It’s a question that crops up often on the charity’s various mentorship schemes, as an increasing number of companies and organisations engage young composers at cut-down prices or for free.
‘Do you take the work to increase your profile, or do you refuse? Composers need to be equipped to have that debate with themselves and answer the question,’ Adam goes on.
‘There’s a balance between composers taking opportunities to expand their careers – particularly early-career composers who are under pressure to build their portfolios – and those who are unknowingly underselling themselves.’
Without the experience or guidance to make the call, composers can do themselves, and their work, a disservice.
Enter Sound and Music. This national charity for new music works at the cutting edge of composition, engaging with creators who are on the cusp of launching their musical careers.
It offers a range of schemes to support composer and artist development, partnerships, touring, networking and education, and acts as a crucial stepping stone for many starting out in the business.
Its flagship programmes include Composer-Curator, British Music Collection and Embedded, but it also provides comprehensive listings covering calls for work, awards, jobs, funding and commissions both in the UK and internationally.
The charity’s schemes have been carefully tailored to address composers’ needs, and are based on the findings of a wide-reaching 2012 survey of the whole sector.
We recently spent some time with Adam, who’s headed up the charity’s development work since last autumn, to learn more about the current state of play in the commissioning world.
He provides valuable insight into how his organisation works, advice on how to launch a composing career and info on the wealth of opportunities Sound and Music offers composers at every stage of their career…
Sound and Music offers several support mechanisms – which are the most popular and effective?
We have a range of programmes designed with real needs in mind. We conducted a huge survey of the composer community in 2012 and collated what their needs were and what the main challenges were – and our programme is informed by that.
We try to address all the gaps that composers can fall through in their careers, but the three things which spring to mind are the Composer-Curator programme, the British Music Collection and our Embedded Programme.
The Embedded Programme is our flagship programme of composer residencies. It’s an open call opportunity which has seen us place composers in year-long residencies with organisations including BBC Symphony Orchestra, Southbank Centre and the Forestry Commission. It’s been really instrumental in launching the composers’ careers and we’ve seen some really exciting work come out of it.
The composer curator programme is another open call opportunity, where composers put in a proposal for a festival or a tour they’d like to do and we give them help to produce that without having to rely on other organisations’ input. We’re trying to help composers build the skills they need to be able to curate and produce their own events
It’s extremely important. A lot of our programmes try to help composers to become self-sufficient so that their careers can take off themselves. It’s about educating, training and empowering composers. We want to give that creative, curatorial power back to them – that’s the focus of a lot of our programmes. It’s incredibly important that composers have control over their work and have the tools to execute that control.
How do you see that training manifest itself outside of your programmes?
Many of the early career composers that come through our programmes go on to source their own major commissions and create consistently great work. Some of our programmes are focused on developing professional skills beyond composer training, such as managing their own finances, how to network and market yourself – essential skills in developing a sustainable freelance career. We find there is limited opportunity to develop those skills in a supportive environment, so that’s why we try to plug the gap.
Are there new trends that are bringing new opportunities for composers?
We are seeing a big cross-arts trend, so it’s important for composers to embrace this. We’ve had composers producing installations in forest clearings, we’ve got one who’s creating work in response to ancient museum objects, and we’ve placed composers in residence at archives. Increasingly, composers are creating works in response to new stimuli and it’s really exciting.
What are the main growth areas for composers?
I’m seeing a trend for more cross-artform work, which is exploding the boxes composers can find themselves in. We’re seeing more museum partnerships, which is great because there is so much cool stuff in these places that can be inspiring to composers. Some of our residencies have been at more traditional organisations like the symphony orchestras, but we’re increasingly seeing - and are excited by – partnerships like the Forestry Commission. We encourage composers to network as widely as possible because it’s becoming much less boxed in – there are partnership opportunities all around the arts, and outside the arts sphere too.
Do you find that, outside of your programmes, many composers are working for free just to gain the experience?
I think this is a complicated issue. There’s a balance between composers taking on opportunities to expand their careers – particularly early career composers who are under pressure to build their portfolios – and those who are unknowingly underselling themselves. It can be hard to recognise the financial potential of your own work, and to understand that eventually you might have to say no to unpaid commissions.
We always endeavour to ensure reasonable fees for our placements and we’re trying to advocate more widely for a change in that trend. Commission fees are too low for composers – that’s the unanimous feedback from composers of all levels who answered our Sound and Music survey last year. Their work is under-acknowledged. The value of their work is clear, but the acknowledgement is not.
How can composers better understand the financial worth of their work?
There is a lot of talk on our Embedded Programme about recognising your own value as a composer – and we encourage that. Composers are often asked to undertake high profile work for free with prestigious companies – or at reduced rates – because the firm in question argues that it has no budget for music. What do you do in that situation? Do you take the work to increase your profile, or do you refuse? Composers need to be equipped to have that debate with themselves and answer the question.
Do you think increased competition is driving down commission fees?
From a personal point of view, I think it’s more complicated than supply and demand. I think there are still a very limited number of people who have the skills to do this kind of work – so the pool might not be any larger than it ever has been. The problem is, the power in the market rests with buyers rather than suppliers.
How does the application process work at Sound and Music?
I would strongly encourage composers to sign up to our opportunities mailing list because we offer such a huge range of programmes. Most of our opportunities are open call and each has a specific brief.
Do you have any tips for composers who want to apply?
It’s different for each programme, but it helps if you have clarity about what you want to achieve. I also recommend paying very close attention to the briefs we put out.
How many applications do you get in, on average, per programme?
It varies wildly, especially with the Embedded Programme. Some partner organisations are more popular than others.
Can you tell me a bit more about your Next Wave initiative with NMC?
We established that there was a need for something that bridges the gap between composers finishing higher education and launching their careers. We realised there were a number of skills they require to be a successful professional that aren’t necessarily taught in higher education. One of those was the ability - and opportunity - to work with professional ensembles in a recording context. So we recruited composers from institutions from across the country and it’s been an intensive mentorship programme with great results.
Why is it important to give composers the chance to work with professional ensembles?
These are musicians of the highest quality, and it's so rare to get the opportunity anywhere else to work in that recording context with people of this calibre. The composers then have a piece of audio they can take away with them for promotion to secure further commissions.
We interviewed Adam Cooper for the feature Free Range, which appeared in issue M54 of M magazine