How to Make a Living as a COMPOSER



so one of the nice things about having a YouTube channel is you sometimes get to start conversations with other interesting youtubers I already got to know Marcus from not write music who's been kind enough to preview scripts and chat through ideas before I make some of my videos and recently I've been chatting with Jake Lizzio at signals music studio who seems to have such a positive spirit and has some great music theory videos on everything from poly meters to Piketty thirds his recent video on Dorian mode for example it was just one of the clearest expositions of what that mode is how to use it there's lots of great examples and so on so I really recommend checking out his channel we got chatting originally when Jake asked me the question of what it means to be a composer and what what that even is so I thought I'd make this video all about what a composer is how you become a composer how you get commissions how you make your living and what it's like to be a composer so of course there are lots of different ways you can make music and composer is as good a name as any for someone who creates music whatever the form it is you know you can make up music by playing with your friends you can improvise you can record with the laptop or in a studio or like me you can write it down and get others to play it later so I personally explored most of these options at one time or another at school I form bands and started writing their own songs in my early teens possibly I remember for example having a specific shaker pattern in mind so I wrote it down on some manuscript paper and gave it to the drummer of my band who just squirmed at the idea of following the details of what I'd written down there so I quickly got drawn towards ensembles who are more used to reading what you'd written there was a couple of ensembles at school that I started writing for and there was something about that process the sort of thought and consideration involved that just just worked for me you know I tried forming jazz bands I tried using recording studios but it was always that written approach that I kept coming back to I suppose I'm trying to emphasize the fact that it wasn't so much the genre that drew me in as the technical method of creation that allowed me to spend my time on my own trying to get a musical thought down in a way that others could then perform in fact I didn't really start getting hooked on classical music until my late teens when I discovered Stravinsky so with everything I'm about to say in this video by and large this is the way things work for people who call themselves contemporary classical composers but all I really mean by that is composers whose preferred method of creating music is writing stuff down there's a huge range of styles within that genre from the steel pan pieces by Andy Akiho through to the more cerebral sounds of Mattias pincher and I'm not saying that you have to write stuff down to be a contemporary classical composer I'm just saying that that's been the method I've preferred and so that's the approach I can offer some insights into so I went on to study music and Composition at University and the good thing about that is there's always some opportunities to get your work performed by student ensembles in fact I stayed in studies for as long as I could doing a masters and a doctorate and a large part of that was so that I could have access to those performing opportunities to get the experience of converting dots on a page into vibrations in the air because that really is one of the challenges of being my kind of composer I mean if you're an artist you make a painting you have your finished work of art so you know all you need is a canvas and paints but if you're a composer you might spend three months working on a piece but at the end you don't even have a piece of music you just have a bunch of dots on a piece of paper you still need the musicians and you often need a rather rare and specialist breed of musician who can read your kind of music which is often very difficult to play and getting any of those kind of musicians together costs a huge amount of money so you finish your studies and you find yourself out there in the big wide world you can't afford your own musicians so you need commissions from players ensembles or orchestras and the idea of getting commissions just seems impossible so how does it happen well I have to admit that it still feels like a miracle that it's happened to me to the extent it has and many of my colleagues from studies have either given up or are struggling writing music that no one's playing it's extremely hard and often very depressing this is why people say you shouldn't do it unless you feel like you've got no choice for me there were two separate strands which both gradually expanded over time one thing leading into another first was my introduction to the opera scene there's an experimental up for a company called tete-a-tete in the UK who put out a call for new ideas for 10-minute operas and I absolutely loved that whole world of writing music for this stage and over time I had a number of successful operas my first full-scale one still with tete-a-tete was called push and then a few years later the firework makers daughter for the opera group and the Royal Opera House and finally a couple of years ago nothing at glan born at the same time is all that I also got accepted from a call for scores that was put out by Carnegie Hall which I talked about in a video before and the contacts I met there led to all sorts of openings in the u.s. so for some time I had more Commission's coming from the US than the UK so the main lesson really in terms of how to get commissions is contacts it may sound unfair but in my experience people almost always commissioned from people they know and have actually met personally if you think about it a new commission is always a big gamble for the institution not just the Commission fee but the cost of putting on the concert the rehearsals so they have to be incredibly cautious and if they've looked you in the eye and they know you're a reliable sort of person well that's half the battle making contacts while you're a student is an ideal way to start unfortunately for me I wasn't really at that stage I was still working out who I was and what I wanted to do so I didn't really make a lot of useful contacts amongst players that I could lean on once I left but there's certainly a lot of very successful composers that have done just that they start by building a network of friends who then go on to play their work of course my Carnegie Hall break was a competition entry so I can't rule out completely the idea of entering competitions as a way of getting your first break making a living as a composer is of course very difficult and the vast vast majority end up doing other work to supplement any income they're lucky enough to get from composing and the vast majority of those are involved in academic teaching of one kind or another in my case I had a parallel interest in computer programming as a kid I used to sell computer games on the local market and when the internet came along I really loved the ability it gave you to be entrepreneurial without having to leave your bedroom I set up a number of websites and one in particular the sheet music website eighth-notes comm flourished it's been going for almost 20 years now and it offers arrangements of different popular classical and traditional pieces and that together with other work has provided me with a solid basis to make a living alongside my composing and even though I've had a pretty good chain of composition commissions now for 10 years or more I still try to treat any composition income mainly as a bonus it is possible to make some real money from composing if you start having operas and orchestral pieces performed regularly between the Performing Rights money and the part fire money you could make upwards of a couple of thousand dollars per performance so you can see how that could quickly start to add up but there's maybe 20 or 30 composes in the world who are lucky enough to be in that position the other aspect of being a composer that it's challenging is managing the flow of commissions when you start out any commission feels like a dream come true and knowing how difficult they are to come by it still feels faintly ridiculous to me to refuse a commission but that of course means that if they keep coming in you can find yourself under a lot of pressure to get them all done which has happened to me on a couple of times and it can be very stressful so then you start refusing work and pretty quickly you find yourself with an empty diary and then you start wondering will anyone ever Commission me again so then you go back to accepting everything and you end up in these waves that be there too much work or not enough it's very challenging to find the right balance one of the questioning is always good to ask yourself as a composer is who are you trying to impress and why are you writing the music for yourself for the future for your audience I've noticed I do have a sort of ambivalent attitude to an audience's reaction I mean of course it's nice if everyone cheers after your piece but my own reactions tell me that that's not really the validation I'm after so so what is I suppose I feel a bit torn because I in my heart what I want to write is the most perfectly built object that I personally feel does all the best things I know music can do I enjoy the impossible challenge of that so in that sense I'm writing for myself or at least some imaginary perfect listener who will enjoy all those tiny details I spend hours crafting but constantly nagging at me are my sense of what the people playing and commissioning the work will think and that's because without them I'll just be one of those people writing dots on pieces of paper I need those people to turn my dots into music I know that to create the music I want to create I should be following my own interests and passions and thinking of nothing but that but I also know that without the players and institutions to perform them I won't be a composer in the true sense a composer whose work never gets performed is barely a composer at all at the very least as those college friends of mine would testify it's a very hard path to tread finally I often get asked about other types of composing would I write for films would I write for theater that's another aspect that I've tried but what I really enjoy is being fully in charge myself in those genres you always have a boss who's saying no we need it like this we need you like that and it's amazing for example in Opera that although it's a huge collaboration with a lot of other people it's basically the composer's vision at its heart and that's what really stimulates me artistically as when I'm in control of it so I hope that was all of interest do let me know if you've got any questions or thoughts about what being a composer is I was hoping to do another video sometime on what it means to be a classical musician does that mean anything what are the distinctions so let me know in the comments if you're interested in hearing about that if you'd like to support the channel do consider joining my patrons over at patreon and I look forward to seeing you in the next video you are the finest girl I'm gonna I know your dad is always gonna miss you we'll tell you daddy do what you like

