"The Riches are in the Niches": an interview with composer Bill Whitley
It's a truism of most music programs: composers are taught to compose but are given very little training on how to get their music heard. Through hard work and self-education, composer Bill Whitley has succeeded in gaining a world-wide audience for his music. He graciously agreed to be interviewed about his music, his composition practices, and how he's created a viable composing career for himself.
By your own description, your music is about “the journey toward a new perspective—inspired by interactions with the natural world, and by meditation practices.” What in your background caused you to connect nature, meditation, and music?
The nature piece is most definitely an extension of my familial heritage. If I had followed in my paternal footsteps, I'd have been a 4th generation Northwest cattleman. I feel that frequently and deeply, and with it comes a fair amount of yearning, and even some guilt--that I'm abandoning my Dad. I miss the horses, and the country. Here, in spite of the context, country means more than a 'Merican mentality but the sense of a wide-open world. Especially in Northeastern Washington, where you have unobstructed views farther than you can see.
The great irony of all of this is where I arrived as a professional musician. You might think I'd have internalized all of that as a cowboy-specific thing. That I'd be playing in a country band (or something more close-to-home.) Instead the physical openness of space (and time!) for me connected to something mysterious and ancient, and grew steadily into a necessarily spiritual thing. Something that resonated at first with my Pentecostal religious experiences--glossolalia and ecstatic expression--but then resonated even more with the Buddhist meditation practice I would discover much later. Studying Buddhist and Hindu scripture, (alongside the Judeo-Christian ones) and practicing meditation is now a necessary ingredient for me, and my music. I continue to borrow from South Asian, Indonesian, and Arabic musical traditions, and all of those feel strangely not foreign. But in the end, they feel native to me, like an extension of that pentecostal cowboy.
Interestingly, a recent review of my orchestra piece "Bonzai Down" was described as "...almost cinematic in its scope, bringing to mind classic Westerns or an early, jazz-based John Barry score...” I had a good chuckle over the "classic Westerns" bit. Strange to think that a piece that utilizes Balinese gamelan, and Indian Tala could sound like jazz or movie westerns. But maybe I've synthesized these things more effectively than I thought.
Which of your works do you think most exemplifies your compositional style?
Anything I've written since 2009 is most definitely identifiable-y mine, and to me they all sound an awful lot alike. But my elevator pitch piece? Hmm... Lily of Force. That is, if the elevator ride was at least 7 minutes long.
Your compositions are commissioned, performed, and recorded all over the world. How did you succeed in finding such a wide audience for your music when so many other composers struggle to find listeners?
Well, after 15+ years up to my eyeballs in academia, I started with a single recording project that I felt could be marketable to non-musicians. I felt like I owed it to myself, my music, and my students to find an audience that wasn't made up of students and colleagues, and to learn about the music biz along the way. So I started with one little thing--a recording of my 'ambient' solo piano work in 2010.
I decided to use that recording as a way to find out how to sell and promote recorded music in the New Music Industry. I learned about streaming, playlisting, e-marketing, etc. I pursued internet plays as if I were a rock band and not a concert music composer/pianist. I subscribed to CD Baby's DIY Musician Podcast, and actually did all of the things they suggested. I subscribed to other podcasts. I read all of the books. I did all of the things.
I didn't realize it until much later that I was just starving for a REAL audience. No more academic pats on the head.
And surprise, surprise, one of the most important things I learned that "The Riches are in the Niches" is more than pithy... More so now than ever, since listeners have ample opportunity to try new music without financial consequence or commitment.
It might be counter-intuitive, but to build a large audience, you don't cast a wide net, but a bunch of tiny ones in very, very specific pockets.
Dreamy, cyclic piano music, it turns out, has a huge audience--but in Istanbul, Singapore, and Mexico City. What's better...they don't care who you are. This is one industry-niche where your name means nothing--until they decide they like your music. Then they will come find you.
As for the commissions and performances and recordings--they've all grown out of these micro audiences. I sent my Labyrinth Walk CD to a colleague in Milan, a prog-rock guitarist and producer...next thing I hear, he has been playing "The Circles" with his guitar, using a looping pedal. This opens new performances, new pieces. Out of that one connection I've earned three commissions, and two performances of previously composed works. I Dream Awake was the first of our recordings to come out of those relationships.
The other part of all of this is...well...I worked my ass off. The way I see it is, NO ONE is waiting for my music. I have to find the people who like this sort of thing, and make my stuff available specifically to them. And that's just step one. The next thing is keep creating content, and finding new platforms for it. I know for a fact, for example, that if I quit creating content at this moment no one would *ever* miss it. This type of truth doesn't discourage an artist. Instead it fuels the fire.
That was a pretty jumbled response to your question, but the short version is:
*Every new set of ears is a victory
*Read Philip Glass' autobiography (now out of print)
*Build your audience one person at a time
*No one intrinsically cares about your music
You compose for piano, chorus, orchestra, chamber orchestra, and voice, in addition to a dramatic work. What pieces have been listener favorites?
