Ep. 24: Advocacy From the Composer Perspective: Dr. Emily Williams Burch and Alex Gartner

Episode Description:

Advocacting for music generally is one thing. Advocating specifically for YOUR music is quite another.

To unpack this topic, I’m joined by Dr. Emily Williams Burch and Alex Gartner, the authors of ⁠The Business of Choir⁠ and members of the American Choral Directors Association committee for advocacy and collaboration.

In addition to being experienced and well respected choral conductors, Alex is an established ⁠composer⁠ and Emmy is the host of the ⁠Music Ed Matters Podcast⁠. This episode is a big one!

Featured On This Episode:
Dr. Emily Williams Burch

Currently a Professor of Music at The Savannah College of Art and Design, previously, Dr. Burch serves as Chair for the ACDA National Standing Committee for Advocacy and Collaboration.  As a published author, Burch co-wrote “The Business of Choir” in 2022. You can also catch Dr. Burch on her podcast “Music (ed) Matters” or co-hosting “The Illuminate Podcast” wherever you listen to podcasts, or follow her adventures running and pacing marathons all over the world at @elevatedrunningandpacing

Alex Gartner

Alex Gartner is a celebrated conductor, composer, author, clinician, collaborative pianist, and passionate advocate for the arts. Through his work from the podium, the piano, and on printed music, he seeks to illuminate the transformative potential of music to empower one’s truest self, shed light on relevant social issues, and create environments and experiences that propel music education and the arts across generational, socioeconomic, and perceptual lines.

Episode Transcript:

*Episode transcripts are automatically generated and have NOT been proofread.*

All right, Alex and Emi, welcome to the podcast. How are you doing? Great.


So good. Thanks for having us. So before I forget, I do want to remind listeners that if Emi’s voice sounds familiar, it’s because she has been on the podcast before, or rather I should say I was on her podcast and she was kind enough to allow me to share the episode on this feed.


So I just want to remind everyone to go check out the Music Ed Matters podcast. If you get done with this and you wish, if you think, man, I wish I could hear Garrett and Emily talk more, you’re in luck. We’ve got an episode over there and she’s got tons of great content over there.


So I just wanted to get that out of the way before I forget. Thanks, Garrett. You can also hear Alex.


We did a whole series on the book that we wrote together, The Business of Choir, and so he was a guest host and it was so much stinking fun. I got to interview Emi. It was super fun.


And we’ll get to the book later. But I think I want to start with Emi, with your role for ACDA, the American Choral Directors Association. You are the chair of the Standing Committee on Advocacy.


And I’d like for you first to just talk us through what that means. Sure. Thanks for asking.


So our professional organization, American Choral Directors Association, has a very large membership basis because it covers every single type of profession that could do with choral music. And so originally when the organization was founded 50-ish years ago, the leadership was based on these every year conferences, whether regional, national, or state conferences as they happen. And then in 2017, the leadership added the Standing Committee.


So there’s a series of Standing Committees. And instead of our focus being on the conferences, our focus is the day-to-day collection of resources in some type of specific capacity. So I am the chair of the Standing Committee for Advocacy and Collaboration.


We focus on creating resources that help people design collaborations, host collaborations, find collaborations, but also advocate. And that’s big A advocacy, which is very large. We’re thinking big scale advocate, like going to Washington or working at your state level, versus little a advocacy, which is the conversations you’re having day-to-day in your talking about your program, talking about what choir does.


So we really spend a lot of time as a committee, not just fielding questions that come through ACDA related to advocacy and collaboration, but also designing resources and keeping ourselves relevant through various posts. And Alex actually serves on the committee as one of the committee members. Yes.


And I should mention both of you are choral directors and Alex is also a composer. So we sort of have all our bases covered here. Yeah.


It’s a really awesome committee and you can check out more of the resources. We have an Instagram and a Facebook page, ACDA Advocacy and Collaboration. It’s a mouthful.


We also do a monthly blog post on the third Wednesday of every month on choral net, which is the blog site for ACDA. And then you can find episodes about once a month over on the music and matters podcast that’s curated by the committee and it focuses on a specific topic. And then those topics are then put into the monthly blog post so people can listen or they can read about whatever it is we’re collecting.


We have projects that we work on every year that help tell people’s stories and curate resources for people who are looking for ways to advocate and or collaborate in the field of choir. And what would you say are the biggest advocacy issues for choir at the moment? So that’s a really personalized question because it’s going to be different in every region. Uniformly, we’re seeing a big push for membership.


We’re seeing a lot of folks are struggling with what we call quote unquote pre and post COVID numbers and just accepting what that’s going to look like. So advocating for membership, advocating for programs in general, a lot of programs have declined or closed or taken on a different look. So there’s those type of advocacy things right now.


We have lots of people questioning how to communicate with city members and other types of leadership in their community to show the value of choir because music and entertainment didn’t stop during COVID. How can we hang on to that as a piece of advocacy moving forward? And then we just get tons of questions like, hey, how do I start a collaboration? Or what is a meaningful collaboration? And those type of questions. So one of the reasons I wanted to have this conversation is I feel like generally when we think about advocacy, we’re thinking about sort of the big things like you said, going to Washington and getting the funding and convincing the donors and that sort of thing.


But I also feel like as composers, the people you’re trying to convince are themselves musicians, right? Because if you’re selling your music, the people who are buying it, they’re going to be choral conductors, music educators, and so on. And I think that makes it difficult to know, at least speaking personally as a composer, it’s harder to know what to say to those people because hopefully you don’t need to convince them that music is important and meaningful and valuable, right? So, Alex, why don’t you take this as a composer yourself? How should composers present themselves to musicians? And how do you make that case and advocate for your own music? Yeah, that’s a really good question. I actually just participated a couple weeks ago in the John Nesbeck Foundation Composers Workshop, which is hosted adjacent to Beck and Horst Press.


It was led by Dan Forrest and Howard Helvey and Jamie Hillman. And we actually had this very specific conversation about how do you as a composer sort of market yourself? And it’s a fine line. As we already talked about, I’m both.


I’m primarily my full-time job as a choral conductor, but I also compose for my own choirs and have some things published and self-published and all that kind of stuff. And so I think I can speak from both sides. So I’ll start from my choir director side.


We as choir directors are spammed with music all the time. It comes through email blasts. We are part of all the Facebook groups where people are promoting their music.


And we get the reading packets. We are saturated with music. And it’s really difficult sometimes when you get so much of it to sift through and figure out where are the gems that are going to fit for my choir.


Because as a choir director, we’re not programming. I would say most choir directors don’t program with a composer in mind. They program with the needs of their singers in mind.


And so that can be really difficult when you go to the other side, on the composer side, when you’re trying to advocate for your music. I think that the most successful times that I see kind of this, even when I’m approached, is when someone comes and has done their research about my group and they say, I have this piece for you. And they have reasons to tell me why.


Not because I wrote this great SATB piece and I just think the text is really great and would really resonate with your singers. Well, what you didn’t realize is that I don’t have an SATB choir. So this isn’t something that’s going to be for me.


And already, I’ve already gotten this kind of like, I’ve already put up a little wall because someone is approaching me, as well as all these other people are approaching me, trying to get my choir to sing their music. But they haven’t even taken that step to get to know us a little bit. But I think that’s one really crucial step that a lot of composers forget.


That there’s writing music for music’s sake, but then there’s also writing music for choirs to sing. And when I write myself as a composer, I’m always writing with a very specific choir in mind. I’m not writing, and that’s just because I don’t write prolifically all the time.


I’m really, really focused on the ensemble that I am going to be writing for. And the other thing that came up in our discussion at this workshop that I didn’t really realize, but I found it to be so true. I am more inclined to trust the recommendation of a fellow choral director on a new piece of music than I would be someone giving it to me cold.


And Emmy is a very good example of this. Emmy gave me Susan LeBar’s Where the Light Begins. She’s like, I have this great piece.


My kids did it. They loved it. And I was like, what is this piece? It sounds like it was new.


It was barely published. And I took it, and I just fell in love with it. And it was kind of our COVID anthem.


My choir recorded it, and it’s on YouTube, and it’s like the most listened to version of that song. And that recommendation from Emmy just hit all the requirements that I needed. She knew my choir.


She knew what they were capable of. She had our voices in mind. And so when we’re talking about marketing and advocating for our music as composers, I think we really have to remember who our audience is and recognize that we are, as composers, we are part of a huge body of composers.


And if we are going to add our voices to the throng of trying to just saturate and send and get out there and get out there, it can actually hurt us in a way. And so I find, and in this discussion I had at this workshop, is trying to find a partnership with someone kind of closer to you who you can work with to develop your own music. Because by having that sort of like, not patron relationship, but sort of that collaboration, a advocacy collaboration community, that collaboration with a choir that’s really close to you, that can really help solve a lot of problems, get that choir director to advocate for you, and then that helps you kind of get your music out there.


That was really long-winded. I’m really sorry. I sometimes go on a little tangent when I talk.


So good, though. So good. So what you’re saying is that personal connections really matter, right? You trust your recommendations.


As a composer, you have sort of your go-to people that you work with, and they can be in turn champions of your music for you. Yes, absolutely. And it’s important for composers to also recognize the choir directors are very highly connected.


Like, we are networked all across the world, and not just like casual connections. The networks that are built at these conferences are deep. They go deeper than colleagues.


They’re friendships. And so when you get someone who can advocate for you to their colleagues, you are more likely to be able to get your music sung by these groups because that recommendation from a colleague who is truly a deep friend goes a whole lot longer. And the other thing I’ll say is have a really good website.


There are a lot of composers that I’ve seen when I’ll get music sent to me or something, and I do look at it, but the first thing I’ll do is I’ll go to their website, and every obstacle that I have to get to a recording or a score is like, the choir director in me, that’s just, when it’s harder for me to get what I need to see and review, it’s more likely that I’m going to move on. Just because the volume, like I said before, and it’s not a knock against composers at all, just the volume of music that choir directors receive, the more that you can get your stuff to, the easier way to get your stuff to the top of the pile is to be accessible. And that definitely can help through a website.


Having example scores, having recordings, if you have them, recordings are really key. And not the Sibelius. No one will listen to anything without a recording.


I know. We’re past that time of life. I wish everybody subscribed to that notion, but yes.


We are past that time. Well, I mean, if you want to be competitive, I should say we are past that time. I’m sure there’s somebody listening who’s like, well, I check out all the MIDI demos, but I think as you say, anything that’s an obstacle, I mean, choral directors are also usually educators.


They’re always super busy. And I feel like anything that’s an obstacle sort of just causes them to feel like it’s not worth the time to check out maybe. If there’s not a recording, if you can’t find it, there’s not a compelling enough reason for them to hunt and do the work to dig through everything and find you.


They’re going to go on to the next guy because there are so many composers. Yeah. And I hate to knock choir directors as the one that I am or to knock composers who send their music out to a lot of different places.


It’s just the reality of the choir director life is that we’re really busy and we wear a lot of hats all the time. And any time that we sort of get an obstacle thrown our way, like when this next piece over here has everything I’m looking for, your piece might have it too, but there’s had a recording. Your piece might have it too, but they had an example of the full score with watermarks that I could look through.


All these things that you, anytime that one of those barriers is removed, the more likely you are to get reviewed, in my opinion. I don’t know. I mean, do you feel the same way? Yeah.


I feel like you said something too about the website. I think that once you’re, like when I just planned all of my rep, I don’t know why every gig wanted their rep the 10th of August, but I had the entire 2023, 2024 gig season requested by the 10th of August. So I have been rep planning like a crazy person.


And I usually start with, okay, what are some pieces that I like tried and true and really excited to do with each group and make it unique for the group. But then the next step is I go and look and see what new stuff my favorite composers or arrangers have put out, because that’s how I’m going to have an opportunity. If there’s someone I know that writes really well for a specific age group that I’ve been assigned or a specific voicing that I’ve been assigned or a specific region that I’ve been assigned.


And then I do something like call Alex. Hey, what’s your newest published piece? Or, hey, that piece that I sang that wasn’t published, is it published yet so I can use it? So that’s kind of how that all works out. And I think each of us that do rep planning have our own way of doing it.


But I love going to people’s websites and the ones that are just so easy to find. I need this voicing. I need that voicing.


What’s your new stuff? What’s it look like? What’s it sound like? I want to see it. I want to see how easy it is for the district to get it, because that’s another big piece of the puzzle. I have a couple pieces that I love to program, and I literally cannot program them because it’s so hard to get them, to get your hands on them.


Yeah. And it sounds almost cynical, I know, but I think that’s just the reality of there being so many composers today that if your music’s not easy to get to, then you’re just going to be in trouble, I think. How much, I know this is entirely subjective, but how much searching for music do you do online versus going by the lists and the recommendations and that sort of thing? How much time do you spend on Google or on Pepper just sort of combing through results? Lots.


So much. I spend so much time on JW Pepper and on Music Spoke. I mean, it’s just, for choirs, the music that we sing is our curriculum.


It’s something that we live with it the longest of anybody. We usually live with it, we live with it certainly longer than the audience. And depending on how long it took to be composed, we live with it longer than the composer as well.


And so when we are selecting music, it’s not just we’re trying to just check a box. We are creating our life for the next three to four months. And like right now, we’re getting ready for our winter repertoire start.


And so I’ve been listening to Christmas music since June. And I have to find really quality stuff because I’m going to be living with it from September through December. And so having, like we’ve already said, having that good online presence is really important.


We haven’t talked about the sort of the how to publish and how composers publish, but I think it does make a difference. There’s benefits and downfalls to both the traditional and self-publishing route. But choir directors go to J.W. Pepper typically first to search for their music.


So having stuff with traditional publishers is really great. I have both. But also Music Spoke is becoming very well respected and it is very well respected amongst the choral community, especially among choir directors.


So I’m looking at both places. I’ll look at J.W. Pepper, but I’ll be like, hey, I don’t see a lot of Andrew Ramsey that’s new. I’m going to go over to Music Spoke.


Maybe she’s got something over here and she always does. And you see the composers on J.W. Pepper and you see them also on Spoke. It’s like, wow, this is so cool.


And Music Spoke feels a little bit more edgy because it’s less editor based and more just composer voice. And so it’s really fun to find new and exciting things. But if you’re not in kind of these channels and these communities where choir directors are, they’re not searching for their rep on Facebook necessarily.


I know the I’m a Choir Director posts, I see them all the time. Like I’m searching for a piece for X, Y and Z. And typically the ones that when I look at those and I see the best responses, they’re the ones coming from choir directors who have lists of multiple composers, not just the one composer saying I have six pieces that fit that. I’m like, I’m pretty sure that’s not true.


I’m pretty sure if you’re asking for a song about X, Y or Z, like not all these six songs probably fit that niche. So it’s kind of this weird fine line. But I advocate for trying to find an in somewhere.


But you can still certainly have your own presence and go your own route. But the choir directors are looking at Pepper and Music Spoke. So if you’re there, you are probably more likely to get found versus if you do your own thing.


Well, I meet a lot of composers that are, you know, precious about their music and resistant to sharing the royalties and putting it out on sort of these bigger sites. And I always just tell them, like, you have to go where people are looking, otherwise you’re not going to get found. You know, this question is for both of you.


When you’re reading product descriptions as you’re scrolling through Pepper, what what is it that stands out to you? What are you looking for? Because I find it so hard to make my music sound interesting with words, you know. I don’t read those at all. I don’t read them at all.


I know because I mean, you think about it. That’s the that’s the catch, right? Like that’s the it has it has a purpose, but that’s not like where it says this is your perfect concert opener with catchy tunes and like whatever. I’m like, oh, is it? Because I’m going to put that in the dead center of my concert program.


Thanks for telling me it’s supposed to be an opener. You know what I mean? I don’t know. I think that there’s a purpose for those.


And if that helps you spark an interest, sure. But I’m with Alex. I want to see it.


I know my I know my singers and I know my community better than whoever wrote that link that thing. So I want to see, does this fit the curriculum that I’m trying to reach? Does it fit some other goal? I think maybe the purpose of those descriptions is for Google to find the keywords. You know, I think it might be, you know, in today’s day and age, it might be more of an SEO thing than anything else.


For me, the thing that catches me are the first two measures of a piece. If those first two measures of a piece are not compelling, I won’t even go any further. If the piano accompaniment is trite at the very first measure, I won’t even go any further.


It’s just one of those things that if that it’s it’s not judging a book by its cover, but it kind of is. If that first couple notes don’t compel me, then they’re not going to compel my audience and they’re not going to compel my singers. So that’s really how a piece begins is honestly, that’s more important than any written description that a piece can provide that Jada Pepper can provide.


You said something so important there because you know your singers and you know your audience and especially like planning repertoire for all over the country. The first thing I do is create an alternate list because I don’t know what some of these communities where they are, what they need, what they’re trying to do. And so something that might hit real real good here might not hit in that same way a thousand miles away.


So it’s really knowing the sound that you’re working with or the interest of your community. You have to advocate for what you’re trying to teach and achieve, but also with collaborate with who’s in your actual community and ensembles. So I read a blog post that you wrote last year and you basically equated advocacy to telling a story.


And I think and you can expand on that more if you want. But I think as composers that’s sometimes difficult because maybe the story for me is I was asked to write this piece. So I did, you know, and now I’m trying to sell it because I need to, you know, pay rent.


Right. I mean, not not to say that not to say that there’s not a story with every piece, but like sometimes it’s not a deeply personal one. And I think it’s harder for composers maybe to to really advocate for those pieces effectively when they’re having a hard time.


You know, maybe it’s not something they loved, but it’s like still good. You know what I mean? Like it still has a purpose. Like maybe it’s not your favorite thing in the world, but for the right group, it could be exactly what they need.


But sometimes there’s that disconnect between what you personally enjoy as a composer, like what personally moves you and what you know. And I find that even I’m sometimes surprised by my own arrangements that really click with people. And I didn’t expect them to, you know, because the audience is coming at it from a totally different perspective.


You know, the musicians are coming at it from a different perspective. And so telling that story when there’s that disconnect feels like sometimes it’s a moving target. I think this is a good question I want to toss to Alex, because I got the idea for that blog post from Alex.


We were just starting to like we just finished the book when I had to write that blog post and I was out of words. I had zero words. And so I think I was doing something pithy, like advocate a story or something.


Just so dumb at the time. It was so bad. And now I told everyone to go listen to it.


Don’t. Alex, I think you can really hit on this because we talk about it in chapter one. And that’s where the idea came from.


Yeah. So I think a lot of elements in music are when you try to build a case for support of any element of the choral world, it really is about telling a story. And as a composer, I totally agree with you, Garrett.


You know, there are some pieces of mine that are just like they pull up my heartstrings so much more deeply than others. And when I have to write biographies for myself on the composition side of things, I have a really hard time finding the right words because I think of the volume of music that I have. And some of them are this and some of them are this and some of them are this.


But I think I might to answer this is go back to kind of what the purpose of the pieces are. It’s hard to I don’t think I could put myself in one box. On one hand, I write music that is kind of deeply personal to the choirs that I’m writing for, mostly because I’m deeply connected to the choirs that I’m writing for.


On the other hand, my most popular selling piece is with Alfred and it was a college arranging assignment that I did. Am I connected to that piece at all? Absolutely not. Do the kids love it when they sing it? Yeah, because it’s really high energy.


And then there’s a key change. And then there’s a desk can and it’s like, we are off to the races. But I think the best way to advocate for your music is not necessarily you as a composer as a whole, but by what that individual piece’s purpose is.


So that piece I was just referring to when I’m talking about that, I sometimes program it for honor choirs. It’s great for developing voices because it is two independent melodies. And when choirs are trying to develop to advance their skills, we start with unison, we go to canon, and then we can branch off into a couple different things.


But partner song is one of them. Two independent melodies, so two independent parts can sing. And so when I’m pitching this to choir directors, or especially elementary choir directors, I’m like, this is the next step in your choir’s tonal development, their ability to sing in multiple parts.


This piece will help them do that. When I’m approached about some other things, you know, my choir is really struggling with this issue, not tonally, but emotionally in our community. I’m like, oh, I have this piece here for you.


Here’s the context in which it was written. And it might have this purpose here, and it served this purpose for this choir, but you can make it your own. And I find that one of the best ways to find out how to do, how to advocate for your own pieces is to talk to the people who have performed them already, if that is something that you have the opportunity to do, and ask how that rehearsal process went.


What went well? What didn’t? What conversations came up in the room? What conversations came up amongst the singers? What conversations, what thoughts went through your mind as the conductor? Because all of those things are just as valid as the ones that you hold in your heart about composing the piece. Because once you hand it off, it’s, we talked about royalties, not wanting to share. When a composer hands a piece to a choir, it’s no longer your piece exclusively.


It is now a shared experience. And we have to honor that. I’ve worked with some composers who are very rigid about their music.


And I’m like, I’m probably not going to program you again, because we’re not going to be able to work together on creating this musical experience for the audience and build meaning for our singers. We talk about in our book, there’s one section in chapter one, we’re talking about telling your story. We bring in a bunch of different perspectives.


Our book is about the administrative side of running a choir. And so we’re talking about the various stakeholders that are required to make that happen. That’s the singer.


That’s the parent. That’s the teacher. That’s the donor.


That’s the random community member, all these people. And so when we talk about the motivation that each of those individuals have to connect with your mission and your choir, the same is true for any piece of music. What one singer finds valid about my piece to them is just as valid as how I feel about it and just as valid as the person next to them and the person next to them and the choir director who’s teaching it.


It all works together to create this atmosphere around our music. And the more words we can get to explain it, even though they might not be our words, that definitely increases our likelihood of being able to find a connection with someone else. It might not be your original connection, but if you can connect with that person on some level, it can do your piece.


I mean, it’s great, but we have to embrace that the multiple perspectives that people hold about music are equally valid as the ones that were part of the compositional process. So what I hear you saying is there’s sort of two different ways of looking at it. There’s the aspect of, like, technically, this is what I need.


Like, I need to teach my students how to sing in two parts or three parts. But then there’s also the more emotional components, like, well, I need something to fit this type of energy. You know, maybe it’s a specific slot in a concert program or maybe, like you said, it’s a specific issue.


And so maybe that’s a good starting point as a composer, like knowing, like, what topics does this address emotionally, but also, like, what are the teaching methods or the teaching components that go along with that piece and sort of presenting it that way? So maybe they’re not looking for both at the same time, but that way they find one or the other. Yeah. When I look online at the discussions that are happening in these Facebook groups, some of the ones that I love the most are when a composer will post, say, hi, I am interested in writing music.


Amazing. What are you choir directors looking for? And usually the responses go across the gamut. We’re looking for, I need more high quality repertoire for developing voices.


I need something that feels big but is not as simple. I need something that’s repetitive. I need something that fills this niche.


Finding the piece, and that’s where I go back to what I said earlier, if you’re able to connect with choir directors that are close to you in your connection and ask them what they need, you’re probably going to be able to get your music sung because you’re writing it for a specific need. And choir directors are all about filling a need. We have a need for music.


I have a need for this concert. I need to find the piece that fills this need. And that need varies from emotional connection to just stylistic.


And all that, like you already said, Garrett, combines with my choir’s innate ability, where can I reasonably push them in the amount of time that I have to rehearse with them, what my audience prefers. I mean, all these, we have to fill a lot, we have to check a lot of boxes with every single piece of music. So that’s why trying to start locally among your own community, that can really help get your name out there more exponentially than it would by just kind of posting online or just kind of throwing your music out there or cold emailing to choir directors.


Just making those local connections is really the best, in my opinion. I think that’s great advice. And I also think it’s a good reminder that rejection is usually not about the music itself.


Like, it’s usually not a commentary on the quality of your piece. I mean, it can be, but most of the time it’s because, like you said, it’s not fulfilling the need you’re looking for right now. Or even just, you know, it was too hard to get to, you were too busy, you know, going back to that, what we talked about before with the websites.


And that’s not, that’s something I see all over the industry. It’s not just choral music. It’s so interesting to me that every single person I’ve ever worked with in the music business, choral, you know, recording, production music, band, whatever, record labels, like they’re so, they’re under so much time, like they’re under so much pressure and so much time constraints that if something isn’t like easy to figure out, they just move on.


Or like you said, if something doesn’t grip them right away, they’re just moving on because there’s so much music out there. And so really like the stuff you’re talking about, just focusing it on a need and making it easy to get to and starting local to have, you know, support from ensembles and directors who can, you know, push your music to others. I think that is really like the best way for somebody getting started to get their foot in the door.


Yeah. I would add one more thing, especially in this kind of formal publishing versus self publishing world. I’m a strong proponent of every single person needs an editor, everybody.


And even if you self publish, and that’s where these local connections can help. And this is really apparent to me from composers who have not had necessarily the experience leading a choir, because something that sounds really good on Finale or Sibelius might not be accessible for actual real human singers. And that’s where having an editor, and I’m not saying like a formal editor, but someone, if you have a local connection with a choir director and you’re writing a piece for them, allowing them into that editorial process, you provide them with that score.


And then you say, you know what, this really isn’t working. Can we think about tweaking it to X, Y, and Z? That’s really important. And this is not just like a, this isn’t me on a soapbox.


Even the biggest names in our industry do this. Dan Forrest, he is the editor of Beckenhorst Press. He still sends his own stuff to his colleagues to look at, because he does not trust his own eyes exclusively, and his own ears exclusively.


And we have to have people in our life who can give us the criticism that we need, especially if you’re a composer that finds yourself writing a lot but not getting performed a lot. It’s not necessarily like we’ve already said, the quality of the music or the ability of the composer, it might be that there is something about that piece that is just a deal breaker. If you’re writing something for a children’s choir and you have the soprano singing a G the whole time, or if you have them singing an E at the top of the staff for a long, trying to hold that for eight beats, that’s not possible.


It is possible, but for the run-of-the-mill choir, that’s really difficult. And there’s a lot of reasons for that. But if you don’t have that innate musical, or that innate understanding of voice, which is not a bad thing, it’s not a prerequisite of writing for choir, but having that connection with that choir director can really help iron out some of those kinks and get your music out there.


Or an editor. Or a friend. Anybody.


The more eyes and ears you can have, the better. So I don’t want this next segment to sort of go off the rails, but I do want to talk about kind of a difficult subject. And that is just that I’ve noticed it’s getting harder and harder to get people to pay for their music.


And I see this especially with self-publishing, comparing self-publishing sales versus the traditional publishers. More than half of my sales in the self-publishing world are for just the minimum amount of required copies. And I may be the most popular composer in the world for people with 10-member choirs, and if so, that’s great.


But I feel like there’s something about, I don’t know, something about the online space that makes it easy for people to cut corners. Or I don’t know, I don’t want to go off the rails speculating. But I do feel like for a lot of composers, it’s exhausting to have to not only pitch your music, but then also educate people as to why they need to pay for it.


And to us, that seems like sort of a self-evident thing. And if you’re somebody who already cares for music, why is it that you have a hard time shelling out $25, $50 to buy the correct number of copies for a piece? There’s a disconnect there, I think, that is hard to figure out. And so I guess from your perspective, is there something composers could be doing or publishers could be doing to make that easier, to help people understand why buying music is important? Because it’s also frustrating because choral music is so cheap.


I mean, I know budgets are tight, but if you compare the cost of a piece of music, what is it, $250 maybe, compared to, I don’t know, getting your oil changed, or having the plumber come, or whatever it is. There’s so many things in life that are more expensive than choral music, and yet this seems to be such a sticking point for some people. So I’m going to kick it back to what we’re taught, and then I’m going to kick it over to Alex because I think he might have a better say on this.


I think that when you go back to what you learned in your choral methods classes or your ed methods classes, you had your one lecture on copyright or buying, you just have to go back and think, what did you learn? And when did you learn it? And how are you maintaining staying on top of copyright laws and the integrity that goes with that? So I think a big difference right now is just that difference in the digital age. And when you look at how that’s going, that’s something that I was always pressing in my ed classes, is where are you finding your repertoire? Where are you finding your budget for your repertoire? And then instead of spending hours and hours and hours looking at repertoire, which they’re going to forget because they’re overloaded college students, let’s figure out where to find it, not memorize a bunch of titles right now. We spent time on where do you find the money to buy it? So your principal gives you a $200 budget and you need $700.


What do you do now? And so talking about getting a family to sponsor a song. And so the family pays the $75. Or reaching out to a community member or a local store or shop and say, hey, we have this concert.


We’d like you to sponsor this song. It costs X amount of dollars. So we spent time brainstorming how to budget so you can afford a smart repertoire list.


But I think that it’s double-sided. Now I’m going to kick it over to Alex. I’m sure he has thoughts on it too.


But I think a big part is not understanding the flow of how the money does get back to the composer and how editing and publishing works because it has gone so digital and because so much has changed in copyright laws. And then two, I just think it’s overworked teachers not having enough money and needing that music and figuring out what’s the easiest way to get. Like you’re getting something.


You’re not getting what you should be getting. But for a lot of people, where can we find the resources to actually pay for what we need? What motivated Emmy and I to write our book is a lot of things, but one of them is a gap in the education of music education undergraduate programs. We’re taught how to teach music.


We’re not taught how to run a program necessarily. And especially when you get into a larger program, as your program grows, the infrastructure that’s required to sustain a choir can be overwhelming. And so that was kind of what motivated us to write this book that kind of filled this administrative gap.


One of the reasons I think this happens a lot is just pure ignorance. We’re not taught extensively in undergraduate programs about how money works in the music industry and how composers are compensated for their work. It’s also, I think, influenced by the traditional publishing royalty split, especially on the composer side, as me the composer.


I think knowing that the perception that composers get 10 percent of those sales, it’s like, I mean, it’s highway robbery is what it is. But just kind of the publishing industry has to do, I believe, has to do, the traditional publishing industry has to do some work to honor the investment of the composers in creating that music for them. I think that royalty split needs to transform a little bit.


But mostly, I think Emi already said it, I think people, there are so many obstacles these days to getting funding, even if you have a budget. Districts, school districts, make it next to impossible to get a purchase order through. And it can take weeks to get that approved when you needed that music, even if you submitted it a month ago.


That approval process can be really difficult. And I’m not making any excuses. These are just the types of factors that are going.


We talked earlier about the barriers, the obstacles that choir directors face when just selecting music. The same will go to physically obtain it. If their district isn’t allowing them to easily purchase music, they’re going to find a way.


But they don’t necessarily have the $100 to buy a classroom set of your music. So they’re going to buy that perusal, they’re going to make the copies, and then hopefully down the road, they’re going to get that approval and then they’re going to buy it later. But sometimes that doesn’t happen.


And it’s unfortunately just a harsh reality of this day and age. If you’re trying to make a significant portion of your living on royalties as a composer, it’s just a reality of the day that until we have more pervasive understanding as a field on kind of the, not the downside, because I do believe even as choir directors, we know if we are pressing that photocopy button, we know what we’re doing. I just don’t think the urgency is there.


I do want to give a shout out to one of our fellow standing committees, the Composer Standing Committee for ACDA. They’ve done a lot of great work in trying to make ACDA more accessible to composers. They’ve lowered the membership rate.


They’ve started hosting specific professional development sessions for the choral field on this very issue. Problem is it’s not a sexy topic. And until it’s relevant in the eyes of the choir directors, it’s going to be hard to make a pervasive systemic change on this.


But I will say the more you have relationships with choir directors, I feel like the guilt comes in a little bit more. If you are a choir director that’s inclined to press the photocopy button and not purchase later, having a lot of friends who are composers like that, that mental weight goes like it weighs on you. Knowing that this is my friend and I know I should be purchasing her, his, their music, but I haven’t yet.


And ACDA has great opportunities for composers to get in front of choir directors now. Every conference now has composer fairs where you can provide. And they’re very popular.


These aren’t just things that are stacked up against receptions or concerts. They’re very popular where you as a composer can have your own table, have your own music available. You can start building relationships and networking with these conductors.


That, again, it all goes back to these personal connections. Building that network is probably the easiest way, the first step in kind of solving that problem for you personally. But as an industry and as a field, we do need to do better about that.


I feel like it’s getting better. I want to feel like it’s getting better. I feel like it’s different than when I was in high school and I was the one going, taking the music to the copy room for my choir director and copying it for him and bringing it back.


He would always purchase it later. But like, I feel like it’s different now, but I could be wrong. Well, and I want to be clear.


I’m sure that most people who care enough about choral music to listen to this podcast are people doing it correctly, you know. But I do think part of it is, I mean, there’s this education thread that runs through everything. Composers don’t really understand what it takes to get that purchase order through, right? They don’t know how to streamline that process.


If they did, that would be super helpful. But I also feel like most choral directors are teaching at some kind of institution, either it’s a church or a school. And I feel like there’s a lack of understanding there, too.


Let’s take this, for example. How do you explain to your principal that this is our textbook and this is what it costs and why don’t you give me the money for it, right? Like, we have 50 people in this class and you’re shelling out hundreds of dollars for biology textbooks or whatever. Like, how do you bridge that gap? Yeah, that becomes part of your data that you collect.


You have to be able to, who are you talking to? Who are you working with? And at what point do you have to? I know that I had to go to my PTO when I was my parent-teacher organization, when I was in the school system, because there just was no more money to be given. There wasn’t money for textbooks in the budget, even though I argued we were touching every student on campus. That was a really big kind of point of, I need help.


And the PTO was like, oh my gosh, you’re right. You touch every single student in this building. Let’s get you money.


And so I think it’s knowing your data, taking time to do the work. I think I broke it down to where however much money I needed for however much repertoire I needed cost something like $1.20 per student in the school. But I was at a K-8 school and I legitimately touched every single student in the school.


Well, that’s the thing that’s so frustrating on the Composer side is it’s really not that much money. Like, when you compare it to other expenses that the school district had, you know, buses and everything else. And so it just, you know, I guess it is a personal bit of a soapbox for me.


But I also think it’s a real issue because it’s sort of self-perpetuating. Like, if you get into the habit of only buying five copies, then your administration thinks that’s all the money you need. And so it just sort of builds in this, like, it makes it harder to get out of this cycle because all this, you know, if you were to suddenly have a change of heart and try to start buying the correct number of copies, well, all of a sudden, looking at year over year, it’s going to look like your expenses spike dramatically and they’re not going to understand why that’s happening.


Yeah, I think we’re now getting into kind of the big A advocacy issues that we are facing, not necessarily as a choral field, but as a music education field in general. The pervasive attitude towards the arts in public schools, which is definitely the primary, which is definitely where the volume of purchasing for choral music is. It’s so charged right now.


And it has been for years. You know, the way that state education systems and local districts, the value that they place on arts education, is very varied. And even beyond that, you know, principals have a great deal of influence on how their individual funds are distributed among schools.


And so even if you have a district that is really pro arts, but you’re at a school where the principal just doesn’t get it, that can really be detrimental to the type of resources that are available to you. I mean, I’ve talked a lot about your local network. It really all starts with your local community.


If you are in a school and you’re a choir director at this school with this principal, you have to take the EMI route and find a way to quantify the value of what you’re doing in ways that they will understand. And on the composer side of things, I don’t think I’m sure there are, but I would think the majority of choir directors want to do right by composers. They want to do right.


And I hope that the compositional world can understand that when these challenges are coming up, it’s not making it again. It’s not an excuse. I really do think they are trying to do right in the circumstances that they’re in.


And we have to work individually in our own communities, in our own districts, in our own community choirs, with our own boards, wherever we are, with our own church, to help people understand how to build resources that are required to sustain and be fair to everybody involved in the process. But there’s not going to be a one national bill that fixes it. There’s not going to be one industry-wide Zoom call that’s going to fix it.


It’s grassroots work. And we all have to give each other grace and recognize that in order to do better, we all have to be a little bit uncomfortable with our current practices and just recognize that we’re all coming at it from different angles. It’s hard in this day and age to make a livable wage on royalties.


I know that it’s just very much the case. The bulk of income from composers is definitely more on the commission side of things. So if you’re lucky enough to get a lot of those, that’s definitely where the more sustainable money can be found, if you can even call it sustainable.


So yeah, there are a lot of challenges to that issue. But I want to think it’s getting better. I want to thank it.


Do you think that changes to the way music is priced or sold would help the situation? Like if composers started setting a flat rate for a piece, for example, instead of a per-copy thing, or subscription models or things like that. Is there something about the system that makes it difficult or is it really just the education and the funding and where do things come from? That’s so interesting. I didn’t really think about it that way.


But like when I’m working with folks like Emmy and I do some consulting stuff as a result of our book, or even when I’m talking to folks, people are like, what do you charge? I’m like, or even when I’m doing commissions, because I commissioning or commissioning composing isn’t my full time job. It’s just something that when I have time to do it, I’ll do it, which is just it’s a luxury for me. It’s not for everybody.


But when we’re talking about these, when I when I’m getting approached by about this kind of stuff, I usually go like this is kind of what a fair price would be. But also, I recognize that you’re constrained by X, Y and Z. And there are a lot of factors that you’re probably coming in with. So having that flexible model may be the best route.


You know, whether it is a flat rate, whether it is a subscription, I think it can be tailor made. We’re in a day of entrepreneurship where that is like among the most highly valued thing that is coming out these days. Content creation, all these things are just very entrepreneur driven.


And composers are in many ways entrepreneurs or self sufficient or LLCs or these own business entities. The more we can tailor make art and craft our product to meet the needs and limitations of our potential customers, these choirs, we may find more success. I don’t know.


I’ve never tested that model. But being flexible and how you’re being priced, that could be helpful. I don’t know.


Well, I’ve never really worried about the price position, but that’s I just never really worried about how much it’s the individual Octavo costs. That’s never been something that has been a huge factor, unless you’re like Oxford Press and it’s like 450 for a copy. I’m like, you’ve got to be kidding me.


Calm down. Well, I’m just thinking about I’m just thinking about the comparisons with streaming music, because I think that’s where a lot of this comes from. Right.


People got used to not paying for recording music. And I feel like that has sort of just seeped into, well, all music is free, you know, it’s just there. But but you don’t have the advertising revenue to fund sheet music in the same way that you do.


But, you know, if you look at like what happened with Napster and then iTunes and all of a sudden people started buying more music because iTunes made it easy, you know. And and so I guess I’m just wondering out loud, like how much of this is the difficulty of purchasing music, the difficulty of getting the P.O. through versus the actual cost of it. And I guess there’s there’s no answer to that.


I’m just saying it out loud. But yeah, there really isn’t. I know as someone who has bought the minimum copies not to perform.


But like when I can’t get a if I’m really compelled, sometimes I will buy the minimum amount of copies so I can actually review a piece. Yeah. I just feel like there’s a lot of there’s a lot of different factors that go into it.


We’re definitely not going to solve it here. I know it’s a big issue, especially on the composer side. It’s a funny if the tables were flipped and choir directors were only compensated for the number of kids that they were able to enroll.


I feel like that would be that would really flip the mindset of the importance of this. I’m not going to advocate for that because I am full time director and I do not want that to be my primary motivation for for my salary. But I think there’s definitely some I know there’s some education on the other side of the tables or turn a perspective that may be valuable to some repeat offenders.


