Friday, April 4, 2014

Discouraging and disappointing

I prepare concert program notes for classical choral ensembles. I invest a great deal of time, thought, and care in researching and preparing good notes that will enlighten, entertain, and engage members of a concert audience.

I’ve given up trying to generate any revenue through my program notes; most choral ensembles simply do not have money to engage a professional annotator. As part of my volunteer service to ensembles in which I sing, I often provide program notes gratis to those ensembles. Occasionally my notes will garner notice, and I receive an inquiry from a prospective client someone who also wants them for free.

A few months back, I received an inquiry from the Artistic Director of an amateur choral ensemble who had been in the audience for a performance by one of the groups in which I sing, a concert for which I had prepared the program notes. What should have been a pleasant opportunity to support a fellow artist turned into a discouraging and disappointing situation.

Here is the actual correspondence between that Artistic Director (AD) and me (Q), edited to remove identifying information.

Can you see why I come away from this experience discouraged, disappointed, and feeling slightly used?

AD: I very much enjoyed your program notes [for a major, multi-movement choral work], and wondered if you might be willing to share them with us. We would be glad to give you a free half-page ad in our program book… Unfortunately we would not be able to pay a fee for the notes beyond this ad, but we believe the ad would reach a large audience of supporters and music enthusiasts. We would be pleased to advocate your work to them. I appreciate your consideration of this, and look forward to hearing from you.

[I checked the ensemble’s website, and learned that they sell the half-page ads for $100. I am reluctant to provide my work gratis to ensembles of which I am not a member, but my altruism got the better of me.]

Q: Thanks very much for your inquiry, and for your kind words about my program notes. I truly appreciate your asking permission to use the notes, and I am willing to share them. Would you be willing to offer an inside cover (value $450) or at least a full-page ad (value $250), rather than the half-page (value $100)? I understand that ensembles, including yours, do not have funds to pay for program notes, but it's hard for me to accept only $100 for an essay that took me about 30 hours to research and write, even if I am not doing it "from scratch" for your ensemble. When I am working with paying clients, my minimum fee is $250, even for re-using notes. I hope this is acceptable.

AD: Thank you for your willingness to share your notes. I appreciate the many hours that went into them! We are glad offer a full-page ad …. There are a few shorter works prior to the [major work] on our program, and we will have separate notes for these. Because of spacing, we may need to condense the length of your notes. If so, we would work to retain the flavor of the whole. Please let me know if this is acceptable to you.

[No, it is not!]

Q: A regular page ad will be just fine! I'll send the file for the program notes in a separate message. … FYI, my policy is that if the program essay needs to be adjusted to meet program or contractual requirements, then I will make any needed changes. Thanks!

Q: Hi again, I've attached the [file for the program note at performance that you attended, that you asked to re-use]. About 2700 words... You will see that the introductory paragraphs are highlighted in red; if you are short on your space, you may remove this entire section (with the illustrations) without affecting the rest of the essay. Please note that if you do remove this section, you will need to substitute one sentence in the penultimate section; there is an instruction included at the end of the essay. If you need further cuts for space, please contact me. I hope you understand why I need to retain control of my intellectual property. I hope you enjoy the essay, and I wish you all joy with your project.

[hoping that is the end of it!]

AD: Thanks very much for sending [this]. Since [we are performing a different version of the work than the one for which you wrote the essay], we will need to adjust the ending of the second to last paragraph… [Note: My original note was specifically for the composer’s own piano reduction and included 2-3 paragraphs specifically about the genesis of the reduction. The AD never mentioned that her ensemble was performing the orchestral version of the work.] Perhaps it can be put this way: [suggested text from AD]. And we would like the notes to end with [text passage A taken from earlier in the essay] instead of [text passage B that comes at the end of the essay]. I look forward to hearing from you.


Q: Hello, I should have asked about your accompaniment. When you inquired about using the notes I prepared for the performance you attended, I assumed that it was for the same version. I am out of town for a few days but will get these changes to you by the end of the week. Thanks for your patience.