"The Circles" is the clear winner. It seems to be a guilty pleasure for "serious" musicians, but in the privacy of peoples homes (apparently) it's an organically-grown, world-wide favorite. I'm actually not even sure how it happened, but "The Circles" was placed on someone's playlist on Pandora--and it kind of took off from there. It took off again when I re-released it along with a re-recording of it by Elena Talarico on my Then Elephant Speaks EP. It's been re-playlisted on Apple Music and Spotify hundreds of times, and generally generates 3,000ish plays/month. Just that one song.
The other listener favorite has been "Then Elephant Speaks" commissioned by an ensemble in Milan. When I first heard the recording of that, and as I was preparing for its release, I worked tirelessly to get my distributor to submit it to editorial playlist consideration at Spotify. As a result, "Elephant" was placed on a "New Classical" (or something like that) playlist, which initially resulted in 50,000 streams/month. The track was then added to users' libraries playlists, then re-playlisted, etc. The growth here, is a little less organic, but once heard and 'saved' is in the hands/ears of TRUE fans. Where as the interest in "The Circles" is entirely organic. Without knowing me from Adam, people find this piece and keep playing it.
I wrote "The Circles" in 1994. I certainly had no idea then.
You’ve embraced music streaming services and social media marketing. Which platforms have you found most useful to your career?
I'm pretty sure Facebook is (almost) completely useless for marketing, and it's the most useful of the bunch. I still use them though, because I can never be sure who sees what, and what they do when they see it. The only metric I have is (using google analytics) how many people are coming to my website. And for the time being, 15% of the traffic to my website is coming from Facebook. So I guess I'll keep it--for now.
As for FB newsfeed metrics, all I can say is that a steady 2% respond to my posts about music, while 20-25% respond to pictures of my children.
This being said, I have found the Facebook page offers insights. At least this lets me see the who/when/where metrics. And Facebook groups have been useful. I'm involved with entrepreneurship-for-artists type groups and these have been quite helpful.
People say you *have* to use social media for marketing as an independent artist, and I'm doing the stuff and letting myself be coached, but frankly in the three years that I've been using it for that (since 2017 release of I Dream Awake), I'm not sold. But how can I tell? I simply don't know who's buying or listening to my music as a result of seeing one of my posts about it.
I had much, much, much higher hopes for social media. I (foolishly, apparently) thought it would create opportunities for new conversations.
Spotify and Pandora, on the other hand... Efforts put toward playlisting, and reaching out to other playlisters have consistently reaped benefits. The trick here is to keep creating content--even if it's just another playlist. If nothing comes of this (new commissions or sales), at least more people are hearing my music.
I wish Spotify had a social function.
As a composer of new music, today’s marketplace asks you to not only create and record your music, but to be a savvy marketer of your work as well. How do you balance the creative and business parts of your career?
Borrowing a page from Philip Glass' autobiography:
*Get up Early
*Write until Lunch
*Spend the rest of the day on the phone
Only mine looked like:
*Get up Early
*Do domestic stuff
*Compose Until Lunch
*Do domestic stuff
*Do Music Biz stuff until dinner
*Do domestic stuff
This worked great--until I started teaching again. Looking back it was taking a year off from teaching in 2016 and 2017, where it looked like I'd never be teaching again, to make the most of what I've done happen. I'm at that same fork in the road again. I'm just not good at juggling that many pieces. My composing and music biz work is getting cold. I don't like the way that feels. At all. It's starting to show in weird ways.
I just really, really, really like teaching music theory. And a part of me really appreciates the conservative economic cycle of having a 'job'.
What are you working on right now, and what sorts of compositions do you hope to create in the future?
* It's become clear to me that my and Donna Henderson's (poet) songs Liminals *need* to be performed and recorded.
* Seeing that there's a strong market for solo piano music, by anonymous composers, I intend to compose 12 piano pieces--one for each month of the year, with seasonal themes/images. I would like also to play around with playful marketing strategies...like releasing the score and recording one/month each year, and have a different pianist record each (in the first year). Then in the second year have it professionally recorded by one artist (maybe two), where I have more control of the production.
* I have a piece in the style of Messiaen for Quatour ensemble that needs to be performed and recorded.
* I really need to work harder at connecting to Oregon audiences. I struggle to get work performed at home. It doesn't help that I can't seem to make it to any one else's performances, either.
What advice would you offer young composers just entering the profession?
* Know yourself and YOUR music. The worst thing that could happen to you as an artist is get positive reinforcment for writing ungenuine music.
*Stop expecting praise for everything you write.
*Celebrate the acquisition of real audience...that is, people to whom your music speaks.
*Don't expect your friends to be your fans.
*Excel at Aural Skills.
*Study Form--harmonic theory should be secondary to form, not the other way around, as it is usually taught.
*Know who your performer(s) will be before you even start composing.
*Know where/when your music will be performed before you even start composing.
*Know who your audience is before you even start composing.