cost both time and money. Plus, the equipment and supplies would take up room that I just don’t have in a New York City apartment, which I share with my partner (also a composer with lots of gear) and our three cats (one of whom loves paper more than any other plaything). In the end, I decided to go with an outside company. In various areas of my life, I’ve become increasingly predisposed toward saving time and aggravation by letting experienced professionals do work that I may not be able to do correctly, or that may take far too much time to learn to do properly. Even though the costs may be somewhat greater, the peace of mind is well worth it.

So I sent out a request for quotes from a company I’ve worked with before and went to town on a new spreadsheet to calculate costs and profit based on the estimates I received.

A little over two years ago, I posted a little essay on my own blog on taking a practical approach to pricing. I stand behind the sentiment, but the math is a little complicated. I’ve since simplified (and in some cases, corrected) the math, which I’ll share with you below.

Now, mind you, this is for print scores—we’ll deal with digital later on.

Component Parts of Our Equation

There are a few things we need to consider when pricing scores:
1) What it costs to print each score
2) What discount we need to offer distributors
3) How much we want to make on each score, after the distributor takes their discount

Overhead costs are the simplest to figure: it’s a fixed amount given to us by our printing company. Or, for those who print and bind their own scores, it’s what it costs us in supplies per score, plus a rate for time spent. And because we likely want our scores to be sold by various retailers/distributors, we need to offer them a certain percent discount, which is standard practice. This discount is typically around 40% (give or take 10%), which will work perfectly for our purposes. We need to build this amount into our prices because a) we don’t want to have to reprice everything once we find an interested distributor, and b) we don’t want to be caught unawares and be forced to give a discount that causes us to sell scores at a loss, and c) we can’t undercut a distributor’s price.

This last point is incredibly important. While it may seem natural in a world driven by competitive pricing to offer the most attractive price on your own site and to price lower than your distributors, in this situation it’s not only misguided, it’s quite simply unethical. Distributors (I use the term loosely here), including brick and mortar retailers like your local music store or digital retailers like Theodore Front or SheetMusicPlus or (shameless plug) NewMusicShelf, are not competition—any sale that you make through a distributor is not instead of a sale that you could have made on your own site, it is in addition to any sales that you may make on your own site.

It’s very bad business practice to undercut the prices that you yourself have set for a distributor by offering scores at a lower rate on your site. It is also wildly unprofessional to publicly discourage people from making a purchase at a distributor’s site instead of on your own. You might offer a “value add” to purchases made on your site (signed copies, discounts on pieces not offered through the distributor, etc.), but to discourage sales from other vendors is a no-no. Every store or site that offers your works is additional visibility for you, and could lead to sales and a wider knowledge of your work. If you start behaving badly toward your distributors, they will—and should—stop selling your work.

Finally, we have to decide how much we want to make per score AFTER the distributor’s discount. This means that if we sell 10 copies to Such-And-Such Music at 40% off, and we’ve already spent $4.00 per score for printing, we need to figure out how much we want to have earned from this sale. It also means that if you sell the score yourself, you’re getting both your regular profit AND the 40% that you would otherwise lose to a distributor.

This minimum profit amount can be a fixed amount or a percentage.

Maybe you want to make $4.00 per score for short song sets, $10.00 for medium-length chamber works, or $0.75 per copy of each choral score. These numbers are a little arbitrary, but I chose them because I find $4 to be generally appropriate for a “short” work, and $10 to be appropriate for a “medium-length” work.
Or you could say that you want to make 25% of the gross price. On a score that sells for $10.00, you’d make $2.50.
Whatever you charge, the amount should be enough to be fair to you, but not so much that it makes the overall price prohibitive to customers.

The Math
So for those of you who paid any sort of attention in algebra class, you know that this is a simple matter of solving for X.
Cost + Distributor Discount + Profit = Price
C + D + P = X

We know what our cost is going to be because we did our homework with our print company. For our example, printing and binding totals $4.00 per score. We also know that our distributor discount is 40% of the final price (40% of X). Which means:
4 + 0.4X + P = X
OK, we can already simplify this to:
4 + 0.4X + P – (0.4X) = X – (0.4X)
4 + P = 0.6X

Now, depending on which sort of profit you’re going for, the way we solve for X changes. There are two equally viable ways to approach this equation.

