On the Money: New Music Funding in the United States


Ted Wiprud on the 20
Theodore Wiprud
Photo by Melissa Richard

Think “new music,” and chances are, whatever you mean by “new music” does not earn its keep.

Fortunately, there is more to musical life than earned income. That’s because in the United States there exists a highly developed world of nonprofit institutions, and a tax code that encourages their support through charitable giving.

Embracing every kind of musical organization (along with churches, hospitals, universities, environmental agencies, and much more), the nonprofit world offers composers and their colleagues incomparably more freedom and flexibility than those former realms of patronage for Western music, the church and the court. That freedom comes at a price, of course: the need to find funding.

However much funding comes to new music, it is never enough because the supply of composers outstrips demand by such a great margin. As one who has helped dispense a great deal of funding, directing national grantmaking programs at Meet The Composer from 1990 to 1997, and serving on many panels for other agencies, I have heard every kind of composer gripe that someone else is getting all the funding.

Guess what: nobody gets enough, not over the long term.

Still, there is a great deal of funding for new music today, and it has a sprawling history, which this nonlinear HyperHistory attempts to sketch. This is not a guide to funding opportunities in new music. But it does have practical application if it fosters an understanding of who the players are and where they have come from.

Funding for new music in America has come in waves that have not subsided, but have piled up and complemented each other.

The first wave was of private patrons, beginning with the first American fortunes in the latter half of the nineteenth century, expanding to the middle class, and continuing today.

The second wave was of government agencies, beginning in a big way with the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, and flowering in the 1970s with the National Endowment for the Arts and hundreds of state and local arts councils.

Foundations constitute the third wave, which began with the Ford Foundation’s initial support to the arts in the late 1950s, spread to hundreds of other foundations, and continues to grow today.

Corporations, alas, do not yet qualify as a wave, having yet to establish a tradition of ongoing support for new music. But they have had a role to play.

Equally important with all of these have been the national service organizations, many born in the 1970s, several now of imposing size and importance. They create programs that attract money from patrons, government, foundations, and corporations, and then inject that money into the new music economy.

From all of these sources, there are five main forms of funding: fellowships, commissions, residencies, production or touring support, and grants for recording.

Aside from teaching salaries, commissions have historically been the primary form of direct support to composers. Commissions keep composers busy at their craft and usually lead to performances. Fellowships are less common, though many come in the form of awards; but most donors prefer a more tangible outcome than just helping a composer pay the rent. Residencies have grown into a major form of support, originally targeting pre-college education and now aiming at general audiences and specific community groups as well.

Production and recording grants, also vital to the new music economy, usually go to organizations producing new works. There is historically a shortage of such funds to realize composers’ projects.

All of these types of funding can be traced through the pages of this HyperHistory. While it is not encyclopedic – there are many important examples of each kind of funder not listed here – it is the first known complete framework on the subject.

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