CGDB 018: Strategic Partners

Dennis talks about the value of strategic partnerships, and the importance of evaluating them honestly.

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This is Part Two in my “Think Like a Small Business Owner” series, and today I’d like to talk about strategic partnerships, and why they’re important for your business.

Every business somehow partners with other businesses in order to achieve their ends. Sometimes those other businesses are vendors who provide inventory or raw materials. For example, a distributor that provides books and magazines for a bookstore; or a lumber yard that provides lumber for a construction company.

Sometimes those other businesses are subcontractors – businesses that take on a part of your chain of responsibilities in order to streamline your process: Companies that provide dry cleaning services for local laundromats or for hotels that don’t have on-site dry cleaning facilities; or businesses that provide document processing services for insurance companies.

Sometimes those businesses provide services that you need for your company to survive, but that you can’t provide for yourself: Like marketing firms, payroll services, and utility companies.

In some of these instances, it’s important to have good working relationships with your partners; in others, it’s merely important that you pay your invoice on time.

Across the board, though, these types of business partners have to effectively serve your needs. If they don’t, then you have a problem. If they can’t deliver inventory on time, or what they deliver is of poor quality, you probably need to have a little talk with them, or start looking for a new company to work with.

As a composer, you have these types of partners, and more: You have vendors where you get your staff paper, your computer, your printer, your instrument samples, your notation software. You don’t necessarily have to feel warmly about them, but you evaluate their services in relation to your business.

But sometimes you do have a relationship. For example, my husband has a rep at one of the big pro audio companies, so any time he’s in the market to buy something, he gives his guy a call, and says, “Hey, I’m looking for something like this, what do you have for me?” And because he’s worked with this guy for so many years, he’s more likely to get a better deal there than he would anywhere else. He keeps coming back, so the rep is happy, and the rep keeps giving him good deals, so he’s happy – it’s a positive business relationship with genuine good feeling on both sides.

You also probably have subcontractors in some form: a company that prints your scores and parts, you might have an assistant or a virtual assistant who handles some of your grunt work or research; at a certain level, or for certain projects, you might hire an engraver or a proofreader to make sure that your materials are of the highest quality.

You may have other partners to help with things that you can’t do yourself: maybe you have a manager or a publicist; if you work in commercial music, you might hire a service to track the airtime that your work gets so that your royalties are calculated and paid properly.

But you also have types of partners that are fairly unique to the arts:

At the top of that list are your artistic collaborators: Librettists, lyricists, poets, and other writers you might work with; choreographers; filmmakers; directors; puppeteers; anyone you might create a work of art with is a business partner. You both stand to gain from the project that you’re working on together, and there’s likely some agreement between you about the division of royalties, at least there should be!

If you approach the project as business- as well as artistic- partners, you can approach it as, “This is an asset that we’ve created and can exploit together.”

We can exploit this work to generate income

We can exploit this work to generate interest in our other work: my work independent of you, your work independent of me, and possibly other work that we have created together

We can exploit this work to generate interest in commissioning new work from us

And, with the right type of work, we can exploit this work to advance our mission. For example, I worked with a poet on a piece about LGBT suicide, so we can exploit that work to advance our joint cause of trying to raise awareness of and help to prevent LGBT suicide.

Other types of partners that you’ll have throughout your career will walk a hazy line between business partner and client.

Commissioners, for example: To a certain degree, insofar as commissioners give you money and you give them music, a commissioner is a client.

But you’d be incredibly short-sighted to see the relationship as merely transactional. You’d be missing out on a huge opportunity for growth, and for fulfillment, and for the possibility for a long and fruitful relationship.

Being a smart businessperson, you recognize that just meeting the terms of your agreement isn’t even a baseline for the experience – it’s just what you need to do to not be in breach of contract; and you recognize that because you’re a primary participant in this collaboration, and because you’re partnering with this ensemble or organization, you’re now a part of their community. And as a smart businessperson, you recognize the value and the power of community, and that part of your job in this partnership is to integrate with that community and to help to reinforce its ties to the ensemble or the organization

They have decided that you fit with their mission, so you’re smart to work with that. Maybe that just means working out a thing with the commissioner where once a month or so you post a short update to their Facebook page saying that you just finished the second movement of the piece, and this is what it’s about, and you can’t wait to hear the piece performed this Fall, y’know, whatever. We’ve already talked about DVD Extras, and I could go on a huge tangent on this, but I won’t.

The whole idea here, though, is that a commissioner isn’t just a client – they’re a strategic partner.
You’ve chosen to work with one another for a reason. They have their reasons for working with you, and you have your reasons for working with them. And you both know that all fruitful, healthy partnerships are mutually beneficial.

Sometimes…you have a bad partner. Sometimes you have to say, “Ok, I’m going to meet the terms of the contract, and then we’ll all just move on.”

Sometimes you have to say, “Y’know, I don’t think this is working,” and then figure out least painful way for everyone to extricate themselves. It happens. It’s legit. It’s unfortunate, but it’s legit.

