Over the last six months, we have interviewed some of Australia’s most experienced artistic directors and planners. We wanted to know what they were looking for from Australian composers – particularly emerging composers – and how they make their commissioning and programming decisions.

Some fantastic insights emerged, as well as some sage advice that we want to share.

Here are the top five tips we give our composers to maximise their chances of receiving a commission or being programmed for performance.

  1. Know your audience

We’re not talking about who will be listening to your music in performance.  Your first and most important audience is who will make the decision about commissioning you to write for them or programming your work.

You need to know their name/s, position and background, and researching their programming style, preferences and other commission projects is helpful.  With this under your belt, it’s then time to prepare a succinct, compelling – and personalised – pitch.

Programmers do not need to see or hear your entire portfolio.  What they really want is:

  • a short demonstration of how well you write for the relevant configuration
  • 2-3 recordings that are indicative of your style
  • to know that you understand their needs, their audience, their previous commissions and collaborations
  • to hear about any collaborations you’ve had that they might consider in programming
  1. It’s not just music – you need a great story

We received some great insights into Festival programming.  Festivals are where sparks can fly and programmers are happy to be presented with ideas by artists.

Festival directors (and all programmers) are looking for quality, originality, marketability – and a story.  Artistic planners can no longer put together a program and throw it to the marketing team to work their magic. They need to present the entire ‘unique selling proposition’.  This means they are looking for the audience hooks.  They are visualising the marketing campaign and seeking overall cohesion.  Their question is ‘what is going to make this an unmissable event’?

  1. Utilise your trusted critics

Unlike all writers, composers tend not to have an external editorial process. BUT this should be an integral step in getting your work to performance.  Usually the number of rehearsals is limited and that makes it hard on everybody if the composition isn’t finessed.

You need to lean on a handful of trusted peers or mentors who can review your ‘final draft’ with a critical eye.  Ideally this happens before the work goes into rehearsal.  The performers need to hit the ground running so that every second is dedicated to preparing a show-stopping world premiere.

  1. ‘No’ isn’t forever

If you get a big ‘no’ – try not to despair, and do make sure you ask for feedback and advice.

Maintaining that respectful personal relationship is really important, so find ways to keep the conversation open.  A six-monthly e-news for your client list (current and future) can work really well.  Include details of work in progress, performances, broadcasts, a couple of short blog pieces and any video or audio content.

Consider allowing some space and then go again with a new idea.  Study the potential client’s programming decisions and try to present something that fits. If you present the right idea at the right time – it may be that you can provide a programming solution when it’s needed most.

  1. Be careful with representation – especially when you’re starting out

Being represented when you’re starting out isn’t the be all and end all.  It’s definitely a long-term goal but in the meantime, it has never been easier to publish, promote and market your work to broad networks.  Technology, digital and social media have changed the entire paradigm of music creation and performance and self-representation is more achievable than ever (albeit with some good guidance and support).

Talking about agents – they need to be your ally and greatest advocate. They need to have utter conviction that your work needs to be heard and the vocabulary to persuade artistic decision makers.  Agents need to be easy to work with (for you and for your clients) and thinking about client needs all the time.

And finally…

There’s a lot to think about when you’re starting out as a composer.  You need to be mindful of your listening audiences and also the needs of artistic planners who will make decisions about whether you are commissioned or programmed (or not).

You need your great ideas, but also great stories and a polished pitch. Always stress test and critique your work with a circle of trusted collaborators and do the preparation to make sure your world premiere is unforgettable.

If you would like further advice or support, please get in touch.

This article was first published in Limelight online in 2016.

Caroline Sharpen is the Principal at Sharpen CIC. She is an experienced cultural sector executive, strategist, mentor and business development practitioner. 

Andrew Batt-Rawden is a composer, performance artist and curator. He is the owner/publisher of Australia’s classical music and arts publication Limelight magazine. He was previously the artistic director of the Bellingen Music Festival and the Aurora Festival.

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