1. A Fixed Profit Approach
If we want to make $5 on this piece, then:
4 + 5 = 0.6X

9 = 0.6X
9/0.6 = 0.6X/0.6
X = 15
Which makes our discount $6.00
Cost (4) + Discount (6) + Profit (5) = $15
So to figure your price, simply add your printing costs and your fixed amount profit and divide by 0.6.

2. A Percent Profit Approach
If we want to make 30% on each sale, then:
P = 0.3X
4 + 0.3X = 0.6X
4 = 0.6X – 0.3X
4 = 0.3X
4/0.3 = X
X = $13.33
You profit is $3.99, and your discount is $7.99
For good measure, let’s just round up to 13.50 so that:
Cost (4.00) + Discount (5.40) + Profit (4.10) = 13.50

The percentage route is the easier way to calculate. Essentially, all you do is add up your two percentages – 40% and your profit percent, subtract both from 100%, then divide your cost by the remaining percent. (With a 30% profit, 40% + 30% = 70%, meaning that your cost is 30% of the overall price – divide your cost by 0.3)
Then I prefer to round up to the next quarter, because, really, thirty-three cents is silly.

Postage and Digital Delivery

Mail at JFK Airport

Photo courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Flickr.

Postage is another area that requires a little bit of thought. As with printing and binding, there are multiple elements to consider: postage costs, supplies, and the time you’ll spend putting everything together and standing in line at the post office. While some composers may feel as though they don’t want to add any more onto what people are already paying them, these aren’t expenses that you should just eat. Any time you incur an expense in the process of making a sale, that expense gets passed on to the customer in some manner. Either you build that expense into the price itself, or, as with postage and handling, you tack on an additional fee to cover your expenses. Always remember the second part of that phrase: handling.

Digital delivery and all digital payments also require solid consideration. You won’t spend an hour standing in line at the post office with digital scores, but, unless you’ve automated your web store, you’re going to spend time fulfilling the order, following up to make sure the file arrived, and possibly sending it again if something went wrong in transit. And whether you use PayPal, Square, Intuit GoPayment, Google Checkout, or any other digital payment solution, you’re going to encounter transaction fees. As with postage, you shouldn’t eat those fees. You can build them into your prices, or you can add a surcharge for digital payments. There are some great tools out there to help.

Pricing Digital Scores

The accepted wisdom for pricing digital downloads of scores is to halve the price of a printed score. And for once, I’m not going to buck tradition. Shocking, I know. There are a few cases where I think that half is a little off, and I’ll adjust accordingly; but mostly, I think that half is fair. Another option, however, is to remove the print cost from your print score price, which can knock off between 30% and 40%.

Check Your Work

It’s really easy to be uncomfortable about putting price tags on your work. It can feel like you’re asking way too much one second, then far too little the next. The thing that’s kept me sane is comparing my prices to those of other self-publishers, and to traditional publishers as well. As I figured out my formula, I could check if I was missing the mark by seeing where I fell compared to works of similar instrumentation and duration.
In the end, I think I’ve found a very happy place—not least because I’ve managed to keep the subjective elements fairly limited.

For Performers

For any non-composing musicians who’ve managed to stay with me this far, you can see how prices are what they are for concert music scores. A 28-page score that costs $5.30 to print can cost you $17.50 because of the various considerations along the way. And printing is not always this cheap, especially when the composer/publisher insists on using higher quality materials and knowledgeable printing/binding services.

Remember that everyone in the chain needs to come out ahead at the end of the day. A 40% discount for retailers/distributors allows your local music shop or services like SheetMusicPlus and Theodore Front to stay in business. And a 20-30% profit per score for a self-published composer isn’t all that much—about $5.20 in the case of the $17.50, 28-page score. Given the average composer’s sales velocity…let’s just say that 30% won’t pay the rent.

Moving Forward



Some important resources that you should keep as close to your keyboard as manuscript paper. Photo by Dennis Tobenski.

