What is a Successful Composer?

What is a Successful Composer?

In my column last week, Act Now! (Operators Aren’t Standing By), I argued that composers should work to create our own opportunities rather than relying on the kindness of strangers, positing this as the road to success. In the comments, I was asked how I define success, and I realized that—like music itself—success (and its inverse: failure) is a difficult phenomenon to pin down, and that the more I work to create a specific definition of a successful composer, the more the issue becomes slippery and difficult to grasp firmly.

To a major recording label, success is simple: units sold. Even for a classical artist, they compare units sold to what they consider the artist’s peers.

I’m uncomfortable with this definition for two reasons. First, they measure sales over a limited time period (the #1 album of the week or year or even decade) rather than over the lifetime of the artist. By their rubric, the Monkees were more successful than any number of artists who continue to remain artistically relevant and therefore sell units. (While on tour, the Doors were asked by a flight attendant what their occupation was. Ray Manzerek responded: Rock musician. The attendant asked: Like the Monkees? Ray thought for a moment, then said: Kinda, I guess.) Second, by creating genres for comparison, they turn art into a game with winners and losers. If success is defined by outperforming peers, then it can only be obtained by outperforming the competition. I find this morally reprehensible, since I strongly believe that art is not a zero-sum game; instead I maintain that the accomplishments of my peers help to strengthen our collective position within society.

My personal definition of success has mainly been linked to the joy I experience in the creation of my art. While this might work on a personal level, when I attempt to apply this rubric to others it seems inane. In application, my definition would appear to categorize as failures a variety of giants within the field who didn’t appear to find pleasure in the process of creation, including (among many, many others) Morton Feldman, Bernd Alois Zimmerman, Schumann, and even Beethoven. Obviously, this is no way to separate successes from failures.

Awards like the Grawemeyer Award, MacArthur Fellowship and the Pulitzer Prize traditionally function as signifiers of success, but, as one of my teachers used to say: Competitions tell much more about the judges than about the pieces entered. And I hope that there is a consensus that Ralph Shapey was an equally excellent composer the day before the Pulitzer judging panel called him to award him the prize, the day after, and the day after that, when the Pulitzer Committee rescinded his award. Presumably, performances evince even greater flaws as an indicator, for if it’s difficult to agree on the efficacy of composers judging each other’s works, then other musicians must be even less qualified arbiters.

The more I ponder this question, the less comfortable I become with any traditional definition of success. And yet, like Justice Stewart’s famous definition of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” At least sometimes.

What are your thoughts on this issue? How do you define success? Do you maintain a personal definition, distinct from your approach to the works of others?

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12 thoughts on “What is a Successful Composer?

  1. maestro58

    Success for me
    I have always been a successful composer, because I’ve defined success as writing what I want, when I want, and how I want. Where I haven’t been successful is receiving the embrace of my professors, and competition judges (I’ve won 2 awards out of the 20 or so I’ve entered over the last two decades.) I had a retrospective last October (I’m 51, I can do that,) and though it was sparsely populated, all who attended got a kick out of one or more pieces. What is interesting for me is that they weren’t the SAME pieces for everyone. I write in a variety of styles, tonal palettes, and media…yet I find success in all of them.

  2. Rob Deemer

    Balancing act
    It’s a balance between someone’s own evaluation that they’re doing well at what they do and the various groups that may or may not agree with that evaluation. Some composers do what they do well and are reciprocated by the general public or performers (i.e. performances/recordings), others are reciprocated by the establishment (i.e. awards, prizes, etc.), and a few are reciprocated by both. If a composer is content with both sides of that balance, then I would think that they would consider themselves successful. If they are not content with one side or the other, then they probably won’t feel themselves successful – no matter how good they think their music is or how many accolades they might receive.

    The other thing to consider is which chapter in life is the question of success being asked? As soon as one goal is reached (graduation, public performances, commissions, recognition by peers, the list is endless), there’s always another level of achievement to strive for; how one deals with that will be a big factor in determining how one looks at one’s own success.

  3. danvisconti

    During my first year of college I remember having a discussion with another student who proclaimed that someone or other was *deifnitely* a success–because the composer’s birthday was listed in NewMusicBox’s “Of Note Today!” sidebar.

  4. rskendrick

    Everyone’s Answer will be different
    Another smashingly good post David. Everyone will come to different conclusions on their definition of success, but I do think it’s very important for each composer to ask themselves this question periodically and come up with ‘the answer’ to assess where they are at in respect to their definition.

    In his bookThe Savvy Musician David Cutler paints biographies of two separate individuals. One has received word renown for his performances, the other is a drunkard whose family wants nothing to do with him. He allows us to draw our own conclusions about these individuals, then reveals that they are two different biographies of the same individual.

