It’s an east-west divide that has been known to ignite white-hot debate in various areas of the arts business: creativity versus profitability; high-art versus commercial success.
Yet, along the fault line, parades a proud (though admittedly sparse) procession of individuals who blatantly refuse to swear allegiance to either side, who instead choose to cultivate richly diverse careers, playing to multiple strengths and enjoying consummate and beautiful creative existences.
Notes On The Road sat down last week with Sean Hickey, a prominent composer and National Sales & Business Development Manager with Naxos of America, to speak on his accomplishments in both art and the business of art, to share his passion for the record industry, and to impart a crucial piece of advice to prospective recording artists of the twenty-first century.
First of all, we know that your career spans so many different areas - you’re such a respected figure in the classical record business - but can you catch us up quickly on what you have been up to in terms of your composing career?
Sure. Well, 2010 promises to be a big year for me musically. I have a premiere at the Cabrillo Festival in California. Marin Alsop, one of the most exciting conductors today, in my opinion, is conducting, and that’s on August 14 and the work is called Dalliance. Last summer I recorded my cello concerto in Russia, with cellist Dmitry Kouzov and conductor Vladimir Lande, and I believe I will be returning to St. Petersburg this summer, we’re working out some details but the St. Petersburg Philharmonic will be performing my clarinet concerto with the fantastic clarinetist, Anthony McGill. Pianist Philip Edward Fisher will be performing my work, Cursive, at Bargemusic, later this season as well as at London’s Steinway Hall, and I’ve also been commissioned by the North-South Consonance Ensemble to write a piece for ten instruments, and that will have its premiere in New York during the next season. Also in another year or so I hope to record an orchestral disc.
Take us back to the beginning of your career for a second. How did you become interested in composition?
My parents aren’t musicians or anything, but we listened to a lot of different types of music, and I have always been a big music fan. One summer when I was 12, my mom told me that I wasn’t going to be allowed to just sit around and watch TV. It was between karate…or learning to play the electric guitar…I chose the latter, and all I remember was walking out of a store and just being in love with the instrument. It sounds passé, but at that moment, I knew I was going to be in music for the rest of my life.
What musical influences shaped your early work?
Like any kid who grows up studying guitar, I connected quickly with music that I could play, I played by ear a lot. Later in my teen years, I really got into more progressive rock, stuff like Frank Zappa, King Crimson, …I really got into punk rock, postpunk and experimental stuff. I had a teacher in high school who turned me on to Cage and Stockhausen and Laurie Anderson…that teacher changed my life.
When I was I think 16, my parents and I took a trip to Chicago to hear the CSO. We heard Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, we sat right in front, half the stage was empty, it was a very stripped down instrumentation, and…I remember being completely blown away that anyone could write music like that! From that point, I got into the literature, but I got into more of the avant-garde and experimental. I learned to love the classics of the classical from just exploration. Had I grown up on the piano as opposed to the guitar, I am sure I may have loved very different parts of the repertoire, but I had a somewhat different point of entry into classical music.
What advice would you give to young composers who are trying to find their voices?
First and foremost, listen. Don’t deny ANY influence you hear, see or feel. Everything is important in the creative sense: your relationships, your loves, heartbreaks, geography, family - and all the music you hear, popular or otherwise. I would advise composers to absorb it all - and try to make something of it. The more open a composer is, the faster they can find their unique voice and the more they can grow.
One thing Notes greatly admires about you as a businessman in addition to being a fine composer and artist, is your ability to promote both yourself and other performers -- aggressively but with class and integrity. What do you feel makes for great self-promotion?
I mean, look, let’s be honest. Everyday, we are all selling ourselves. It doesn’t matter who you are or what field you’re in. We all sell ourselves on or to someone, whether it be a prospective client, lover, mate, employer, institution of higher learning. There is nothing wrong or shameful about selling yourself. It’s vital and necessary.
I think it’s really important for any artist to mind the business side of one’s life, especially composers. And there is no reason to be afraid of being passionate about it. You can attack your life as a composer with the same vivaciousness as you attack your ambitions as an individual. Just be honest. Be honest with yourself, and if you can do that, you will always be able to be honest to those whom you are trying to reach.
