Interview with ScoreFollower’s founder Dan Tramte conducted by Tim Rutherford-Johnson
TRJ : How do you get such great access to scores and recordings?
DT : With only a few exceptions, my access to scores and recordings has always been a matter of access to the composer. As a composer existing in a network myself, it has been particularly easy to feature works by my friends/colleagues, as well as the composers with whom I have studied, because I know their music, and I can easily ask them to send me their materials. Beyond my personal network, I, and my fellow SF Team members spend a lot of time searching for music online. We have found that one of the most useful and productive resources are the ‘open’ social networks like Twitter and Soundcloud, because new material is channeled directly to our feeds by the composers and performers themselves, or by people sharing a piece that happens to inspire them. If that piece inspires us as well, we will check out the composer’s website, and contact them to make a request.
TRJ : As well as the formal institutions of publishers and record companies. How have these relations developed/changed in the time you’ve been running Score Follower? Have they become more open?
DT : For a long time, record companies have been extremely open to our efforts, especially if we are only posting a single track from an album. When we ask, it is usually not a problem (although this process can be time consuming, so we prefer to upload good live or amateur recordings if possible). Furthermore, since so many people post songs to YouTube, there is an infrastructure in place for sharing copyrighted recordings that allows the record companies to monetize the video.
Large score publishing companies can rely on the fact that there are still a lot of people in the traditional publishing mindset. Many musicians still purchase scores, and many composers still prefer to go the publishing route, especially if they do not want to deal with the relatively mundane tasks of advertising, printing, and sending hard copies. I have noticed that some major publishers are taking steps towards embracing the net. For example, Edition Peters has uploaded many of their scores to the PDF publishing/displaying network, ISSUU (see http://issuu.com/editionpeters). I think this is quite a significant step because it means that they are finally recognizing that many people are already scanning/sharing digital copies of their scores through networks like sheeto.com. If publishers continue in this direction, I imagine they will see more online traffic/engagement, and they will still be able to capitalize off of something they offer that is truly valuable: a score in its material form.
We are continuing to make more agreements with some large publishers—the most recent one being Sikorski, who has given us permission to upload a significant number of scores. We have been in contact with Peters (as well as other publishers who have taken similar steps such as Edition Gravis), and while we have not yet secured displaying rights from them, the possibility of a future collaboration does not seem out of the question.
As for smaller publishing houses, they have been much more open to embracing our channels. For example, we uploaded Liao Lin-Ni’s piece Poussière dans le Vent with permission from her publisher. When I made the video, I added a few slides to advertise the publisher, Maison ONA, and I sense that this is a genuinely mutual agreement.
There have been almost zero cases in which we have contacted a composer who does not want their works featured on our channels (by ’almost zero cases’ I mean that every single composer has expressed interest, but there have been a handful of situations where some composers don’t feel that the requested work is quite ready or representative, or that there is an issue with the performance/recording). Thus, in pretty much all the cases that a publisher says ‘no,’ there is always a small conflict between the composer and the publishers. I am not suggesting that the demand of being featured on our channels (or similar YT channels) is creating a disincentive for composers to get published, but I am saying that if publishers don’t recognize the interests of their clients and take the appropriate steps towards embracing the net, they run the risk of losing them. Composers seem to want their music online, and we offer an attractive mode of publicity and online engagement.
TRJ : I think YouTube channels like yours are one of the most interesting and original applications of the internet to contemporary music. Where do you see them in the new music ecosystem – a niche development, or something that will become a more common means of distribution in future?
DT : Here’s a somewhat recent tweet from composer Ian Power:
I notice the exact same thing when I look for music (and media in general), and it’s not just because of my biased activities with Score Follower / Incipitsify. I subscribe to Spotify, Netflix, and Amazon Prime, but I spend just as much time—if not more—on YouTube and soundcloud. While I think Ian Power was referencing the speed at which we can easily perform a google search and get there, I believe there is something else at play. It has to do with the fact that YT is made up of individual users, forming a type of ecosystem that we can relate to as humans.
