Writing >

Top 10 tips for composers

By Tim Benjamin  |  August, 2013 (originally written for Sound & Music)


Sound & Music have recently released a “Composer’s Toolkit”, covering among other things a section on “Earning a Living”. I’ve been asked by Sound & Music to write a short blog post on how this “should be done”.

This whole topic brings to mind a joke adapted from the aviation industry…
 “How do you become a millionaire from composing?”
 Answer: “Start off as a billionaire”.

Seriously though, it’s not really my place to tell anyone how anything “should be done”, but here are 10 do’s and don’ts that you should feel free to ignore!

Tip #1

Do have something else that brings in the money, as you will certainly need it for the first part of your career, and quite possibly all of it. It could be a second career e.g. in academia or something outside music entirely. It’s best if it’s something flexible and profitable, but…

Don’t burn yourself out earning the money! Composing is both time and energy consuming, so make sure you have plenty left over from your other work.

Tip #2

Do join the PRS and update them with all your works as you write them, and your performances and broadcasts as they occur (it’s all online and easy to do).

Don’t expect either the PRS or your broadcaster / concert hall to do anything for you. It’s up to you to chase down any royalties you are owed and make sure they complete the relevant forms correctly, or you won’t get paid. A few minutes on BBC or ITV can earn you a tidy little sum!

Tip #3

Do read up on the technicalities of self-employed status. There are many free resources both online and helpful organisations like the Federation of Small Businesses. You’ll need an accountant and they should also guide you, and you should get a business bank account and keep your personal after-tax money separate (make sure you get a free one, though – unlike personal bank accounts, there are often annual fees!)

Don’t expect it to be easier being “self-employed”. You’ll face higher car insurance premiums for example, it’s much harder to get a mortgage, and there’s a lot of bureaucracy to deal with ensuring various returns are, er, returned correctly. And the penalties for failure to do things on time are quite stiff.

Tip #4

Do build up a network of fellow musicians and “music professionals” (e.g. administrators, consultants, directors, and so on). That is where your work is going to come from, so get good at “networking”, and in person not just online. This is much harder for introverts but it’s quite frankly essential these days, so you’ll just have to come out of your shell!

Don’t send unsolicited scores to people. I’ve been on the receiving end of this and every new music ensemble and conductor I know has a pile of unread stuff, and maybe they’ve had to schlep to the post office to pick it up, wondering if it’s something important, only to find your latest symphony-of-the-universe. It’s not worth your money. But if you really must send something unsolicited, do for heaven’s sake put the right postage on it!

Tip #5

Do ask to be paid. Too many people in the music business are asked to work for nothing, for the “opportunity” or the “experience”. Usually this is a mask for shameless exploitation and the opportunity/experience will be worthless. If they aren’t even willing to pay your travel expenses, they don’t value you, so don’t bother with it.

Don’t pass up a good opportunity, however! You’ll have to get a feel for what is a good opportunity and what is worthless and exploitative, and to get that feel, you’ll have to say “yes” to a lot of things.

Tip #6

Do be “professional”. So you want to be a professional composer? Well then act like a professional and then you may be treated like one: and get paid! No, this doesn’t mean you have to wear a suit, but it does mean that you need be organised and know the difference between a friend and a colleague and act accordingly. And of course…

Don’t be “unprofessional”. If you commit to doing something, do it, and do it to the best of your ability. Be on time. Be polite. Be presentable. Be sober. Don’t bitch about people (even if they bitch about you). It’s tough to earn a living as a composer, but if you want a sure way to fail, be “unprofessional”.

Tip #7

Do be an “entrepreneur”. Even more than being “a professional”, you need to be able to act on your ideas and think of innovative ways to earn your living. An entrepreneur is good at sales as well as his or her craft, and this is a hard one for a lot of artistic people to grasp. While often cringe-worthy, you can actually pick up a few tips from The Apprentice about how (and how not) to go about making your ideas happen and pay off.

Don’t be a non-stop salesman, however. There’s nothing more off-putting to someone you need to “sell” to (e.g., get a commission or performance from), if you are constantly in their face “selling”, especially if they are already sold on the idea! Often it’s best to take a step back, and knowing when to say nothing is a skill worth perfecting. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve had in this area was “don’t talk when they are writing the cheque” (i.e. don’t give them a reason to change their mind!)

Tip #8

Do plan for your future, for rainy days, and your retirement. You aren’t always going to be able to find extra work to buy time to compose, and at some point you’ll want to “retire” (at least from non-composing activities!) – so if possible get your savings sorted out, make sure you pay at least the minimum National Insurance to qualify for a state pension, and if you can, get on the property ladder, ideally early on when you’ve still got a salary from your non-composing job (it’s much easier to get a mortgage that way).

Don’t go it alone and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Your “support network” of friends and family are absolutely essential, not merely as the first people you want to sell tickets to! – but as your moral support and non-judgmental encouragement.

Tip #9

Do enter competitions and apply for residencies and the like if they genuinely look worthwhile and if you’ve written something suitable and strong, but….

Don’t, if they require more than a nominal (i.e. £10) entry fee, or if they want many example scores printed in triplicate (which you have to pay to be printed and bound, and for which you have to pay the postage – both ways if you want them returned!) – There are many competitions out there that merely serve to line the pockets of the organisation running them, so ask yourself: is it really worth it to fork out maybe £100 or more in postage, printing, binding and fees on the off-chance you’ll win €500 and a performance? You are frankly better off paying that £100 to some friendly and equally struggling performers to perform the piece for you, or clubbing together with some other composers and put on a concert. 10 composers and £1000 can put on a pretty decent event!

Tip #10

Do work hard and be prepared to travel and put in the hours, days, and years that it takes to “be a composer”. Look at how many successful composers (not professors, pianists, conductors etc who also compose – I mean actual full time professional composers) there are in their 60s and 70s+. Not many are there? – and back in the day there were more generous state subsidies, cheaper / free education, a more musically-informed public, and far fewer distractions for your audience. Many good composers have dropped by the wayside and found the going unpleasant, too tough, etc., and you will also face this.

And so finally:– Don’t give up. It’s difficult, yes, and you’ll face years of being ignored, ridiculed, and misunderstood, but if you have what it takes and really want to be a composer, and have maintained that desire for more than a few years after full-time education, then you know already the reasons why you want to do it. So just do it.


More: