My Closing Thoughts for Composers

Almost a year ago I set a challenge for myself to write a blog post every month, specifically with composers in mind. My goal was to cover areas of composition that I felt were very important yet severely lacking attention. Although I feel that it’s difficult for an individual to be 100% objective, I sincerely believed that the topics I planned to cover would have benefitted me greatly when I was younger. With that in mind, I thought that maybe it would be useful to others as well…..thus a blog was born.

However, it dawned on me a couple of months ago that the ideas I was starting to come up with (for new articles) were already very well covered and extremely ubiquitous.  Basically, I realized that I’ve said what I’ve needed to say, and have reached the end of my blog. Rather than cover ground that’s already been paved, I’d rather wrap up with the knowledge that I felt good about — all the time, effort, knowledge, and ideas I’ve shared.

This last blog is going to give some suggestions on how the industry-end of music works, as well as, what character or personality traits lead to the most success in such a confusing, crazy business.

The first and most important idea is that the music industry is unique, and different from any other industry. Not even related industries (ie..film, writing, art) are comparable in how they function. This is an important, albeit pedestrian observation, because music has very finite scalability. What does that mean?

Music is unlike most industries in that multiple variations of one composition are generally disliked by the general public. If we look at the art world, a painter can take one subject and paint it many times with only minor variations, and still sell each and every painting. Monet was a good example of this. He had a series called Haystacks, where he painted the same Haystacks multiple times but at different times of the day. (Everyone of those paintings sold for thousands of dollars when Monet was alive, millions now.).

Film, TV,  and books have sequels to main characters, for instance,  The James Bond franchise has 26 movies. Photography is like painting where you can sell variations of a single subject. The same applies to food and household products. There’s chocolate chip cookies with M&Ms, or walnuts, or almonds. There’s Tide with Febreeze or every fresh type scent you can think of.

Contrary to popular belief, only having minor variations in your music is not acceptable or generally liked when selling to the masses. Music buying consumers would be upset if they purchased an album of music where every single track had the exact same music, with the only distinction being that the lyrics were different from song to song. If you want to make money selling your music, then the burden is on you to create fresh, exciting, and unique music for every single piece of music you compose.

Obviously this is a very tall order and essentially, most music composed has a short shelf life. New music is released into the world and if it’s lucky enough to be accepted and appreciated, will have a bell curve of success. It will jump quickly to a high, and plateau. Then the composition will dramatically drop in popularity, as well as in sales. Some compositions fade into obscurity, and some will continue on to a modicum of success. (There are examples of living composers with decades of commercial and financial success from a single piece of music, however that is a rare case so we will not be focusing on needle in the haystack scenarios.)

Why have I gone into excruciating detail about the unique characteristic of the music industry?  If the answer isn’t obvious, then I will enlighten. In order to be successful in the music industry, one must not apply generalities, or scalability when composing. Basically, if you are trying to sound like what is currently popular, or trying to make the most with the least amount of diversity, you will not gain big success.

It may seem difficult to have every single piece of music composed be unique and self contained, unless you unburden yourself from trying to be like others. I’m really homing in on this because in no other time in history has it been easier for an individual to record a highly polished piece of music without the help of a major label or recording studio. If you find the right people (which isn’t difficult) you can create something great!

Ironically, there also hasn’t been a time in music history where a good amount of new music has been so poorly composed. I’m not talking about whether a song is good or bad, I’m talking about music fundamentals. If 2 carpenters build a dresser and they both are sturdy, hold clothes, and look nice, then good or bad does not apply. It’s merely a matter of preference. If, however, one of the dressers feels unstable and the drawers don’t open, then definitively that is a poorly built piece of furniture.

I unfortunately hear poorly composed music in all genres. Most of the time contemporary compositions lack harmonic support to the melody, and have overly produced drums pounding and drowning everything else out. There are so many music processes that have now been automated for us. I’d imagine, with all these automated processes, technology has made us even lazier. I suppose we’re all guilty of that to a degree, but technology is a tool not a substitute for composing. It’s akin to knowing how to do math with a piece of paper and a pencil or just putting the numbers into the calculator. When you understand the process behind the fundamentals, your tools will enhance your abilities and understanding of music. If you do not understand the fundamentals, then your music will reflect it.

Now this isn’t me pointing my finger in judgement, but merely putting a spotlight on 2 of the biggest mistakes that the music industry is making, consequently causing repeated failures.

  1. The first mistake that a majority of musicians/composers make is, that many believe they need to sound like everyone else to be acceptable and profitable.
  2. That technology will make up for lack of knowledge of your craft.

Many people do not seem to realize (or don’t care) that the world craves originality in compositions. In fact it rewards those individuals who are original. The system is designed specifically for everyone to release original music. Since most music has a short shelf life, this allows you to do whatever you want without it being expected to have scalability. This only works in your favor, because if you happen to release music that doesn’t do well, it will be quickly forgotten and not held over your head. This means you can continue to release new music without penalty. Also, again unlike other industries, growing and changing your musical style overtime is a gift. If music was like film, where an actor may be asked to reprise a role 6 or 7 times, it would get really old and tiresome. In fact many successful actors who get stuck in these roles get type cast. Which is a dreaded and awful position to be in. Getting work becomes difficult when people only see you as being able to do one thing, and one thing only.

