Composing for Band
Updated: Aug 1
During my first year of graduate school at Arizona State University, I was trying to think about what I was going to do after graduation. How exactly does one make money as a composer? I'm going to touch upon several job opportunities that I've come across during my attempts to make a living as a composer in a future blog post, but for now, I'm going to focus one where I've found my niche writing for Wind Ensemble and Concert Band.
The first concert band piece I ever wrote Havasu Falls was published with Alfred Music Publishing back in 2011. I submitted the piece via snail mail with a printed, bound score and a C.D. with a MIDI generated recording. A few weeks or months later, Robert Sheldon, who was the Concert Band Editor at the time (and was also my grade school and high school band director) sent me an e-mail saying that Alfred was interested in publishing the piece, and this event marked the catalyst of my pursuit in writing music for band. For those are interested in following this path, let me break down some of the pros and cons and also one of the harsh truths that you may not realize when getting started.
- Most publishers of Concert Band literature take on the burden of acquiring live recordings from professional musicians with recording engineers.
- The piece will be professionally engraved and go through several rounds of edits to ensure the highest quality of the printed material as well reducing the possibility of errors within the music.
- Publishers will promote your music to a wide audience that as a starting composer you may not have developed yet.
- And lastly, printing, shipping, and responding to orders is all carried out by the publisher, meaning you can spend more time composing and not having to respond to e-mails, orders, and making trips to a Kinko's for printing or the Post Office to send materials.
- You end up giving the rights away to your music. This makes it extremely difficult to do adaptations or arrangements of your music like setting a piece for orchestra or a smaller ensemble.
- Although your music will often reach a much larger audience and can certainly increase the number of sales, most publishers royalty percentage is 90%, leaving 10% to the composer. That means for a Grade 1.5 piece that sells at let's say $55, you as the composer receive only $5.50. It takes a large volume of sales to make any decent money, and the more works that you have published the more you can make in royalties, but it takes time to build a large catalog.
- Performance royalties are split between you and the publisher. If you self-publish, you count as both composer and publisher, which means you're able to collect 100% of the performance royalties. It also makes it far easier to report the performances of your piece because you know who's playing them since the sale, even if it's through a 3rd party website such as J.W. Pepper, comes directly to you at some point. When a piece is purchased through a publisher, you have no idea who's purchasing the work, which means you lose out on the personal connection you might be able to forge with a band director, and your piece most likely will not be reported to your PRO. Although your royalties through your PRO may not amount to a lot during a year, it's always nice when money comes in.
- This one is actually pretty important. The dynamic for purchasing music has changed vastly over the past 10-15 years. John Mackey wrote a wonderful blog post about his decision to self-publish a while ago that is still very relevant. This approach, however, requires a good business sense and one thing that certainly helps in this department is your amicability, or essentially your friendliness and ability to make connections with others - both of which I will touch on in a later blog post. The internet has completely changed the game, making the prospect of self-publishing far easier than it used to. Band director's can purchase a PDF version of a piece directly from your website and print it themselves. This in turn has had an affect on sales with publishers and has definitely had an impact on how they compile their catalogs, which leads me to my next point - rejection.
- You'll deal with rejection quite a bit. Even when you think you kind of have things figured out, you will still find that certain pieces just won't get published for one reason or another, and it sucks every time. My piece Una Noche en Varadero, for example, was turned down by multiple publishers despite having won SBMA composition contest in 2018 before finally finding a home at Bandworks Publications. Several reasons I've had works turned down by publishers range from:
"The piece is too jazzy, and we don't think it will sell very well."
"We already have too many marches in our catalog and aren't very interested."
"This piece is SUPER cool, and sounds like it should be in a movie, but we just don't think it will garner much interest. In regards to the first and last one, don't be discouraged by that. The publisher needs to make sure that they see a return on their investment (remember they're the ones fronting a large chunk of change to get the piece edited, engraved, recorded, printed, advertised, shipped, etc.) so it needs to make financial sense for them to publish a piece, and if they don't think it will work for their catalog, don't worry, because chances are it might find success elsewhere. In quite a few cases, I've had a piece rejected by several publishers before finally finding a home with one that decided they liked it. And oddly enough, a couple of my band pieces that have won competitions were rejected by publishers that I've worked with. It's just part of the business. At first, you might take the rejection to heart and wonder if this is even an avenue worth pursuing, and I'm pretty sure there are quite a few composers who have experienced this self-doubt - I certainly have.