What my formula does is to remove the consideration of how hard I worked on the composition of the piece or any subjective notions of the value of the music itself with objective, concrete numbers based on the real costs of paper and ink and staples. The formula takes your actual costs, and figures in profit for you and profit for the people you do business with: the printer gets paid, the distributor gets paid, and the composer gets paid. If any portion of that seems unfair or wrong to anyone, they need a radical realignment of their values.

Meanwhile, those composers who give all of their music away for free, or who purposely undercharge severely for scores and/or commissions, need to realize how much damage they’re doing to the rest of us who intend to make a real go at being a composer for a living. We’re not living/working in a vacuum—we are all part of a community, and we each have real responsibilities toward one another. One of those responsibilities is to not damage another composer’s livelihood. By acknowledging your responsibility to your colleagues and peers and placing a real value on your work, you train performers and organizations to value others’ works accordingly.

The fact that we can’t reasonably unionize puts us at a severe financial disadvantage in many respects. Experienced, talented film composers who used to be able to make a living on a solid handful of films each year are being driven from the field in droves because so many—typically young and inexperienced—composers are undercharging (often because they’re bullied into doing so, or because they want to get their foot in the door). Increasingly, filmmakers think that “exposure” and a “credit” make up for seriously underpaying a composer to score a 90-minute feature. A troubling number of ad agencies feel no embarrassment when asking for free music for a campaign that they’re being paid to create. By taking these jobs, all that these composers are actually doing is vying for first place in the race to the bottom. Only the top few can command any sort of reasonable fee, while everyone else suffers. Filmmakers, ensembles, performers, and organizations learn quickly that they don’t have to do as much fundraising, they don’t have to budget as much for artists, they don’t have to value our work…because we don’t value it ourselves.
So I challenge you composers to revisit what you charge for scores and commissions, and make a point of thinking of yourself as part of a larger community toward which you have a number of important responsibilities. Stop offering all of your works for free. Stop being disdainful and/or terrified of basic business practices and put them to use. Learn how you can use those practices along with your abilities as a creative person to advance the cause of the music that you write and the cause of new music in general.

We’re all in this together.


Dennis Tobenski

Dennis Tobenski, photo by Kaity Volpe

Dennis Tobenski is a composer, vocalist and web designer living in New York City, as well as the founder of NewMusicShelf.com and the writer of The Composer’s Guide to Doing Business. Only Air, his 20-minute work for high voice and orchestra that memorializes the LGBT teens who have taken their own lives due to bullying was premiered in April 2013 by the Illinois State University Symphony Orchestra, and will be presented again in March 2014 by The Secret Opera in NYC. On February 18, Dennis will be presenting a program of love songs by gay American composers with pianist Marc Peloquin as a part of the Composers Now Festival.

Newly Launched Composer Subscription Service Offers Alternative Publishing Model

ScoreStreet, a new website offering automated dissemination, promotion, and payment for self-published classical, jazz, and theatrical composers, launched today. While full file-protected scores and audio clips are available on the site for visitors to look at and listen to freely, performance materials are available for purchase (downloadable PDF or print-on-demand scores and parts, rental of parts for large ensemble works). In addition, permission to use any material on the site for synchronization (e.g. film, TV, advertising), mechanical (e.g. commercial CD recordings), derivative works (e.g. arrangements, samples), or grand rights purposes (e.g. operas, musicals, or ballets) can also be negotiated directly online through automated licenses. Composers who offer their music through ScoreStreet pay a monthly subscription fee but retain full ownership of all of their materials and have the ability to opt out at any time.
Like traditional publishers, ScoreStreet will actively promote its service to customers such as orchestras, opera and dance companies, festivals, conservatories, educators, performers, and music supervisors. Through its ScoreSearch™ interface, ScoreStreet helps users find the works they want and then, by filling out a questionnaire, customers obtain all the rights they need.

Unlike traditional publishing arrangements—in which composers assign part or all of their copyright to a publisher in exchange for the printing and promotion of their music and income from the composer’s music is then divided between the composer and the publisher—ScoreStreet will pay 100% of all net royalty income directly to composers on a quarterly basis and composers do not relinquish any copyrights. The sole expense for composers who choose to be included on the site is a monthly charge of $29.95.

