2009 July at John Mackey's Blog



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  • How I Spent My Teen Years
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  • July 26, 2009

    Music Publishing

    When I talk to composers who are still in college, a lot of them are of the belief that the big goal for a composer is to become published.  “How did you get your first piece published?” they want to know.  “I want to publish my new percussion ensemble piece.  Where should I send it?”  Oh man, what a kettle-o-fish this is.  I tend to be overly opinionated when I speak to student composers about anything, and I’m worse about this topic than just about any other. Below is what I tell them.  This post is going to be mega-wonky, and if you’re not interested in the business side of being a composer (or you think “business” and “composer” should never go in the same sentence together), you should skip this entry.

    When I was really young — high school age — I thought it would be amazing to be published. My dream was to be published by G. Schirmer, because that was Samuel Barber‘s publisher, and Barber was my favorite composer. (They currently publish John Corigliano — my teacher at Juilliard — Bright Sheng, Tan Dun (one of my favorite composers), David Lang, and their various divisions handle Eric Whitacre, the young composer Nico Muhly… the list goes on and on.) I figured that if I could be published by Schirmer some day, their stamp of legitimacy would mean that I was a Real Composer, and people would climb over each other to play my music! It was a perfect plan!

    I never actually submitted any material to Schirmer, though, or to any other publisher. When I was 19, I got a commission to write an orchestra piece for the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra, and I learned that if I joined a performance rights organization like ASCAP, I could collect performance royalties for that performance. But here’s the thing… If you have a performance that is licensed by ASCAP (just about every live music performance of “classical” music is licensed — and therefore paid), the composer gets 50% of that performance royalty. Who gets the other 50%? The publisher.

    I didn’t want 50% of the performance earnings go into the ether since I wasn’t published, so I registered a publishing company with ASCAP — Osti Music. (I came up with the name “Osti Music” because when I first sent music to John Corigliano, he complained that my music had way too many ostinatos, or, repeated phrases. Clearly, not much has changed.) I became both a writer and publisher member of ASCAP, and I copyrighted that first orchestra piece with the Library of Congress under the publisher name Osti Music. Eventually I got an ASCAP check for the performance royalties for that premiere performance — my writer royalty check. Then, a few weeks later, I got another (equally tiny) check, for the same amount — my publisher check.

    This is an important thing to remember: a publisher gets 50% of just about everything (not just performance royalties — they get half of CD royalties, half of DVD royalties, half of music rental fees, and half of all license fees, like marching band licenses), and they own the copyright. The composer does not own the copyright; the publisher does. That means the publisher controls all of the rights for the music. Yes, they give half of the earnings to the composer, but they also call the shots.

    Let’s say that you write a piece that’s very personal to you — for the sake of this example, we’ll say it’s a choral piece that you wrote for a close friend. Your publisher, who owns the copyright, is contacted by disgraced beauty queen and breast-implant recipient Carrie Prejean, who, fresh from her successful performance at the Del Mar Racetrack, has decided to record an album about the evils of the homosexual lifestyle, and has requested permission to sample your choral piece in her first single.  Your publisher, seeing dollar signs, agrees. You, who are so liberal that you think even straight people should have to get gay married (if nothing else because the weddings would be FABulous!!!), are horrified — but powerless, because you don’t own the copyright. If you self-published your choral piece, though, you could prevent this.

    What does a publisher do for you? I mean, what do you get for that 50% that they keep? It depends on lots of things, like the size of the publisher, and the number of composers they represent. (It goes to reason that if a publisher handles a lot of composers, not everybody will get the same amount of attention.  If you publish only only one person — yourself — there’s no shortage of attention.)  A major publisher who is enthusiastic about one of their composers can definitely help that composer to gain exposure and potentially help to secure performances. The publisher can pick up the phone, call the Artistic Administrator of the Chicago Symphony, and say, “we have a great new piece by Jonathan Newman. You guys should give it a look” — and the orchestra might actually give the piece a look. If I, on the other hand, send a piece to the Chicago Symphony, they won’t care. (Trust me; I’ve tried it.  But that touches on the whole “band vs. orchestra” thing that I’ve blogged about before.)  Orchestras get stacks of unsolicited pieces every year. Why would they look at a piece by a composer they haven’t heard of, particularly when they play essentially no music by living composers anyway? There’s something to be said for having a trusted middle man like a major publisher. Publishers also negotiate contracts (commission contracts, license fees, etc.) and maybe most importantly, they print the music and get it into the hands of retailers and performers.

