Kindle agrees: “Collaboration with performers, or working with guitar orchestras on their own pieces, are joyful moments. If you succeed in accurately capturing the technical and musical level of the performers, find the appropriate story for them, encapsulate it in body, mind and soul, and satisfy an audience, the wonderful loop between your idea and its realization is fulfilled.”
Farias recommends using today’s technologies to facilitate collaboration: “For world premiere performances or recordings, I’ll send the musicians some MIDI files of the new work. Some musicians may not need or prefer this, but in my experience, it’s proved helpful in imparting in the performers more confidence in performing new music.”
Goss echoes the importance of enabling performers to feel comfortable in performing new pieces. “Making sure that a soloist feels comfortable on stage with the technical and musical challenges of a piece is crucial, particularly if you want many repeat performances,” he says. “My music is not easy to play, but it’s not unreasonably difficult. I’ve learned that a piece needs to be the right length, style, and level of complexity for each performer who commissions me. I also like to spend time with the performer trying to find elegant solutions for technical and musical problems that might exist in the first draft of my piece. We tend to work towards the best version, rather than away from an immaculate conception or perfect ‘original.’ An urtext is something we work towards, not away from.”
Publish or Perish
Composers can utilize a publishing company to make their work available in manuscript form, but as with book publishing, many are turning to the possibilities of self-publishing. “Having your music published is a good strategy to help your music better known,” says Farias, warning, “Nevertheless most composers aren’t going to see much in terms of royalties, unless you are very successful or publishing pedagogical materials.”
Goss also warns, “While flattering to be offered the chance to have one’s music published, not all publishers offer the same thing and there are many pitfalls to be aware of. My main advice is to get legal support before signing a contract, and have a full and frank discussion with your prospective publisher about precisely what it is they can offer you. There’s also a great deal to be said for self-publishing, now that distribution’s easier through the Internet. Having said that, I am very happy with my current publisher, Doberman-Yppan, who are efficient, helpful, and professional. They take care of many things I don’t have time for—professional typesetting, distribution, sales, promotion, etc.”
Eric Dussault of Les Productions d'OZ and Doberman-Yppan offers some practical guidance for aspiring composers. “It’s not necessarily easy for composers starting out to find a publisher. Most traditional publishing houses are doing fewer publications and avoid risks. Nevertheless, I think the best thing for composers is to get his or her music played.”
Goss also emphasizes performance in extending a composer’s reputation: “For me, it’s felt like water gradually wearing away a stone, a combination of many factors, in having my compositions become more widely known. Performances, however, are probably the most important thing.”
Whether self-publishing or working with a publisher like d’OZ, composers utilize personal websites and social media channels to make their work more widely known and connect with performers, commissioners, and other audiences, but this is no substitute for personal interaction. “I always advise my composition students to get to know as many people as possible face to face—attending festivals, concerts, competitions and other events,” says Goss. “Once people have had some social interaction with you, they are much more likely to take note if they hear a piece of yours in a concert, or see a post on Facebook or YouTube.”
Kindle, for one, has found greater economic success and other rewards from the self-publishing route. “I worked with international publishers for 30 years, while teaching 40-60 guitar students every week to make a living, composing at night, on weekends, and during holidays. Not to denigrate publishers, because I owe them my broad recognition, but they’ve never resulted in an economic boom—royalties from my 80 publications barely pay the telephone bill. Self-published has become more rewarding. I have direct contact with those who order my work and receive feedback from them. My imprint Edition Kalimba (editionkalimba.ch) is now one year old. It’s been a challenge, but it’s exciting and I’m responsible for my own economic success.”
Even Dussault recommends self-publishing as a viable option. “We see more and more composers today able to handle their repertoire by themselves,” says the Québec-based publisher. For this reason and others, d’OZ offers typesetting and printing services to clients. “Some composers prefer to have complete control their over copyrights and production. Today’s aspiring composers should learn the basics of self-publishing, copyrights, and mechanical rights.”
Rights and Mechanicals
As a composer, you’re owed money whenever the music you’ve written is recorded, streamed, performed in public, or used on a film or TV soundtrack. Composers can retain, license, and even sell rights to their work. Under U.S. copyright law, while it’s not required to register your work, it’s certainly wise to do so, especially in the case that you’d need to bring a lawsuit for copyright infringement. Publishers will often register copyrights—and prefer to do so in the publisher’s own name, but this can be negotiated. Composers can register their own copyrights with the United States Copyright Office, either as notated scores or audio recordings, or both. (Registration of musical works is either as sound recordings, i.e. a CD or for streaming; or as work of the performing arts—if both, the applicant registers the work as a sound recording.)
