A crwod of people gathered in an auditorium to advocate for the arts
Advocating for New Music

Advocating for New Music

A crwod of people gathered in an auditorium to advocate for the arts

Photo by Scott Streble for Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, courtesy MCA

Let’s look at advocacy on behalf of new music that’s geared toward decision makers in institutions. Do you feel that your local arts foundation, board of education, university, and/or local government could be creating more and better programs to support contemporary music? Me too. Where do we start?

As with any political issue, your inner Che Guevara might be telling you to organize a protest or to occupy a square on your campus. While that could be a good way to draw attention to an issue, it’s clearly not the best way to get lasting results.

There is a better way, but it’s much less sexy: Working Through the System. I realize how this sounds, but I’m telling you it works. Nearly all the institutions that support the arts have a consultation process for the communities that they serve, and they need to hear from you. Even though the differences you will make will often feel slow and painfully incremental, based on experience it’s very possible to get tangible results, and it’s by far the best way to help contemporary music in the long run.

An advocacy campaign usually has two goals: to affect public opinion and to influence decision making by those in positions of power.[1] Usually the two approaches work hand in hand. Decision makers, especially politicians, often don’t create the bandwagon, they jump on it. The arts sector usually doesn’t have the resources needed for a big public campaign[2] so our focus here will be on targeting decision makers and inspiring them with our carefully worded reasons why they should be supporting new music.

[Disclosure: my partner Amanda Sussman’s book The Art of the Possible, A Handbook for Political Activism popularized the idea that reformers working through the system can achieve radical results. The points below are from her book and are adapted to new music advocacy.]


Strength Is In Numbers

Don’t be a lone voice. You are a much better advocate if you bring together people who feel the same way that you do and then speak as a one. Supporting groups like New Music USA (they didn’t put me up to this) can be a good way to have your voice heard on a national level. Also, general arts advocacy groups like Americans for the Arts speak as a united voice for all the arts across America. They even hold an Arts Advocacy Day during which they meet with congressional representatives in Washington. Supporting initiatives like these means that it’s more likely that composers will be included in the list of arts disciplines that are at the table.

Maybe joining these kinds of groups sufficiently scratches your advocacy itch. If so, you can stop reading here. However, if there are local issues that you would like to tackle here are more suggestions.

Don’t arrive after the fact

Even if you create a booming advocacy campaign, it will have almost no impact if it happens after a decision has already been made. Research is key. Is a foundation near you in the midst of changing its granting priorities? Time for a presentation to their board. Maybe your local school district is debating whether to allocate or cut support for specialized music programs. This would be a great time to meet with decision makers or their staff. Once a decision has been announced by an organization, it’s usually a done deal and it’s very difficult to turn back the clock.

It’s not about who you know.

Even if you happen to know someone at an institution, that person is not necessarily the one making the decision and your request may end up getting passed around in a mind-numbing bureaucratic loop. With a little research, you can make your own contacts. Find out who actually has the power to influence the decision you’re interested in. Once you have learned what the decision-making timetable is, work with others to organize a meeting with that person.

What are your asks?

Be sure that your objectives are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. This can’t be overstated. If you are meeting with a university office or the head of a foundation, you will be much more effective if your request is SMART, rather than a vague request for more resources. Also make sure that your ask is tailored to the person you are meeting with. If that person is on the low rung of the ladder, your request may be simply: “Can you raise this with your boss?”

Run an effective meeting

Now that you have arranged your meeting (take a deep breath)…

Start with the good news. Create good will by congratulating them on work they have already done on behalf of contemporary music (if they have).

Make it safe. The best communicators are either advancing their ideas or they are making it safe to communicate. Learn to watch if the conversation is getting derailed and if so, bring it back to a safe place.[3]

Outline your constituency. Who are you speaking for? If you have support for your project from your colleagues, community, or an online petition, say so.

Clearly state your asks. Concisely lay out your SMART objectives. Tell them the problem you are trying to solve and then explain how your proposal solves that problem.

Actually listen to answers. If you get a very bureaucratic answer—it’s not their fault, they have to do this—there is good information hidden in there. Carefully listen to what is being said between the lines. Often it’s gold.