AD: Our program coordinator has asked for everything by [date two days hence]. If you can send it before then, that would be a great help. If not, I'll send what I have and let them know that changes are coming. Program space is tight… I'll keep you posted if we need to ask that they be shortened further (hopefully not the case).


Q: Here is the revised short file, for your program book. I'm not clear on your reference to the notes ending with [text passage A taken from earlier in the essay]. Do you wish to remove all the material that follows? [The AD’s suggestion/request was to remove the second half of the essay, about 1100 words of 2700, text that explained each of the work’s seven movements!]

AD: Thank you again for all that you sent to us. I have heard from our program coordinator; due to the space available, she has asked that the final version of the notes be 3 pages (4.5 x 7.5 in.). Of course our singers will enjoy reading the whole, but it does mean some condensing of even the "shorter version," for our audience. What I suggest is that we focus on condensing the part leading up to the notes on each movement. Our program coordinator would like to have this in hand [within the week.]

Q: Can your program editor provide a word count? The dimensions really don't help me because I don't know what font/point, etc., are in operation, and I don't think it's efficient for me to try to replicate the editor's formatting. What she can do is insert my existing note, and then identify by how many words it exceeds the allotted space. I'm afraid I simply do not have time to re-write the narrative for each movement, which is what the editor has suggested; it is not as simple as it sounds; one cannot simply remove words without making adjustments, and it can be very time-consuming. Once I know the actual word count requirement, I will select some paragraphs or sections to cut. I'm sorry that I did not clarify space requirements at the outset.

AD: Each page is about 425 words - so if the total length is 1200-1250 words, that is more workable. I'm sorry if my previous message was misleading; she is not proposing a shortened narrative for each movement, rather that we remove those 7 narratives altogether, apart from the texts/translations which we will print as a block. So the notes themselves - that is, all the material separate from the 7 movement narratives, and the text/translations - should be 1200-1250 words.

[melts down entirely]

Q: Here is the truncated program essay; it's 1025 words. Please send me two copies of the printed program…I hope your concert is a great success.


Condensed version:

AD: I love your program essay! Can I use it? I can’t pay you, even though I recognize that you invested a huge amount of time and effort to produce this work. But I’ll give you a program ad worth about 10% of the value of your work!
Q: Well… OK, in order to Support Musical Arts in Our Community™, I’ll let you use the essay in exchange for a program ad. But could you at least give me a bigger program ad, one that’s worth about 25% of the value of my work?
AD: OK! Yes, you invest a lot in these notes. By the way, we might need to shorten your essay, but we’ll “work to retain the flavor of the whole.”
Q: No, if any changes are to be made I’ll make them. I’ll send the file.
Q: Here is the file for the program essay you read and liked and asked to use. It is about 2700 words.
AD: Oh, by the way, we are not performing the same version that you wrote about, so we want to revise your work. And oh by the way, we want to end the program essay at Point M [halfway through] instead of Point Z [the end].
Q. Silly me for assuming that when you asked to use this essay, it was for a performance of the same version. I’ll make the change.
AD: Oh BTW, we are in a hurry. And we might need to shorten it more.
Q: Here’s the revised file. I don’t understand your reference to ending the program essay at Point M instead of Point Z.
AD: Our program editor says the note has to fit into 3 pages (4.5 x 7.5 in.). I suggest we focus on the part of the essay from A-L.
Q: Word count, please! Dimensions are meaningless.
AD: [provides word count] – Oh, sorry I wasn’t clear on M vs. Z - I want to remove the second half of your program essay, the half that actually describes the music and the texts and how it all comes together. In other words, I want to discard the core of your program note. We want about 1200-1250 words, though my original inquiry was to use your 2700-word essay.
Q: [WTF?!] … Fine, I’ve cut out the heart and soul of this essay – here it is. Have a nice concert.


Discouraged, disappointed, and feeling slightly used.

Contrast it with this situation – somewhat similar circumstances, but what a different feeling!

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