Composers based anywhere in the world are eligible. A few brief online forms are provided for composers to fill out from which personalized landing pages, biographies, works lists, discographies, performance calendars, and news and reviews pages are generated. For each work included on the site, composers can enter descriptions and upload performance materials as well as audio clips, if available. ScoreStreet sets the prices for materials featured on the site and also automates the registration of works with performing rights organizations. For additional fees, composers may also obtain editorial and promotional services, as well as assistance with negotiating commissioning and collaboration agreements on an as-needed basis.

According to ScoreStreet’s CEO Marc D. Ostrow (himself a composer as well as an intellectual property rights attorney who was formerly a senior attorney with BMI and the general manager of the New York office of the publisher Boosey & Hawkes, Inc.), the goal behind creating such a platform for new music is to eliminate the gate-keepers and put composers and consumers directly in control. “ScoreStreet levels the playing field by providing more composers worldwide with professional music publishing services and by giving customers instant access to a varied and growing catalog of cutting-edge new music.”

If and when composers decide they no longer want to be affiliated with the site, they are able to take all of their works with them. If composers cease paying the subscription fee, all of their materials are automatically taken down from the site after a grace period. Currently composers can sign up for a free 30-day trial subscription. Members of ASCAP and the American Composers Forum will receive a 10% discount off their monthly fee and these discounts are combined for members of both organizations.
ScoreStreet was developed and is owned and run by Ostrow; Stephen Culbertson, president of Subito Music Publishing and chairman of ASCAP’s Special Classification Committee; and Stephen Rauch, a former senior executive at the Hal Leonard Corporation. Their developer partner is Greg Williams, CEO of Engage Connective Technologies. (Ed Note: NMBx’s FJO was a beta-tester for the site.)

(—from the press release)

Joseph C. Phillips Jr.: Balancing Act

Like most composers these days, Joseph C. Phillips Jr. has to balance creating new music, getting it performed, and surviving. Seeing him on his bicycle returning from the Park Slope school where he teaches music to kindergartners to his Bedford Stuyvesant apartment (where we spoke earlier this month) seemed a very apt visual metaphor for how effectively he navigates through the various parts of his life. It’s a relatively short ride, although admittedly his composition studio in upstate New York, where he does most of his composing on the weekends, is a bit further away.

Phillips has nevertheless been able to accomplish a tremendous amount of work since he first arrived in New York City in 1998. Just two years after relocating here from Seattle, he began conducting his own ensemble, Numinous, as a vehicle for disseminating his own compositions. Within a couple of years after that, he released (on his own label) a CD devoted entirely to his music—Numinous: The Music of Joseph C. Phillips, Jr.—and in 2009, his second disc, Vipassana, was released on Innova. A third (to be released by New Amsterdam Records) will be out next year. Although Numinous—which now comprises 25 musicians, practically a chamber orchestra—has remained the primary performing repository for his music, he has also received commissions to compose works for pianists Simone Dinnerstein and Lara Downes, Face The Music, the University of Maryland Wind Ensemble, and the St. Olaf College Band. And the projects he has embarked on with Numinous frequently contain additional elements. When I spoke to him, he was in the middle of a series of performances of an evening-length work, To Begin The World Over Again, inspired by the writings of Thomas Paine with Edisa Weeks’s dance group, DELIRIOUS Dances. This week, the New York City re-premiere of Ernst Lubitsch’s The Loves of Pharaoh, a 90-year-old silent film which was only rediscovered last year, will feature a newly composed score by Phillips performed live by Numinous at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Yet musical composition came relatively late to Phillips. A self-described late bloomer, he didn’t start composing until he studied piano while pursuing an undergraduate degree in music education from the University of Maryland, a course of study he didn’t embark on until his junior year. As he explains it:

Originally I was a bio-chem major. I was actually that for two years. But I couldn’t see myself being in a lab coat for the rest of my life, so I took a semester off. Then I thought, “O.K., I want to do music.” That was really my first exposure to most everything: Debussy, all the classical, and even the jazz things. I knew Coltrane before, but it was really in-depth when I started the music program at the University of Maryland. It really got me started because that was the first time I learned to play piano. And as soon as I was in there doing piano, I could do my own thing and I started writing my own things from that point on.

