Composing is one thing, but file and rights management…

2011 June 12
by Joonas Mäkinen

Finland had parliamentary elections that left many with very mixed feelings. It’s been almost two months now and we still haven’t formed a new government. Despite the tiresome political setting, especially the active members of the Finnish Pirate Party did some awesome work and managed to show that there are other “real” parties than just the old usual ones.

But it sure was tough. Working long hours, days and weeks completely unpaid and without rest gets extremely tiring. I was not the only one to suffer from a burnout. Thankfully, I trust in my capabilities to channel stress into creative working and while waiting for my brains to finish a few books on mathematics, romantic scifi and WikiLeaks, I’ve been succesfully writing some pieces of music recently. Here’s one such a case I want to discuss.

I am very much a beginner producer and thus very open to trying out different ways to promote and distribute my works. If you’re interested in knowing what a zero-budget amateur composer has to go through, here’s a quick lookup on the process of composing a piece and what follows after.


I promise to write more thoroughly about the process and philosophy of composing music later, but to put it short for those interested: it’s not that hard. Some works take years, a lot of people and a lot of money to finish – some hit songs are written in a moment’s craze on a brown potato sack. (The latter here being the rock and roll standard Blue Suede Shoes, written by Carl Perkins.)

It should come as no surprise that all pieces are made different. The process might start with an idea about lyrics, harmony, melody or a catchy rhythm and the rest of the music is composed around it to create a somehow systematic whole that can be understood by the listener, unless of course we talk about the people whose musical understanding is way beyond the average musician or listener. Composing a piece is big cut & paste job. You combine musical motifs and try to make it sounds good. Or maybe convey a story, emotion or just try some composing technique without really caring if anyone likes what the result sounds like.

Among other things, the enormous amount of analogue and digital instruments that we can build our soundscape from ensures we don’t run out of different combinations to try out. The difficulty of composing arises more from the problem of extreme abundance as there are infinite amount of combinations of melodies and rhythms, let alone harmony and dynamics. To be a composer means bravely going through different sound builds, experimenting with the order of individual sounds and just plain listening to what sounds good. To be able to write music of several genres testifies the skill to swim in that vast ocean of musical information and put together something that somehow is familiar and makes sense but nevertheless is unique.

But more about that later. Here’s a case example:

Impromptu of Stress (demo) by JoonasD6

That was Impromptu of Stress which I composed in my tired election depression. It ain’t finished yet, but that is a demo recording not that far off from the final one. There is some polishing still to do on the score and I’d prefer the “final” recording to be a live analogue recording, not with a digital piano that uses samples. Composing the work itself is about finished but writing down one of its manifestations, the score, is not. You can grab the draft score here.

Also, I need to practise it more. Performing is another step in completing the work and then there are the issues of ditributing and maybe even making money from art one day. I could outsource all previously mentioned and just concentrate on composing, but I’m not famous and I have no sponsors, so that’s not really an option if I want to make my stuff available to others. I’m not even sure if I’d want it to be mainly others performing my pieces, so I’ll keep working on that area as well.

As for the composing phase, Impromptu of Stress became to be quite in the usual way. It was not some sort of study of new composition methods nor was it made to be very progressive or modern. In fact, it was driven by very old-fashioned schemes: impressionism, expressionism and conveying emotions through music. Obviously I was not bound by these isms, but based on the theory and history of music I have studied so far, that is one way of categorising and thus understanding better what I have created or was about to create.

I am primarily a pianist, so it is normal for me to sometimes just jam with it. And that’s how you run into new ideas: by bravely testing everything that comes to your mind and enjoying what you are doing. In this case it started with the motif of F minor 7th chords descending a half step lower and back. This motion, which made me feel very calm, repeats in the beginning and in the end of the piece. Compared to some older works of mine, I seem to have a light habit of minimalism – I change passages slowly and only slightly. Nevertheless, the music advances and, combined with several other experimental “Oh, this sounds nice!” sequences, the piece finds its form. It could’ve ended up being very different, but I could have still liked it. There really is no grand plan which a composer has to follow. The structure and feeling of the piece can change very drastically along the way.