In like manner, technology is also used to reinforce the current unoriginality of compositions. A new piece of equipment or software gets developed and released, and everyone uses it to sound “fresh” but really only ends up sounding like everyone else. Technology offers us infinite possibilities, but a good foundation has to be laid for technology to enhance your music. What I see happen many times is novice composers will use a DAW to compose a piece of music. When their compositions don’t meet their expectations, due to lack of understanding music fundamentals, they compensate by adding a ton of virtual instrument and effects to fill the void. This inevitably leads to hours  wasted time lost to turning knobs, pressing buttons, and loading software without achieving desired results.

I do believe that there’s a certain amount of entertainment that one derives from clicking on things within a computer to see what happens. It can be fun to create and manipulate sounds in software. This can be very helpful to any individual wanting to focus solely on electronic music and its off shoots. I argue that even if you want to just press buttons and turn knobs, playing around with your software to create a composition, you’ll be greatly diminishing your success. I believe, that any genre that has a competent composer behind it, will vastly outshine music that does not.

I’d like to finish this article by saying a couple of things about how to conduct yourself and how to manage your business affairs in the music business. When people decide that they want to pursue music as a career, they may not realize that it has heavier emotional weight than other jobs. This causes major development and growth problems for some people. Often times, composers/musicians cannot separate who they are from what they create and thus, they form an impenetrable defense mechanism.

Comparatively, most careers in most industries have goals or development plans for their employees. They will look at a person’s performance over several months and tell them where they are lacking in success. Generally speaking, most employees (even begrudgingly) will make those adjustments asked of them by their employer. Although this line of thought runs counter to the artistic mind, I believe it to be the difference between making it and not making it in music. In order for a composer/musician to have success, it is necessary for them to be open to constructive criticism from noteworthy sources. It’s even a good idea to listen to the criticisms of non-musical people, as they are the barometer for what will be purchased by the masses.

Obviously, it is up to you to separate what criticisms are helpful and what are just spewed hatred, but you have to be open to it. Nothing shuts down a potential composing gig faster than someone who’s perceived to be overly head strong. Quite often, the folks paying for your music, come from a corporate setting, and expect you to act like a professional, and not a head strong bull. If you know deep down that you are not less than a person if someone doesn’t like your music, then you’ll be less likely to be defensive, and passive aggressive. You just need to take in the ideas and use them to develop and grow your music until it’s where it needs to be. Of course you can apply these same ideas to those you are working for. If they’re being head strong, lacking in knowledge, and uneasy to work with, then it’s okay to decline work from them. It’s okay to politely tell them you’re booked. It’s better not to work on a gig you hate, because it will absolutely drain your creativity.

Lastly, I have to insist that composers/musicians become more involved in the boring, mundane, not fun, uninteresting aspects of being a composer/musician. Some of these subjects include: accounting, music licensing, listening to music genres you’re not into, cold calling, website design, reading business development books, and finally, helping your fellow man/women.

All of the topics listed above have huge amounts of text that give great detail into their understanding (and I highly encourage that you read more about them) but for yours and my sake, I will give the composers cliff’s notes on why they’re important.

  1. Accounting-know what you’re spending month to month. Most likely you are a freelancer who gets paid irregularly. Do you really need to buy a cup of coffee every other day? How often do you eat out? Can you lower your car insurance, phone bill, utilities etc.. You do not need to be a starving artist! If you are not making a regular chunk of change, then all of your financial gains need to be leveraged towards becoming a full time artist! Most banks allow you to download your statements, where you can easily pull them into an excel type spread sheet and track your finances. You’d be surprised at what you spend your money on!
  2. Understand the contracts you’re signing. If you don’t know what you’ve signed then you deserve the consequences. The book titled The Musicians Guide to Licensing goes into great depth into the most common music licensing contracts you may be asked to sign and how it will affect you. If you’re serious, I recommend you read it.
  3. It’s important to listen to everything. I’m a firm believer that if you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always be where you’ve always been. Basically, great ideas can come from anywhere. Even from music you may not have cared for.
  4. Referred cold calling is when you ask someone you know to put you in touch with someone you don’t know who may be able to help you with your career. Without making contacts, you won’t get any gigs. No one will knock on your door asking you to compose music for them. I would say that I am not a fan of having to do this as I don’t like bothering people, however I’d have no career without doing it!
  5. For the love of all that is good, please have someone who’s knowledgable make your website for you. It doesn’t matter if you have a traditional .com site or just a Sound Cloud page, make sure it’s easy to navigate, has your contact info, examples of your best work, and it loads very quickly! Poorly crafted sites will turn people off and drive gigs to other people.
  6. If you’re reading this blog then chances are you’ve been studying music for many years and are probably proficient at it. Regardless, it’s important to read business development books. Read whatever you can from books about Leadership, growth, interpersonal skills, etc… These help immensely as it will help you to relate to other people in other industries. Being able to talk shop in different industries leads to more work. Plus, most public libraries offer e-books now. You can just go online and read them for free.
  7. I’ve befriended people from all walks of life. It’s formed amazing camaraderies over the years. The people I’ve helped and the people who have helped me has not only been good for my heart, but helpful in life too. Forming a community with people you care about and care about you is absolutely imperative. In the beginning they will be there to help you when you’re struggling, and later on they’ll be there to celebrate your successes with you. No one can do this alone.

Okay! Many thanks to any of you who have read my blog! I hope that it has in some way helped or given some insight into composing! Good luck on all of your endeavors!

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