How to Get Music Played
Thu November 25, 2021
So I've written a new piece! Great! …Now what?
The only wrong answer here is to lock it in a drawer somewhere and never let it see the light of day - Unless it's my Brass Quintet from 2015. Just….. No.
Step One - Export Files and REGISTER it.
You have a few things to take care of immediately, day zero after finishing the piece. The first step should always, ALWAYS be to export a legible, edited score that looks presentable in PDF format. You then want to export a MIDI or VST realization of the piece's audio. You should also get it registered with BMI or ASCAP immediately. This is important because you don't want to be caught off-guard here and forget. Bonus points here if you can get a low-stakes reading and/or acceptable performance immediately at no cost.
Step Two - Upload It
This step is pretty straight-forward and simple. Upload your files to relevant online locations, the most important of which should be a personal website that contains all your other pieces. Don't worry about purchasing options or stores at this stage. Just make it so a prospective ensemble director or performer can browse a score/score section with audio and judge whether or not they are interested. Also, upload it to a cloud-sharing service of your choice: Google Drive, iCloud, Dropbox, OneDrive are all good solutions here because they are trusted sources that won't set off flags in people's email accounts. If you have a YouTube channel, upload a score video there (you can leave it unlisted if you want, so long as it's viewable with a direct link). Bandcamp, Soundcloud, and others are good too, if you use them and want to keep up with that.
Step Three - Promote It ONLINE
Promote the piece! This has a three-pronged approach.
The first avenue of attack is social media.
Post it EVERYWHERE and use appropriate tags/handles when you can. Is it a piece for theremin? Tag a local theremin society! Is it based on a fantasy concept? Tag your favorite relevant fantasy inspirations. The goal here is to get EYEBALLS on the YouTube video, plays on bandcamp, or listens on SoundCloud.
The second avenue of attack is targeted messaging.
Do you still keep in touch with your high school orchestra director? Consider letting him know about your piece and send him a score/audio link! Is your friend the violist in a string quartet? Ask her if their quartet will give it a read. This is where we really lean into our existing networks in a targeted manner. Don't be too bothersome, just an email or Facebook nudge. Do NOT Tweet at them publicly (unless you have that kind of relationship where they are guaranteed to say yes!), don't post on their Facebook wall, and don't send them TikToks asking them for a score read. This puts unfair pressure on them and will quickly get you added to people's "do not respond" list. It is important to start your social media campaign before this step so that you can hopefully send them a YouTube link with more than 0 views and be aware of any broken links ahead of time.
The third avenue of attack is cold-call emails.
This is the most intensive part of the process: Get to researching ensembles/solo players that might be interested in your work. In my working case here, I wrote a piece for Bassoon Quartet/Bassoon Ensemble. So I just research Bassoon Ensembles, do some reading, and figure out a list of 10 ensembles I should contact. Then, send them each a cordial, professional, personalized email explaining: "Hi, I'm a composer. I wrote a piece for Bassoon Quartet and was hoping to see if you were interested in performing it." Be sure to make this email formal, short, and to the point. Do not send them files. Send them a single link that demonstrates the score, audio, and if you're at the stage of sales, sales links to purchase score and parts. If you're lucky, you get an immediate sale or three here!
Step Four - Consider Publication Methods
This may seem like a weird spot to put this, but there's a reason why you should consider publishing potential here in addition to when you first finished the piece. This is the stage at which you will begin to gain an idea of what the true potential of the piece is. My personal recommendation is to just self-publish at this stage, though if you want to go through a publisher there's an entirely separate video incoming on that topic. You should also consider things such as JWPepper's MyScore, SMP Press/Arrangeme, or smaller boutique publishers that specialize in your type of music. Bonus points here if you actually know someone who runs a small publishing company and is willing to take on your pieces.
Step Five - In-Person Networking
This is a crucial step in the process. Get a nicely printed version of your score done at a print shop, two if you're feeling lucky and keep these on-hand as you talk, in-person, with various ensemble directors and performers that you think might be interested in playing something you've written. Be sure to have a business card, sticky note, or something else physical firmly attached to the score ahead of time so you can just hand it off without worry. If you haven't done something like this before, I'd consider the following discussion architecture:
- Bring up the topic of new music. This is made easier if a new piece was played on a recent event of theirs. Even more so if they've JUST finished a concert of new music and you're talking in the lobby afterwards.
