Getting Famous as an Arranger

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Happy Together sheet musicMy new friend Mark wrote the following in an email to me a couple of week's back:

Maybe you could blog a bit about how you got your first arrangement accepted for publication by the [Barbershop Harmony] Society. I'd be very interested to hear your story.

So, this post is for him.

To answer his direct question, the story of my only arrangement to be published by the Society is as follows. In 2004, the newly-re-named Barbershop Harmony Society sought to publish a series of arrangements of more modern or pop songs (aka ‘cool charts’), and put out a general call to arrangers for their work. I was included in the mailings due to my role as a Music judge in an affiliated organisation – not all arrangers are judges, but since all Music judges have to be able to arrange to be accepted into the category, it was an obvious mailing list to target. One mail gave a list of song titles they were particularly interested in, including ‘Happy Together’, which by chance I had just finished arranging for my friends in Capital Connection. So I sent it in, and they included it in the series.

(My pet theory for why this particular chart was accepted was that the terms of commission had actually made it very suitable for a mass market. The chorus was looking for a fun song that would be quick to learn between more challenging projects, so I was tasked with producing something that would be engaging to sing, but that was not too difficult. That imposed a certain discipline that has actually informed everything I’ve done since – ironing out the awkward corners of a chart is a stage that might be a bit dull, but really makes a difference to performers.)

Now, while getting published is great publicity – and I’m not knocking that - it’s not really the heart of the story for the big thing that Mark was concerned about in the rest of his mail, which is how to get known as an arranger. How do you get people singing your stuff?

For me, the more important story took place back in February 2003, when Roger Payne – then Category Specialist for Music – came over to the UK to train LABBS judges and stayed with me for a couple of days. We were talking about my work as an arranger, and I was very despondent about the prospects of getting anyone to sing my music. Nobody is interested in British arrangers, I said; nobody takes me seriously as an arranger; I may train professional musicians in my day job, but I don’t have the credentials that barbershoppers recognise.

Rog basically told me: ‘well, it’s up to you to change that, then’. He told me to go and (I paraphrase) pimp myself out there until people *did* sing my arrangements. No point moping, he said; if the world isn’t how you like it, go out and challenge those perceptions.

So I did. The basic technique for developing your market is just to give away your work for free until people start asking you for it, when you can start charging. So I gave away arrangements – many of which weren’t sung, but a few were. And I did arrangements for educational events. And I talked to people at events about the kind of music they were singing and the kind of music they wanted to sing. And I started to blog about the craft of arranging, and to organise events for other arrangers. And bit by bit I started to get people asking me to arrange things for them.

It took time and patience, but after a while it starts to snowball. I’m now in the happy position of having more arrangement commissions stacked up than I’m entirely comfortable with! I was just getting to the point where I was feeling like it was working when Rog passed away prematurely in 2006. I’m so annoyed that I didn’t thank him for his very effective kick into action before we lost him.

But it does take time. For example, one of my most popular arrangements at the moment is Don't Stop Me Now, which has been picked up by 8 different ensembles in the last year. I first did the arrangement in 1998, and it was not sung by anyone for the first 10 years of its existence. I’m reminded of Seth Godin’s idea that ‘it takes 3 years to become an overnight sensation’.

So, going back to Mark’s original question - the BHS publication is certainly a useful contribution to pimping myself out there, but it is only really a small part of the picture. That was just a lucky coincidence, really. The more important process was the conversation some months earlier when I asked my friend Debi if she had any songs she’d like arranging for her chorus. Like any field, if you do enough groundwork, the luck will eventually find you.

Great story! So do you feel like having the one arrangement published by BHS makes them more likely to publish any of your other arrangements?

I think for me, getting broadly published by BHS would in fact be a satisfying end goal. But since you indicate that you have found your publication more valuable as a springboard to getting noticed for commissioned work, I'm curious why commissions are more interesting to you than continuing to seek mass publication. Is the mass market route less lucrative? Is it too competitive (not enough arrangements published per year)? Is it too restrictive (not enough freedom to choose the songs you want to do, or arrange the way you want to arrange)? Is it too difficult to predict what kind of music the publisher(s) are looking for? Or do you remain interested in mass publication but figure it will just naturally fall out of the commission work you do, much like you happened to be in the right place at the right time with your arrangement of Happy Together?

Hi Mark, if your dream is to make money by getting published by the BHS, think again! A once-off $100 fee is a nice token, but they don't pay royalties!

I had no idea. That certainly explains why so many arrangers pursue the business model of dealing with individual quartets and choruses, charging $300+ for custom arrangements, and $40-100 for the rights to a previous arrangement.

It makes me wonder what other business models might be viable, though. The dominant system obviously works, since so many arrangers are doing that, but it seems to have at least some disadvantages for both the arranger and the customer. For the arranger, there is the constant challenge of networking with customers, and it is very difficult to balance the importance of providing a "preview" of the arrangement with the risk of theft. For the customer, well, it's expensive, which is probably a limiting factor for many informal quartets. And even for formal quartets with a reasonable budget for buying custom arrangements, there's always that difficulty of sampling and evaluating a large number of arrangements to find the few that are going to work really well for your group.

It certainly *feels* like there's a niche waiting to be exploited for a publisher/editor who can resolve some of these issues and connect singers with low-cost arrangements on a royalty basis, benefiting arrangers by providing them with larger volume of sales, and benefiting customers by providing vetted arrangements at lower cost. But maybe I'm just way off in my sense for how big the potential market is, or how many arrangers would want to participate.

Anyway, thanks for all this great "real-world" info about the arranging business. It's a real eye-opener.

Mark,

The BHS is currently considering a royalties-based system for the arrangements they publish, but nothing is concrete yet. I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

Thanks for update Jon! If you can cross your toes, too, that might help...
liz

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