As much as I hate to publicly admit my guilty pleasures, I spend a lot of time watching specific YouTubers playing indie video games online. I love that these YouTubers reveal their individual personalities, and depending on my mood, I can decide whose channel I want to visit. For example, EthosLab, (or ‘Etho’) is a dry-humored Canadian who never shows his face, a quirk that also makes him kind of mysterious. In my mind, he exists as a video game character and by the sound of his voice. I binge watch his videos in the same way I binge watch shows on Netflix, but it’s different because I feel a more personal connection with him; even as a virtual being, he is more real to me than any actor or actress on Netflix. Although Etho has 1,840,061 subscribers at the moment, he is simply a YouTube user, just like everybody else.
My situation as a YouTuber is somewhat different because I try to leave my personality out of the equation; however, because I post pieces that I like, I show my interests, and thus my personality. In other words, the type of curating that I do is a form of expression that is something you don’t really get with Spotify. I don’t want it to sound like I’m ranking these online services, but the fact that certain services like YouTube and soundcloud consist of user-generated content changes everything for me, and I imagine I’m not alone.
Just for the record, YT gamer Mumbo Jumbo’s video chops and branding style has been one of my primary influences. Even the choice of using a swing hip-hop track as the background for the #followmyscore16 campaign video that I made came from his intro theme and time-lapse videos.
TRJ : More generally, how do you see the relationship between new music and the internet at the moment? It seems to me that the last four or five years have seen a huge change in how composers (especially younger ones) use the net to distribute and publicize their work. Do you see this as a permanent shift, or will those composers be looking to more traditional publication outlets as they get older?
DT : I can’t imagine it going in any other direction. I’ve heard plenty of friends, colleagues, and even distinguished professors complain about composers who lack an online presence. In 2015, it’s practically a waste of time to have to do anything beyond a google search, not because we’re particularly impatient, but because it has become something of an expectation to be able to at least get a preview of a composer’s material within a matter of seconds. Some of us (in ensembles/academia) are willing to go to a library to check out a score—if they even have it—or wait days for it to arrive via interlibrary loan. Fewer of us are in a financial position to purchase a physical score, especially if it’s just for perusal purposes. In short, if you are a young composer who doesn’t post any material online, you are inconveniencing those who might want to get a glimpse into your compositional world.
There’s thus a feedback loop: if you’re a young composer, you probably should post at least some of your work in the form of streaming media and/or score screenshots because you need that publicity. Meanwhile, these young composers are setting a precedent in how we find and experience new music in 2015, by making their works available online. The only thing I can imagine breaking that feedback loop is if we end up with so much amazing content online, that the content itself somehow loses all value, or something crazy like that.
As for composers who have already garnished an international reputation, most of their music has been scanned/uploaded by pirates. The demand for digital copies is real.
TRJ : There seems to be a generational thing here: thanks to channels like yours, we can now know more about the music of a composer in her 30s than of one in her 50s or 60s. Would you agree? And what does that mean for how we understand things/ascribe value?
DT : The advent of the internet and other related technologies have certainly created a generational dividing line. Those who grew up with the internet and mobile devices are far more likely to use, say, emoticons as a valid means of communication. Likewise, that same younger generation (and peripheral generations to lesser extents) is posting their music on soundcloud, taking screenshots of their scores, sharing links, and simply existing online. Frankly, it’s a lot more work for us when we have to actually hunt for music and make deals with publishers to feature more established composers. While we sometimes make the extra effort to do these things, meanwhile we are discovering music by young and unpublished composers at a much faster rate just because it is available… and their contact information is listed somewhere… and we can get a preview of their scores/music so we know we’re not taking a risk by reaching out to them. On top of that is the fact that we are rather excited about the scores of the younger generation, as many of those composers have advanced technical facility in Adobe Illustrator / Inkscape, or at least have found ways to work around the constraints of Sibelius and Finale.
TRJ : How do you go about choosing which scores to feature/work on next? How important is the visual look of a score?
