Composer becomes direct publisher: An interview with Amy Gordon

Amy Gordon, photo by Rose Hassani

Lauri had an in-depth chat with Lister composer Amy Gordon, who has recently launched a fully functional store on her website. You can peruse and listen to her compositions as well as purchase as many copies as you need. It’s beautifully built, well-designed and an excellent example of how musicians can take sales into their own hands. Do take a good look at Amy’s website at amygordonmusic.com. Below, we explore the ins and outs of a big project like this, and Amy shares some of the things she’s learned.

Lauri: Welcome, Amy, and thanks for taking the time for this. I’ve been looking at your website, and it’s very impressive. I see 28 different pieces in the store, right? That must have been an awful lot of work.

Amy: I have to thank Patrick Hassani of Business Website Builders for everything he did. He is amazing — I did all of the graphics in the store, but he did the whole back-end of the store, with the logo and everything else.

LDG: So if someone is going to go through this process, would you recommend hiring someone to handle those details? There are a lot of composers who are pretty techy and think they can handle it, but dealing with e-commerce can be tricky. Are you glad you hired a pro?

AG: Oh, yes. For me personally, I didn’t know what I was doing in terms of security plug-ins, privacy and other issues on the back-end.

LDG: That makes sense: while being a musician involves multiple hats and lots of DIY, there is no reason for all of us to learn every skill. You seem to have a pretty good sense of that division of labor — you really seem to know where your line is.

It’s from attempting to do things, taking too much time, and realizing it’s just not a good use of my time. I’d rather focus on the composing, and on personal connections. I’ve started hiring an engraver (Nathanael Tronerud), who’s awesome. I get the score up to a certain point, and then I hand it off to him for finishing. I also have a proofreader, Daniel Levin, so before going to a first rehearsal, I hire him just to mark up everything he can possibly find. Before I turn in the file submission, I just give it to him the score and a red pen and tell him, “go to town”. Then I make his revisions, and it’s become a whole process — I’ve basically put together a team, as if I’m my own publishing house.

LDG: Well, that’s kind of what you have to do: you have to stop thinking of yourself as “small fry”. I’ve seen this in action with you, as you seem to approach the work as if you’re already where you want to be. It sounds like that’s a fairly conscious process for you.

I think as I’ve gone to all of these choral conferences and I’ve seen a lot of my colleagues, full-time composers like Andrea Ramsey and Dale Trumbore. They’re writing good music that they’re not compromising on. Knowing that it’s possible is a big game-changer mentally. This is no longer just a dream — I just need to figure out how to get there, action item by action item.

LDG: How long have you actually been composing?

Twenty-three years. I wrote my first song when I was ten. My parents got me a synthesizer with floppy disks, which was the state-of-the-art technology at the time. My mother basically cleared out my closet and put in a recording studio, and by the time I was twelve, I was asking for recording equipment: a four-track, tape recorder, a microphone, and it’s kind of been that way ever since.

LDG: So clearly, there’s no fogginess or haziness in terms of what you want to do with your life. Have you ever considered anything else?

I love real estate. I love houses. But composition is it. If there comes a point when I can’t buy food, of course there’s always something else. It’s actually similar, in terms of knowing what people want and listening to them.

LDG: Why did you build your own publishing platform? Was there a moment or something that triggered that decision?

I think that technology has just gotten to the point that it’s very possible. I’m not against publishing things in the traditional way, and it may depend on the piece. There are certain pieces in my catalog that would be great for a publisher, and there are others that won’t have such a big market reach, and I’ll have to market them myself. If it’s a very particular voicing, for instance, like six bassoons and a piccolo, there’s not a huge market for that… Certain pieces like collegiate level Christmas music and middle school pieces will always have a market. But maybe more advanced, professional-level SATB pieces, that are really virtuosic, maybe not.

I’ve also worked with MusicSpoke, for instance, which isn’t a publisher, but a distributor. I have a few pieces on their Distinguished Series, including the Brandon Elliott and Joseph Ohrt Series. So that makes sense, as being part of a group like that can help get your work out there. 

Here’s the thing about selling on other platforms like SMP [Sheet Music Plus], which is one of the biggest publishing platforms: it’s like putting a vending machine in someone else’s store. They control the hours, they control the building… and having a website is like putting up your own storefront. Facebook might change, Twitter might change, but this is my real estate: I can decorate the store how I want it, I can add or remove pieces, put them on sale. I have 100% control.

LDG: At this point, are you planning on only putting your own works on the website, or do you plan to publish works by other composers as well?

At this point, only my own. Not to say that it won’t expand down the line, if it makes sense, but for now, I’m just focusing on my own music.

LDG: So tell us about the Consortium option. You have something in your store called a Consortium, and it’s fascinating. How does that work?