32 thoughts on “How to Make a Living as a COMPOSER

  1. I really want to become a video game composer and I'm thinking if i should double major or minor with music and programming or something like that

  2. You're lucky to have an orchestra which plays your music.
    Composing with some composition software would give you both your music in sound and in paper. That would be my way, having no orchestra.
    Have you tested that method, and what didn't work for you ?

  3. Why are so many composers programmers? It's very alarming, because I tried coding once and I was bad at it, and since it's apparently my only other option I'm gonna pretty screwed when this music thing doesn't work out…

  4. I would like to hear what you have to say about what it means to be a classical musician, because I can't think of any meaningful lines I could draw in the sand that wouldn't be tantamount to snobbery.

  5. I wonder if it is worth it to publish and promote your own music and take on the rigors of doing that while also working or should you just try to find a publisher who will take your work?

  6. Is there a “composers website” some place where composers go to put their name out there and hook up with other artists who need non-royalty music for their own nascent plays (me) or films (soon)

  7. From what I keep hearing from my professors and advisors, at least here in the U.S., it’s a bit easier to make a living if you decide to write for concert band as opposed to orchestra. Especially at the high school and college level, concert bands are constantly looking for new music. Combine that demand with the connections you’ve made, as well as the power of social media as a self-marketing tool, and you’re off to a slow but steady start. It really helps me that at the college I go to, the professors here really love student-written music.

  8. I couldn't help but think of American modernist composer Charles Ives after watching the video and reading some of the comments. He had a day job selling insurance, and composed what he wanted. According to wikipedia, his works were largely ignored during his lifetime (gasp!), but now he's considered one of the true American originals.

  9. I wonder what the classical composers that watch this channel think of Tim Hecker. He's a composer by way of instrumentals recorded off-site, then, via laptop, shaped into the visions in his head.

    Not likely that anybody here even knows who Tim Hecker is.

    If interested, a good place to start would be the album, An Imaginary Country.

    Tim's music was such a near revelation to me that I wrote a short story with two of his albums as one of the narratives main focal points.

    Good day lovely creatives.

  10. You pronounced "Matthias Pintscher" perfectly. Although you wrote "Matthais" in one of the captions. 🙂

  11. My composer relative relentlessly publicises his work, and arranges performances. (He also did a lot of commercial work).

  12. Very spot on! Me, as many other classical Composers very much could agree with this. Thank you for sharing it to the world. My experience is actually that many people of today do `nt really know what a Composer is anymore….

  13. Thanks. how much should I charge for mymusic. I found a video that "guess" that music is worth <,>,= 00.021 cents. soooooo……help with anything would be great!

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