The Short Guide to Composing?

I recently received my monthly BMI newsletter, which normally I would glance over and then trash, but this time one of the articles caught my eye:  “Composing for Orchestras and Other Ensembles, Part 1: Getting the Gig“.  Now I’ve been a student of composition in higher education for almost a decade, and have been actively composing for as long.  I have a number of well-respected colleagues, many of whom are more decorated and experienced than myself, yet only a handful of whom have had the honor of getting commissions at all, let alone orchestral ones.  Those I know who do write for orchestra – very well, I might add – are lucky to receive a reading by a school or mid-level ensemble. There are a few exceptions, of course.  A few have had the privilege of receiving performances and commissions by well-known performance organizations, for which they worked long and hard – a culmination of the talent, technique, experience, and networking they have cultivated through the years.  Perhaps it’s my admittedly long experience in the arts and academia, but the idea that it’s good to have a quality product before being able to “sell” it seems to be a necessity – or rather, it should be a necessity.

Of course, this is the idealistic side of me talking.  The other – the 21st-century realist/cynic – is not surprised.  The world of marketing and advertising has been changing our perception of “quality”, “talent”, “opportunity”, and even “fact” for a long time.  It’s no longer about actually having talent – though it of course still helps – but rather the ability to market yourself as someone that other people need to pay attention to.  Your “brand” has to be in front of people all the time, wherever they go.  Quality and reliability are no longer the criteria for which we chose our products, but rather name-recognition, or what packaging catches our attention, or “special sales” – where a manufacturer or store seems to do you the favor of lowering the price on an item (down to only 3-4 times the cost as opposed to 5-6), making it impossible to resist buying three or four of them.  Quantity over quality, recognition over reliability, and popularity over talent – this is the new credo, whether conscious or not, by which the Powers That Be seem to operate.  Therefore, having a “quick-guide” to composing, and beginning that guide not on study or practice, but rather marketing, seems to be in line with the state of the industry.

And why not teach marketing?  Personally, I have no problem with the idea of getting your name out there.  How else will people know you exist?  If you are a sincere and devoted artist, then presumably you have something to say to the world.  So what good does it do for your art to remain on your hard drive, or in your studio?  And with the ever-increasing body of resources available, marketing yourself and your work is easier, more achievable, and more affordable than ever (for example, lowly blog sites like this one).  Perhaps those who champion this new technological landscape are right to do so.  After all, isn’t this wonderful for the arts?  The freedom to express yourself without hindrance is a triumph of democracy and populism – right?

The easy answer is, of course, yes.  It is easier than ever for anyone with artistic ambition at any level to record and disseminate their work.  The concern, however, is this:  what does that mean for trained, seasoned, professional artists?  Now admittedly one can hear a bit of the panic for my own livelihood in this question, but there are greater, valid consequences at stake for the art world in general.  With literally millions of “artists” and “musicians” online, each with their own sound clips, jpegs, and streaming video to peruse, how do we sift through it all?  What are our criteria for critique and judgment?  One could say we’ve moved beyond the need for such stale requirements, and that our own personal taste is judge enough.  But is art really capable of surviving for generations to come solely on the whim of our own fleeting opinions?  Would the artistic “greats” of the past – the Rembrants, Michelangelos, J. S. Bachs, Beethovens, Picassos – have transcended their own time if the only artistic measure was the taste of the day?  And more important still: would there still have been the same drive and motivation toward excellence, if all they had to do was complete a piece and upload it to their Youtube and Flickr accounts?  Even within the profession today, there is the constant pressure to produce new material and remain in the spotlight, which has its own pros and cons.  But when quantity and recognition become the only standards for success, the river of mediocrity breaks its banks and floods the market, drowning a lot of potentially great art in the process.


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