Thursday, January 06, 2011

Advice to an Aspiring Pianist and Composer...

Recently a young man, a piano major at University of West Georgia, emailed me about his music. He's a composer, has written a few songs of his own and is hoping for a career in the music business. In particular, he hopes to someday compose music for film.

He had two basic questions for me.
1) "Can I continue with composition after I finish college?"
2) "How did you get started?"

I took some time to write him a fairly detailed response, so I share this with all of you in case this will be of some help to you as well. I'm pretty straight-forward with him. This business is exceedingly hard to make a living in, so I paint the most honest picture I can, while at the same time trying to encourage him to pursue his art and passion.

Here's my response...

Yes, of course you can continue composing music after college! If that's something you want to do, then do it. That's not to say, however, that someone is going to pay you for it. So you need to ask yourself... is composition worth doing even if you're unrecognized and not getting paid for it? Would you be happy just composing on the side, as a means to express yourself, even if it's not paying the bills? Do you love doing it that much? Because, really, that's what's required.

Making a living in the music business is extremely difficult to do. I graduated from college in 1987. It took me until 2001 to be able to support my family with my music... so that's 14 years of hard work to get just to that point.

However, I composed music simply because I loved doing it. I started composing music for piano during college, and the only reason I recorded my first album was because it seemed like the obvious thing to do. I had written eleven songs, and so what else is there to do with them, but record? So I asked for some studio recommendations, picked one (I recorded at the home of Billy Oskay of Nightnoise), saved up some money and in 1991 I recorded my first album, "The Tower." I didn't record the album because I hoped to sell a million copies... I did it just to have a permanent record of my work, and I figured I could share it with folks I knew and maybe sell a few copies.

So that's how I started. I played coffee houses here and there and sold my album. While doing that, I kept writing new music. After three years, I'd saved up enough money to record a second album (While the Trees Sleep), so I went back in the studio again. I kept playing the very occasional show (I played in public maybe only 3-4 times a year at that point). But I kept selling music and I saved the contact info for everyone I sold an album to. When I released my second album, I informed all the folks that bought the first one, and most of them bought my second, which made it easier to financially support my third album (and so on).

And that brings us to 1995... that's when I started promoting my music on the Internet, and that opened me up to a whole new audience. I kept writing and recording, and kept promoting my music on the web. I released new albums in 1997 and 1999... each album got easier to do because I was selling enough copies by that time that it covered my recording costs and more.

In 2001 I released my first "best of" album (Whisperings) and quit my day job. I was making as much money from selling my CD and sheet music on the Internet as I was from my day job.

But it took years and years to get there. No one helped me. In terms of the music industry, no one was ever interested in me or my music. I built my own fan base. It's only in the last few years that the music industry has taken much notice of what I do, and I think that's in great part because I've outlasted so many other folks and because I'm one of the very few musicians who has managed to build a successful music career (and make a living at it) using the Internet. Even with that success, I think most in the industry see me more as a curiosity than anything else. :)

So now, back to you...

I tell you all this just so you realize what's ahead of you. It's a lot of hard work, and you really need to do your art because you love doing it, first and foremost. And then just do it. Find a way. Realize you'll probably have to work a "normal" job for a very long time in order to support yourself and your future family. I don't know if you're a Christian or a believer, but for me, I very much feel like God has led me to where I am now. I look back and see His hand in everything. And honestly, although I've put in the time and work over all these years, God is the one who blessed it. I really believe that without God's leading, I'd still be working a day job. So there is that spiritual element to all of this. If you are a Christian, just walk with the Lord and trust him to guide your footsteps. If He wants you to be a composer, and if that's what He's made you for, then that's what you'll do if you follow His leading.

