By Any Means Necessary?

This week’s big debate in the Box has been triggered by Mark Gresham’s latest Radar report in which he describes how Robert Pound recently got his music played by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra but received zero financial remuneration for his compositional efforts. So is Pound a… smart gambler who is now on the map? (And don’t you wish it was you?) …victim? (How dare an organization with so much money not even offer him a small token fee?) …opportunist scab? (Isn’t he devaluing all new music and making it harder for any of us ever to get a dime for our latest symphony next time round?)

Welcome to the not-so-secret dirty little secret economics of music that exists outside the commercial mainstream but must operate within a capitalist society.

Let’s tackle each of these opinions one at a time. First the scab comment. It’s a sad reality that the supply and demand ratio for new music in this country is extremely disproportionate: more composers are writing today than could ever hope to earn a living at it. Without in any way begrudging the fabulous but all too few composers who miraculously have found a way to make a living doing what they want to do and nothing else, long ago I realized that I would not be one of them for a variety of reasons. Chief among them probably is that there are plenty of other things I like to do besides writing music and luckily some of those things allow me to earn a living. When I opted to do graduate work in ethnomusicology instead of composition, my mind was opened to the concept of a society where everyone made music rather than just a professional elite. Is that such a bad thing? Perhaps if even more people were composing and performing music in our society, we’d have an even stronger and committed audience for new music. And, as far as writing for free being bad for the market goes, if you’re writing orchestral music, your primary competition is not other living composers, but rather Mozart, Beethoven, and all the other great dead and free (i.e. public domain) composers.

As far as being a victim goes, I’d hardly call getting your work done by one of the best orchestras in the country in front of a large audience a pitiable sacrifice. Sure, in a perfect world you’d get paid a decent stipend for whatever you do, but if no one is willing to pay you to do something does that mean you don’t do something you love? In a capitalist society, everything is judged by its potential market value. But in a society that rarely gets exposed to certain forms of art—e.g. contemporary American orchestral music—how can you even begin to assess what it’s worth? Yes, I know, there are guidelines for what orchestras should pay for a new work from a composer. I can see the letters coming in and the phones ringing off the hook for days now, but until a composer can create a market for him or herself, why not take any opportunity that comes your way?

There are also other ways that a piece of music, once created, can earn something after its birth. Might another orchestra be more inclined to rent parts of a piece that was a huge success in Atlanta, rather than rent parts for a piece that has no performance history? Isn’t one of the reasons they play Mozart and Beethoven all the time the fact that this music has a proven track record? Then there are possible sync rights, record sales (hey, I can dream right), etc. And maybe, just maybe, one day you just might snag that elusive six-digit commissioning fee: it’s happened before.

But I would argue that if the only thing that’s driving you to write this music is the commission, you would do well to consider another profession that’s much more lucrative. Please don’t take this to mean that I believe a composer’s work should go uncompensated—far be it from me or any composer to advocate for a composer earning even less money—but I do think that a financial quid pro quo is not always the best incentive to spur on inspiration. Would I make such a not-so-Faustian bargain with an orchestra? You bet!

5 thoughts on “By Any Means Necessary?

  1. sgordon

    Honestly, I’m surprised we haven’t reached the point where composers have to pay to get their music performed. There have been vanity presses for writers for years. Why not a Vanity Orchestra?

    But this is nothing new to those who have been involved in music outside the classical world. Rock bands play for free quite regularly, just for the exposure.

    Many clubs, in fact, operate on this model: book a bunch of bands to play. Give the bands tickets to sell. Money goes to the club, of course. If you don’t sell X number of tickets, you never play that club again. Some clubs have taken it further – in fact, they guarantee you’ll sell your twenty (or however many) tickets. How? You have to buy twenty tickets in order to play. Then if you’re lucky, find twenty friends to sell them to and you can break even. In fact, you better find twenty friends to use ‘em, ’cause if those tickets don’t come through the door, as far the owner is concerned that only means less bar money. So maybe you just give them out for free to anyone who promises to come. Pay to play.