- If it isn't already clear, ask if they'd consider performing music by local composers. This is an easy "yes" most of the time, and just helps build further rapport.
- If yes, ask them if they'd consider a piece you've written. If they say yes, you're almost there! If no, you can still salvage it.
- If Yes, procure the piece from your bag if you're carrying one (don't fold it up please…), or offer to bring it by their office when they are next in. It is IMPERATIVE that you physically hand them the score. This will GREATLY boost your chances of success. Caution: Do NOT walk up, score in hand up-front. This will not be as successful as you'd think in the long-run as either A) They will think you're just a self-entitled composer who has cornered them and left them in a defenseless state, or B) They will accept it, and due to not building up to it, the piece will be forgotten just as easily as it came.
- If No, do NOT ask why not. Simply ask how the programming is coming along for the next show or two. Show an interest, and gently depart. Then, send them an email the next day asking them to consider the piece and showing them the YouTube, website, or other links you find relevant. Same as in Step 4c: Keep it short, concise, and professional. Do not beg. This will not lead to good things.
This entire step gets much easier with time. You will be awkward at first. You will stumble a bit. You will likely get turned down. However, just keep at it and keep improving your technique and your pitch.
This step is also immensely easier if you are involved in the ensemble as a performer. This is why composers should always be looking to participate in ensembles on a professional, semi-professional, and volunteer basis when possible.
Step Six - Seal The Deal
This step assumes successful completion of steps 3 and 5 with the foundation we laid in steps 1 and 2. Step 4 is not 100% necessary here.
So you finally hear back from someone. Awesome! They want to do your piece. If you're new to composition or attempting to work with a professional ensemble for the first time, I'd caution against responding to your first performance inquiries with "That'll be 20 dollars for score and parts." That has about an 80% chance of ending poorly. Instead, graciously send them your score/parts and offer to answer any questions/comments/concerns they may have. This is important because you want to establish a dialogue, not a simple transaction. If they give you a timeframe for their first read, great! If not, don't panic. Simply ask when sending the PDFs when they are considering reading it. Do NOT assume a performance at this stage. Most ensembles will respond with some variant of "We are going to read it on X date's rehearsal, and think it might go great on our program next Fall." Once their initial read happens, touch base and ask how it went. Don't email them at 7PM on a Tuesday if their rehearsal ends at 7 PM on a Tuesday. Wait the day or so to see if they email YOU first. This doesn't damage anything, just gives you a slightly less desperate look. If you hear back something akin to: "We read it, but are unsure about when we would program it" or a different type of rejection then kindly thank them for the read and ask them for any comments/concerns from the ensemble. This is important as it sets you up for success later on when revising your piece. If they respond positively, then onto step seven.
Step Seven - Performance Confirmed
Congratulations! The ensemble rehearsed your piece once and they love it and want to program it on their concert next month. Yay!
Immediately thank them for their time and for agreeing to program your piece. Feel free to ask for any comments/concerns about the piece at this time, and also ask if it will be live-streamed if you are unable to attend. If it's a paid show you might be offered a couple of gratis tickets (in my experience 2-4 depending on venue), but even if it's a paid show and you don't get a free ticket GO TO THE SHOW if it is nearby/feasible for you.
Step Eight - Performance Preparation
As the concert looms closer, a variety of things may be asked of you so it's best to get started on these now if you don't already have them handy.
If you haven't already, start coming up with some simple program notes about the piece. I have a blog post about concert talks and program notes linked below. In summary, however, you want to keep it relatively brief but mention at least three things about the piece that are of note. As an example, when I give concert talks for my piece, "The Tinkerer" I like to talk about what a Tinker is, describe the environment that the piece attempts to emulate, and depending on my mood either a brief description of minimalist practices in the piece or an anecdote about a musical element to listen for in the piece.
