Filling the Gap: Teaching Young Composers How to Earn a Living

First, the good news.  University composition programs do a lot of admirable things for their students.  Upon completion, one certainly has a command of the craft itself, the history behind it and current trends, as well as the essential musicianship skills that graduates of any music program would have.  A good, solid, artistic foundation.

What is still frustratingly lacking, however, is a coherent, integrated curriculum explicitly laying out the different options composers have in today’s diverse marketplace for earning income.  This results in a sad situation wherein we send young composers out into the world with no clear sense of how to make a living out of their profession.  Yes, some newly-minted grads will have a keen entrepreneurial sense  and will almost instinctively know with whom to network (and how to do so fruitfully) and others will have been fortunate enough to have had an adviser on the faculty who proactively shepherded them through the maze of career options or assisted them in making good real-world connections.

But unless one aspires to earn a terminal degree and become a composition professor, it seems most collegiate programs aren’t much interested in teaching what other economically-viable paths exist for today’s composers.  Let me stop here and say, again, I believe our compositions programs do plenty of good things and the professors deserve much approbation, but clearly there’s a big problem here that isn’t being adequately addressed.

I can anticipate some arguing that I’ve put the locus of control on external forces–that responsibility ultimately lies with the individual to explore options and build a career, not anyone else’s.  I don’t necessarily disagree.  But it’s my contention that we can and should do a better job of explicitly and formally presenting those options and guiding students away from misconceptions, ignorance, and fears.  A young composer cannot exercise their internal locus without being armed with the proper knowledge and experiences.

Under the present situation (and safely assuming the system will not change quickly), it ultimately then comes down to the experienced freelance composers out there to manifest the solution, to try to teach our youth what exists for them.  Before I deign to include myself in that number, I should note that I, too, am still teaching myself the economic opportunities in composition and certainly don’t consider myself the ultimate authority on these issues.

Towards that end, let the solution at least begin with me. I present here, for the benefit of the young composers reading (and as the impetus for future discussions in curriculum development), a brief overview on some of the ways (not linked to teaching) in which composers make a living.  Note that, for most composers, it’s usually a mix of these factors–each composer shapes their own path after all.  Veteran composers, please feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments section.

Commissions

This is probably the most common way freelancers make money (as it is in my case), and can be very good business.  The ability to generate enough leads to earn a livable income by this means hinges on three things:

  • networking
  • networking
  • networking

Networking in person is still the most effective means for a composer to build relationships and close deals.*   Even while in college, you should be attending conferences, becoming active in professional composition groups (which can introduce you to other opportunities along with getting helpful advice from fellow composers),  getting your music performed in every possible place, and building strong relationships with friends near and far who are conducting and performance majors.  It’s never too early to start the process of forging a network you can call upon to advocate for your work.  I can only imagine where my composition career might be today if I had heeded this advice when I was a student.  Get busy meeting people!

*(Yes, social media can play a useful role.  For instance, in a future article, I will address how to convert Twitter followers to paying patrons.)

Self-Publishing

Publishing and selling your own music can be another avenue for making money if you’re good with marketing, accounting, networking (you can’t escape it!), web development, and other business matters (in essence you are turning yourself into a small business).  This can be liberating in the sense that you don’t have to answer to an editor or face rejection of submissions.  Most composers won’t make more than a supplemental income on this venture, however (unless your name happens to be John Mackey or Eric Whitacre) so you would almost certainly have to combine this with another means of earning composition income.  And some self-publishers feel they spend more time on business affairs than on actual writing (it turns into a huge job).  Naturally every experience is different, and before diving in you should honestly evaluate your level of business acumen, how much money you can invest to build your brand, and whether you’re willing to devote as much time to administrative tasks as would likely be required to be successful in this avenue.  (I do a small bit of self-publishing myself, though I’m gradually moving away from it as I feel I no longer have the time or resources to sell my music on my own.  This path clearly isn’t for me, though it could be for you!)

Commercial Publishing

The other side of the publishing world is the more traditional route:  going through established companies.  In this case, you submit your music to a company of your choosing (don’t waste your time–do your research and try to figure out if your music would fit in well with their catalog before submitting).  An editor (or with smaller firms, the owner) will look at your music and decide whether or not they are interested in your work.  If not, you get your music back and you try again with a different publisher.  If they decide they like your work, they will send you a contract.  In most cases, composers get a 10% royalty on sales of their music and generally assign their copyright to the company.  The advantage of commercial publishing is promotional power–the right company can get your music in front of an established base of many potential customers.  And it frees you to focus on writing rather than on business tasks (as in self-publishing).

