Weekend Warriors

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.

7 thoughts on “Weekend Warriors

  1. glennfreeman

    Composing & Money
    Both Charles Ives and John Prokop are composers but both did/do other things to make a living. Philip Glass and John Williams are composers too, and they happen to earn money by composing. There will always be extremists on either end of the spectrum … Glass and Ives are both great composers but made their livings in different fields.

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  2. larose

    how about the m word?
    i always just say i’m a musician. if pressed further i say i play flute and i write music.

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  3. John Kennedy

    work redux
    Thanks Randy – but it makes me wish for the days when this magazine would raise a topic and cover it with some breadth. Type in “composers jobs” on a NMBx search and while you need to sift, find lots of in-depth coverage of how composers deal with this: take note of “Hyphenated Composers”, “Don’t Quit Your Day Job”, “The Composer’s Work”, etc…the issue never goes away.

    It’s fanciful to think composing alone can earn a living and therefore justify the label of “composer” – and even among the names Glenn cites, performing is a major source of income as well. A Pulitzer Prize-winner once told me he would never quit his “day job” of teaching – he couldn’t. But more importantly is how we circulate in the rest of the world, the music world especially, in other capacities – rather than hole up in our cocoon of creativity – because hundreds of composers have come up with unique definitions of what it means to be a composer by means of their “other” work.

    You insult yourself to refer to yourself as a hobbyist and “sub-professional” – you write really interesting music that is highly professional! Is it the creative artist’s fault that society doesn’t make our work a viable job for anyone whose work isn’t embraced widely? In this era of mass bullshit? What happened to standly proudly for the notion that your work is NOT widely accepted, and that you are a COMPOSER, dammit! And, it is an insult to composers like Cage, Nancarrow, fill in the blank endlessly, who didn’t aspire to self-definition as a composer through financial compensation. They sure as hell were composers.

    A few months ago, I wrote an email of congrats to a young composer who got a good review for a new piece and I said I’d like to see it to consider it for performance. I never heard from him. Now, a few months later, I have heard from his publicists – repeatedly. If this is what it means to be a “professional” composer today, I’ll take the amateurs. I hope this mindset that defines creative success as that which is compensated, and drives the rosy-cheeked to think they need handlers for one little piece before they build collegiality, isn’t really the way things are turning. Tell me that in some quarters, the artist lifestyle is still lived proudly, unabashedly – as an artistic, social, and economic statement.

    At the end of the day, we’ll be able to tell you if you’re a composer by looking at your music. I think the tenor of this post requires a nod of inspired apology to Kyle Gann. Maybe it’s because I’m listening to his new “Long Night” CD.

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  4. randy

    Indeed earning a living composing—just composing—is fanciful, which is why I was careful to use the term “music making.” In my book that includes performing music, accompanying, maybe even teaching counterpoint (although this could be a bit of a stretch). The fact is my fingers rest themselves over a computer keyboard much more often than a piano keyboard and most of my day is spent here in the office during the week—no offense to all you laptop composers out there on your keyboard preferences. I think of myself as a part-time composer, and proud of it—I don’t think I’m insulting myself here. I’m just accepting facts.

    Perhaps I’m being too pragmatic in making this silly distinction—I don’t even like distinctions, mind you—but I can’t ignore my own reality. I’d love to score films and write my wacky chamber music on the side, or engage in some form of music creation from which I can earn a living (but hey, I like my current job). I’m not against laying down some techno tracks or something, if I knew I could keep myself out of the poorhouse by doing so. John Kennedy brings up a good point, and one that I wholeheartedly agree with, when he writes about the lack of pride on being an outsider these days and backs it up with the spoils of being a “professional.”

    I’m proud of my amateur status. I’m also proud of the money-earning composers like Glass, Reich, Adams, Monk, etc. I’m not saying my music is sub-par to whatever full-time practitioner (who’s to say?), I’m just not going to introduce myself as a composer at a non-musical social event, because I think it’s a little disingenuous for me to do so (not to mention the fact that nobody will know what the hell I’m talking about!). I’m not implying that anyone should feel the same way that I do. Maybe at the heart of this debate is how society in general chooses to identify one another in the professional world, using job titles rather than passions and ambitions.

    In the end, earning the right to call myself a composer is a personal motivator. It gets me down to the business of doing composerly things. If I wrote music everyday, you bet I’d flash my composer title around a lot more freely. Sadly, I don’t have the time right now.

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  5. david toub

    I have never ever made a cent off of my music; in fact, it’s a loss leader, given what it costs me for software, paper, opportunity cost, etc. But the fact is that I’ve been writing since I was a kid, and have no interest in stopping. I earn my living through online medical education, and previously earned a living as a gynecologist. Not that long ago, I worried that I would be considered a “dilettante” or otherwise unworthy, since I didn’t devote my full time to composing, and had an entirely different career. I had no contacts anymore in the new music world, and I was basically on my own.

    But then I put my music, both scores and MP3s, on my own site, started blogging and got involved in a music blog frequented by many composers and performers. For the most part, I’ve been taken quite seriously. Occasionally, 1-2 people will look upon me as an interloper and dis me as a dilletante, but that’s the minority.

    So it is very possible to have a separate career from composing yet still be taken seriously as a composer. The reality is that most composers earn a living doing something else. It’s also true that if you write music, you’re a composer, period.

    Everyone knows William Carlos Williams as a great poet and even as one of Steve Reich’s favorites. Not everyone knows he was a gynecologist like me. It didn’t detract, as far as I know, from his being taken seriously as a poet. So why do some people seem to have issues with doctors, lawyers, programmers, paralegals, grocery store clerks, plumbers, business people, etc. being “serious” composers? No one is getting a free ride here; does anyone think people who are not full-time composers are getting a break somehow? Yes, it’s nice to have a decent income through having a steady non-composing job, but does that negate what one does as a composer? There are those like Jeff Harrington, Richard Friedman and others who, like me, have day jobs and families and also take our music very, very seriously. I think it’s healthy. We can write what we want to, when we want to (or rather, when we have the time). The only major downside is just that—lack of time.

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  6. jeff harrington

    It doesn’t really matter, to me, or to most artists I know, how we are defined by other people, especially those who have ‘sold out.’

    How about them apples… ;)

    Just kiddin… Now really, it doesn’t matter how we are defined, what matters is that people listen to and enjoy our music.

    Thanks to my prominence on the web, I probably get more listens on a daily basis then most ‘professional composers.’ And a good part of that listener base listens BECAUSE I don’t make money on music. I don’t compromise and I take chances.

    So there… ;-P

    Reply

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