    The Internets have made a lot of this very easy to do on your own, and I would argue that with a lot of work and some luck, you can do fine professionally, and much better financially, without a publisher. Can you put up a website with score and audio samples? Yes, and that’s already more than most publishers would do for you. Can you attend music conventions and promote yourself and your music? Again, yes, and since you only have yourself to promote, you can do this more efficiently than a publisher who is at the convention pushing 60 different composers.

    Can you print the music yourself? Of course you can. I still print every “Strange Humors” score, and all of the sets of my chamber music, myself. It’s a hassle to print each set, then fold those parts in half, then staple them, then ship them, but here’s the difference: publishers keep 50% of royalties, but if a composer is published and the printed music is sold, the composer will see 10% of the retail price.

    I’ll say that again. If you are a published composer, you keep 10% of the list price on a set of music. When I told this to somebody in Hollywood once, the reaction was, “wait, that’s backwards. The agent gets 10%; you get 90%.” Not in music publishing. A very established composer might get a great deal and see 12% or maybe even 15%, but that’s unusual. Granted, the publisher doesn’t get all of the other 90%. The music store keeps 40-50% of it.  But the fact is that if you publish a piece through a standard publisher and the retail price is $10, the music store gets $5, the publisher gets $4, and the composer receives $1.  But if you’re self published and you sell the sheet music directly (rather than through a music store), you get the full $10. Even if you sell it through a music store, you’ll see $5, which even by my music-school-level math education, is better than $1.

    Is that difference of 400%-900% worth the time it takes to print, fold, staple, and mail a set of parts? To me, the answer is yes, but to a lot of composers, the answer is no. All of this takes a lot of time, and a lot of composers, understandably, would rather just compose and not worry about the business aspect of it.  They just want to write the music, give it to a publisher, and not think about it anymore, and whatever income they collect, no matter the amount, is just a nice bonus.  Most of those composers probably have other jobs — like teaching — or wealthy families to make that possible. I like to think of it like I also have a “day job,” and my day job is publishing my own music.

    The biggest challenge is running the business side and still finding time to do the most important part, which is to write the music itself. Speaking of that — I have some work to do.


    July 20, 2009

    Trombone Concerto concept

    I know it’s been awhile, and it seems like all that’s happening here is home remodeling, but but it’s time to get back to work and write some music. It appears that the funding is coming together after all, so the next big project will be the Trombone Concerto that I’m writing for Joseph Alessi, principal trombonist for the NY Philharmonic.  Joe will premiere the piece with the band at West Point, and also with the Ridgewood Concert Band in New Jersey. Where he’ll take it after that, I don’t know, but I guess it depends largely on whether he likes it. The piece is commissioned by 20 high school, college, and military bands, so it should (hopefully) get a lot of play over the next 18 months. Step one, though, is to write the thing.

    AEJ and I have been working on the overarching concept for the concerto, and I think we have a great idea.  (AEJ was the one who conceptualized the Sax Concerto’s structure, and we collaborate on all of my pieces. She also comes up with titles for almost all of them — Aurora Awakes, Kingfishers Catch Fire, and on and on. And when I say “we” have a great idea for this concerto, what I mean is “she came up with a great idea, and I’m going to use it.”)

    The piece will be based on the dual nature of the Greek god Dionysus.  As the god of the vine, Dionysus is famous for the ecstasy he could inspire, but he was also subjected to a cycle of agonizing death before glorious rebirth each year, analogous to the harsh pruning and long winter the vines endure before blooming again in the spring.

    The concerto’s movements would represent this duality.  The first movement would be brutal, with the god’s agonizing cries as he’s torn to shreds by his own worshippers.  (AEJ suggested that these worshippers might be represented by the trombone section, with their voices sounding like a fiendish parody of the soloist. I love this idea — and of course, it’s not my idea.)  This brutal agony would be followed by the stillness of death (either as a slow central movement, or possibly just an extended ending section of that first movement; I’d see how this was pacing itself before making this decision).  The final movement would represent Dionysus’s glorious rebirth, as he rises again, bringing the ecstasy and liberation that have been celebrated in his name for centuries.

    There are all sorts of strong directions this could take, with Dionysus being not only the god of wine, but also the god of theater, grapes, ritual madness, and ecstasy. It’s a crazy combination. I should call the movements “Ecstasy,” “Ritual Madness,” and “Grapes.” Then again, maybe not, but “Ritual Madness” ain’t bad.