    Touring bands have it even worse. They’re lucky if they even get gas money to make it to the next gig. Everyone on the ground level knows that touring is a money-losing proposition. You do it to get your name out there.

    Or “Payola” for radio play – usually paid by the record labels, though either way someone’s paying for exposure. Payola’s illegal now, but anyone who doesn’t think it still goes on has their head in the sand.

    It may not be right, but that’s how it works. Expect more of the same. Welcome to real world, Classical Music.

    Reply
  2. ian

    Seth, vanity orchestras already exist and have for years. There are several labels that record contemporary music with orchestras in Eastern Europe and the composer pays something like $1000/min to have their piece included. Even in the United States, composers are often asked to bear some of the fundraising burden for CDs that contain their orchestral music. Another field that has rampant “pay to play” practices is choral music. Not only do most choruses not pay their singers, but many amateur choruses (even quite well-known ones) require dues payments in the three digits from each singer AND music fees AND ticket selling.

    What we are seeing before our eyes is the collision between art and cold economic reality. The orchestra and chorus are institutions from a bygone era that simply do not make economic sense anymore. They make a lot of artistic sense, but in a society that only cares about money, such frivolous things as artistic sense aren’t perceived to have much value. The supply of good music is simply increasing at a far, far greater rate than the demand of ears to hear it–so much so that we may even be heading towards a situation in which the people with the ears are the ones being paid for THEIR services. Not to sound pessimistic or anything! :) Anyway, to me it just highlights even more the importance of real philanthropic support of the arts. It quite literally makes pipe dreams possible.

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  3. sgordon

    Yeah, I figured vanity orchestras probably existed, just never looked into it so I wasn’t sure. I’ve heard about vanity choral groups, so it wasn’t such a stretch to assume they were out there already. I can think of better things to spend my money on. Like 1,000 Lindsay Lohan CDs. Sorry, Britney, I’ve moved on.

    To tell the truth, I’m not entirely convinced that orchestras still make artistic sense. I would discourage most young composers from composing for orchestra as a waste of time, though perhaps sampling technology is getting to the place where one can coax a pretty dynamic “performance” out of Cubase or something.

    I think to pass off the financial problem as society only caring about money does society a disservice: it’s not that people only care about money, which isn’t even true – consistently, polls show a majority of Americans are fine with some of their tax money going to NPR, CPB, and the arts in general. It’s the reality that it costs money to run a business, even a publicly supported one. There’s only so long you can run in the red for. We have small business loans to help companies get a leg up and things like that, but the orchestra – and the arts in general really – have been running ridiculous deficits for decades. If CBGBs has to close down, I don’t see why I should shed a tear if some orchestra not meeting its bills does. Heck, CB’s gives more opportunities to emerging artists in a week than most orchestras do in a year. Send my tax money there.

    Am I suggesting shutting down all orchestras? Nah, that would be overkill. But perhaps scale them back. I’ve gone off about changing the focus to chamber music before, and outlined a thrown-together economic model in my blog a week or so ago. I’d like to see orchestras move towards the community model, with fewer full-time professional ones. Not to the extreme that choruses have, what with the dues and all. I know that’s sacrilege to say here, but whatever – it’s not like my opinions have been the most popular before. A great chef is much an artist as a great conductor, but no one’s bailing out failing restaurants. Or failing fashion designers. Or failing rock clubs. Just the way the world works, and I don’t see why “classical music” gets to live in some other world where they don’t have to play by the same rules.

    Reply
  4. bdrogin

    Vanity, thy name is…
    Okay, so when is somebody going to post the names of the two vanity contemporary classical music CD labels, so that everyone who has had a CD “released” on one of them can be publically humiliated. Come on, let’s have it. And the envelope goes to…

    Reply
  5. sgordon

    I bet you think this post is about you…
    Well, I’ll admit that my old hiphop group had a couple tracks on a vanity compilation on a vanity label. This was in 2000 or so. I actually saw a copy in a used CD bin on St. Mark’s Place a couple of months ago. Look Ma, I’m famous!

    Reply

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