Aside from that, the advantage you have now that I didn't have in 1987 is the Internet. You can put your creations out there for all to hear. Plus, in 2010 we have digital music distribution that ANYONE can get into, and thousands of Internet Radio broadcasts you can market your music on. It's much easier in 2010 to sell and market your music than it was in 1987. Trust me on this. However, the one thing that is different today is that in 1987, people expected to PAY for music. In this day and age, many folks expect to hear it for FREE. So while it's easy to be heard, it's not as easy to get folks to pay for it! That being said, I just had a record month in CDs sold online... so there are still people out there willing to pay. :) Also making up somewhat for the fact that folks aren't buying music as much as they used to are the royalties than can be earned from Internet radio. I'm making a good income with that now, as well, so even when folks hear your music on Internet radio, you can make a little something. It isn't much for single plays, but if you are successful and tens of thousands of people are hearing (and requesting) your music online, it really adds up.

As for writing for film, the film industry isn't something I know a lot about. I do know that getting into that "club" is extremely difficult. One of my good friends, Jace Vek, is a brilliant composer and has won three Emmys for his work on film and television (documentaries). And yet, as far as I know, he still hasn't gotten access to the "major motion picture" world yet.

I've gotten my music on lots of little independent film projects, but in those cases, folks approached me about it, asking if they could use my music for their projects. Most of the time, it doesn't pay much. Most folks don't have the budget. However, I enjoy the additional exposure it brings to my music.

So... it's a tough road, but if you love music, and you love composing, it's something you do because it brings you joy. And if you do THAT long enough, and use the Internet to market and distribute your music, maybe you'll find a little niche for yourself.

I hope that helps. I know it's not a lot of "do step one, then step two, and then step three type of advice," but there really are no magic steps. It's just got to be something you do because you love it. And hopefully, others will love what you do, too.

As a reference, you might check out my book, How to Promote Your Music Successfully on the Internet." That will be a great help for you along the way.

David Nevue
Solo Piano Artist & Creator of Whisperings: Solo Piano Radio

Sign up for my newsletter, "Notes from the Piano", at


Blogger Rocky Fretz said...

Really great advise David. :)
Great music. Great advice. Great radio.
Thanks for the contribution!!

11:55 AM  
Anonymous Patricia said...

David, you are such an inspiration. Your generosity in being of help to fellow musicians is a beautiful thing.

I related to what you wrote here very much. I've been composing solo piano music this past year and it has been an effortless process when it happens (usually at 3 a.m. lol)

...I am so grateful when it happens, it's like this form (Patricia) is just the scribe...watching it all come together is the most exhilarating thing in my life. If I never made a penny, it wouldn't matter, it just wants to happen, some things you cannot put a price on ...what price can you put on joy!?

If others are meant to hear it then it will work out in the right way. I have several completed pieces all notated in sheet music, but haven't been able to figure out the technical side of getting the sound on my's not in my hands, if it is to go that route, an answer will come.

Beautiful post, David, thank you!
(didnt mean this comment to be so long, got carried away) :-) Best of luck to the musician who asked for your advice!!

kindest regards, Patricia

12:41 PM  
Blogger Joseph Akins said...

Thanks David.

1:52 PM  
Blogger Test said...


I follow you for a long time and I almost have all your albums and I think it works for you because you are honest.

Honest in your music, I think you do what you love and not what might work.

Honest in your message, what you said in your blog, Twitter and your newsletter seems to be you and not just a commercial message.

4:26 AM  
Blogger Dale said...

Thanks for the inspiring words there David. After purchasing your internet book a few years back, then following it, and then reading this post, you're right on! There's always a price to be paid to get to where you want to go as a musician.

It really boils down to doing what you love for the people who love what you do. The battle is finding those people like you said.

From one pianist to another keep up the great work!

Dale Jessee

7:40 PM  
Blogger Larry Gibson said...

Great advice . . . thanks for the raw honesty & keep up the great work. You are an inspiration to many.


2:06 PM  
Anonymous Kric Crunk said...

I'm going to to buy your book. I appreciate what you are doing. Great music too. Let me know when you roll through nashville

9:29 AM  
Blogger Daniel Greenhalgh said...

Great article David. I'm about to release my debut piano album soon and I know how hard this industry can be. You've given me hope that with hard work and belief maybe one day I could quit my day job too. Thanks, Dan

10:06 AM  

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