    So the overall idea is that Joe Alessi represents a Greek god — one who is brutally destroyed in the first movement only to be reborn — with incredible joy and beauty — by the end of the concerto.  The first movement would be harsh, angular, and energetic, sort of along the lines of a mini-Rite of Spring.  The middle would be melancholy and still and (probably) mostly quiet.   This middle section would either come from the first movement, or lead like a huge transition directly into the third section.  (This is a big question — is it one straight-through piece, or two movements, or three? There are three “big picture” ideas I want to evoke, but how are they broken up?) The final section would be an arching explosion of joy — along the lines of the second movement of “Aurora Awakes.”

    What’s better than portraying Joe Alessi, arguably the greatest American trombone player ever, as a Greek god?!  This concept would allow for an almost operatic treatment of the trombone — something that’s really appealing to me.  Here is this god who is initially strong, only to be destroyed and then come back stronger and more beautiful than before.

    I’m loving AEJ’s idea. Now I need to give it some thought to figure out how to put it all together. Three movements? Two? Which movement should I start writing first? Should the entire piece by cyclical, sharing material between the beginning and end of the piece, but giving the material completely different treatment each time? My first though on that question is “yes.” Does this mean I should write the last movement first? Maybe.

    And just because it doesn’t feel like a blog entry without a photograph, no matter how random, here’s a picture of Loki in his beanbag, taken with the 85mm f/1.2 L lens.  I think this might be for Loki’s Christian music album cover.


    July 17, 2009

    Come On In!

    As I mentioned on Facebook the other day, the kitchen is now 100% finished.  The cabinet company finally delivered (10 weeks after the initial cabinet installation) the correct cabinet front for the dishwasher.

    Much better!

    We haven’t just been working on the kitchen, though. I’ve already written about the remodeling of the family room and the living room, but I haven’t yet shown the before-and-after shots of another major change we made recently: the new front door.  But how major a renovation could that be?!  That’s what I thought before we started.

    AEJ, who has a very clear vision for how every detail of the house should look (in case you couldn’t tell), hated our front door. To me, it was just kind of regular ol’ front door. I mean, this door is all over the place. But this wasn’t the original door to the house. Built in 1968, this house probably had a somewhat hip door when it was built. That door is long gone, and we were left with this.

    Very soon after we moved into the house, we visited a place in Austin called Crestview Doors. They were a custom door manufacturer (they’ve since basically gone out of business), and AEJ and I headed over there to talk to them about building the door that AEJ designed. Right. This was not just a new door — it was a custom door, conceived by AEJ. As Jonathan Newman said when I started describing this process, “you know, you can just buy a door, right?” Yes, but that wouldn’t be nearly as fun, and wouldn’t make AEJ as happy!

    Probably 8 weeks later, we received the new door. Where the original door was the standard, off-the-Home Depot shelf 36″ door, the new door was a 48″-wide monster with insulated reeded glass.

    We had the door, but AEJ wasn’t done. At all. Her vision was not a standard door knob, but a massive center knob. She wanted it to be like a huge, shiny cabinet pull, right in the center of the door. Awesome! How hard could that be? HA. You have no idea — and neither did I.

    The adventure started by visiting a place out in the boonies of Austin — a place called Austin Mac Fab. They’re an industrial steel fabrication company, specializing in welding, machining, and now, thanks to us — custom door knobs. (How does AEJ find these places?!) We talked to Jeremy at Mac Fab, and AEJ described what we were after. She showed him a drawing, and miraculously, he didn’t think this was an unusual request. I mean, we were at an industrial steel shop, asking for an 18-inch wide oval polished metal door knob.  Jeremy, who was a really smart guy, thought that a great piece of starting material would be a tractor disk. This is a tractor disk.

    His plan was to cut a large tractor disk into an oval shape, polish it, and figure out a way to securely mount this 45-pound piece of carbonized steel to our front door. Jeremy sent us — I’m not kidding — to a nearby tractor and farming retailer so we could see a tractor disk in person. So we drive up to this place in our Prius — it was the only non-pickup truck in sight — and the owner comes outside, thinking we’re obviously lost, and asks us in a thick Texas drawl, “can I haayylp you with sump’n?”  He was very nice, but I’m not sure he quite understood our intensions.  No matter; we had Jeremy order the tractor disk.

