Ticket Shock

Hello from United Flight 831. Today’s column finds me once again in transit, on a plane returning to Japan to begin another semester of teaching. It’s nice to have a chance to reflect on the events of the last two months, spent mostly stateside pretty much in full composer mode, undistracted by the demands of teaching.

As regular readers of this column know, I spent part of February in the hills above the San Francisco Peninsula, collaborating with filmmaker Pat O’Neill on two works for projected images and live music. Terrific to have more than a week of creative time with almost no urban distractions, good dinners with fellow artists, woods full of hawks, coyote, rabbits, and deer, and a full lunar eclipse.

In March I hit the road for several weeks and traveled through Texas, performing in a range of venues as big as the state’s heart: from a sit-down concert at the Van Cliburn Recital Hall in Fort Worth to a fun interactive happening in Austin that ping-ponged between indoors and outside in a beer garden, a benefit for the Electronic Freedom Foundation. Many of the attendees seemed to have spontaneously come in costume. An Austin tradition? I would gladly return to find out.

A few days later I found myself performing inside the cavernous record store known as Amoeba Music in Los Angeles, on a stage that Paul McCartney had performed on in a free event just a few weeks before. I can’t claim to have commanded the interest and excitement that Sir Paul had—it was understandably a total mob scene, and I’m told that people camped out on the streets for several days before he arrived. I daresay that most of the customers in the always-crowded store—literally larger than two bowling alleys—had never heard of Carl Stone before I started to play. Still it was a good feeling to occasionally look up while playing and see more and more people halting their browsing and paying attention to the music that flowed through the store’s PA. And they seemed to be enjoying it.

Then it was off to New York to perform with Min-Wu-Xu, three superb Chinese players all trained in traditional music and all of whom have extended both their techniques and aesthetics to perform contemporary experimental music and free improvisation—interesting and telling that they all did so after leaving their native China and settling in the U.S. and Europe. What a thrill and an honor to have been commissioned by Min Xiao-Fen, the group’s leader and pipa player, to write a new piece for them. Plus it was great to be back in New York after quite a long absence.

But after more than two months of traveling with no mishaps or screw-ups worse than one inconveniently located motel, it was time for my good luck to come to an end. This it did spectacularly earlier today, when I arrived at Los Angeles International Airport for my return flight to Japan only to discover…no ticket had ever been purchased. Whoops! It seems that in the flurry of travel arrangements that had been going on a few weeks ago, plotting out my various trajectories in May, June, and July, I had neglected to make that one critical phone call to confirm purchase of today’s flight, and so my reservation had been summarily cancelled. Thus I came to personally understand a truth that we all should hold to be self-evident: When you have to fly out on the same day and all the economy seats are sold out, forcing you to purchase a full-fare business class ticket, you will suddenly find yourself many, many thousands of dollars lighter, and considerably heavier with rue and dismay. Oof.

My otherwise sunny disposition is just a wee bit cloudy as I think forward to the next few months, I still have a lot of excitement about what is in store. The resumption of teaching in a foreign language is always an interesting challenge. I have a number of projects just getting started: a commission from the redoubtable pianist Sarah Cahill for her “A Sweeter Music” project that I am very proud to be a part of; a new work with an entirely different set of Chinese musicians that will be premiered in May in San Francisco; development of an eight-channel interactive sound installation work that will open at a gallery in Nagoya in June; an appearance at the New Albion festival taking place at Bard College in August. I’m looking forward to all of it, and to sharing my thoughts and ruminations with you as these projects develop and occur. Just I need to remember to keep in touch with my travel agent.

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25 thoughts on “Ticket Shock

  1. Chris Becker

    Carl,

    I have some questions for you. I enjoyed reading this essay/travelogue. But thoughts about my own future are clouding the enjoyment I should feel when reading about someone’s musical adventures. So what’s bugging me? If you could answer these questions, I would be very grateful. And the questions themselves might provide a clue as to what I am mulling over these days…

    1.) Do you make a living by teaching as well as composing? By making a living I mean pay bills, rent, and have money left over for a small (small) savings.

    2.) Does making a living include having decent health insurance?

    3.) How are you able to book so many gigs and afford the costs of travel?