DT : For a few years (before certain publishers started cracking down), one could find almost every single chamber piece by Brian Ferneyhough in a recording+score format on YT. There is something about his scores that seems to fit within YouTube culture, and my theory is that a lot of it has to do with the way the scores look. To many musicians—especially the ones who don’t know Ferneyhough’s music—they’re shocking, radical, visually impressive, inspiring, and also anger-inducing. His works are ripe for a lively YouTube comment section, and for better or worse, the comment section is a forum for polemical engagement that is completely open to the public. This is important to us, so yes, the visual look of a score is a factor in how we choose which works to feature, but it is not the only factor.
YT aside, a score can take on roles varying from utility to an piece of art in itself, and either end of that spectrum is totally viable depending on the goal of the composer. As a general rule I find that it is ideal if the visual aesthetic of the score can, without words, describe the mood of a piece. It might require extra effort on the composer to achieve this, with perhaps diminishing returns, but I know many performers who tend to ‘get into’ a piece so much more thoroughly when that added visual dimension is there.
PS. there’s a new Ferneyhough [re]uploader
TRJ : What are your plans for developing Score Follower in the future?
DT : Now that there are a number of us team members working on SF/InciP, we’ve been adding a number of new projects, such as #followmyscore16, the featured composer series, and the imaginary concerts. We are also in the process of creating a new YT channel presenting works involving multimedia.
Beyond these projects, one of the main goals of this coming year is to achieve 501c3 non-profit status in order to open more doors for external funding through grants. It is not at all expensive to make score follower videos, but there are a number of small expenses that come out of our pockets, which adds up after a while (such as dropbox storage space, new software, website host/domain, etc.). There are ways to make money through YouTube; if we do that, however, we limit our opportunities with score publishers and record companies. Even if we wanted to monetize our videos, YouTube monetization isn’t exactly set up for relatively small niche communities such as ours. A single cute cat video will easily outperform all of our new music videos combined. In other words, while we have cornered a considerable size of the new music ’market,’ ad revenues from YouTube would only amount to about $9 per month, and that’s not worth it. Instead, we’d prefer to apply for a few small external grants here and there, which would significantly help our efforts, and at the same time, keep us from ‘selling out’ or becoming institutionalized. ***Update: SF/InciP is now a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization! (12/31/2015)***
TRJ : Finally, could you say something about how you thematise and use the net in your own work (eg in a piece like degradative interference).
DT : When I was studying composition at the University of North Texas, I had full access to state of the art audio/video production facilities (three 8.1 channel studios, a permanent 16.1 channel black box theater, and thousands of dollars worth of software/plugins). It was one of the most conducive environments for a composer working with multimedia that I can possibly imagine. After becoming ABD, I moved to Boston, and suddenly all I had at my disposal was a laptop, headphones, and a mobile device. I didn’t even own a microphone or an audio interface, because I never had a reason to purchase these – I could rent them for free at North Texas. There was something scary about my new technical limitations, and I had no choice but to search elsewhere for material, invent another workflow, and embrace the low-fidelity media that I could capture using the only a/v sampling device I owned, my iPhone.
I found that the mobile app Vine offered the perfect (and free!) solution to this problem. Vine is a surprisingly powerful tool that allows me to capture and edit a/v footage, and with it, I realized a concept that I call Granulation by Stop Motion. This has become an on-going installation project of mine, but what is perhaps a bit more interesting is that because of this project, I have spent many hours living the experience of peering through a mobile device and scrolling through auto-playing short looping videos. It’s not only Vine; this type of media is quite abundant on the internet via Reddit and Facebook in the form of gifs/memes, and especially Instagram.
We composers often draw content from our life experiences, and as the internet continues to occupy more and more of our experienced reality, we are likely going to continue to see an increasing number of works that utilize internet-related themes (see works by Brigitta Muntendorf, Stefan Prins, Jennifer Walshe, and Johannes Kreidler, to name a few). I enjoy scrolling through Vine and Instagram feeds, occasionally stopping on an interesting video to watch a few iterations, and then scrolling onward. It’s an experience that probably best suits its natural [online] habitat, but it also struck me as interesting material for a full-length work involving performance. I’m not specifically trying to thematize the net in my own work, but it appeals to me from a variety standpoints – financial, technical, aesthetic, social, etc.
• Why Cat Videos are Awesome: New Music, Score Follower, and YouTube by Michael Lewanski