    Several weeks later, we had our oval-shaped, polished tractor disk and mounting hardware. But it was raw carbonized steel — and AEJ wanted it to be shiny. First we went to a chroming company, thinking maybe we’d have it chromed — like a classic car bumper. The guy at the chroming place kept asking things like, “wait — you want to chrome plate a giant door knob? Why?” This wasn’t reassuring, and chrome wasn’t going to be right anyway, so we tried another place — Brady’s Distinctive Lighting in Central Austin.

    How AEJ figured out that a lamp store would have the ability to nickel plate anything, let alone a massive door knob, I don’t know, but the owner, the amazing Betty Brady, who seems to have plated just about everything in the 40+ years she’s owned this store, didn’t question us at all. Somehow, this all made perfect sense to her.   So we asked her to plate this huge thing in nickel. A few weeks later, we had a “knob,” which to me almost looked like a huge Texas-sized belt buckle for our big ass door.

    So now we can just swap the doors, right? Well, not so much. Remember that the old door was a standard 36″ door — but the new one was 48″ wide? No problem — we just needed somebody to come cut a bigger hole in the front of the house.

    Yeah, that looks big enough.

    And with that, the old door was out…

    … and the new door was ready to go in.

    Here’s what it looked like before the knob went on, and before the trim was painted.

    Speaking of that knob again, there’s a funny thing on the knob that we couldn’t remove, and it’s become a cool little detail. The tractor disk was stamped with the manufacturer’s name. There was no way to completely sand it off, so it was plated over, but there’s still a ghost of that stamp on the knob.

    So the door was in, but AEJ also wanted to update the lighting. The outside light went from this, which was kind of squished under the roof overhang…

    … to this, a more modern fixture that hangs down, instead of sticking up.

    Much more drastic was the lighting change inside the house. We went from this fixture, which hung so low that delivery guys kept slamming their heads into it…

    … to this awesome alien-looking thing with chromed light bulbs.

    It’s all done now, and it’s a huge improvement. It lets a HUGE amount more light into the house, and the exaggerated width accentuates the low-slung shape of the 60’s ranch-style house.


    … and now.

    Maybe even more striking is the inside of the house. Here’s the foyer when we bought the house. (This is before we changed the floors or anything; this was, I think, taken on the day we looked at the house.  Note the sage green paint, and the wood panel on the wall.)

    And here’s the foyer now.  Oh, that raised stacked wood rectangle in the center of the door? AEJ had to design that, and have it custom built, too. It covers the massive bolts that are holding on the knob.

    Another angle of the before…

    … and now.

    The whole project took months, with all of the research AEJ had to do to find vendors (for everything from the custom knob to the ball-catch that holds the door closed, since it doesn’t have a standard knob), to the construction, to the plating, to the installation, to the electrician who had to move outlets… It was such a long process — to put it in perspective, it took longer to complete than the kitchen remodel — that my motto for future renovations became “custom is a very bad word.” But now that it’s done, I see that as always, AEJ’s design eye was spot on. Even the FedEx guy wanted to talk about the door last week. AEJ has nailed yet another one.

    Up next… the dining room.


    July 15, 2009

    Aurora Awakes – program note

    Aurora Awakes” finally has its official program note. Doug Martin, who commissioned the piece and conducted the premiere at Stuart High School, wrote a great note for the premiere, but it was somewhat specific to the premiere. I commissioned Jake Wallace — who wrote the program note for “Strange Humors,” and also wrote his DMA dissertation about my Soprano Sax Concerto — to write the note. (Jake, who just graduated from U. Georgia, will be the new Director of Bands at Southeastern Oklahoma State this fall.)

    I’m excited and cautiously optimistic about the future of “Aurora Awakes.” There are some big performances coming up during 2009-2010, including concerts with the top band here at UT-Austin, at Oklahoma State, the University of Georgia, at the Midwest Clinic with the San Jose Wind Symphony, and — the big doozy — with the top Texas All-State Band in February. More than 2400 people have downloaded the MIDI audio, which seems completely crazy for a MIDI file. Granted, I think most of those downloads were from my dad, who seems to be the piece’s biggest fan. (For that reason, I dedicated the piece to him, a fact that he’s learning only by reading it here in the blog. Surprise, Dad.)

    I think Jake Wallace nailed the program note, as he always does. It’s below…

    Aurora now had left her saffron bed,
    And beams of early light the heav’ns o’erspread,
    When, from a tow’r, the queen, with wakeful eyes,
    Saw day point upward from the rosy skies.

