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!