2017 Oklahoma Student Composers Workshop Keynote

[1] Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for having me here today.

When I was first asked to give this talk, I was told that the subject was at my discretion. I ran across several ideas before deciding that there were some pieces of advice I have to offer that I wish I had learned when I was where you are, and I hope that my thoughts today are, if not useful, then amusing.

[2] To give you all some background, I received a bachelor’s degree from Drury University, and my master’s and doctoral degrees from The University of Oklahoma, where I’m currently in a non-tenure track position in theory, composition, and general studies. I am active as a composer, writing both electronic and acoustic music, with performances in the US, Canada, Mexico, the UK, France, Italy, Slovenia, Argentina, and Australia. I also run a musical services company, NoteForge, which serves as my publishing imprint and specializes in bespoke web-based services for musicians. You all are aware that being a composer means wearing multiple hats; these happen to be mine.

I’d like to address three areas today, mostly involving the economics and marketing of contemporary composers. Specifically, those three areas are []fairly valuing our work, []minimizing barriers to our music, and []navigating the money side of being a composer in the 21st century.

//Value of our work to others (kickstarter)

[3]Let’s start by discussing the value of our work to others. We have this incredible tool called the internet at our disposal for sharing our music with others, and with that comes the ability to crowdsource funding. One of the most popular tools for this is [4] Kickstarter, with which I have a fascination. The way Kickstarter works is pretty simple: You create a project asking for money, you create rewards that incentivize others to give you money, and then you have 30 to 60 days to meet your goal in an all-or-nothing gamble. The part that fascinates me the most about this process is the creation of successful and unsuccessful reward tiers.

The more successful kickstarter projects are the ones that create a good or service of some sort, in which the reward tiers work much like any standard retail transaction. This works especially well with projects such as CDs or books, as long as the rewards are accessible and the total funding goal isn’t outrageous. Paying 15 or 20 and getting a CD in return is reasonable, paying 75 or 80 is questionable.

Recently, an independent chamber orchestra ran a barely-successful Kickstarter project for funding their 2017 concert season. Their reward structure [5] started at $10, which included a Facebook thanks plus a listing as a supporter in the concert program. Sure, that sounds great. The next tier was at $25 and included, in addition to the thanks and the supporter listing, five stickers. At $50, you would receive the previous rewards plus digital downloads to the twelve works they are premiering this season. Already we’re starting to see a substantial buy-in before we get to the music, and the tiers go all the way up to the [6] $10,000 level, which is sponsoring a concert. Of course, in this case this was a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, so they were working more on the tax-deductible donation scheme rather than a retail project might. However, being a chamber ensemble, they are tied to a certain locale, which means you probably won’t be able to host a solo concert in your home at the [7] $1,000 level unless you’re substantially closer to the west coast.

[8] Let’s look at another example. A group of opera artists are looking to fund an initiative. At the $5 level, you receive a private thank you message via text or facebook. At $15, you receive a video of a simple opera lesson. At $30, a thank-you postcard. At $70, an autographed photo.

Have you ever stopped to think about what your autograph is worth? Is it $70? If people aren’t already paying $70 for your autograph, they aren’t going to start because you make it a reward on Kickstarter. How about the value of your sheet music? Another current Kickstarter project is for creating a new work, and has the following tiers: At $25, you receive a copy of a page of the original manuscript, signed by the composer. At $50, you get that and a signed copy of the playbill from the premiere. At $100, you receive a signed copy of the piano/vocal score.

Do you see where I’m going with all this? There are a couple of things I want to point out.

The value of anything is simply what someone can be convinced to pay for it. Unfortunately, none of us are famous yet, so I’m not sure that our signature or a copy of our music counts for much.

The other thing is related to the Frank Zappa quote that “Communism doesn’t work because people like to own stuff.” This is true; people do like to own stuff. Not only that, but people want to invest time and energy in stuff that is going to further their dreams. Paying $70 for an autographed picture may serve your ego, but paying $70 or less [9] to have your name included in the album art serves your patron’s ego. [10]Guess which is more effective? [] Keeping this idea in mind will keep us out of trouble. Let’s not take ourselves too seriously.

//Maximizing our opportunities (Amazon)

[11] I’d like to move on to another facet of being a composer, and that is maximizing opportunities. When I first started diving into web design fifteen years ago, I came across the advice that when adding a feature to your website, you should consider whether [12] Amazon would integrate that feature into their website. Want to put a really cool picture of yourself on the front page of your website and make users click a link to get to your homepage? Does Amazon do that? Want to use a novel slide-in menu on the side that eases in slowly? Does Amazon do that? Want to have a simple site with just a few pictures and just an email address so anyone wanting to get involved with your music can just contact you? Does Amazon do that?