    – Virgil, The Aeneid, Book IV, Lines 584-587

    Aurora – the Roman goddess of the dawn – is a mythological figure frequently associated with beauty and light. Also known as Eos (her Greek analogue), Aurora would rise each morning and stream across the sky, heralding the coming of her brother Sol, the sun. Though she is herself among the lesser deities of Roman and Greek mythologies, her cultural influence has persevered, most notably in the naming of the vibrant flashes of light that occur in Arctic and Antarctic regions – the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis.

    John Mackey’s Aurora Awakes is, thus, a piece about the heralding of the coming of light. Built in two substantial sections, the piece moves over the course of eleven minutes from a place of remarkable stillness to an unbridled explosion of energy – from darkness to light, placid grey to startling rainbows of color. The work is almost entirely in the key of E-flat major (a choice made to create a unique effect at the work’s conclusion, as mentioned below), although it journeys through G-flat and F as the work progresses. Despite the harmonic shifts, however, the piece always maintains a – pun intended – bright optimism.

    Though Mackey is known to use stylistic imitation, it is less common for him to utilize outright quotation. As such, the presence of two more-or-less direct quotations of other musical compositions is particularly noteworthy in Aurora Awakes. The first, which appears at the beginning of the second section, is an ostinato based on the familiar guitar introduction to U2’s “Where The Streets Have No Name.” Though the strains of The Edge’s guitar have been metamorphosed into the insistent repetitions of keyboard percussion, the aesthetic is similar – a distant proclamation that grows steadily in fervor. The difference between U2’s presentation and Mackey’s, however, is that the guitar riff disappears for the majority of the song, while in Aurora Awakes, the motive persists for nearly the entirety of the remainder of the piece:

    “When I heard that song on the radio last winter, I thought it was kind of a shame that he only uses that little motive almost as a throwaway bookend.  That’s my favorite part of the song, so why not try to write an entire piece that uses that little hint of minimalism as its basis?”

    The other quotation is a sly reference to Gustav Holst’s First Suite in E-flat for Military Band. The brilliant E-flat chord that closes the Chaconne of that work is orchestrated (nearly) identically as the final sonority of Aurora Awakes – producing an unmistakably vibrant timbre that won’t be missed by aficionados of the repertoire. This same effect was, somewhat ironically, suggested by Mackey for the ending of composer Jonathan Newman’s My Hands Are a City. Mackey adds an even brighter element, however, by including instruments not in Holst’s original:

    “That has always been one of my favorite chords because it’s just so damn bright.  In a piece that’s about the awaking of the goddess of dawn, you need a damn bright ending — and there was no topping Holst.  Well… except to add crotales.”

    1 Comment

    July 13, 2009

    Sultana for sax and piano

    Over a year ago, Timothy Roberts, saxophone soloist with the United States Navy Band, asked me to arrange “Wood,” the 4th movement of my Concerto for Soprano Sax, for sax and piano alone.  Lots of people have asked me to make a piano reduction of the entire concerto, and that’s not something I have the time to do.  The idea of having a standalone version of “Wood” that could be played on recitals and at solo and ensemble contests, though, was both a great idea, and something that didn’t take all that long to do.  Well, once I finally started it.  Yesterday.

    So, it’s done.  After 24 hours, I have a “new” piece: “Sultana,” for saxophone and piano.  In trying to come up with a title for the standalone version, we played with this idea that it sounds vaguely North African — sort of like Algiers or Marseilles, with that sort of French-but-more-ethnically-ambiguous sound.  It was tough to find a title that didn’t need the word “tango” in it, since this piece is so obviously a tango.  I was tempted — yes, I have two pieces with “tango” in the title, but how many pieces did Joplin write that used the word “Rag” and how many times did Sousa write something with “March” in the title?  Still, that was the obvious thing, so we didn’t go that direction.  Instead, AEJ came up with “Sultana,” the word for a female sultan (and also the word for a sultan’s “main” wife).  There haven’t been many female sultans, but there actually was on in Algiers, of all places.

    Sultana” is a slightly modified transcription of “Wood,” with just a few extra notes in the solo part.  Although I intend it to be played on a soprano sax, I’ll be including both Eb and Bb solo parts in all sets that I sell ($20 plus shipping! A steal!), so you could play it on soprano, alto, tenor, or I suppose even baritone sax.  (If you do that, please send me a recording; I’d be most curious to hear the piece on a bari, although I wouldn’t expect it to sound… what’s the word?  Good.)

    Seriously, though I’m curious to hear this arrangement at all. If you ever play it, I hope you’ll send me a recording!

    I’m off… It’s cookie time!