When I said that it wasn’t finished yet, I was referring to possible minor upcoming changes. There are some places where I am very stuck to some hundreds of years old musical traditions of harmony and I need to consult some people for that. (Breaking tradition is generally healthy, but all those Bachs, Mozarts, Beethovens and Chopins just went along – using the common tricks just make things sound good.) A chord or two might change a bit, maybe in such a small way that the listener won’t even notice it. I’m also adding slurs and perhaps some dynamics markings to the score so that other potential performers can grasp it better. This has almost no effect to my own performance, because the idea of the work is in my head.

Recording & performing

Choosing instrumentation can be tough. I’m not good at incorporating electronic sounds nor do I have a big orchestra or a recording studio at my disposal, so my options are very limited when it comes to performing or recording my own pieces. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the performing resources available actually drive the composing process quite a lot. If I had a steady band, I’d do stuff for them. If I was hired by a film studio to compose music to a multimillion dollar blockbuster, I probably wouldn’t be writing piano music or songs.

But that’s all I have now – me and my piano. For the recording above I did a few takes on my Yamaha CP-33 stage piano and recorded it all directly to my Olympus LS-10 linear PCM recorder without any microphones involved. Good sound quality and minimal noise are valuable things for indie production. I moved the 96 kHz 24-bit stereo wavefiles onto my MacBook Pro, did some more cut & paste work and put it all together in Audacity. Ideally, I want to practise the piece so well that I can record it in one take with a grand piano in good acoustic surroundings, but this will do just fine for now. The demo quality is more than enough, also taking into account that it hasn’t cost me a thing yet. :)

I know I still need to work on rehearsing, but I’d be extremely grateful if you could give comments about the recording. Feedback is much appreciated.

File management, hosting & distribution

The final outcome of this all is an OGG file that you can listen to with the player embedded above. (MP3 is so 90s.) When I have a better recording done, I should also provide people with the best quality FLAC files or similar for all those audiophiles. I don’t see a reason why I should refrain from providing the audience the best quality service possible. Selling and streaming only low-quality MP3s is one of the dire mistakes I see online stores and record companies doing all the time: when the customers who want the best service can not get it from the official distributor, they get it from somewhere else – such as cd rips on The Pirate Bay. This sort of customer behaviour would result in me not having good statistics about what’s going on. Partly that is inevitable, but it is of every creator’s interest to be themselves the best service provider.

Individual files don’t really get the love they deserve these days. They’re just copies and the container of the actual work doesn’t really matter, right? I don’t think so. Think about – *gasp* – CDs and their covers. Ugly ones sell less. If there are lyrics in a booklet, many listeners will be pleased. Information about the people involved in making the album and a link to your website helps fans find more stuff they could like.

All the metadata that can be integrated to the files has a great potential: spending time to input author data, licensing info and perhaps a link to this very website will help people find the piece faster and contact with me for future “clienthood”.

I can easily put more information in a freely downloadable OGG file that you can for example see in Spotify tracks. Usually those services only show info about the track title, performer and album, only sometimes (common in non-pop music) identifying the composer. Even if I let my works spread in many different file formats, I can still make sure all the data stays organised and I am credited if I provide a better product than “pirates”.

The most efficient way of marketing and distributing a work (especially when you don’t have money for commercial advertising) is peer-to-peer, people sharing what they like with other people. It would make no sense to try to hinder this in any way. In fact, I want to make sure it’s as easy as possible, and that is why I want as good metadata as possible so people can easily find what they are interested in. Who would say no to free marketing?

Another challenge I noticed is that no matter how distributed you make it, you still need some sort of official centralised place where people can get the work. At the moment I think I’m sticking to SoundCloud for hosting and playback. Then again, I definitely need my own archive of my pieces – something I administrate all by myself. Maybe in the future I’ll put up a webstore on this site.