Finding out about his original background in lab science explains some of Phillips’s working methods. Numinous has functioned as an extremely malleable composition laboratory for him, enabling him to explore a wide range of instrumentation as well as performance practices and compositional techniques which range from a Steve Reich-ian pulse-driven minimalism to a keen sense of specific timbre combinations reminiscent of big band composer-arrangers such as Gil Evans or Maria Schneider, to a more amorphous Morton Feldman-esque harmonic ambiguity. While the name Numinous might initially evoke a sense of spirituality (the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “numinous” as supernatural, mysterious, spiritual, and holy), Phillips remains committed to a more scientific approach:

I read Carl Sagan’s Contact and there was a chapter called “The Numinous.” And I thought, “That’s what I want to do musically!” I’m not religious; I’m probably an atheist. But for me there’s a whole other thing out there that connects us. People use religions to make those connections, but I have a science background. I love Carl Sagan’s “we all come from star stuff”; that, I think, encapsulates the kind of connection that the universe has. I made a decision that I want my music to represent that.

Since Phillips creates music primarily for his own ensemble, his aesthetic shares much in common with the great jazz composer/bandleaders of the 20th and 21st centuries. But while his music sometimes incorporates improvisation and his ensemble features several prominent jazz musicians (past and current members of Numinous include multiple winds players Ben Kono and Ed Xiques, pianists Roberta Piket and Deanna Witkowski, vibraphonist Nick Mancini, guitarist Amanda Monaco, and trumpeter David Smith), Phillips does not consider himself a jazz composer:

I use people who have the experience of not just classical music because there are times that I want them to do something—whether it’s improvise or have a [certain] rhythmic sense. I want something more fluid that you can’t always write. … I don’t have that angst of “What is my music?” I’m just going to do what I want to do. … Part of it comes from a jazz tradition: people form their own groups. When I moved I felt I wasn’t quite sure where I fit in. I came here because of the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop. I tell people that and people naturally think I might be a jazz composer, but my inclinations have always been more toward classical. I felt for me coming in, it’s not going to happen unless I do it. I’d rather do it myself than go to someone and say, “Can you do this for me?” I couldn’t imagine coming in and going to Orpheus or even Bang on a Can and saying, “Hey, I have these things. Would you be interested?” Not that I was writing orchestral music, but if I came to an orchestra and said, “Hey, will you play my music?”—they don’t care; they won’t know who I am necessarily. But I’m not going to let that stop me from doing the things that I want to do. Now everyone has their own groups; it’s a way to get their music out. I love to write for other ensembles and I have been commissioned by ensembles that I have no connection to, but I also want to keep doing Numinous and expanding Numinous.

Joseph C. Phillips Jr’s very clearly 21st-century music—incorporating a broad range of styles while being ultimately beholden to none—might seem somewhat at odds with his two most recent projects: the dance collaboration exploring the ideas of 18th-century political philosopher Thomas Paine and the newly created score for the 1922 Lubitsch film about ancient Egypt. But for Phillips, history can also be honored through a contemporary approach:

Edisa [Weeks] … had been thinking about doing a project about democracy and I had just read something about Thomas Paine so I said, “How about Thomas Paine?” His words are very timely still and … his words have been used by many people for their own purposes. … Edisa had this idea about contradancing which was big then. So I was listening to contradances and when contradances don’t form the twos, the fours, and the eights, they’re called crooked. So, I thought, O.K. I’m just going to make them all crooked. So you can dance to them, they’re very fun and in the period, but underneath there are mixed meters or maybe some weird harmonic thing. … With the Lubitsch film, there was actually a complete score that was already there but Joe Melillo [at Brooklyn Academy of Music] wanted something different. When I first got the film and watched it, I did watch it with the score, but after that I really didn’t listen to the score; I didn’t want those solutions to be in my mind. I’m very conscious about how I would feel if someone years from now took my score and said, “We want to get rid of that; let’s get this new thing going.” But we’ve had all this history since 1922 of how people approach getting into a film by [musically] adding to or going against what’s going on on the screen. And the history of music since 1922—there’s so much more that can be added. I wanted it to be my music married to what Lubitsch was doing as if I was the one he asked to do this. But people who’ve heard my other music will be surprised when they hear the music for the film.