    NMBx likes to post these essays from composers who are happy to talk about everything except how they actually pay for things. I am not trying to be a buzzkill here…but this Winter, there have been some pretty startling and heartbreaking stories here in NYC about musicians getting injured or sick and not having health coverage…musicians with international careers. Careers that apparently didn’t allow for them to live above the poverty level.

    Grants are nice but they in no way actually cover the expenses you incur for larger scale projects like what you describe.

    I know there isn’t ONE answer to this – no secret formula – but HOW do you manage to do what you do?

    Reply
  2. carlstone

    Good questions Chris.

    Yes, that’s how it works for me these days.
    In the past I did my best to survive from grants, touring and commissions, while working part-time on jobs such as running the California office of Meet the Composer, which I did in the eighties and early nineties. I was able to make a go of it, but there were quite a few months where I wasn’t sure where my rent would be coming from. Somehow I managed to pull it off, but it seemed to be getting harder and harder, and as I entered my late forties, the romantic existence of a full-time freelance composer without health insurance included the decidedly unromantic prospect of illness which could be catastrophic in a number of ways. It didn’t seem like it could sustain itself too much longer.

    Now, teaching takes up the slack and then some. I am fortunate that my university provides me a decent living and a budget for equipment, plus modest health insurance which I can now afford to supplement out of my own pocket. Expenses in Japan are quite high, though, and my travel costs are too, not just because I need to get to gigs but because of private family issues that keep me still tied somewhat to California.

    When it comes to gigging and traveling, if you compare me to people like Elliot Sharp, Ned Rothenberg, or Pauline Oliveros I think I come off as very much a lightweight. Those folks seems constantly on the road, don’t have any teaching gigs as far as I know, and most amazingly book everything themselves. I think it would be great if AMC could get one or more of them to share their thoughts, techniques and advice for people like you and the many others I am sure read these columns.

    Feel free to follow up if you have more questions!

    Reply
  3. Chris Becker

    “I think it would be great if AMC could get one or more of them to share their thoughts, techniques and advice for people like you and the many others I am sure read these columns.”

    Speaking as someone hurling towards 40, I’d welcome ANY advice or illumination the folks you named could offer regarding how to pay the bills, save some money and take care of yourself if you or your partner gets sick.

    But you know, these are very personal questions. And the “blog” is a very public forum that many MANY people do NOT feel comfortable with. Some things are personal. Some things should be kept private. So the “blog” and the utopia that is Internet, might not be the best means for composers and creative musicians to have a “real” dialog about these issues.

    But maybe there’s a way to do it. Maybe NMBx is up to the challenge. I just renewed my AMC membership. I’m a believer. And I say let’s cut the articles about iPods and TV shows! Let’s talk about how to pay the bills, man. Like John Lennon sang “Just Gimmie Some Truth!”

    Love,

    CB

    Reply
  4. William Osborne

    Carl, Pauline Oliveros currently teaches at both Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Mills College.

    William Osborne

    Reply
  5. Chris Becker

    I guess I’m also interested in how composers and creative musicians who don’t teach at a University get by.

    NMBx basically profiles people who teach or young men and women doing grad school work. I myself am not interested in the “new generation of Columbia composers.” I’m not disrespecting them, but I think if they’re enrolled at Columbia they’re probably in good shape financially (well, until it comes time to pay off the student loans…). I guess I’m more interested in the (ahem) middle aged non-University affiliated working class gang of creative artists…there are so many of us but reading NMBx (or the NY Times for that matter) you’d think we don’t exist.

    I do not mean to be negative. I like NMBx and I wouldn’t be a member of the AMC if I didn’t respect its staff and its mission. But all of the questions I proposed to Carl above have really weighed on my spirit lately – and I’m looking to the community for some answers. And not just here in Blog format, of course…

    Reply
  6. rtanaka

    It’s very difficult to make a living doing music unless you teach. Most of the musicians I know who are making money off their musical skills are teaching in one form or another, and these do include “reputable” composers and performers as well.