A consortium is like a multi-choir funded commission. It’s actually through a third-party service called Consortio, so it’s not available directly through my website, but we were able to create a category so for that project, there’s a portal to where a choir can become part of the project. It’s basically a place where composers can put up a project, and interested ensembles can join. But the buy-in is much cheaper. Each choir pays like $250, where a normal commission might be a much more expensive amount, like for an exclusive world premiere. This way, let’s say ten choirs sign up. They each get the world premiere score, and if they’re scattered geographically, they’ll have their own location premiere, and it’s kind of great for everyone. They get their own premiere, I get more performances, I get to work with more people, and everybody wins.

LDG: So you built the platform with WordPress and WooCommerce, yes? What was the hardest part of the actual build?

The hardest part was just all the tedious tasks. I waited a little late to do this process, so I already had about thirty items in my catalog, which is a lot of work. For each item, I had to do a perusal score, clean up the score, watermark it. I removed a page in each one, because you have to buy the score to see the whole thing, and then I had to come up with the graphic for each one, and then there’s writing up the description. It’s just a lot of detail-oriented work that takes awhile. I’m using a third-party site called Issuu, which is great for viewing the score. You can’t download the score, but it’s very easy to use. A lot of composers use it. So I’m paying for that pro account every month, so there aren’t any ads showing. Then we had to find a payment platform, and I think the hardest part was just finding the time to do all of these tasks, and not compromising on the look I wanted.

I wanted a very specific look: everything on one page, separated by category, but easy to scroll through on mobile. It’s kind of annoying to have to go back and forth, as it’s so much harder to have multiple windows open. And then when you click on the item, it grabs all the info from the catalog page, which pulls in the recording links and the perusal score, so I didn’t have to double-enter everything. It’s all on one page, so if you’re on mobile, Soundcloud will play in the background and you can still click on the perusal score, so you can listen and watch. Those are the two things that I think have to be very easy. I just wanted it to all be in one place, with a flow that’s easy to follow.

Amy Gordon created individual graphics for each piece, using Canva. They have a cohesive look and do much to make her online store look professional.

LDG: Obviously, you put a lot of thought into it before you dove in.

I had seen other websites that I particularly liked, and the WooCommerce platform itself makes it really easy. Whatever they’ve done, it just has a really nice layout. I know several people who also use WooCommerce. For me, I just did not have the web skills to do something overly customized.

LDG: And the advantage of using a platform that does all of that for you is that as systems change and everything else, it’s up to them to make sure it keeps working. Sometimes it’s just better to buy the product than to build something on your own.

In terms of security, too — using a payment processor that has handled all of that for you. The processor I chose came highly recommended.

LDG: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned from all of this?

How worth it it’s all been. I didn’t realize how important it would be until I really started using it, but now that the site is built, when I meet someone new, I can hand them a link to my entire catalog, including perusal scores, recordings, texts and program notes. It’s easily shareable, it’s secure, and it comes with a store. It’s all here. Of course, anything that is published elsewhere wouldn’t be available here, but while you wouldn’t be able to purchase that through this website, WooCommerce allows us to add an external link, so the catalog is still complete. It’ll just open a new window, creating a portal instead of a cart item. It’s all built so it will grow with me.

LDG: Let’s back up to the basics of doing what you do. What really helped to prepared you as an artistic entrepreneur?

To be honest, it’s the Internet. Having the ability to be in contact with so many people — to have anyone at my fingertips within seconds… I don’t know if a career would be possible without tech and social media. To plan a Meetup, and Zoom sessions… I’ve been able to Skype into a rehearsal with a choir across the country, and I can see them and hear them, and the audio quality is pristine. The ability to do that is absolutely essential to my career as a freelance composer.

LDG: Do you think it’s possible to be a composer in this day and age, without the tech skills, or would they just have to hire thing out?

I think it is. At the end of the day, it’s still who you know. The tech is allowing us to know more people more quickly, and more people can keep up with what you’re doing. There are always “normal” ways to ask people to introduce you or to champion your work. But the tech just amplifies the power of everything else.

LDG: You started composing and thinking about writing at such an early age. Did you see the business side early on as well, or was it a surprise to you that you needed to do all of this?

I think it wasn’t until I finished grad school that the idea of business equaling composer really cemented. It’s really this year that it’s taken root. There’s a wonderful podcast called The Portfolio Composer by Garrett Hope, and he talks about what kinds of tools any composer needs to have in their pocket that will produce income. The idea is to set up your freelance career so you’re doing the projects you want to, in a streamlined fashion. I wanted to find a sustainable way to do the projects that I would have done anyway.

LDG: Now that all of this is built, how are you handling marketing and driving traffic to it… besides interviews and podcasts, of course?