Sounds Heard: Curtis K. Hughes—Danger Garden

Curtis K. Hughes has been a fixture of the Boston-area new music scene for over a decade. He’s taught at Boston Conservatory, MIT, and NEC. He’s been responsible for fascinating local concert series. But above all, he has composed a unique body of works which demonstrates both the depth of his listening and his ability to synthesize an extremely wide range of influences into an extremely personal and deeply moving sound world.

Danger Garden (2006), the composition which opens a new disc devoted to Hughes’s music and also lends its name to the CD’s title, is an extraordinary aural rendering of the zeitgeist, an era offering more opportunities than any other heretofore albeit at the risk of information overload and attention deficit. The first movement (“excitedly burgeoning”) begins with a confrontational freneticism reminiscent of some of Michael Gordon’s early pieces, but within thirty seconds it completely morphs into something very different. While in the ensuing minute it clearly suggests what was once-upon-a-time the official sonic vocabulary of contemporary music (the piece is even scored for the ubiquitous Pierrot plus percussion configuration), it also hints at free jazz in its not-so-careful interplay of solo lines, each one seeming to vie for center stage. Then a gong is struck that seems to come straight out of Peking Opera, but it’s in a context that has nothing to do with Chinese music. From time to time thereafter it returns to its initial stance of aggressive post-minimalism, but it never quite allows you to get comfortable even with a regular dose of discomfort. A seeming calm ushers in the second movement, despite percussive eruptions filled with quiet desperation. Hughes has appropriately titled the movement “with repressed intensity.” Halfway through, however, the percussion takes over and propels the music forward with an insistent rock groove. But, similarly to the way that the Peking opera gong came totally out of context, the music that groove is supporting has nothing to do with rock. Then a couple of minutes before the piece ends, the other instruments gradually find grooves as well that not only evoke rock but also disco and other dance music. But don’t assume it ever becomes steady-state; Hughes’s aesthetic is too restless for that. It’s a totalism for the 21st century and it’s arguably an even more inclusive melding of styles than the kinds of pieces that have been seeping out of New York City and Los Angeles since the early 1990s. That such a style feels natural and effortless might be the best proof yet that the paradigms of web browsing and channel surfing have become internalized for many of us.

That said, in contrast, Myopia 2 (2003) comes across as far less schizophrenic. In part that’s because of its timbral homogeneity, because beneath its immediate surface it too is constantly changing textures by stratifying ranges and contrasting the density of instruments used at any given point. The work is scored for an ensemble of 12 saxophones evenly parsed with three each of soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone. (The overall impact of such an ensemble is quite different from the trio of clarinet, viola and cello that was brought together for Hughes’s earlier Myopia 1 (2001), a work which appears on Hughes’s previous portrait CD released in 2003, Avoidance Tactics.) If the saxophone quartet is something of a contemporary wind parallel to the string quartet (both of which ensembles Hughes also put to great use in compositions featured on Avoidance Tactics), this larger amalgam of saxophones functions somewhat like a string orchestra. While individual voices jump out of the thicket from time to time, this ensemble is at its most exciting when all twelve players sound in tandem.

National Insecurity explores what is perhaps the most heterogeneous instrumentation herein—flute, bass clarinet, trumpet, vibraphone, violin, cello, and bass. It is strikingly similar to the ensemble that Eric Dolphy assembled for his final American studio date as a leader (which resulted in Out To Lunch), wherein Dolphy’s multi-winds (including flute and bass clarinet) are accompanied by trumpet, vibes, bass and drums. But while the sonorities occasionally echo that landmark Blue Note album, the music that Hughes fashions for this group is by far the least jazz-like music on the present collection. Composed in 2002, and according to Hughes’s extensive notes on his website inspired by the “anxiety and uncertainty of the time and place it was written in,” despite his “aversion to writing music that purports to carry any sort of political message,” National Insecurity evokes the general malaise of our collective consciousness as we progressed from fear and shock to knee-jerk jingoism in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The concluding measures of the piece, which Hughes has described as “a ghastly passage of pure parallel motion (‘united we stand’), a final confrontation and a disintegration” capture that strange time—now a full ten years into the past—far more viscerally than words ever can.