If they ask for one, supply a simple composer biography of no more than a five sentence paragraph stating "Zachary Daniels is a composer of . He/She studied/studies composition at with <instructor(s)>. List degrees earned/nearly earned. List an accolade or two if you have them. Finally, close with something like: "Zach currently lives in Oklahoma City with his Wife Ashlie, and two cats Symphony and Smokey." Here's a link to an example! https://zachdaniels.com/biographyshort
You might be asked to give an introduction to your piece at the concert. If this is the case, just prepare your program notes and "enhance them" a bit. You may also choose to not give these introductions but I personally like doing them as it allows me to connect with the audience a bit more. Up to you, though. Again, link to relevant blog post.
While all of this is going on, you need to start ramping up your social media. Follow the ensemble on Instagram, Tweet to your followers, tag the page on Facebook. Do it all! I'd recommend no more than a post per week, per platform in the month prior until 5 days before. At that point, do a post every other day. If you attend a rehearsal, take a selfie with the group. If you're travelling, tweet out that you can't wait to get there! #hourdrivehype . The idea here is to remind people to attend, share live stream links when possible, and build the hype. This is your moment!
Step Nine - The Performance
Before I leave for a show I like to make sure my bag has at least two copies of the piece being played that night as well as a piece or two of related music. This isn't required, but has led to some great interactions in the past for me! You should be dressed somewhat decently as you will very likely receive attention at a few points during the night. I usually get away with a collared shirt paired with a sport-coat or suit jacket with pants to match. If you are invited to attend the sound-check or dress rehearsal, do it. It gets you more face time with the ensemble, allows you to hear parts of your work in the hall that you're worried about, and sets you up for more opportunities going forward. Don't arrive right as things start, but don't show up before the hall staff either. Also, be sure to grab at least two programs. One is for your personal pile, the second is to scan into ASCAP/BMI and any professional portfolios you might need for work, school, tenure, etc..
Most of the time, a group will want to acknowledge living composers in the audience that are on the program. If the group is doing this, be sure to sit in a good spot for your ears as well as their eyes. If you're giving an introduction, sit near or on an aisle and be sure to stand up and start walking in as subtle a manner as possible to where you need to be (usually stage right, though this varies a lot). You'll want to stand about two seconds after the applause starts. In the off-chance that the ensemble does not recognize you… don't stand up if it's clear they are moving on quickly. This just makes an innocent mistake incredibly awkward for everyone involved. If there is anything of dire importance you need to remember about the performance, or piece jot them down using pen and paper in-between pieces on the program. Don't take excessive notes during the piece or any other pieces on the program, as it takes you out of the moment and makes you look uninterested.
After the performance, hang around the hall itself, or just outside the hall in the lobby and engage in casual conversation. Make your way to ensemble members and directors to thank them, and be sure to thank any who congratulate you form the audience. If someone tries to keep you talking in the concert hall itself when most of the people are in the lobby, try to push forward in a kind manner but don't rush those wanting to congratulate you.
On rare occasions, you may be approached by an ensemble director from a different ensemble of the same type that wants to do your piece and inquires about it. This is why I make sure to carry a couple copies with me! Be sure to offer them a score, if they want it, there if you want. Alternatively, ask for their email address so you can email them directly. Don't just hand them a business card because you will be forgotten on the nightstand for three weeks until you are re-discovered and they inevitably add you to the pile of "forgotten business cards" in the bottom drawer of their filing cabinet. - I should clean mine out…..
Step Ten - Aftermath
If there's a post-concert meeting at a restaurant, or reception in the lobby be sure to hang around and attend at least part of the festivities unless you're pressed for time and have a significant drive ahead of you. Try to stay at least 15 minutes though as any earlier might make you seem rude to the untrained eye and we don't need that. Enjoy the moment, and revel in your status as a composer in the spotlight! I cannot stress how important this is. These meetings at an after-concert get-together at the bar, pizza place, or neighborhood bar and grill are where commissions are earned and life-long connections made. Don't make things about you at this point, but be sure to answer any questions that come your way. Tell a joke, post the selfie to Instagram, make friends, etc. When you get home that night, make a list of any important details you might forget such as invitations to collaborate, ensembles you now have ties to (and through who), and any immediate feedback on the performance itself. Was the adagio to slow? Are the second violins drowned out by the roaring bass-line? Take notes! The next morning, send an email to the ensemble director and thank them for the performance, mention you'd love to work with them again sometime, and ask them to send you the recording when it becomes available. Send out some social media posts about the performance, and update your website/cv/performance lists.
Zachary C. Daniels