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On Finding Your Audience

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I was recently asked some interesting questions by a composer I’ve been helping, and it struck me that the answers might have wider applicability beyond his circumstances. He’s been re-working a song that he originally wrote for classroom use into a more developed and sophisticated arrangement for vocal ensemble and band, and our conversations have hitherto been about things like crafting form through texture, harmonic voicing, and vocal writing.

Now these technical questions are getting more fully under control, he’s turning his attention to the real-life question of what kind of groups might want to take it on to perform it. He has been advised that it could easily be marketed to schools if he pared it down to a unison setting – which he already knows of course because that’s where the song has already been road-tested. But his personal aims in returning to composing after some time away has been to be more ambitious than this, both technically and artistically.

But he’s left wondering whether in fact might have caught himself between two stools, with music that is too hard for children but not sufficiently substantial for adults. The simple answer for me to give would be that not only is the tune insanely catchy (each time he sends me some work, I’m singing it for days after), but he’s producing music that successfully engages at least two adult musical brains (his own and mine), so he’s probably okay on that score.

More useful, though, would be to suggest some ways in which he can answer the deeper question here: who am I writing for, and how well have I matched my music to their needs? Tangentially, it was not having an answer to this question that dried me up as a composer in the year after I finished my undergraduate degree. In the context of a university music department, I could always identify who I was writing for, but out in the real world it became an abstract, not to say, lonely and self-defeating exercise.

Returning to musical productivity, for me, was inextricably linked with being connected with the ensembles performing the music. And it is they who have taught me how to write for them: experiencing what people get excited about, what they struggle over, the mistakes they make most readily, has honed my craft over the past two decades.

So, the approach I would suggest to discover who you are writing for, is to go out and do some direct market research. Find out what choirs and vocal groups are performing near you, and go and listen to them. Listen not just for what they are currently singing (style, length, level of complexity), but also how they respond to it. Which pieces do the singers clearly enjoy, and which does it appear that they are they singing from a sense of duty?

It’s also worth rummaging through the catalogues of publishers marketing to adult choirs. What do they think people want to sing? It’s probably worth a quick plug in this context for the Association of British Choral Directors, and in particular their annual Choral Leaders’ Festival in August. One of the major ongoing activities of abcd is putting choirs in contact with people who provide music for choirs. Not only do delegates to this event come away with a whole swag bag full of catalogues and sample CDs, but loads of publishers exhibit throughout the event, giving plenty of browsing opportunities. It’s a good place to run into actual composers too, several of whom have figured out that hanging out with the people who choose music for choirs is a good move for people writing for choirs.

Getting an understanding of the tastes, ambitions, and limitations of the real people who are out there making music offers a buttress of certainty to help guide compositional decisions. You don’t have to be just like everyone else – that would be a waste of your individual contribution to the universe – but it gives a sense of the horizon of expectations against which your work will be understood.

It will also make it a lot easier to take the next, vital, step, which is to find some people to road-test the music. If you aren’t currently involved in your locality’s choral scene, it can be hard to approach a group with your music. It’s much easier if you can say, ‘Hey I came to your concert last week and I think you might enjoy this!’

Whether the eventual fate for the piece is to be self-published or distributed through an established publisher, it needs to have been through this route of practical experience. You need to look the performers in the eye as they rehearse your music and see how they feel about the experience. Do they find the challenges energising or irritating? Do they take joy in the process? You will find your audience in the wider sense by having the courage to build musical relationships with specific people, operating in real musical situations.

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