What would you say to younger musicians, particularly those who may feel reluctant when it comes to promoting themselves?
Musicians come out of conservatories every year, and it’s great that they can play Paganini…but can they SELL themselves playing Paganini? That’s another matter altogether, though no less important. I have learned from being an salesman and a composer - I look at it with the very same passion. The people who are in either one or the other camps, as an artist or as an administrator, sometimes don’t understand the sensitivity of what the other sides needs and wants.
With a personal and humble approach, artists need to be able to talk about themselves. Writing an effective biography for oneself, as an example, is an enormous challenge for some. You need to learn the skill of sitting down with a blank piece of paper…composers do it with music and they must learn to do it in prose…and just say: “This is who I am. These are my strengths, this is what makes me different from everyone else. This is why I think I‘m great…and these are my accomplishments.” Really build it up. And of course in a composer’s case, the best calling card is his or her own music.
In bringing your love of music to your work in business, what would you say inspires you most about your work with Naxos?
Honestly, the most rewarding part is perhaps not that sexy…I like success. I feel incredibly proud knowing that I - or we rather, Naxos as a company - is part of the inception of a project which comes to life and does extremely well. Seeing the entire process unfold is really just…amazing to watch. One of the projects which is particularly close to my heart is the Detroit Symphony recording for Naxos after a period of some ten years without a new recording. - I worked there as an intern, did fundraising through part of college. It was a dreadful job, but it was one of my first experiences in the business of classical music. To know that they now record for Naxos, that they’re doing really cool repertoire - to know that I was a part of that is extremely gratifying. And the recordings have just been excellent and extremely well-received.
I personally get probably a dozen proposals a month from musicians, composers, artists, some of the biggest names in the world, all of whom want to record for Naxos or the labels we distribute. It’s exciting to watch those make it all the way through the process, knowing that I’ll be selling the finished project.
When an artist submits a proposal to Naxos for a potential recording project, and supposing it lands on your desk, what do you look for? What catches your attention?
Well…first I should qualify that, in terms of artists and repertoire, I do not hold the final say on anything that we do as a company worldwide…but I do hold some “sway.” Anything that comes to me, I send to our committee of people and they would make a final determination. At that point, I’m not really involved - unless it’s music that comes from out of this country and deals with American repertoire. At that point I gather feedback from my American colleagues. Samuel Barber for example might mean more to Americans than it does to Germans, say.
In terms of what I look for in a proposal, I look for clear, concise ideas - a proposed track listing, proposed timing of the disc - sixty or more minutes - providing Naxos as a company worldwide physical and digital distribution rights. Repertoire, things that haven’t been recorded, is of great interest to Naxos as a label.
Also, a good proposal has to give me the WHY, a composer or artist’s view on why the record needs to be made available for distribution. It can be completely naïve and genuine, “Because I think my music is really good and people want to hear it.” That’s fine, it should just come from the heart - because we can tell that, and we are more compelled to listen to the music of a composer who can be candid and honest about his or her strengths.
And the last part is the HOW. I will not refuse anyone’s help or assistance in selling or marketing or promoting their work. No one, never ever. Particularly from a composer. I don’t believe in a top-down approach to sales and marketing, rather one that involves a larger group of people at a more granular level.
Who would represent my music better than me? No one.
It’s the same thing for us at Naxos on every level. There is no one who will do a better job of their work than the creator. We ask for help from the artists in promotion, on Facebook, Twitter, Instant Encore and spreading the word through the social networks, publishers, family, well-to-do Aunt Shirley - all possible outlets. That can mean the difference between having a successful record and not.
In the end, as my boss has said, we are a blue-collar company in a white-collar world, and it’s all about how do we convert the skeptic consumer into a buyer, into a believer. Conversion is the difference between having a disc released under the radar, where it comes and goes without notice, and having a really successful record. And it doesn’t take that much to feel successful in the world of classical music recordings- but it must be a true collective and communal effort backed by every single person involved.