Contests

For those willing to stick their necks out, there can be distinct career advantages to participating in contests.  An increase in notoriety can certainly follow a win (especially with the  bigger contests) and the exposure that follows can be a real boon to a composer just starting to be discovered.  Of course the money is also quite important (as the topic of this article is making a living), thought it’s hard to count on this money being there.  No one knows who will come away the winner of a contest, so it is not wise to devote all of your time to pursuing them.  But a win can definitely be a nice boost and contests should not be entirely excluded from one’s list of economic possibilities.

(A word of caution:  there are a lot of unscrupulous entities out there just looking to make a buck off of composers who don’t know better.  Generally, I avoid contests with large entry fees.  If something doesn’t feel right, walk away.)

Composer’s Site is a good clearinghouse for composer opportunities (mostly contests).
Recording Sales

Selling recordings of one’s works can be arranged through established commercial labels (which can be very difficult for young composers to accomplish, in all honesty) or done independently through iTunes, Spotify, Bandcamp, and other internet-based services.  Going the latter path can pose it’s own difficulties however. Streaming entities like iTunes and Spotify are notorious for paying very small royalties to their artists (it could take millions of plays to make an appreciable sum of money).  So much like self-publishing, unless you have a big name, offering your music on a streaming service is not likely to yield anything more than a very modest supplemental income.  Bandcamp (and related services) can be a little bit better as you can set your own price for your music.  Making money here will rest on your networking and promotional abilities (much as it does in other areas of freelance composition, as we’ve seen).

Areas for Further Exploration

The following are potentially lucrative areas for composers to investigate but upon which my own knowledge is admittedly limited. I ask my more experienced colleagues to help me (and you) out with helpful comments.  (I will update this part of the article as I get more information.)

Grants

Grant writing is a huge topic and quite important, as it can yield tremendous financial results.  In general, there are many different reasons grant funds are offered to composers.  Some are akin to competitions, wherein the winner is given a grant in exchange for producing work according to set criteria.   Composers may also apply for grants to help ensembles defray the costs of large commission fees.  Every grant is a little different and each review committee looks for different things. It’s important to study the application carefully and it’s ok to make a few phone calls–most grant committees have contact information and are not averse to answering questions from the uninitiated.

Scoring for Film/TV/Stage

Being strictly a concert music composer up to this point in my life, I have no experience at all in this area, so I can’t say anything about it right now.

 ===========

As I’ve noted, there are so many great opportunities available to young composers.  While struggle is a natural part of life for someone just beginning to build a career, I think we can take much of the sting and frustration out of it by arming our youth with not just musical knowledge, but broad-based, practical career information.  I believe it’s possible to reduce burnout, disillusionment, poverty, and even career abandonment if we give our young people the tools they need to succeed.  It is possible to make a decent living in composition–now we must show them how, and I hope this article will start a bigger discussion on this vital issue.

To young composers reading: this article is not intended to substitute for doing your own research.  I have presented here common economic options composers have at their disposal.  Your job now is to find as many brains to pick as you possibly can.  Best wishes!

Now it’s your turn:  what would you add to this list?  Did I get anything wrong?

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10 thoughts on “Filling the Gap: Teaching Young Composers How to Earn a Living

  1. Hello I loved reading your blog and really like your style of writing! And I’ve followed yours so that I can read your next ones 🙂 I’m quite new to blogging and would really appreciate it if you could check out my page, and possibly give it a follow if you like it. Thank you xxx http://mylifemybubble.wordpress.com/

  2. Teaching can be a logical avenue for exploration for the young and established composers. I think there are only a handful (less than 5?) composers in the U.S. that make their living exclusively from composition. Teaching seems to be a viable option for many to supplement their income…
    Cheers,
    D.

    1. One of my points is that teaching (though certainly a fine option) is not the only path forward. Based on my experience in the greater compositional world, my number would be higher than 5, but I would be most interested to see an empirical study on the topic (rather than just anecdotal back-and-forth). Certainly most freelancers rely on more than one of the avenues I listed above to cobble together a living (as I also mentioned). Thanks for your thoughts, Dee!

  3. Great read! Thanks for writing and sharing!

    If I may submit a thought under the music for TV/Film/Theatre category: many folks in my peer group (young composer) seem to ascribe the meaning “Broadway-style musical” to the phrase “music for theatre.” However, composing incidental music for plays (or acting as sound designer creating original scoring) can be both artistically challenging and fulfilling (in addition to going towards rent). I highly recommend checking out local theatre job listings, as these positions are often not on traditional composition opportunity sights. If you are in Chicago, check out the League of Chicago Theatres — they have a comprehensive job posting board that often lists sound design/composition opportunities.

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