If you are a composer, stop reading right now. Okay, I knew that wouldn’t work. Let me try this again… If making music is your primary source of income, these words I’m about to type don’t really pertain to you, so stop procrastinating and get back to work. Are you still with me here? Well then, read on my fellow hobbyist, it’s time to face the fact that, yes, maybe we really aren’t composers. Whoa, wait a minute. Of course we are composers, but do we truly have the right to introduce ourselves as such at parties and cocktail receptions?
It may have seemed outrageous at the time when Joseph Beuys declared “Jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler” (Everyone is an artist), but such proclamations seem irrelevant in today’s culture where, really, everybody is a composer. People everywhere are composing their own unique music libraries and play lists in iTunes, they’re DJing for friends on long road trips, and some are actually creating melodies, beats, and the stuff we call, you know, music. Soon, literally everyone at the dinner party is going to be, you guessed it, a composer. So what is going to separate us from the pack?
It feels a little funny when others introduce me to their friends as a composer. Personally, I prefer the introduction I tend to use most often: I write music and write about music (purposely avoiding the c-word because, in reality, it’s not my 9 to 5). Granted, there seem to be no criteria or official guidelines outlining what it takes to earn the title of composer, other than having written some music at some point in your life—pffft, an all but a meaningless distinction, if you ask me. Shouldn’t there be more stringent criteria? Ah, the slippery slope cometh.
I know a very successful recording artist with a day job who’s proud of his hobbyist status. It’s quite possible that we sub-professionals reach a higher plane of creative freedom because our music isn’t burdened with the task of putting fillet mignon (or seitan) on the table. Then again, I know one of those professional composer-types not born with a silver spoon in her mouth, and money never even crosses her mind—this isn’t about wealth accumulation, it’s simply the need to avoid bankruptcy and homelessness while incorporating music in an all-encompassing significant way. It’s the Holy Grail many aspire to.
I’m categorically shy about calling myself a composer because I haven’t reached that level of full engagement, i.e. I do other things to pay the bills. But I’m definitely not embarrassed about my hobby-composer stature. Hey, why should I be? For the most part, budding composers are forced into midlife crisis realm a little earlier than other soon-to-be professionals. Ineligibility for age-restrictive grants and awards can serve as a wakeup call for some. A friend with some very high profile awards has been contemplating law school and several other career changes for his post-30 years of life. Can you blame him?
The rewards—financial and otherwise—are too scant when it comes to modern composition. Yeah, I know, music is its own reward—now let’s skip through a field of poppies. But truthfully, I don’t need to heap the booby prize of calling myself a composer onto this. Do accountants, lawyers, stockbrokers, and hedge fund managers lie about their job titles when meeting strangers? Maybe some do, I’d rather call myself a composer without a speck of disillusionment. In those moments when I do dedicate myself to the best of my ability to music and its community, that’s when I’m a composer. When I’m hustling for gigs, talking shop with a performer, having coffee with a presenter (which I’ve been meaning to do…), writing a grant proposal, serving on a selection panel, sending out my work, burning promo CDs, working on ProTools, emailing somebody my bio, and yes, scribbling on manuscript paper: That’s when I’m a composer. Nice job if you can get it. Luckily, there’s plenty of part-time positions available.