Each country has different copyright laws and agencies; thus, composers and publishers must also consider whether to protect the copyrighted work in multiple territories. For example, if a Norwegian composer’s work is likely to be recorded and performed in the U.S., he or she may want to register copyrights in both territories. Composers can also consider using a Creative Commons license to share their work while protecting their copyright.
Music licensing is the process of obtaining permission to utilize a copyrighted work in a film, TV program, ad, audio recording, digital download, etc. Again, there is a distinction between the licensing of the musical composition—the melodic, harmonic, and percussive components—and a sound recording—an artist’s recorded performance of a composition. A composer who records his or her own compositions may license both the composition and performance, and at least in theory be compensated for uses of both.
Four distinct types of musical licenses come into play. A synchronization license (or “synch” license) entails the right to synchronize a musical composition timed with visual content, in a YouTube video or film soundtrack, for example, and the ability to reproduce that content. These licenses are generally one-time flat fees ranging from nominal amounts to thousands of dollars, depending on the specific rights needed, budget, and relative leverage of the negotiating parties. Mechanical licenses authorize the manufacture, reproduction, and distribution of audio-only recordings (vinyl, CD, downloads). A performer recording an instance of your composition is therefore required to seek a mechanical license, typically through a licensing agency. If a composition has been previously recorded, “compulsory” licensing provisions mandate standard royalty rates to be paid to the copyright holder. A public performance license permits performance or broadcast of a musical composition or sound recording, such as a concert performance of your piece. Finally, a master use license confers the right to fix a master recording in a specific media and make copies for a flat fee or per-unit royalty (record labels typically own masters). This type of license would be invoked if, say, a producer wanted to use a Jason Vieaux recording of your composition as opposed to Pablo Villegas’ recording, for a TV commercial. “Fair use” exceptions to copyright allow use for educational purposes under certain circumstances.
Composers can register with a performing rights organization (PRO), which represent songwriters and publishers by negotiating blanket licenses to broadcasters, restaurants and bars, and other places where music is used in public, then collect fees and distribute them to registered songwriters and publishers as performance royalties. In the U.S., these include Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI); the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP); and SESAC, Inc. When registering with a PRO, a composer also needs to determine whether to register only as a songwriter or also as a publisher—separate rights are conferred and fees collected for each.
PROs also vary by territory. Productions d'OZ works with SOCAN and SODRAC in Canada; Goss is a member of the Performing Rights Society in the UK; Kindle with SUISA (Cooperative Society of Music Authors and Publishers in Switzerland); Farias with ASCAP; and I am registered as a publisher and songwriter with BMI, for performance royalties and mechanical rights.
Composers, Farias maintains, are compelled to create from an almost irrepressible personal, artistic impulse. But from a financial standpoint a composer may wonder “what’s in it for me?” For Goss and Farias, important sources of income from composition are commission fees and grants.
“It’s not a sensible way to try and make a living,” admits Goss. “Even after 30 years writing professionally, the financial return is limited. I charge a daily rate and then work out how long the piece will take to write and work out a commission fee that way. My daily rate is equivalent to that of a bricklayer or plasterer. Things are different for people working in more commercial or applied areas of composition, but still not easy. The more artistic control you desire, the less you’re likely to earn.”
In addition to understanding copyrights and licensing issues, composers should consult with a financial or tax advisor about the tax implications of composing. A composer may, for example, deduct expenses such as copyright registrations, PRO membership fees, website costs, and other expenses against income from mechanical licenses or publishing royalties.
Not surprisingly, most composers supplement their income from teaching or other means. “Composing is my vocation,” says Kindle, “but it’s only possible thanks to my profession as a guitar teacher. It is an illusion to believe you could live by composing. My economic situation led me to set up my publishing company; a few books sold from Edition Kalimba bring in more than a year’s worth of other royalties. I’m proud that, together with my full-time job as a guitar teacher, I had the energy to build my portfolio over the years. I view this today as a privilege; it’s wonderful to be able to motivate many young guitarists with my music and connect with professional musicians around the world.”