New Funding for New Music

A couple of years ago, Randall Davidson and I found ourselves driving from Vermillion, South Dakota back to his home in Minneapolis. Cruising along the Interstate, somewhere out on the prairie, we hit a bird.

Randall pulled over. We got out and removed a beautiful violet-green swallow from the grill of the car. We carried the small body away from the highway and laid it down in the tall grasses at the edge of a cultivated field. Then we walked back to the car and drove on, in silence.

Some time later, as night began to fall, we broke our reveries and began to speak again. As often happens with composers, the topic came around to music. Randall and I talked about the marvelous profusion of music being made these days, and the need for more money to support not only its composition, but its performance, recording, and dissemination to the wider audience that wants to hear it.

The more we talked, the more we realized that new music not only needs more money. It needs a new model of funding, to create real incentives for innovative thinking.

New music needs a new paradigm for funding.

Individual patrons still have a crucial role to play. But who are the next generation of new music patrons? As technology continues to transform both art and commerce, will some of the dot.com phenoms who’ve made their fortunes on the cutting edge of the new economy step forward and share some of their wealth with the cutting edge of new music? The match seems perfect. And the moment is right.

It’s a hard reality of cultural life in the U.S. that federal, state and local government funding for the arts is not what it should be, or even what it used to be. Private foundations and corporations have taken up some but by no means all of the slack. Many foundations and corporations change their funding priorities like clothing styles, and many of their doors are closed to individual artists, small groups, and artistically risky work. Precious few foundations place a priority on funding new music, and some of those who do are less-than-ecumenical in their grant making decisions.

“Wouldn’t it be great,” Randall and I mused, “if new music had its own foundation?”

Call it the New Music Trust. Or maybe the American Music Fund. This fund would have no deadlines and no fixed guidelines. Proposals would be accepted at any time, from individuals and organizations (profit or non-profit) for new musical enterprises of any and all sorts. If you could dream it up, this fund would consider it.

Without the imperative to fit our thinking into the strictures of conventional grant programs, creative musicians would be challenged to invent new ways to advance new music in the marketplaces of culture and commerce. The agenda would be set by the new music community ourselves. It would be up to us to articulate the changing needs and opportunities of our field, and to convince the fund of the importance and the viability of our new enterprises.

Maybe this was just idle chatter, the wild talk of two friends riffing out loud to fill the long miles on the road from Vermillion. But wild talk can lead to great things. That little swallow was a kind of wake-up call. And ever since that road trip, this idea of a new fund for new music keeps coming back. So I’d like to invite more talk – both wild and sober – about this topic.

Why shouldn’t the new music community have its own foundation?

What would it take to create it? Where would the money come from? How would the fund be structured? And how would decisions be made in a way that remains open and responsive to the realities of the new music community?

What role might the American Music Center play in creating a major new source for funding new music?

What new models can you imagine for funding new music?