Composer Jeff Harrington has led a varied and fascinating musical life exploring and celebrating the outer frontiers of music. Here are some of his insights into, and experiences of sharing music through tracks and trails often not used by the music establishment, perhaps to its detriment.
Jeff writes: “I was asked this weekend by someone teaching a course in Digital Musicianship to explain my music distribution strategy and how it developed. Here's the text I just finished for anybody who's interested. Please pardon the informal nature of it...
My strategy... is basically to get my music into as many people's hands as possible without expectations of remuneration. What happened to my wife and I in the early 80's informed the process where I invented the free culture system.
We'd both had to drop out of college, me from Juilliard and Elsie from Pratt because of money problems. We were quite angry about this and started a street art project. This was 1982. At the same time we started showing Elsie's paintings on the street in the West Village, right on Spring Street to be exact in the heart of Soho. We showed these huge paintings with a sign saying, "Not for Sale."
This was pretty shocking to people and we started getting more and more interested in seeing where that could take us. We created series of non-destructive art works in chalk and with rubber stamps and displayed them all over NYC. Eventually, we became so famous (or infamous) that we started a whole mini-art movement in NYC and started receiving death threats... we ended up having to flee NYC, broke and regroup in New Orleans.
In New Orleans we continued giving our art away through the mail art networks. These were exchanges where you'd send a piece of art to somebody and then they'd send you something back. These turned into zines eventually, and from there into multiples and even gallery shows. When the computer networks started up in the early 80's with BBS's it was a natural progression to take our art give-away there.
I was probably the first serious artist to use the BBS system to distribute art, although I'm sure there were a few more; nobody at the time seemed to have come from the street art/mail art networks. I uploaded the score (as a set of GIF images) to my Variations for String Quartet onto a BBS in 1987 which is probably the earliest music give away. I started distributing MIDI files of my pieces around this time. It was very interesting to upload a MIDI file or a graphic and then watch it get uploaded by a fan to another site. At about the same time I started embedding my music into synthesizer patch downloads. I first distributed my Acid Bach series as a component of a synthesizer patch library I created for the purpose of having a compelling download. That is, I designed the patch library so that people would want it and coincidentally listen to my music. This way they'd have a high quality musical experience akin to the MP3 playback today through the use of the same synthesizer.
In the early 90's I started using FTP sites to distribute Postscript files and MP2 and later MP3 files. The first IRCAM website actually distributed for a short time the MIDI file to my piano piece BlueStrider. In 1995, the LA Times, wrote an article saying that David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet had set up a website where he was engaging in guerrilla action to freely distribute contemporary music. I called them up and corrected them - it was me they were writing about and I was only distributing my music that way.
Since then, of course the whole music world is used to free downloads. My strategy has always been that I'd love to sell my music, but I'm more interested in getting new listeners than I am in making a few thousand dollars. I've told people that there is a greater risk that you'll miss 1000 listeners by selling your work than there is a chance of you making $1,000.00. As far as my scores go, I have a few pieces that are published, but I am not that interested in pursuing publishers especially with the risk that they might stymie the discovery of my music or even have them get locked up in limbo. I distribute my PDF files at several different locations and get hundreds of downloads of them a day.
This has still been a fairly risky proposition, but in no way as risky as being unpublished, unheard and ignored. I have to constantly run searches on Google to find performances. I only recently learned of a premiere in New Jersey of my big piano piece BlueStrider last October. I find that some of my MP3 files have lost their indicators of authorship. My quartertone electronic piece, Acid Bach is found all over the web, and is often found without my name. People believe because you give your music away that they can perform it without notifying you.
I keep my music copyrighted with reserved rights and non-derivative rights because I don't want my music to be used in commercials or in any commercial activities. I also sell my scores through Lulu.com and I accept donations. I believe it helps create a more professional appearance in that it suggests supporting the artist and slightly obviates the appearance of being a cultural anarchist.
When you look at the consequences of self-publishing the costs can be quite huge for a successful composer to give their pieces away. When I dropped out of college however, I effectively destroyed any hope of becoming a truly successful composer in America. Without the network of college affiliation, a composer is at a very serious disadvantage. In effect, my pricing is a discount into the advantage my competitors have, that is, I have to compete with well-networked, famous people, thus I have to discount my work in order to garner attention.
Regarding social networks, I was also the first composer to set up online communities in order to promote my new music in general and my work. I helped establish the newsgroup, rec.music.compose in 1991 and was the moderator for comp.music.research for its first 5 years. I established an online community for new music NetNewMusic in 1994, which was basically a links list with forums. I added news feeds and publishing in 2000 and it later became the hugely successful Ning group, NetNewMusic which I was forced to destroy because of trolling and harassment in 2010. I also set up the first websites for the American Music Center, and was webmaster of Sequenza21 between 2005-2009. I set up these networks and participated in them to draw attention to my music. My idea was that if you established yourself as an interesting or provocative person you could draw attention to your music. Today one can use Twitter or Facebook in the same manner.
In the end my philosophy is that my main problem is lack of exposure. I believe that if people knew my music that they'd like to play it. The biggest consequence now is something that everybody suffers from - the lack of both serious criticism and the lack of curation. I get performed between 20-60 times a year all over the world and composers much more famous than I get less performances and more exposure. The network which supports them either through academia or through affiliations with famous composers such as Philip Glass, etc. enable their careers to have a stronger referral and promotional network. It's very hard to generate a 'buzz' without being mentioned in magazines or NPR. I don't know what the answer is except more exposure.
I was lucky enough to get in on this early and make a certain reputation. I recently attended a workshop put on by the American Music Center where representatives from a well known orchestra gave a presentation about developing an online presence. They went on and on about having compelling graphics, about how to submit professional materials - it was all very ordinary and expected. Finally I raised my hands and asked them, "When was the last time your orchestra played a piece that was submitted by email or that you discovered through their website or through social networks?" They looked surprised and honestly confessed, "We have never played a piece that was submitted by email or that we discovered from a composer's website."”
Find out more about Jeff’s music here: http://www.parnasse.com/jh/blog/
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