Since I read that advice all those years ago (and followed it pretty regularly), Amazon has basically invented cloud computing. They realized pretty early that the platform they were building to sell books could be used for other things, so they packaged their platform and branded it as Amazon Web Services, or AWS [13]. Ever watch Amazon Instant Video [14]? That’s delivered from AWS. Ever watch Netflix [15]? So does that. The file syncing app Dropbox [16] was using AWS to host all of its files until they started needing specialized hardware—about a year ago. [17] The platform they’ve created is enormous, and that’s an offshoot of their original intent, to sell books.

Why am I telling you about [18] Amazon? Because I think there is an important lesson we can learn from them. Amazon has laser focus, and is really only interested in one thing: To get your money. Please don’t think that this is a criticism, I don’t mean it to be. But in the strictest sense of capitalism, Amazon wants to make it as easy as possible for you to take money out of your wallet and give it to them. The way in which they do this, when you think about it, is incredible. They start out by stocking basically everything. Whenever we start shopping around, I’d imagine that a fair amount of you check Amazon first to see if they have a good deal. Part of their incredible selection is based on allowing content providers, publishing houses, manufacturers, and the like to sell directly through Amazon. If you have a factory that makes widgets, Amazon has a program [19] (fulfilment by Amazon) that allows you to ship your inventory to their warehouse, so you’re no longer having to use your resources to sell and ship, you can just use Amazon’s. If you’re a small publishing operation that has a wide selection of out-of-print titles that might be rare, Amazon has a program [20] (CreateSpace) for printing books on demand. These are just two of their programs for acquiring inventory.

Once we’ve realized that Amazon has such an expansive selection, they further seal the deal by offering us free shipping if we have [21] prime. So let’s pay them more money by way of a subscription so we can get free two-day shipping.

And how do we give them our money? First it was the [22] “one click ordering” button that took the additional verification steps out of the ordering process. Then they created subscription services like [23] Prime Pantry and Subscribe and Save to take your money on a recurring basis. Then came the adorable little [24] Dash buttons. Out of Doritos? Push the button. They’ll just show up later. Now with the [25] Amazon Echo, no button pushing is required, just tell Alexa that you want your Doritos. []

[26] What’s the lesson in here? That Amazon has one goal, and everything they do is designed to remove the barriers, artificial or natural, preventing them from achieving that goal. Everything they do is designed to streamline the process of you giving them your money, and them sending you what you want.

As composers, we would do well to emulate Amazon. I’d like to make the claim that, as composers, the most important thing we do, or the most important thing we can do, is to get performances. Some of you may say that the most important thing we can do is to write music, but I would argue that the reason we write music is to get it performed. As composers, we should make it as easy, simple, and convenient as possible to find and perform our work.

Here’s another interesting aspect of this: People are really lazy. Or maybe not lazy, just busy. Cal Newport writes books and blog posts railing against email, and one of his posts last year surprised me. This story is best told in his words:

I have a friend who runs an investor-backed online education company. He recently made an interesting change to his email setup. When you send a message to his normal address, you now get back an autoresponder that reads (in part):

[27] “I appreciate you reaching out. I’m currently in hermit-mode creating as much value as I can for all of our stakeholders and having fun seeing if I can eliminate email from my life…Of course, if this is important, we’re here to help! Just email

 and we’ll use our evolving email-free strategy to communicate.”


[28] This extra step of re-sending your message to the assistant should add, at most, 10 extra seconds to the process of emailing this individual. Rationally speaking, therefore, it should have minimal impact on the number of messages that make it to my friend.

But this is not what happened.

As he reported to me recently, this additional step has “massively” reduced the amount of communication he receives.

Earlier this week, a reader wrote me with a similar tale. A computer programmer by trade, he setup a custom system that responds to incoming emails with a web form in which the sender can describe his or her purpose and needs in a series of text boxes.

Again, the extra effort of re-entering this information is minimal.

But the effect was significant.

His incoming message count reduced by a factor of 40. (He measured.)

And that’s Cal Newport’s experience. As the transaction cost of email has reached zero, we’ve gotten used to near-instant gratification. The simple act of re-sending an email to another address is enough to make us give up. The barriers that exist to make us say “it’s not worth my time to do this” are not large. Now think of this in terms of a performer looking for your music. Are there barriers preventing us from getting our music into the hands of performers? Almost certainly. Are there barriers preventing performers from playing our music? Again, almost certainly. Some of these are easy to address, and some of these are, if not impossible, then just really really hard.