I’ve sold a few things on it already, but I think this is more about long-term benefits and building relationships with conductors and presenters. Now that I’m starting to get second and third performances, people can come to the site and sort by possible themes, lengths, or whatever they need. They can see what else I have available, too.

LDG: Tell you about the way you use YouTube: you have some video scores, and you’re doing some interesting things there.

An example of a scrolling score video

I have scrolling score videos there, which are essentially a screenshot of the PDF once it’s engraved, and I just drop it into iMovie and align it with that portion of the audio. It actually only takes me 15 minutes to make one, so it’s not that hard. I have some interviews there, and a featured playlist that I can send, so this is a great way to make things easy to listen to.

LDG: Now that you’ve learned all of this and done it all, what do you think? Is this something all composers should be doing, or is this not for everyone?

It seems that most composers I know are doing some kind of mixture of traditional publishing and self-publishing. I absolutely think this is doable, and it’s a great way to have things available. It should be easy to navigate, so the quick-and-easy route might not be the best approach. Getting the back-end correct and getting your formatting right is important. I used Canva for all of those images, for instance, and investing a little bit in tools like that makes a difference. I pay a monthly fee for their pro version, and it’s definitely worth it. I would urge people to not rush the process, and to invest a bit. It’s OK, as a business, to spend money and time. In order for things to be scalable, it is OK to spend a portion every month on your business, and hopefully it will come back to you tenfold over time.

LDG: That is the big difference between thinking like an artist and thinking like a businessperson. It almost always comes down to the investment.

So as a composer, what are you working on now? It seems like you’re writing a lot of choral music, but are you also still pursuing the singer-songwriter aspect of your work?

It’s funny how these worlds have collided sometimes, in unexpected ways. I won a competition last year, the Jim MacMillan Prize, with with the Voci Choir of the Columbia Gorge Orchestra Association conducted by Mark Steighner in Oregon. The donor was a beloved psychiatrist who had passed away and really loved choral music, and the director was a very good friend of his. So when I won, the director was looking at my website, and he said, “oh, you’re a singer-songwriter! You know, Jim was also a singer-songwriter. Would you like to play a set of your songs as part of the concert?” So I got to work with the choir, and they premiered my piece, and then they went offstage and I played five pop songs in the middle of the concert. It felt for the first time that things had really come full circle. I still write lyrics and I still write songs, and definitely still have that part of myself. It’s just surprising how they interact.

LDG: Now that you’ve built this website and this machine that can help people get to your music, there is an element of marketability that might come into play as you continue to write. Do you think having this website will change the way you think about yourself as a composer or songwriter? Do you think you’re likely to start thinking about marketing as you’re writing?

Oh, for sure. I actually have some ideas in my back pocket. I’d like to start doing video program notes, like two-minutes of “this is something cool that’s in the piece”. They can include that link in their newsletters or to their audiences. It’s still talking about my composition, like cool chord changes that I’m really excited about, or my use of modes, or text painting. It feels organic and it feels personal. I hope it’s not just marketing, but also a way to make the piece more meaningful to people who are singing it or hearing it. Like I said earlier, just being able to say that my entire catalog, with all of these additional pieces, is right here, is a game-changer.

LDG: Wrapping up a little bit, you’re living this artistic life that you’ve thought about for so many years. What drives you forward? What moves you about it the most?

Honestly, I only do projects that really speak to me. So I’m very picky about my poetry, I’m very picky about the topics that I’m setting. I wait until I find a poem that really hits me. I just did a rehearsal today where the director was talking about losing a loved one, and the piece became a part of that experience for me and for the choir. I have to carve out a lifestyle where I’m having those experiences, and it’s not just a job. It’s part of the community, and I love those things that reach out to the community: the composer talks, workshops. I’m actually the new composer-mentor for the Pasadena Master Chorale, and I really believe in arts advocacy. That’s another way to stay engaged: to be there for young students who are so excited about the arts, and to be a part of that mentorship process is really cool. That goes for commissioning conversations as well — I’m always looking for ways to make the community part of the process.

LDG: What’s next?

I’m going to a lot of conferences, reaching out, and trying to work more across the country, not just in Los Angeles. There’s a lot to do. I’m still very involved here, including being a board member for C3LA (Contemporary Choral Collaborative Los Angeles). I try to make room for a few passion projects, and that definitely includes C3LA. [Here’s a video…]

Amy Gordon’s “I’m Still Here”, performed by C3LA

LDG: Thank you, Amy, for chiming in about this process, and for taking the time to talk with us. For those of you who’d like to check out what she has built and to hear some of her music, try some of the links below:

Learn more

Visit Amy’s website

Soundcloud

YouTube channel

Just in time for the holidays: What Child is This score video

To receive Amy’s latest news (sometimes about cats, but mostly music), sign up for her mailing list

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