CGDB 017: Think Like a Business Owner

Dennis talks about approaching your music like a business in the beginning of a short series on “Thinking Like a Business Owner”

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Dean Wesley Smith: Think Like a Publisher


Today I’m starting a little series of episodes about approaching your music as a small business. Because every artist, whether they’re aware of it or not, is a small business owner:

  • Every self-published composer is a small business owner
  • Every traditionally published composer is a small business owner
  • Every performer is a small business owner

Now, a “business” is just an entity that provides goods or services to consumers:

  • Performers provide the service of performing music
  • Composers, regardless of how they’re published, provide the service of writing music
  • And composers, again I’m going to say regardless of how they’re published, provide goods in the form of scores and parts

Now it may seem a little weird to say that traditionally published composers provide scores as goods, because their publishers are the ones that actually do that, but we’re going to talk about this in greater depth in the next episode, so bear with me for now, and let’s just say that each type of composer – self-published OR traditionally published – has started a publishing company, though each company works in different ways.

And just to wrap up some more basic ideas here:

You don’t have to turn a profit to run a small business

And you don’t even have to have financial profit as a goal to run a small business

But, as someone who provides goods and services, and who wants to secure more commissions and performances, it’s important to recognize that you are, in fact running a small business, and that you’ll have better, more reliable, and more easily measurable results if you approach publishing your music like the business that it is; and it’s largely up to you to figure out what, exactly, that means for you.

So let me tell you a little bit about what that means for me and my business:

First off, I consider myself to be in business BOTH as a composer AND as a publisher – I think of those as separate entities, separate roles (which, again, I’ll talk about in greater depth later in this series of episodes) But it’s how I choose to organize my musical life – as a bifurcated existence.

For my taxes, it’s all part and parcel – it’s all Tobenski Music Press – but when I think about myself as a self-published composer, I like to keep the roles of composer and publisher separate.

As a business owner, I have to consider which projects are right for me, and which ones aren’t; or which projects could be right for me with a little massaging.

If I’m being offered a low-paying commission, I have to ask myself:

As a composer, am I interested in the project? Is this something that I actually want to write?

And as a publisher, Am I comfortable accepting the low fee for the amount of work I’m going to have to do? Are there other, less immediately tangible, benefits to taking this on? Are there ways that we can add to the arrangement that makes the project more mutually beneficial? Is this a piece that I think could have legs after the premiere? Can I market it to other performers or ensembles? Can I find income from some other source to offset what I’ll potentially lose by accepting the commission?

If I’m being offered a high-paying gig for work that doesn’t necessarily excite me:

As a composer, again, am I interested in the project? Is this something that I can imagine myself writing? Is it something I’m willing to have my name on?

And as a publisher, Am I comfortable accepting the project knowing that it’s going to tie me up, and prevent me from taking other, more meaningful work for a certain period of time? Are there additional benefits to doing this? What are the long-term implications: will I be embarrassed to have done this work in 10 years, or will there continue to be some positive benefit? Will taking this on now allow me to accept other projects later that don’t pay well, but that I’m more artistically interested in?

As a business owner, I also have to take responsibility for making choices about my work and my business:

  • How do I choose to market my work?
  • How do I choose to deal with the finances of my business?
  • Which artists and other businesses do I choose to partner with, and in which ways?
  • Which tools are most effective and cost-effective for my business?

    • Is there a free resource or is there open source software that will allow me to do what I need?
    • When evaluating tools and resources, is the free option really worthwhile? If it is, great! If not, can I start with the free option now, and upgrade later to something better that’s paid with a minimum of fuss? Or am I better off in the long run if I fork over the cash, and do things the right way NOW?
  • Which tasks do I need to do myself, and which can I outsource to someone else?

    • Should I spend the time and effort on learning a new skill and doing something myself, or should I hire someone who can do it better and faster?
    • Can I afford to outsource anything?
    • Can I afford NOT to outsource some things?
  • How do I choose to spend my time?

    • Are my composing tasks and publishing tasks in balance?

      • If I’m spending all of my time on marketing, I’m not writing enough, and consequently I’m not adding assets to the company.
      • If I’m spending all of my time composing, then I’m not out advocating for my work, and consequently possibly losing out on opportunities for performances or commissions

These are by no means all areas that I have to take responsibility for, but you can see that each choice requires thought and planning. I have to…Know My Why.

I think that one of the roadblocks we have with some of this is a skewed vision of what it is to be a business owner. When we hear “Think like a business owner,” I suspect that some of us think of Trump-style 1980s movie villains. CEOs and their golden parachutes. Big box stores driving out local businesses.

The thing is, we ARE the local businesses.

And like the best local businesses, we can work together. Think about being a restaurant owner in the suburbs:

You’re the only restaurant in your area. People who live or work near you come to your place because it’s good and it’s convenient.

Now, a new restaurant moves in across the street. It’s different cuisine, but your customers go there, too, now.

You could be upset about it, and think about it in terms of lost revenue, or you can be healthy about it and realize that people want variety.

You can maybe even find ways to work together, and promote one another’s businesses. Customers who spend so much at your restaurant get a free dessert with the purchase of their next entree across the street, and vice versa.

Now, imagine that a handful of new restaurants move in.

Again, you can be short-sighted about it, and only see competition.

Or, you can realize that, now, your part of town is where people go to eat. If you’re a good restaurant, business is probably better because there are seven other restaurants visible from your parking lot, and people going to those other restaurants see yours every time they drive by, and may decide to put yours into their rotation of places to go when they’re in the mood for your cuisine.

This is a form of what’s called co-opetition. The restaurants here are all in direct competition with one another, but it behooves them as a whole to work together cooperatively. It generates more opportunities, and definitely revenue, for the companies; and it means more choices and better quality for their customers.

It’s very similar for composers and performers.

By approaching our work as a business, and then working together, we can improve the quantity and quality of opportunities for ourselves, while at the same time giving our audiences more of what they want: good music from good composers.

The main thing about thinking of yourself as a small business owner is that, like I mentioned earlier, it makes you take responsibility for the choices you make for your music.

If, as a composer, you want to get more commissions and performances, – to be honest – it’s entirely on you to make that happen, and approaching it as a business is the most effective way to get there.

Again, financial profit doesn’t have to be one of your goals. You can say, “I don’t care about the money right now, I just want to get more performances.” Your strategies are going to be the same, and your tactics will be very similar.

Next time, we’ll talk about strategic partnerships for your business, including how a traditionally published composer is still a small business person with a specialized type of publishing business.

Today, though, I want to leave you with a quote from Dean Wesley Smith’s book Think Like a Publisher.


Think Like a Publisher

by Dean Wesley Smith:


[T]he key on almost everything these days is that you, the author, are starting a publishing company.


An indie publisher is still a publisher, the same as any traditional publisher.


Kill the term self-publishing from your vocabulary and start thinking of yourself as a business person with a business to run. A publishing business.