But it becomes strangely easier over time, and even with pieces that I spent weeks or months working on and was really proud of, I no longer take it personally when they get declined by publishers. Usually those are pieces that I wanted to venture out on a little more and experiment with new sounds or techniques to mix up the writing process a bit and hopefully grow as a composer. I still feel an immense satisfaction with a product that has made me expand my "composer toolbox" (as my undergrad composition professor Dr. Heinemann used to call it) or venture out of my comfort zone to help me grow.
Things to Know:
One of the most shocking things I didn't realize after getting my first piece published was how long it would take to get paid from it, which is usually around 2-3 years. Composing is not like a normal job where you get paid bi-weekly for the work you've done. I'm going to cover the process a little further down and explain how it all works.
Another very important detail is that you absolutely SHOULD NOT submit the piece to more than one publisher at a time. It may seem counter-intuitive, and you're wondering:
"But what if the piece is rejected? Doesn't it make more sense to submit to multiple publishers to increase the possibility of the piece getting published?"
And the answer is: "Absolutely"
In addition, it's important to look at a publisher's website and browse the pieces that they have published. Someone who's more interested in composing atonal works, for example, should probably not submit to publisher's that primarily focus on educational material for young bands. Also, some publishers such as Hal Leonard do not accept unsolicited works; so sending a piece to them would simply be a waste of time and energy. Other only review unsolicited works during certain times of the year. Sometimes these are things that you can only find out after you've already submitted the work and don't hear back from them until 11 months later, which actually happened to me once before. After roughly 4 months, I submitted the work elsewhere, it was accepted, and when the original company that I submitted it to informed me that they wished to publish it, I informed that after having not heard back from them over a period of 4 months, I submitted it to another company and fortunately did not lose face with them.
The Publication Process:
After spending days or sometimes even weeks or months working on a piece of music, you're finally finished and ready to submit it to a publisher. So, you submit the piece and a publisher wants to publish it!
Let's say the piece was submitted in January of year '00. The publisher responds three months later in March/April that they would like to publish it. Later in the year, let's say September they ask for your most up to date draft and begin the editing process. They'll have certain things they need corrected to make the engraving process easier. You need to add Timpani tunings, a2 markings, missing Tutti or ending dynamics, their score order is slightly different and you need to move things around, for the grade level you're writing at, the ranges need to be adapted on a few instruments, the Oboe and F Horn parts need to be cued somewhere if they're exposed at all, etc.
You make your corrections, and then it gets engraved.
They e-mail or mail you beautifully engraved copies for another round of edits to make sure that the part extractions turned out right and that there aren't collisions or errors within the score or parts. And thus begins the most grueling and boring part of composing (at least for me).
Several cups of coffee and a lot of stretch breaks happen over a several day period as you comb through the score and parts note by note to make sure all of the notes are correct as well as articulations, dynamics, etc. It's a slow and incredibly boring process, but also one of the most important to ensure that the final product is as close to perfect as possible. You send the edits back, and now around March of '01 the piece gets recorded by an ensemble and around May/June of '01 it gets uploaded to their website and is available for purchase. YAY!
Money should start rolling in...
...but it won't...
...at least not right away.
May to December of '01 the piece gets purchased by you won't see money until the royalty disbursements, which for many companies is around the start of the new year, so January or February of '02, but in some cases it might be later.
Your piece sells 100 copies and at the $5.50 per copy, you receive a check for $550.
But that's $550 for multiple hours spent writing the piece, then going through multiple rounds of editing, meaning you basically made less than minimum wage for the time that you spent on it.
There is a silver lining, though. The piece will hopefully continue to sell for years, and although the number of purchases in subsequent years may diminish, you'll still be making income. Also, if the piece gets played at a contest, Midwest, or TMEA, it may actually see a huge increase in sales one year. You might even get some commissions as a result. Some of it's luck, but the most important thing is to always keep writing.
The Harsh Truth:
Chances are you won't be able to make a living as a composer for Concert Band and Wind Ensemble...at least not right away. It takes time to build your reputation and a catalog of great pieces that people are interested in buying. Once that happens, though, commissions and repeat sales of pieces can certainly lead to a career, and a fruitful one at that, but it takes time and patience. Even 9 years after my first piece was published, I'm still trying to figure things out.