Arranging to Commissions vs Arranging for the ‘Mass Market’

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In a comment on my post last week about getting known* as an arranger, Mark queried why I seemed more interested in arranging for commissions rather than for ‘the mass market’. I made a brief reply there, but his question stayed with me, and made me articulate some things to myself about the process of arranging that I thought might be interesting to share.

First, there’s a small reality check on the matter of mass-market publication. The Barbershop Harmony Society has this great deal with Hal Leonard that promotes their publications – hence my chart of Happy Together is being sung in high schools all over the US. I love this to bits of course – but the only financial remuneration I’ll ever have for it is the original $100 fee the BHS paid me. Which was nice, but nothing to get excited about (especially in comparison with the exciting thought of lots of young men singing my music).

Approaching other publishers in hope of a more commercial relationship is something I could be interested in, but would involve developing a rather different profile of material for the markets commercial publishers target from the ones I’m mostly working with. I have a feel for the possibilities there, but I feel I am sufficiently recently established in my current market that there’s no hurry to rush away from it just yet. I’m still having fun here – and the things I’m learning in the process will help me wherever I move next.

And working to commission is where I’m doing this learning. Quite apart from the fact that if somebody asks you to arrange a song for them, you know it is pretty much guaranteed at least one performance (which arrangements on spec are not), writing for specific groups is artistically a really exciting way to work. Neil Watkins describes the arrangement process as ‘imagining the whole performance, then writing that down’, and the imaginative process is much more vivid when you can envision a specific ensemble rather than a generic one.

This works at different levels. At one level there’s a feel for the kind of group, without necessarily having heard them perform very often if at all. But if you spend enough time hearing and visiting and working with ensembles, you can look at a photo on a website and know from the postures and facial expression the kind of vocal production they’ll be using, and the kinds of expressive worlds they’ll be accustomed to drawing on. Youtube is also my friend here. The dialogue during the commissioning process brings extra information – specifics about preferred ranges, other repertoire they sing and enjoy (or didn’t get on with), current aspirations and anxieties. And my job is to use all this information to conjure up a vision of that group out-performing themselves to the delight of their audience – and then write that down.

At another level is the group that I know personally. Here, the imaginative process is much more immediate and intimate. I’m imagining not just the sounds of the voices, but the personalities of the singer. I know which bits they’ll tell me are their favourite moments - well, I make sure I give them bits that can be their personal favourites – and I know the looks they’d give me if I wrote something awkward or ungainly for them to sing (I re-write those bits). I’m not thinking of the ‘lead’ line, I’m thinking of Nancy, or Zac, or Michael (to name three leads I’ve arranged for this year).

And the interesting thing here is this: that the more specifically I imagine the individual ensemble destined to perform that chart, the better the chart works for anyone who might sing it at a later date. Arrangements written as ‘generic’ charts have less personality, less distinctiveness, less desire written in. The actual people who wanted to sing that actual song feed the development of the arrangement’s persona, and the individuality of those performers gives an edge to my own creative identity.

Sure, I have written some good arrangements on spec – although even as I run through my mental list to identify them, I realise that I was generally imagining a performing ensemble at the time, even if I didn’t at that point dare to imagine that the group I fantasised about might be interested in my music. (As I mentioned last week, I used to find getting my stuff out there personally challenging – getting better at it now, bit by bit.)

So, that’s why I’m interested in doing bespoke arrangements. It’s not just that it’s much easier to sell an arrangement of a particular song to someone who has told you that they have always wanted to sing it, it’s that their desire to sing it makes me a better arranger.

* I used the word ‘famous’ in the post title because it sounded good. I should add that I see myself as someone who is in the league of ‘reasonably well established’ rather than ‘mega-star’.

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