    For me, there’s got to be a balance to this equation, and I’ve written extensively about my definition here Defining Success

  5. smooke

    thanks for the help
    Thanks to all who have responded thus far. I appreciate your working with me on this thought process.

    Maestro58: I do rather like your definition. Also the phenomenon that you describe of the audience responding to different pieces is a very interesting issue that I hope to tackle soon.

    Rob: The issue of stages is an important one that certainly helps. Self-evaluation v. peer-public evaluation is tricky and involves a high degree of self-awareness that can be useful or crippling.

    Jay: Yes, avoiding failure is the most certain method for avoiding success (by any definition).

    Dan: I think we might have a workable definition there! NewMusicBox ftw.

    I’m interested to see how this conversation continues to develop.


  6. smooke

    and more….

    Thank you for your response as well! Sorry that it hadn’t posted before I wrote my previous comment. Your link and blog add a lot to this discussion and allow me to think about the issue in a very different light.


  7. philmusic

    Ok lets measure success in three’s:

    How does the composer feel about their music?

    What does the professional world feel about their music?

    What does the public feel about their music?

    How these strands are reconciled might reveal the answer, yet there are those who look but cannot see.

    This is either because nothing is ever enough or they view themselves through a twisted mirror.

    Phil Fried
    Phil’s very successful page

  8. MarkNGrant

    I am perplexed by your inclusion of Schumann as a composer who “didn’t appear to find pleasure in the process of creation.” Out of the composers of the past who proverbially come to mind when one thinks of a notably prolific composer– Schubert, Telemann, Purcell, Bach, Mozart, Haydn– Schumann always seems to get overlooked. Yet he was, in sheer quantity of musical output in a short life, the equal or superior of any composer in history. The consensus of scholarly and historical opinion is that Schumann was a manic-depressive, and this fantastic prolificity, and the specific pattern of much of his actual composing, are prima facie evidence of mania. He composed Kreisleriana, a complex half-hour piano solo, on a manic tear in four days. His lieder production in the year 1840 alone was volcanically hypergraphic. Perhaps only Van Gogh’s 18-month explosion of painting in Arles in the 1880s is comparable. When bipolar people are in the manic phase they are almost psychopathically free of negative affect and inhibition. They like being manic, it’s a joyous experience, and the last thing that would ever occur to them is that this was a state of mind to be “cured” or “rid” of. Where is the evidence that supports the notion that Schumann suffered through the process, or found composing unpleasant? Of course he had depressive periods when he didn’t compose or had a struggle trying, but the point is, when he was manic– which was most, if not all, of the time that he was composing music– Schuman was an unsluiced cataract of a creator.

  9. rtanaka

    Success is measured by the level of correlation between intent and result. A composer who “knows what they’re doing” will usually get what they want out of the process without having to redefine the measurement of success. This may or may not involve making money, acquiring fame, winning awards, or vye for someone’s attention. Only the composer really knows, but you can generally tell when someone is “successful” — they’re usually very confident in their abilities and pretty smug about themselves…in a good way, though.

  10. smooke


    Thank you for this clarification. Of course you’re correct. I was trying to find a nice phrase that would encompass various composers who led notoriously unhappy lives while writing gloriously beautiful music and, in so doing, conflated various pathologies.


  11. Numi Who?

    What is your occupation? Rock musicians. Like the Monkees? haha (wishful thinking on her part – and I’m surprised she didn’t say the Beatles, who inspired it all) – Manzerek should have replied, “No, we’re serious.” “How?” “We’re louder, have darker lyrics, we don’t smile on stage, and we target a more mature audience.” “Like adults?” “No, they’re the enemy.” “Mmm. Why so dark?” “General young male angst – you know, disaffection with the way things are and the way people think.” “Oh, so you’re philosophers, too?” “No, we really don’t offer any sane answers, just present moods and wild responses – the male angst thing, and music offers a great outlet.” “So you’re artists?” “Yes.” “Well, good luck – it is a hard and thankless road.” “Thank you. Some do get lucky – but you have to get yourself out there, and you have to be quite brash.” “and good looking, obviously.” “It helps – with the lighter crowd.” “Well, a certain look, then.” “Yes – like you’ve been living on the street since you were old enough to walk.” “I’ve known those kind of kids – they used empty milk cartons for toys and sat at the curb – their father left, their mother worked, and the day sitter turned them outside in the morning and wouldn’t let them back in until lunch. They turned out to be the ‘social glue’ of the neighborhood – knitting together all the quiet kids who otherwise would not know each other existed.” “What happened to them?” “Had kids very early. Labor jobs. Not college material. and all physically healthy and quite good looking.” “I envy them.” “They play a role – diversity is critical to survival.”


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