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The Business of Being a Composer

September 5, 2015

My not-so-funny joke is that I have some 17 jobs; the reality is that sometimes I indeed have at least that many, and sometimes just a few. In addition to being a composer, I am a lyricist, arranger, conductor, educator, author, music publisher consultant, “show doctor” for musicals, clinician, performer, music editor, engraver, and proofreader. I’m sure I left some things out, but you get the point. This is not bragging. In fact I would love to be able to say I only have four jobs — composer, lyricist, arranger, and conductor — and leave it at that. Okay, maybe five jobs; I enjoy teaching too.

One of the things I feel my composition students need to know besides the compositional basics is the business of being a composer, and that it should be a required course for undergrad composition majors, maybe even going for two semesters. A one-semester overview wouldn’t cover everything, but even one semester would be better than what young composers get now. Off the top of my head, here are topics that should be covered:

  1. Copyright. What it is, how/why/when to use it.
  2. Performing Rights Organizations. ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, what they are and do for you.
  3. Income Streams. How do you actually earn money composing. Topics would include: Commissions, Competitions, Grants, Publication, Subsequent Performances, Audio Recordings (Mechanical Licenses), Audio/Visual Media (Synchronization Licenses), performance royalties, grand rights, and non-performance licenses (tee shirts, mugs, and other “merch”).
  4. Networking. Topics would include: Presenting Yourself as a Composer; Press Kits and Business Cards; Internet Presence; Researching and Knowing Your Market; Effective Conversation; and Following Up.
  5. Presenting Your Music. Music Notation Do’s and Don’ts; Recordings (on physical media and online). MIDI versus “live” recordings.
  6. Finances. Musicians are, in the eyes of the IRS, low-hanging fruit just ripe for picking. This is mostly because (1) we musicians have a reputation for being not-too-bright business-wise (which, I should point out, is inaccurate), and (2) we are in the public eye. The best defense is honesty and accuracy in maintaining your finances. Topics would include: Bank Accounts and Checkbooks, and How and Why You Should Balance the Latter; Keeping Basic, Documented, and Accurate Contemporaneous Records for Tax Purposes; and Doing Your Own Taxes versus Hiring a CPA.
  7. Contract Basics. Topics would include: When Do You Need an Agreement (Contract)?; Lawyer or No Lawyer?; Negotiating Terms; How to Read a Contract; Composer-Specific Agreement Items.
  8. Agents. What Do Agents Do and Does a Composer Need One?

Based on conversations with students and colleagues, as well as my own experiences, I would say that the most time would be spent on items 1, 3, 4, 6, and 7. Number 4, in particular, would probably need the most of all — especially the last 3 items.

© 2015 Steven L. Rosenhaus


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