Paying the Piper: Kathryn Rose on Composing and Funding

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Kathryn Rose is a composer, and music teacher in East London and is the organist and choirmistress at St Andrew’s Leytonstone. She also plays the horn, piano, serpent, portable harmonium and anything else that doesn’t fight back too vigorously. Most of her compositions are online at artsyhonker.net/works. She likes cats and cycling, though not in combination, and hates punctures.

What have you composed, in what forms?

My main focus is on choral music, though I’ve also worked on concert band pieces, wind quintets, piano, trumpet, and other instrumental pieces. My vocal work includes unaccompanied solos, hymns, flexible accompanied works for small choirs, a congregational Mass setting, and traditional a capella SATB pieces. Much of it is based on religious subjects, though I do also write secular pieces. A lot of it is through-composed, without much repetition of text, though I don’t bear any ideological grudges against repeated text; I just seem to think of it that way most often.

Where does your work emerge from, either in terms of musical tradition, your own musical practice, or your inspiration?

I have sung in or directed choirs for most of my life, so choral music comes reasonably naturally to me… but I’ve also spent significant amounts of time playing solo and orchestral instruments, and I have rather less inclination to write for those, at this stage at least. When I was a child I liked to write poetry, and my paternal grandmother was a poet. It may be that the combination of words and music together is why I focus on choral music. Choosing the right words is often a painstaking exercise, whether I am writing for a particular liturgical context or to a competition brief. But sometimes I do find words and think “ooh, that should be set to music” and then I’m away.

(How) does it relate to your musical life, or your life in the Church?

I am most myself in worship when I make music, and especially when I sing. Since finishing my degree at Trinity my musical life and my life in the Church have had a lot of overlap; I’ve done very little performance of secular music in that time.

Who do you write for? Who are your imagined audiences?

On one level, my intended audience is the singers themselves: I write music I would like to sing, or that I think others would like to sing. But when I wrote “Up-Hill” and “Give me my scallop shell of quiet” I was also interested in keeping things fairly tonal and conventional, because I knew that on the bike pilgrimage we’d be singing a lot of unfamiliar music to a diverse audience. When I write a hymn or a congregational Mass setting I have different singers in mind than when I write a choral anthem, and that really affects how I write.

What are the particular challenges and opportunities of composing when compared to other forms of art?

I still compose with pencil and paper, so I can write anywhere that doesn’t have background music: trains, libraries, offices, whatever. I don’t need an instrument, or paints, or a kiln, and I’m not going to disturb anyone else with it. This is a huge advantage while living in London and having neighbours! It helps a lot if I can typeset my music and put it online, but all I need for that is a computer and appropriate software, and for me that’s still very much a separate process from the actual composing. I can move anywhere in the world with internet access and keep putting my music online, and I can go anywhere with writing materials and keep composing. I also have a disability which results in a lot of joint and muscle pain. Composing is considerably less rough on my body than practising the organ, piano or horn. I started composing long before that was an issue, but it is part of my recent efforts to compose more.

As a composer with a choral focus, I have a great opportunity to contribute to a living tradition within the Church, and enable other people to worship in ways that are meaningful to them. There is plenty of room for new music in a huge variety of styles, and one of the great things about it is that nobody else can write the music that I do, and I can’t write someone else’s music. Composers really aren’t interchangeable.

One challenge with choral work is that I don’t get to hear it until it’s done. Technology is improving in this area but I still rely on my internal sense of what things sound like; my “mind’s ear” if you will. Once a piece is finished, most other people, with the exception of excellent score readers, aren’t going to hear it until a choir sings it. So, how do they know whether they like the music and want to perform it? This is one reason I’ve had a few demo recordings made; you can hear them at SoundCloud

Another thing I find challenging is estimating how long it will take me to write a piece of music. Compared to practising something and slowly but surely getting better at it, composing can be maddeningly elusive. I’ve missed a few competition deadlines because I just got horribly stuck on a few bars of an organ part, but sending off something I’m not really happy with feels terrible, much worse than a performance with a few wrong notes in it.

A difficulty that isn’t about composing as such but about copyright is that I’m very firmly committed to using Creative Commons licenses for my work. This is partly because I am on the other end of the equation: I know how hard it can be to find music that is actually available for use on a low budget with limited resources. The Christian Copyright Licensing Initiative attempts to rectify some of this for churches, but I know have heard grumbles from colleagues that not much of the money they collect actually gets back to composers, and the paperwork can be cumbersome. I actually think the problem has more to do with late 20th-century copyright law, and business models based on the monopoly. As a church musician and choir director, there are several works I’d like to use, but I can’t because the composer died less than 70 years ago and I either can’t track down the right person to ask or don’t get any response when I do. As a composer, my insistence on CC by-SA (or, if the author prefers, CC by-NC or by-NC-SA) does limit the texts I can work with, too: instead of having to convince living poets that I’d like to set their work, I have to convince them on the copyright question.