But I’d like to do a thought experiment here. Imagine that you’ve just had a performance somewhere, let’s say up at Wichita State. After the performance, one of the concertgoers wants to learn more about your music, let’s say this concertgoer even wants to play one of your pieces. How hard is it for them to find your music? Are they going to be able to find you on Google? FaceBook? SoundCloud? If they can find your music, is there a clear channel to be able to procure your music? Do you sell it online? Are PDFs available online for download? Is your contact information easily accessible in case they want to contact you to ask for the music? Can they discover your other music easily? Assume that all they have is your name. Is that enough to go on? Can they find you if they search for [29] “Your Name, Composer”? If your music isn’t easy to find, then it had better be pretty incredible to keep prospective performers tracking it down.

[30] The easiest way to fix this is to have one centralized place for all your music and information, such as a website, and have the other social media outlets point to that site. Ideally, you’d be able to get Your Name dot com, but that doesn’t always work out, sometimes you have to add Your Name Music dot com or Your Name Composer dot com. I wouldn’t recommend being like John Mackey and having the name of your publishing company (Ostimusic) be your dot com, but it worked out for him pretty well so what can I say? So much of being a composer in the twenty-first century is creating a personal brand, and one of the easiest ways to do this is by creating a website and filling it with good stuff like sample PDFs and audio files. SoundCloud and Bandcamp are magnificent for hosting audio. Issuu and Scribd are fantastic for hosting documents. Don’t neglect program notes, don’t assume that the piece speaks for itself. Program notes are a wonderful invention. Over the past year I’ve been commissioning program notes, so they’re written by someone who is far better with words than I am. If it’s not obvious that you’re passionate about your music, how do you expect prospective performers to be?

Besides making it easy to find your music, it’s essential—Imperative, even—to get your music out into the wild. There are several ways to do this. One way is to publish via a traditional publisher, but this route is becoming more and more difficult. An easier way is to self-publish. Both [31] J.W. Pepper and [32] SheetMusicPlus have programs in place to allow you to sell your music on their platforms. Will you get a lot of sales? [33] Sadly, no. But it is the removal of another barrier. Perhaps a more fruitful method to circulate your music is to submit to as many calls for scores as you can. There are people asking for music across the country and across the globe. You won’t be able to submit to every call for scores there is, but you can submit to a lot. Some will result in performances, some will result in commissions, some will result simply in name recognition. I’ll give you some numbers. According to my records, since 2012 I have submitted to somewhere in the neighborhood of 550 calls for scores. That’s about one hundred a year.  How many of those are successful? [34] I run about twelve percent. Out of a hundred scores I send off a year, twelve result in a performance, or an award, or a conference presentation. Which isn’t bad. But the other eighty-eight are viewed by somebody somewhere. Maybe it’s somebody who will give me a job someday. Maybe it’s somebody who will someday want to commission a piece. Maybe it’s somebody who really likes the piece but can’t fit it on the program. [35] Maybe they’ll look you up at some point and try to find your website.

We are the best advocate our music has. How easy have we made it for someone to find our music? And if we don’t, who will?

//Composer Economics (Taxes)

Finally, I would like to talk about something that is sometimes taboo to talk about in music schools, and that is the subject of money. We’ve talked about the value of our music to others, and how we can get people to value our music more or at least get access to our music easier. Now let’s talk about how the government values our music. It’s getting closer to April 15th, which means taxes are due soon. So let’s talk about the money side of being a composer.

Making a living solely as a composer is hard, and it’s unlikely that a student in a composition degree program is going to emerge from college or grad school as a full-fledged composer. Sorry to break the news to you. I’ve been having a lot of discussions lately about what it means to be a twenty-first century musician, and the phrase which keeps popping up is “multiple revenue streams”. There are a lot of ways to make money in music, the challenge is to find the right combination to make a living.