Leave a one-page brief. Leave a cheat sheet with the points you just outlined in your meeting. That way if they need to advocate internally on your behalf, they have effective talking points about contemporary music at their fingertips.

Follow-up with a thank-you note or email, outlining next steps that were decided in the meeting.


Your Messages

This is where we hone our elevator pitch. As with last week’s post, we’ll use a tone that assumes the listener is intelligent and curious but doesn’t happen to have a degree in composition. These were developed by myself and other composers while volunteering for the (yes, antiquated sounding, but effective) Canadian League of Composers but are adapted here to work in many different contexts. These also work at family get-togethers when your uncle asks what kind of music you write:

What is contemporary art music?

Composers create music for active listening that reflects the time and place in which they live. They usually do this by composing scores to be performed by classically trained musicians, but they also compose for instruments from many different musical traditions, such as the sitar or koto, and many composers are active in the fields of electronic music and improvisation.

The music itself—its textures, sounds, and shapes—is usually meant to be the center of attention.

The length of time spent composing these works is typically many months, and sometimes years.

The breadth of styles is huge and defies categorization.

Cultural legacy

Many composers are trying to create art that withstands the tests of time and helps define who we are, much like novelists such as Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, or Cormac McCarthy have done. Our tradition generally takes a “long view” that will give the world a body of great music one hundred years from now and beyond. As with the music of Beethoven and even the works of Shakespeare, audiences may be small at first but may potentially be very large over the long run.


There is no single “art-music” style. Composers produce strikingly different music from one another. This plurality is our strength as a community, and represents a genuine musical diversity.


Historically, composers have very often required a patron offering financial backing outside of market forces to create their music, whether it was the church, royalty, aristocracy, or the university that supported them. Today, most composers rely on the patronage of visionary foundations, universities, public institutions, and individual sponsors, all committed to supporting the non-commercial value of the arts.

Economic and social contribution of the arts

It is well established that an active cultural sector is a magnet for talent and a catalyst for economic prosperity. Arts industries bring people together locally, globally, and virtually. Composers are an important and dynamic part of this industry, which is estimated to have totalled $46 billion in real value-added output.[4]

There is a lot more information on the social and economic benefits of the arts at the Americans for the Arts page and this document by the National Assembly of State Art Agencies.

Your points will of course be tailored to fit your objectives, but I hope this gives you an idea of the kind of language you might use when advocating for contemporary music, in whatever situation you might find yourself: with a donor, with a government official, or with your uncle. We need you, so good luck out there.

1. The mission of New Music USA for example (if you landed here randomly, you’re reading this on their website) is to do both: they promote composers’ work to the public and also aim to influence decision making about arts funding by working with other arts organizations.

2. Although this fantastic iPad ad with Esa-Pekka Salonen has been a windfall of free publicity for new music.

3. This is from Crucial Conversations, a must-read for any advocate.

4. Valuing Culture: Measuring and Understanding Canada’s Creative Economy [PDF] Conference Board of Canada Report 2008, p. 7.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

One thought on “Advocating for New Music

  1. Louis Torres

    “Advocating for New Music” raises the question “What is contemporary art music?” The answer in part notes that “composers create music for active listening that reflects the time and place in which they live.” If that’s true, then painters, say, create paintings that do the same thing. But it’s not, I would argue. Composers, painters, and novelists, for example, create work that reflects something much more personal than “the time and place in which they live” (whatever that may mean). It reflects their sense of life, their fundamental values (if even implicitly), their view of what is important in life (also mostly implicitly). Listeners, viewers, and readers respond positively when the work in question reflects their sense of life or values, and negatively when the opposite is the case. Regarding “new” or “contemporary” music, I happen to prefer neo-classical and neo-romantic works because they tend to reflect my sense of life—not because they “reflect the time and place” where I live .

    Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts) and Co-Author, ‘What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand’ (2000) – http://www.aristos.org

    ‘What Art Is’ [http://www.aristos.org/editors/booksumm.htm]:
    Chapter 3: “Art and Sense of Life”/ Chapter 5: “Music and Cognition” / Chapter 12: “Avant-Garde Music and Dance”


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