My commitment to Creative Commons licensing also means that most choral publishers aren’t really interested in my work: their business model is based on late 20th-century copyright law, and they tend to be smaller businesses that can’t afford to take large risks. But I don’t think anyone having a monopoly on my work — even me — helps to contribute to a living tradition, a publically available body of work for use in churches and elsewhere. I’m not writing this music so it can sit in a drawer until a publisher decides to take a chance on me. I want people to sing it.

Do you think releasing your work for free devalues it, or makes it harder for other composers to get paid?

Not really! My work and another composer’s work really aren’t interchangeable in that way; and it’s hard to say that putting my work online for free devalues it compared to leaving it in a desk drawer. I’m much more reserved about performing for free, because the degree of interchangeability there is greater. The things that actually devalue art are capitalist notions: that art is leisure and if you’re having any fun it can’t possibly be work you should get paid for, that the market value of a work is somehow related to its worth, and that charging what the market will bear is always the best thing to do.

What led you to consider Patreon as a form of funding?

Funding is hard for all artists, and I had actually been wishing for some kind of crowdfunded patronage for some time. When I found out about Patreon I didn’t think about it for very long at all: I signed up within a week. There really wasn’t anything to lose by trying it, after all. It didn’t take me long to set up my page there and I haven’t looked back.

What benefits does it have, and do these relate particularly to the specific form your art takes?

Many crowdfunding sites are excellent for larger projects but not so good for smaller ones. Patreon is the opposite in many ways, allowing artists to seek patronage either on a per-work basis or a per-month basis. I’ve opted for per-work, because a month in which I write more than two choral works is going to be pretty unusual. Patrons can limit the amount they spend on a monthly basis, so if I were to suddenly have a very prolific period and put 6 new works online in one month, I wouldn’t have to worry too much about bankrupting my patrons.

I receive around 90% of the money people pay: Patreon takes a 5% cut, and there are credit card fees which add up to roughly another 5%. That’s excellent compared to consumer prices for sheet music, where most of the money people pay is going to pay the publisher’s costs.

I now have a few patrons who I don’t recognise, don’t really know how they found me. I think some of them have found me through Patreon itself, so there’s that social networking aspect of it too, which could potentially be very useful.

Unlike traditional patronage of the arts, where a few rich philanthropists dole out sums to deserving artists, or there are a lot of application forms for a communal pot of money, the crowdfunded nature of Patreon means I don’t find myself beholden to one big donor. I don’t have to jump through arbitrary hoops where a committee has decided ‘this would be good for Culture’ and I don’t have to worry about my work being prestigious enough that some member of the aristocracy is still going to want to keep me on to show off to his friends. I don’t want to alienate my patrons, of course, but I still feel like I am in the driving seat with where I want to take my work.

Are there drawbacks?

The pledges are all in US dollars, which is annoying: not all that many of my patrons are in the US, so the numbers aren’t really helpful. If I could change only one thing I’d ask Patreon to implement GBP functionality.

Some would-be patrons just aren’t willing or able to commit to giving me even a small amount or every time I complete a work. I don’t know whether I’d like Patreon to have a one-off payment button or not: it’s easy enough for me to accept one-off payments via PayPal and so far nobody has made much use of that, but then I haven’t promoted it much either.  It’s possible that if Patreon had a one-off payment option, I’d have fewer recurrent pledges, which would be less helpful in the longer term.

At this point the money is also much lower than average commission rates, which are in turn not usually enough to live on. Being given $118 (less about 10%) for each new work puts me nowhere near being able to make a living from composing, and this summer money was tight enough that I actually took a non-music, non-church day job for the first time since 2003. That said, I’ve only been using Patreon since February 2014; things may be roughly the same in about a year, or the financial picture may look very different.

Has it affected the way you think about composing, either in musical idiom, the kinds of projects you envisage, or your working patterns (or any other way)?

One of the encouraging things about Patreon is that I know my patrons have decided to become my patrons because they like my work. I’ve never been much of a crowd-pleaser, and so far Patreon hasn’t changed that. It has made me a bit more focused in terms of trying to finish at least one choral piece per month though, so that I can put it online and get paid.

Reaching some of my funding goals eariler than expected has meant the launch of the Open Volume project as well as a project to collect and publish a book of my anthems.

The other thing that has happened is that Patreon has enabled me to spend some money on the demo recordings mentioned earlier, so that people can hear some of my work sung rather than just looking at the sheet music. The response to this has made me more enthusiastic about doing some of my own demo recordings, where I can; I’ve recorded music before, but not usually my own compositions. So my next funding goal, of $125 per new work, requires me to make a demo recording of a piece I wrote in 2010.

In an ideal world, how would your work be funded? (Or is that a meaningless question, given the way art can never take place in an abstract world…)

Ideally I’d like Universal Basic Income or similar to cover subsistence, not just for me but for everyone, and then any money I made through composing would be an added bonus. I don’t see that happening soon. In the meantime, a mix of crowdfunded patronage, commissions, and other work seems like the best option going!

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