Copyright and earning

Speaking of stores and selling, the current digital environment provides a vast challenge for business models. Artists are pretty much entrepreneurs who need to constantly try out new methods and be ready for potential failure. The challenges of free markets have been somewhat stalled and ignored by means of copyright legislation, which provides authors of works additional rights over how their work is being used.

To me this is very much irrelevant. I do music because I love doing music. No monopoly laws or business model quirks are gonna change that. But although it is a secondary interest, I’ll cover some of it now (and more later) just in case it’ll ease someone’s mind.

What I want to make clear is this: You have the right to copy my music (both audio and note sheets) and distribute it further without asking me for a permission. This is the best solution for us all.

I use Creative Commons licensing for my works. I’m still rolling over the different licenses at the moment, trying to decide which ones best suit my needs and principles. I think that ideally everything should go straight to the public domain. But because there is some corporate mistrust, I do have uses for the current copyright legislation, such as forbidding commercial use of my works. I’m struggling a bit to allow the commercial use as well since I want to encourage an environment where people acknowledge and respect authorship even without me declaring everywhere what people can or cannot do. Derivative works I of course allow. The world is one big remix anyways.

For getting money from and for my work, I am using Flattr and I’ll put up a webstore up later. (E-junkie seems like a reasonable choice at the moment.) Seeing that making music is something I would like to do for my living and that there are so many things I could invest in, it would be silly not to ask for money for my work. But it would also be silly to prevent people from enjoying it for free. These two goals are not contradicting.

As an artist it is my first priority to make sure my works are available to people as easily as possible. Then I need to make paying for it as easy as possible – may that be Flattr, bulk payments, gigs, commissions, anonymous random Bitcoin transfers or “sold” music files for a pay-what-you-want price. If people don’t pay (and a free copy is not away from paying!), either I need to make better stuff or the paying process is too bothersome. In any case, it is up to me to adjust to the current behaviour of the markets and consumer attitudes. I do not authorise any government or record company association to give me privileges that I do not deserve.

  • Pauli Marttinen

    “I think that ideally everything should go straight to the public domain.”

    I thought you thought attribution was a thing an original creator could demand. As far as I know, public domain doesn’t demand anything, not even attribution.

    “If people don’t pay, either I need to make better stuff or the paying process is too bothersome. In any case, it is up to me to adjust to the current behaviour of the markets and consumer attitudes.”

    A good composer does what he wants to do, not what he thinks the audience would like him to do.  If that’s what you think, aren’t you essentially doing music for the money and not because you want to do it? Isn’t that what you despise? :P

    • Joonas Mäkinen

      “I thought you thought attribution was a thing an original creator could demand. As far as I know, public domain doesn’t demand anything, not even attribution.”

      As I said: ideally. In the current situation where people see it as an extra effort to give credit (and some even put their own watermark on other peoples’ stuff) it’s just very content-dependent if PD is a plausible option for the creator. While waiting for the general atmosphere to become more credit-giving and less commercially abusing, I think Creative Commons licenses are a brilliant step towards that ideal.

      “A good composer does what he wants to do, not what he thinks the audience would like him to do.  If that’s what you think, aren’t you essentially doing music for the money and not because you want to do it? Isn’t that what you despise? :P”

      A good composer indeed should do what he wants to do, and I’d prefer  evaluating the “goodness” of a composer by other means than commercial success. Nevertheless, making stuff others find pleasing is not a bad thing and one can be a good composer by doing music just for himself, just for others or a combination of both.

      After choosing which of those ways to pursue, there might come a situation where the composer’s own expectations do not match the financial success. In that case one must adapt. I despise making music just for money, but getting some is not something that devalues the composer.

      Being monetarily rewarded for one’s work is a great motivation and does good for culture.