    I recently got a check from ASCAP. (First time ever!) $37 dollars for one performance of a 2 minute string quartet work at a university. Not to shabby, but it does put things into perspective — I would have to at least get 60 or more performances in a month just to make ends meet around where I live, although I’m still unmarried, childless, and relatively healthy at this point so that’s just the bare minimum to get by. Say, at the very least, 100 performances a month to be able to meet a level that would be qualified as a middle-class income. Wow.

    There’s also the possibility of going the commercial route, which is plentyful in Los Angeles though I think there are more opportunities opening up in the other large cities as well. Upward mobility is also very difficult in this arena, and unless the musician enjoys working within very strict limitations, it can be kind of soul-crushing. There’s also the possibility of doing freelance work, which in case, puts the burden on the musician to do a lot of different things and know how to run a very efficient business…which seems to be kind of stressful, but rewarding if you can manage to pull it off.

    Artist House is a pretty good site if you’re interested in up-to-date information of the music business at this point. It’s a nice balance of a lot of things, and there’s a lot of stuff about both classical, new music, and pop oriented mediums. I saw a few interviews by Frank J. Oteri up there as well. Some of the interviews with some of the more old-school people who have worked in the industry seem to emphasize the need for musicians to take charge of their own career and self-promote. Maybe after you’ve created a buzz for yourself, only then might you have a possibility of getting a signed contract.

    So I guess it largely depends which route the musician might want to take, depending on what kind of lifestyle they might want to have. Some routes provide stable income but can be restrictive, while freelance work give more freedom but can be nervewrecking if gigs or jobs happen to dry out. It’s something I’m trying to sort out myself as well.

    Reply
  7. justjonathan

    As a commercial music composer in Los Angeles, I can offer a few insights for this route…I’ve actually found the restrictions to be positive, and getting paid well to compose for television or film sharpens my compositional skills. But, it’s not as restrictive as you might think. (what’s the real difference between manipulating textures in MAX for a concert or the Discovery Channel?) Occasionally I have to mock an existing track, but it’s often instructive in deconstructing pieces, their sounds, their mix. I punch the clock, try to write a few small pieces a day. My late teacher at CalArts, Lucky Mosko, who I would have expected to be discouraging of my career in commercial music given his pedigree and tastes, was encouraging by pointing out that “all writing is a practice of one’s craft and it beats to hell, non-music related day jobs…”

    As to the meat and potatoes of making a living at this, I can offer the following points – 1. Biggest royalty checks for chamber music have amounted to a few hundred dollars, royalties from tv have allowed me to live very comfortably in my 30s. (but I’ve had some lucky breaks, too) 2. – Any career with upward mobility is built on people skills and trust. Music included. 3. I’d say that from all of the people I know that make a decent living in commercial music, they have combinations of skills – being prolific, being able to write quickly in a multitude of styles, engineering chops, networking and people skills, negotiation skills, knowledge of film and multimedia history and their context. 3. – Like any job worth having or cultivating, there’s no magic bullet or answer. It’s important not to be a control freak about a career as well. Just like money issues, it seems like more flows in when I hold it less tightly…

    Having said all of this, it boils down to a non-romantic ideal for me. It’s a job. I wasn’t a born teacher or performer. I don’t have a trust fund. I don’t have a purist attitude. Work is as creative as you make it or not. I actually enjoy tight deadlines with a lot of pressure and money on the line. It solves the problem of “why” you’re writing the piece.

    In closing, I think the topic of how to make a living at this should be a more prevalent area in graduate school music programs. A nice combo of practical insight, optimism and realism would be helpful. And not just “Good luck, maybe you’ll marry rich!”

    – Jonathan Miller composer : Flip That House, Verminators, Lobstermen, Big, etc.

    Reply
  8. Chris Becker

    I still have my chops…
    Thanks so much Ryan and Jonathan. I just want to point out that saying “all writing is a practice of one’s craft and it beats to hell, non-music related day jobs…” is sort of putting those of us who…well…have a “non-music related day job” into a category of unhappy people. Or even worse, not as committed to our craft as someone with some success in the commercial music realm. Most of my close friends who I consider great artists have non-artistic day jobs. I think that’s a very common thing.