Sandwiched between these three instrumental pieces, nevertheless, are two very effective vocal works, the two volumes of The Beck Journals composed in 2005 and 2006 for a group of four singers and a solo soprano respectively. Never resorting to lyricism, Hughes finds an alternative path to crystalline prosody in the settings of entries from the journals of the figurative painter Rosemarie Beck (1923-2003) who attempted to carve a place for herself in the male-dominated New York art scene of the 1950s. A memorable precedent for Hughes’s approach to text setting is the kind of melodic shard Charles Dodge created back in the 1970s around the poetry of Mark Strand. But Dodge was writing for music performed by a computer made to sing. An amazing feat no doubt. But the fact that Hughes can get a similarly crisp accuracy from real singers in real time is an equally formidable accomplishment, one that is further enhanced by the stellar performances of the singers, in particular soprano Jennifer Ashe who navigates the second volume, with the assured instrumental accompaniment of the Firebird Ensemble who shine throughout the entire disc.

Simultaneous with the release of this CD of chamber music is the release of Hughes’s 2009 chamber opera Say It Ain’t So, Joe (available both on Amazon and from iTunes.) It’s an entertaining and irreverent take on the 2008 Vice Presidential debate in which the singer portraying Joe Biden also appears briefly as another Joe, the Plumber. ‘Tis the season.

The Kindness of Strangers

One of my favorite things about living in the middle of the city of Baltimore—which the locals call Charm City—is that I constantly am interacting with strangers. As we walk around town, we tend to greet other pedestrians with a nod, and when I’m out with my dog, people often stop me to ask questions about him. Sometimes these brief encounters lead to delightful experiences, like the day that I opened my mailbox to find a coffee mug and keychain proclaiming my love for Belgian sheepdogs (my dog’s breed) without a note or any other indication as to who my kind benefactor was. Although I eventually identified the other dog companion who had given us these gifts, I still don’t know his name, nor does he know mine.

Similarly, at times the world of new music can feel like a charming town in which everyone is working towards the same goals and is willing to help out strangers in order to share the music they love.

I find that there are more great composers working today than I can possibly keep up with. Sometimes it seems that people tell me about amazing pieces by composers who are new to me on a daily basis. We live in a time when the wealth of creative riches can be completely overwhelming and physical distance is no excuse to avoid learning about good music. Because of this, some composers who clearly deserve more recognition can get lost in the shuffle.

In my opinion, Eleanor Hovda is a fantastic candidate for the composer most deserving of far greater recognition than she has received. I have long admired her sonic landscapes, which have never failed to grab my attention, even when I’ve been listening to compilation CDs in the background while administering to other tasks, and I was saddened to hear about her death in 2009. She left behind a relatively small catalog of works, but all of the ones I’ve heard have been of the highest quality and I’m very happy that Innova Records recently released a 4-CD compilation of her music.

I’m working on a guitar quartet right now, and, as usual, I began by listening to several examples of contemporary quartets. The Minneapolis Guitar Quartet’s recording of Hovda’s striking 1992 piece, Armonia, blew my mind with its beautifully constructed sounds in an entirely engaging form. I wanted to study this piece further, and so I went online to try to purchase its score. I was saddened to find that it wasn’t available through any distributor that I could locate, nor was it in my local libraries.

Next, I went to the website for the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet, who had commissioned the piece, and sent an email through their “Contact” link. I also posted a query on the wall for the Facebook group “Eleanor Hovda—Remembering” asking if anyone knew how I could purchase the score. Within a very short time, several people offered to ship me free copies, and less than a week later the score arrived in my mailbox. Sure enough, studying it has proven to be extraordinarily fruitful.

I can’t help but compare this experience with those we often have with major publishers. Sometimes it seems that the large publishing concerns would rather we didn’t try to perform the music they represent. It can be frustrating when you want to learn more about a piece but are faced with obstacles from traditional publishers—like exorbitant rental fees and lack of communication—that can create barriers between the people who love the music they publish and the music itself. In the case of Hovda, I felt immediately welcomed by her community of family and friends, who clearly believe in her music and want to see it spread to as many interested people as possible. I only hope that the kindness of these strangers fulfills its function and continues to allow for the music of this amazing composer to be heard as often as possible.

Me, Myself, and My Publisher

Small change

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

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

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

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

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