But when you have a good partner, you want them to be happy. You want their community to be happy, because some of them may choose to follow you in what you do, and because it makes that partner even happier.

Now you have greater incentive to work together again, maybe in the form of more performances, maybe in the form of another commission. And you’re front of mind for them when it comes to recommending a composer for other ensembles and organizations to work with.

All of this is also true for performers: Insofar as they’ve purchased a copy or copies of your music, they’re a client.

But they’ve chosen to interact with your music, and are presenting it on their platform. So even though you’re maybe not directly involved in the performance, it can still be a sort of fruitful partnership, because wherever it’s reasonable, it’s in the mutual best interest of you and the performer to make sure that the performance is as good as possible, and as well-attended as possible. You can basically take almost everything I said about commissioners and adapt it… slightly… to fit performers.

Now, I mentioned in the last episode that traditionally published composers are small business owners, and run their own publishing companies as well, even though they don’t actually publish their own works. So I’ll wrap up today’s episode with that explanation, and how it ties into the idea of strategic partnerships. (I’m guessing that a lightbulb just went on for some of you)

So composers who publish their own works have to make the decision whether or not to partner with different types of companies to help to get their music out into the world: printing companies, distributors, things like that. They’ve decided that self-publishing is the path that they’re going to take, for any number of reasons, including, “I’ll do it this way until a traditional publisher picks up some of my music.”

And they also have to decide whether or not to keep various tasks in-house, like printing and binding their music, ether doing it themselves, hiring an assistant, or outsourcing to another company. It’s the same with engraving and any number of other tasks, and boils down to the question, “Is my business better served by spending time and saving money or by spending money and saving time?” Because sometimes you’re better off doing one, and sometimes you’re better off doing the other.

Composers who are represented by traditional publishers, on the other hand, have decided to partner with a publishing company. The decision may have been based on the prestige of the publisher, or not having enough time to handle everything themselves because of an academic teaching position or a particularly successful career or whatever.

Regardless of the reasons, this is a business partnership between the composer and the publisher.

But that’s almost never how we view it, and it’s where problems and resentments arise.

The common view, especially with composers whose music isn’t traditionally published but want it to be, is that “My publisher will take care of me. They’ll handle everything.” The relationship isn’t seen as a partnership where both sides benefit equally, but rather as, like …. Mommy. “Don’t you worry: Mommy will take care of it.”

And that’s not realistic. Boosey & Hawkes is not your Mommy. G Schirmer is not your Mommy. You don’t sign a contract with Mommy; you sign a contract with a business partner.

I tend to tell this story with some regularity:

A friend of mine wrote a piano trio back in the 70s, and it was picked up by one of the major publishers. He signed the contract, which promised him virtually nothing, got a whole dollar out of the deal, and waited for the royalties to come in. The publisher, because it wasn’t contractually required to never made parts for the piece. Consequently, the only way to perform the piece is to buy three copies of the score, which is just a bound photocopy of my friend’s manuscript.

Those bound photocopies cost $108 apiece. They’re not offered as a set – they have to be purchased individually.

Wouldn’t you know it, in the 41 years that the piece has been in this publisher’s catalog, not a single copy has ever been sold. Not one.

My friend, who was admittedly young and inexperienced at the time, expected the publisher to just take care of him. But it didn’t.

So what am I driving at here?

First, this is a business, and you have have to treat it that way. You’re signing a contract with a corporation.

Second, let’s talk about how you’re a business – as a traditionally published composer, you’re a small business that creates music, then sells it to another company for a share of the profits. You are the supplier for the traditional publishing company.

If I were traditionally published, I would still maintain the idea that I lead a bifurcated existence with Dennis Tobenski the composer and Tobenski Music Press the publisher. Dennis the composer writes a piece, then hands it off to his personal publishing company, Tobenski Music Press, who makes a fair copy, then sells the rights to that piece to a third party – the traditional publisher – in exchange for a share of the profits.

And I think that that’s a really healthy way of approaching the situation. Rather than being the suppliant composer going to publishers saying will you publish my music, instead, you’re represented by this intermediary business entity, saying “We have these works – these assets – that would fit like so into your existing catalog, and we think that we would both benefit by working together.”

Placing that business as a buffer between you and the outside publisher can help to put you in a certain headspace for actually negotiating the terms of the agreement;

But having this mindset also helps to ensure that you do your homework on publishers, and choose to work with companies that will actually take advantage of the assets that you’re selling them, instead of letting them sink into obscurity like happened to my friend. And it helps you to choose a publisher that’s a good fit for the kind of work you do, and not just a company with name recognition.

You’re not looking for just any old company to take your copyrights – you’re looking for a partner who will be effective, who can meet your expectations, and with whom you can build a long, happy relationship.

So that’s it for today.

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As always, thank you for listening – I always appreciate your time. And I’ll talk to you next time.