Let’s talk about royalties. As composers, I’ll assume that all of you are members of ASCAP or BMI. If you’re not, you should be. These two groups collect royalties from performance venues, like this one, and then distribute the royalties to the composers of the works performed at that venue. There are complicated mathematical formulas for determining royalties, but I’ll give you an example: A ten-minute tape piece of mine receives $150 in royalties whenever it is played. But it’s not just $70, that’s just the writer’s share. The publisher’s share is another $150, so each performance generates $300 in revenue [36]. That is, whenever ASCAP happens to notice it has been performed, which is not always a given. But let’s assume that every time it gets performed, I get a check. To make minimum wage in Oklahoma, you’d have to have a little over fifty performances. For minimum wage, which is about $15,000 annually. So what else do we have? There’s commissioning fees, there’s sheet music sales, there’s Sibelius or Finale work, there’s arranging, and…that’s about it on the composing side. How many commissions do you think you can get in a year? How much in sheet music sales, where you make something like 40-60 percent of the price? How much arranging can you do?

[37] Those of you getting advanced degrees may be considering teaching after graduate school, so let’s discuss that for a minute. The University of Oklahoma pays about 1300 per credit hour for seated classes, so a three-hour class like Music Appreciation pays $4000 a semester. If you can snag two sections of that a semester, you’ll make $16,000 for the year. To be honest, this is how it worked for me the first two years after graduation. Also keep in mind this is considered part-time work, so the position is without benefits. The University of Central Oklahoma pays about $950 a credit hour for doctorate holders, about $750 otherwise. The Oklahoma Community Colleges pay about $650 a credit hour, as does Oklahoma City University. Randall University pays about $550. It’s not lucrative, but it is workable.

Again, I’m certainly not trying to dissuade you from continuing your musical career, I’m just trying to manage your expectations and give you an idea of what the climate looks like. I also want to give you all some insights and warnings about taxes.

I’d like to remind all of you that I’m neither a tax professional nor am I an attorney, and if you have questions about how to do your taxes or how to set up a business or things of that nature, I am happy to help as long as you remember I’m a guy who writes music and teaches for a living. The things I want to mention are things that I didn’t know as a student, and I’m hoping that I can make you aware of some things you might not know.

I messed up last year, and I ended up needing to pay about $1100 in taxes. Since then I’ve made an effort to educate myself about some aspects of taxes that I didn’t know much about, and I’m hoping that I can share some of these things so you don’t make my mistake.

Taxes are essentially easy, the devil is in the details as they say. You write down how much you make, that is, Income, and you subtract certain things the IRS says you can subtract to get your Adjusted Gross Income. A certain portion of that Adjusted Gross Income you owe to the government, those are your Taxes [38] (which is the really tricky part of the income tax return). If you have a job that holds out taxes, then great! You just see if the amount of taxes held out are enough to cover the amount of taxes you owe. If you had too much held out, then you get the rest back. If you didn’t, then you get to write a check.

Here’s the thing about the US tax system: It works great if you have one full time job. But that doesn’t really work out with our “Multiple Revenue Streams” thing we discussed. So let’s talk about that problem.

[39] For musicians, there are essentially two types of income: The income you get as an employee, where taxes are held out and you get a W2 at the end of the year, and the income you get as an independent contractor (like where you have a church gig or you teach privately or get royalties), where taxes are not held out and you get a 1099 at the end of the year. You owe taxes on both the W2 and the 1099 income, but taxes are only held out of the W2 income. Let’s call the 1099 income “Business Income”. What’s really great about Business Income, however, is that as an independent contractor you have expenses, which you can subtract from your Business Income. As long as you have the proper receipts and make legitimate business purchases to further your business, you can reduce the amount of business profit, which is what gets taxed.

Another way of dealing with this is talking about how much in taxes get taken out of your regular paycheck. When you start working a new job, you fill out a [40] W4. When you fill out a W4 you’re given a [41] worksheet asking how many allowances you want to take. You have no idea what this means, the only time you’ve really been given an allowance is when you were a child and your parents gave you a weekly allowance and that was a good thing, so you follow the instructions and write down whatever number it tells you because you have a stack of new hire paperwork to fill out and how important can this thing be anyway? []

Apparently, $1100.

[42] Here’s the thing about allowances: The more allowances you claim, the less taxes your employer takes out. [43] If you’re working one full time job, following the allowance worksheet will give you a good ballpark estimate of how much in taxes you’ll have to pay every year. If you’re working multiple part-time jobs, they are wildly inaccurate. For 2016 I adjusted my W4s to take out the maximum amount of taxes (0 allowances), and didn’t repeat last year’s issues.

[44] There’s an entire universe of things to talk about regarding the setting up of a publishing business and how to properly fill out your taxes in a way that minimizes the amount of taxes you pay, but that’s a discussion for a different lecture. Thank you all for your attention, and at this time I’d like to open the floor for questions or discussion.