    Reply
  9. carlstone

    Ryan (and any other ASCAP members out there reading this)- be sure to apply to ASCAP for their annual ASCAPlus award. This is a grant that is meant to:

    “(provide) cash and recognition to:
    1) Active writers in the early and mid stages of their careers, and
    2) To established writers whose main activity is outside of broadcast media.”

    Bill – You’re right, Pauline does indeed teach. I thought of her because she manages to maintain a very active touring schedule even in the midst of her academic responsibilities, no mean feat. Sorry I should have clarified this point.

    Chris – I agree, while teaching and writing commercial music are two of the most commonly held solutions to the problem of being a composer and also making a living, other types of day jobs don’t always have to suck.

    Jonathan – your point about using MAX to composer for the Discovery channel is an interesting one. The problem I find with doing commercial music, especially for television, is that usually the deadlines are so severe that one cannot afford the time to do the experimenting, imaginative playing, just poking around, that I personally find so important as part of my compositional process. My personal way of using MAX requires this, so doing commercial music has always been a problem for me. So I respect the abilities and craft of people who are able to work such as way even more.

    Reply
  10. justjonathan

    I certainly didn’t mean to insult. I worked more than one day job up until a year ago at 37. I’m sure there are people much more dedicated to the craft than I – as I said, luck plays a role in all of this…
    It is the problem with this communication style, in that I’m stating a personal opinion based on my own experiences in order to benefit the dialogue of the struggle to make a living in music. It’s not black and white.

    The marketplace isn’t democratic. There are successful composers here I know with every advantage – family wealth, connections, educations, and a gift… And, well – it’s really not easy to predict if they’ll be successful or not. Cheers!

    Reply
  11. justjonathan

    Process
    Yeah, Carl : the deadlines stink sometimes. I know your use of manipulation is far more sophisticated than mine. But I do try to incorporate some blatant experiments in the commercial work. Lately I’ve been suprised with what I get away with – but then again I’m writing music for a show about rat infestations and termites!

    Reply
  12. rtanaka

    Hey thanks for the info, John and Carl. (Yeah, Lucky was a great teacher, wasn’t he?) For now, I’m going to attempt the whole “art route” thing while doing my librarian-ing as a way to make a living, as least for now.

    Just in general, I think that it’s very important to keep your skill-sets wide and be willing to be interested in things outside of music. You really never know what sorts of things can come in handy, and even in my own experiences being able to talk about a wide variety of subjects have paid off in more ways than one. Heck, even my boss at the library taught himself how to computer program and that’s primarily how he keeps his job.

    I hope this doesn’t sound as being defeatist, but I think that it’s actually fairly beneficial to have a secondary interest not related to music. I’m at least fairly content with my current job, I don’t loathe getting up in the morning, and it allows me to meet a lot of genuinely interesting people. Even in most other fields, employers are looking for people who have multiple-skill sets because it shows that they have a level of adaptability that becomes important in this rapidly changing world. I don’t think music is that much different.

    Reply
  13. rtanaka

    Oh, don’t forget about the growing video game market — last I heard it has more money in it than TV, film, and radio combined. It depends on what kind of game you’re working on, but the interesting thing is that you’ll be often asked to supply general “moods” for a certain context of the game, because a lot of the times it runs autonomously until the player decides to do something. It’s a lot different than providing cues for film, but it seems to offer a bit more artistic freedom in that area too.

    Reply
  14. philmusic

    I have a day job as a licenced elementrary instrumental and classroom music teacher with the Saint Paul Public schools.

    This fact sometimes places me in some very odd situations, you do pay a price for independence- but its worth it.

    Phil Fried

    Reply
  15. toddtarantino

    Chris writes:
    “I myself am not interested in the “new generation of Columbia composers.” I’m not disrespecting them, but I think if they’re enrolled at Columbia they’re probably in good shape financially (well, until it comes time to pay off the student loans…) I guess I’m more interested in the (ahem) middle aged non-University affiliated working class gang of creative artists…”

    Just to clear up several misconception about academia that Chris puts forth. Doctoral students at Columbia don’t pay tuition. They receive a small stipend (currently $21000) that’s just enough to scrape by; study, teach and often have other jobs as well: copying, church gigs etc. When they graduate they face the same prospects as everyone else.

