Advice for Other Young Composers: What I've Learned in the Past Year
Is blogging still cool? Probably not... There's only one person who will actually read this anyway. Hi, Mom!
Regardless, I'm going to jump right in to this whole blogging thing. In fact, "jumping right in" is sort of the central theme of this first of hopefully many (but probably few) blog posts.
As the obnoxiously long title states, I'm a newb when it comes to the whole composing thing (In terms of trying to make a career out of writing music. I'm not so new to the whole writing music thing). I do not claim to be an expert by any means, and I'll never claim that I've "made it" as a composer in the short time I've been doing this. However, I do feel that I have learned some valuable lessons (mostly through failure!) over the course of the past year and a half since I began publishing my own music. I hope that others who are in a similar situation to me can benefit from what I've learned since I've attempted to get my music out there. I'll try my best to outline what I believe has led to my (extremely limited) short-term success.
Will everything I'm about to say apply to or work for every composer? Absolutely not. Please feel free to agree, disagree, or angrily X-out this blog and vow to never return to my website! What I'm going to share is what has worked for me - so far. One size does not fit all - However, I hope everyone can take at least one thing away from this to use in their own career. Alrighty, here we go (in no particular order):
Surround yourself with people who will support you and feed your passion.
I have been so incredibly lucky to be surrounded by amazing music educators my entire life. When I was growing up, my music teachers in school and private instructors outside of school were the biggest role models in my life outside of my parents. The biggest influence in my career choice early on was my high school band director, Mr. J.P. Scanga. Mr. Scanga is the one who ignited my passion for band, music theory, and composition. He is the type of teacher who will go the extra mile for any student. He fed my passions until I graduated, continued to advise me through college, took me under his wing, and still checks in on me now - nearly five years into my career in music education. He was even the first person to have their ensemble perform one of my pieces in public! In front of real people! I still send nearly every piece I write to him for his insight because I value his opinion so very much. I quite literally would not be doing what I do if it were not for Mr. Scanga.
I also had the incredible opportunity to student teach with and eventually take over for phenomenal music educator and composer, Dr. Travis J. Weller. Dr. Weller is currently the Director of Music Education at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, PA, and was previously the Director of Bands at Mercer Area Middle-Senior High School for 20+ years. He is, as I said, a PHENOMENAL pedagogue, conductor, and composer (Please check out his website - www.travisjweller.com. If you are a band director, and have not programmed any of his music yet, GET ON IT!) He not only has had a huge impact on my development as a music educator, but has also been a huge supporter of me and my work as a composer. When I first thought, "Hmmm... I think I want to write music and actually try to sell it," I began non-stop bombarding Dr. Weller with scores and recordings of works in progress, asking for his feedback. Not only did he listen to all of it (and trust me, a lot of it was not easy to listen to...), but he also took the time to give me invaluable feedback that has truly helped me develop as a composer. He and the Messiah College Symphonic Winds premiered my piece, "Hope for Tomorrow," in November of 2018. Since then, things have taken off for me in terms of performances of my pieces and requests for commissions. I cannot thank Dr. Weller enough for advising me and bringing a very dear and personal piece of mine to life.
What I'm trying to get at here is this: Make and maintain meaningful relationships with those who care about you and your passion. Stay in contact with those people! We all have someone(s) who will support us through anything - someone who will go out of their way to make sure we succeed. You never know what those relationships can lead to. For me, they led to my development as a music educator/composer, and, more recently, led to performance opportunities/public exposure of my work.
Don't be afraid to set goals that may seem unrealistic.
I read a blog post on John Mackey's website that opened my eyes to the possibility of self-publishing as a composer. (While the blog entry is nearly ten years old, it has aged very well!) Until that moment, I truly thought that the only way to "make it" as a composer was to be discovered by a big name publisher. Everything he wrote made so much sense! Given the tools that we have now through the internet and social media, it's easier to self-promote, market, and distribute music than ever before. It makes so much more sense for composers who want to make a living through writing to self-publish!
On that very day I decided I was going to self-publish my music. So, (after discussing with my wonderful and incredibly supportive wife Megan) I started up my own publishing company, M&M Music Press, LLC (M&M = Melody and Maya, our two insane American Eskimo pups! - pictured below). Was this an impulsive decision? Yes. Do I regret it? No.
I'm sure that there were people who thought I was crazy or made fun of me for starting up a business out of nowhere, but I didn't care. I set a goal for myself, and by starting up M&M Music Press, I was holding myself to that goal. I am proud of the fact that I'm holding myself to that, and I'm glad to say that things eventually began to work out for M&M (AKA, people wanted to buy music).