OK, well, we’ve jumped around it for the last hour, but I do want to ask you some things about your book. I’m holding it up, even though that nobody will ever see this. I mean, could you just summarize the chapter about being an influencer? Because I think there’s a lot of application there for composers.


You know, you talk about being a choral influencer, but I think there’s a lot of parallels. And I really liked the way you framed that. That was an Alex analogy.


You wrote it. I wrote the chapters. That was this is a chapter.


First, he just talked about trying to give you something. Yeah, I felt. But here’s the thing.


He wrote it. I rewrote it. He rewrote it.


I rewrote it. It was a it was a multipurpose chapter. It was a very collaborative chapter.


Well, the idea is that we aren’t we aren’t dictators in our field. And really, we are influencers where not just the singers in our community are looking at us, but our community at large is looking at us. And we have to take that responsibility seriously.


And it ties in great to what you all were just talking about related to what does someone knew that you you only bought the minimum, but you made a whole bunch of photocopies. How would that play out in your if that was a picture that was caught on your influencer page? So talking about not just being a great role model musically, but being a great role model in the profession and that it just kind of debunking the whole maestro approach, which is something that I love culture for hire is this fantastic website. And Ruth Hart is the big idea behind it.


And her big thing is you’ve got to change your mindset from marketing everyone out of it and instead of marketing inclusively. And I think that’s where kind of this idea comes from with this coral influencer model. You need to be aware that it’s not just the coral product that is being looked at.


It is you as a leader. It is the community that you’re creating. Same is true for composer.


I mean, look at all the composers that have unfortunately been canceled or left by the wayside over the years because they did. They might write great music. But who are you as a person? Because that matters in our society today.


There’s also a great chapter in the book on marketing. And I was just curious if you see a difference between marketing and advocacy. And if so, what is that difference? Because some people would also say that marketing is just telling your story and advocating for your music, you know.


So is there a distinction there? Does it matter? What are your thoughts? That’s a great question. I think that marketing is just like we said, advocacy is telling your story. I think marketing is how you show out that story.


It is the representation of the story, sometimes visually, sometimes in other words. Marketing is how you market the story. It’s how you advocate with pretty pictures.


Or marketing can be as simple as when are you going to make sure that story gets heard and how. Yeah, advocacy is more the heart. Like what is the narrative there? The physical words that you’re going to use to describe your value.


And marketing is just the tools that you’re going to use to get that out there. Yeah, I think that’s a really good collaborative answer. I think this is a great way of looking at that.


Okay, last question. I feel like a lot of people are resistant to, I mean, this is clearly, this is why you wrote the book. I feel like a lot of people are resistant to thinking of music as a business.


But I think there’s a lot of things to be learned from doing that. What do you think is the most beneficial thing? Like if you were trying to convince somebody to take off their artist hat and to start thinking of themselves as a business, whether or not they’re a composer, a choral director, a singer, what would it be? What’s the number one? COVID changed music. I don’t like to harp on COVID, but the value of music was different before the pandemic and after.


And there are voices who are clinging to the notion of music for music’s sake, which was a lot more prominent pre-COVID than I think it is post-COVID. Music itself can be a lot of things. It can be a lot of different things for a lot of different people.


And we have to embrace, kind of like we were talking before, that someone might not be coming to your concert to be musically fulfilled. Someone might not be listening to your piece looking for inspiration. Music is a vehicle for a lot.


In the youth choir world, music is a vehicle for growth. Music is a vehicle for community. And in our world, the organizations who haven’t embraced this multifaceted approach of music in this post-COVID world are struggling to find their footing again.


Music has changed, and we have to embrace the realm of possibilities that make it important and relevant in the lives of every individual person. Always so eloquently said, Alex. To add to that, I also think it’s kind of – it goes back again to what we were talking about when we were talking about what you’re learning.


What were you taught in your methods classes, whether you had them or didn’t, and then what does your continuing education look like? I intentionally sought out business classes and business-minded situations in my continuing ed post-grad school. And I think that for me, that’s made me comfortable in dissecting a P&L and managing QuickBooks and running a board meeting. And I think sometimes fear of the unknown or the different can be what’s prohibiting people from jumping into that entrepreneurial mindset or that running a business mindset.


But you can’t change how today works. We are all influences in our own regard. We all have our little followers, as in our choir members.


And how are we cultivating a community that is the best for them and what they need, that’s the best for the community that we have the opportunity to serve? And what skills do we need to get over and learn in order to create a business that will impact in the way that it should? Well, thanks to both of you for coming on the podcast. Before we go, where can people find you? Where can they get the book? Where can they listen to you talk more? Give them all the links. We have a great website for the book that Alex made.


We do. Businessofchoir.com. There’s links on how to purchase the book. There’s also, for those who are interested a little bit more in diving into some of the topics a little bit deeper, we have a resource list that’s based on chapters.


So if you want to learn more about advocacy, we have more specific advocacy resources. If you want to learn more about fundraising, we have specific fundraising resources. Same with leadership, marketing, evaluation, all sorts of stuff.


Personally, you can find me on my website, which is AlexGartner.com, which hopefully, me saying you should have a good website, you can go on there and check the box. I think it’s pretty nice. Emily’s got one, too.


Looks good. Yeah. EmilyBirch.org. And I have the .org because I am not – I just like to be a little different.


And so I start there with just, you know, it’s going to be a little different. But, yeah, so that’s me. And you can find us all on social media and all of those type of things.


But it’s so much fun to see you creating this podcast, Garrett, and to see you giving a voice and a conversation for some of the conversations that need to happen related to composition. So thanks for asking us to come talk about advocacy. This was great.


I really appreciate you taking the time. Yay. Thank you.