    Unless one is full-time at a reputable institution (whose salary ranges are a well-kept secret, although CUNY as a unionized institution has set salary schedules, you can see them here:
    http://www.psc-cuny.org/SalarySchedules.htm
    ) you face an endless cycle of adjuncting, approximately $2500-4000 a class depending on the institution, and usually without health care.

    Reply
  16. philmusic

    “..They receive a small stipend (currently $21000) that’s just enough to scrape by;..”

    $21,000.00 small? Well I’m moving to Lilliput.

    Phil Fried

    Reply
  17. philmusic

    “..Unless one is full-time at a reputable institution…”

    Todd, please forgive me–but would you kindly provide us with a list is disreputable institutions. It could save us all a whole lot of time and trouble.

    respectfully,

    Phil Fried

    Reply
  18. philmusic

    “..Unless one is full-time at a reputable institution…”

    Todd, please forgive me–but would you kindly provide us with a list of disreputable institutions. It could save us all a whole lot of time and trouble.

    respectfully,

    Phil Fried

    Reply
  19. toddtarantino

    I’ll only respond once.
    All institutions are disreputable.
    As to how far 21K will go in NYC, that’s not even worth arguing about.

    Reply
  20. philmusic

    “..As to how far 21K will go in NYC, that’s not even worth arguing about…”

    Todd, I am aware that not all folks, or graduate students, have the same financial needs, resources, or responsibilities. Its still seems like a lot of money.

    Phil Fried, professor at Skidroe U. a most disreputable institution.

    Reply
  21. Chris Becker

    “They receive a small stipend (currently $21,000) that’s just enough to scrape by; study, teach…”

    But Todd, if you’re not in a doctoral program, you don’t get a small stipend. You’re working a day job (or two) and try to “scrape” by as well. And probably on less than $21,000 a year.

    But that said, I do have friends in academia – friends in doctoral programs, friends who are professors, etc. and I didn’t want to spread misconceptions or trivialize anyone’s struggle. That’s not helping anyone.

    I’m just pointing out that composers in this other demographic I described (much to my regret in language that most of my composing friends will probably find kind of condescending – “middle aged” “working class” – the foot-in-mouth illness continues…) could be represented more on NewMusicBox. And there’s been more than a few articles of late about post-grad/doctoral/whatever students on this site – enough that it struck me as a bit skewed. Do you need a degree to be considered a “composer?” Of course not.

    So who are the folks without degrees? And what sort of sacrifices have they made in order to remain in touch with a creative life? And how have they figured out how to survive on into middle age?

    And that said, I know from communications from NMBx’s editors that they do make a serious effort to cast their net wide and remain a source of inspiring as well as practical information for composers of all stripes.

    I have links to various NYC health insurance plans geared toward lower income folks that I will put together later this week to share…probably on my own website.

    Reply
  22. philmusic

    “..Do you need a degree to be considered a “composer?” Of course not….”

    Chris the problems that you mention are real and are as complex as our composition world.

    One is a question of scale; I believe that there are over 10,000 composers living in NYC alone. Another thing; professional courtesy only extends so far — and that is so so wrong.

    We sometimes forget that though we share the same planet we all don’t live in the same world

    Phil Fried Skidroe U.

    Reply
  23. rtanaka

    It seems like American individualism tends to emphasize the “do it yourself’ attitude which has its ups and downs depending on where you are. Struggles with healthcare isn’t just a problem with music either, and it’s something that most people face.

    I currently work in an academic library at a state institution — it seems that while the pay isn’t much the benefits are usually pretty good and can be a plus depending where you are in your life. Private sector jobs typically pay more, but it’s usually a lot more competitive and you have to deal more often with the public, who can often be less than reasonable. I think it helps to put things into perspective here — all things said, academics have it pretty good at least in their comfort of their job. If you disagree, working a job in the service industry for a few months will probably change your mind.

    Reply
  24. rtanaka

    Not to mention if you’re getting a graduate degree, especially like a doctorate or something, that in itself will give access to a lot of things that most people simply have no means of getting. Students are supposed to be poor during their stay at school, because they’re making an investment in themselves.

    Reply

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