What It Takes to Succeed as a Composer : Music: Without self-promotion and business savvy, “talent” doesn’t mean success for music composers.

From Times Wire Services

So you want to be a composer?

It’s not easy, but it is possible, and even a bit easier these days, to make a career of writing music, a profession for which there is essentially no job market.

It takes not only talent, but also self-promotion and a head for business.

When Mozart was composing in 18th-Century Austria, he earned a living writing music for chamber and amateur musical groups, theater, balls and dinners, churches, court functions, the Masonic lodge, singers and instrumentalists.

The marketplace of Mozart’s time was eager for new compositions, and Mozart responded with enthusiasm and a keen sense of public relations. Leonard Bernstein and Andrew Lloyd Webber have the same flair for promotion in our time.


The music marketplace of the 20th Century is more varied than in Mozart’s day. It includes symphony orchestras, jazz ensembles, theatrical and dance companies, recording companies, commercial and industrial movies, television and advertising.

The questions for a young composer are: What area of the market is best suited to my talent? How do I break into the composing business and build a name and reputation that will create a demand for my music?

“By any measure, it takes tremendous grit, resiliency, reason and a fresh eye to succeed in the musical world,” said composer John Duffy, president of Meet the Composer, a national service organization in New York that channels financial support to composers.

“Diligence, hard labor and street smarts can open doors and save you time.”

As in the case of all arts endeavors in the United States, federal funding for composers and institutions using their services has been cut, and there is more reliance on funding from the public sector.

Even that may dwindle because of cuts in federal tax benefits stemming from cultural philanthropy, so that composers must come to rely increasingly on private enterprise for remuneration.

“A number of contemporary composers have been able to cross over to the commercial end of things in music,” noted Jon La Barbara of Santa Fe, N. M., who composes electronic music. “You have to look for alternative venues to the traditional concert performance of music.


“Self-promotion is vitally important because there is little in the way of management for contemporary music. Most management agencies handle more traditional music. Look for a successful musician today and you will find one who handles his own business as well as his creative enterprise.”

With this in mind, Meet the Composer has published a handbook, “Composers in the Marketplace” by Lauren Iossa and Ruth Dreier, which offers much practical information for young composers.

Duffy notes in the introduction that most composers finish music school “with no knowledge of the business of music at all,” and this is one way that conservatories fail to prepare musicians for life.

First, Duffy says, young composers should hire a lawyer, preferably one with arts management credentials. Copyrighting compositions, then licensing their performance for a fee is the basic way that composers make a living and requires legal advice.

A composer usually enters into an agreement with a publisher, where copyright ownership is transferred to the publisher, who licenses the work, collects royalties and fees, and pays the composer a percentage of the generated income.

However, many composers become self-publishers. They handle the licensing, sale and rental of scores, and collection of money themselves or with the help of an attorney or manager. America’s oldest living composer, Irving Berlin, has published his own music since early in his career.

“Many composers believe the key to advancing their career is finding a publisher, but this is not so,” the handbook states.

“The key is getting work performed and subsequently aired on radio and television. Public performances help familiarize others with your music and represent an important first step in building a network of contacts that can help advance your career.”

The book also advises composers to start with local musical groups and cultivate relationships with music directors, conductors and managers who make programming decisions.

If you are impatient, you might form your own performing ensemble to play your music, an avenue to success for such avant-garde composers as Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

Composers should write for as many mediums as possible to increase their exposure. They should keep the press and influential musical professionals informed of performances of their music, sending copies of the score, tape and reviews.

Records can mean an important advance in a composer’s career, both as a promotional tool and a way of earning income. Before approaching a recording company with demonstration tapes, make sure that the firm is able to get records into stores and find out whether it is interested in--and capable of--producing compact discs, an increasingly popular alternative to the record format.