Whatever it is that you want to accomplish, stick to it. Set up a series of checkpoints/mini-goals along the way if it seems unrealistic.
For me, those mini-goals were:
Apply for LLC
Set up a Facebook Page
Set up a Website
Get someone to READ my music
Get someone to PROGRAM my music
Get a recording of a performance to put online
Repeat previous three bullets for each new piece
I did all of those things in the hopes that people would begin to notice my music/buy it from my website or consider commissioning me to write for their ensembles. (Getting people to visit FB and Websites is a subject for another blog post.)
Don't be afraid to set goals for yourself and jump right in!
Take advantage of every opportunity you can.
Write as much as you can for anyone who is willing to play it!
I was approached by a long-time friend of mine, Erik Kerr, (another amazing musician and role model in my life) to orchestrate a musical that he had written. I had absolutely zero experience writing music for theater... I was pretty terrified, but I said yes. I cannot put into words just how beneficial the six months were that I spent orchestrating his musical, "The Legend of Chop Chop Charlie." I grew so much as an arranger, orchestrator, and composer through that process.
If someone asks you to write for them, it means that they respect you and your work that they have previously heard. It means that they trust you, your writing, and your artistic decision-making! So even if the project in question scares you at first because it might not necessarily be what you're used to, trust yourself and jump right in!
Give stuff away!
I strongly endorse the idea of giving stuff away - as a marketing tool. Yes I understand that we work very hard to write our music, and would like to be paid for that hard work. However, as a self-published composer just starting out, I found it very difficult to get paid for my music at first when NOBODY KNEW WHO THE *BLEEP* I WAS. Let me explain...
In November of 2018, I had just heard a fantastic premiere of one of my pieces by the Messiah College Symphonic Winds. I thought to myself, "Wow that was cool to hear my music played by real humans. Wish that happened more often." So I thought I'd post a PDF MUSIC GIVEAWAY. Any directors who signed up within three days of the post would receive PDF scores and parts to a couple of my pieces for free. I thought, "Well... hopefully a couple directors will sign up for free sight-reading material. Maybe my Mom will pretend to be a director and make a fake email account to make me feel better about myself." However, this is what I found out... people like free stuff. It's like that episode of The Office with Michael Scott and all the free SWAG - "Stuff We All Get."
To my surprise, a bunch of people shared the post, and over 50 directors signed up for the giveaway.
While I didn't make any money through this, here's what I did gain:
50 directors playing my music > 0 directors playing my music
50 director email addresses to add to my email list, many of whom also started following me on Facebook
50 classrooms of students who have now been exposed to my music and are aware of who I am
That's when I started to see a little bit of momentum building up. So a few months later, I decided to give something else away - a commission!
When my Facebook page reached 500 followers, I decided to do a commission giveaway. I set up a Google Form for directors to sign up. One director would be chosen to have a piece of any length up to 5 minutes written for their ensemble. There was a pretty good response again. Exactly 50 directors signed up. Again, this helped me expand my network of director email addresses (without giving away a bazillion copies of music this time). Here's the coolest part... a few of the directors who signed up but didn't win later approached me about commissioning a piece anyway! These are connections that wouldn't have happened without the power of free stuff!
I understand that no one wants to give their music away for free. We invest a TON of time, energy, and passion into making our art. Maybe for some, this isn't the best option for getting their name out there. I made a decision early on that I'd rather have my music played and make no money writing it, than to not have my music played at all. It takes a little bit of sacrifice at first, but the results can really be worth it!
Be yourself and be humble
This will probably be the shortest section of this blog post, but it is equally as important as the others: Be yourself always. Create an image/reputation of yourself and your music that you would be proud of. Whether it is through social media, at performances, or while networking at conferences, be yourself and be honest.
Another huge role model to me while I was a student at Slippery Rock University, Bruno Zuccala always said, "It takes 50 years to build a reputation, and 50 seconds to ruin it." That is how I carry myself at all times - whatever reputation I've built for myself, my music, and my company could disappear in a minute if I say or do the wrong thing.
I once asked my compositional hero, the man who inspired me to write for concert band, John Mackey, for advice for young composers. His response was short and sweet, yet very true. (Mr. Mackey's response has been slightly censored for any children in attendance.)
Thanks for taking the time to read this post! If you are a composer new to the business side of things like me, I hope that there was at least one minuscule nugget that you could take away from this and apply to your career. If you enjoyed reading my thoughts let me know in the comments and share this post with your friends!
'Til next time (if there is a next time),