What a Way to Make a Living

This morning I got some weird looks on the subway. It was a packed Wall Street-bound train and the fact that I was carrying a 25-inch Chinese gong made me standout a little bit in the crowd. Clearly, not many people carry a trumpet, gong, and a case filled with electronic gadgets with them to the office, but I happen to have a gig tonight, so I braved the morning commute with gear in tow.

Somehow, my diversion from the requisite public transportation outfit of iPod ear buds and a free Metro newspaper overwhelmingly reminded me of how different my life is from your average 9-to-5er. If indeed, as Cyndi Lauper belted out in the mid-’80s, money changes everything, then it stands to reason that music changes everything and a bag of chips. While I’m sure that most of the people on the train with me this morning probably earn a bigger salary, like most artists I make myself feel better by thinking that I’m the richer person—hey, I’ve got music in my heart, man.

I’m sure that in the end, spiritual wealth is more valuable than the monetary variety, but imagine making a living as a composer. Seems like a surefire way to satisfy the soul. Hey, wait a minute. I went to school, and even have a degree in music composition. Some of my Berklee classmates have emerged quite successfully on the money-making side of the industry. So why don’t I just whip up a Billboard-charting tune or convince Justin Timberlake that I’m the guy to finesse his next single. I’m certainly qualified for the job. But for some reason, I’ve never gotten around to producing that techno album that’s been kicking and thumping inside my head, and I think I know why.

I enjoy creating work inside the context of classical music. But in a field dominated by Ph.D.s (haven’t got mine yet), it would be career suicide to create something financially successful—selling out before even getting into the game. It’s a paradigm that runs counter to the rest of the music business. Practitioners in popular genres will be the first to tell you that they aren’t in it for the money, and the most successful among them strive for and sometimes even reach the same thing all composers aim for: high artistic achievement. Some day in the near future, new music will rediscover—à la Glass, Reich, etc.—that artistic and commercial success is possible. Cue dramatic gong bang.

2 thoughts on “What a Way to Make a Living

  1. Alex Shapiro

    Career suicide? Selling out? Wow, I never realized how perilous writing a song and earning a few bucks could be! :-)

    I believe that when it comes to shaping the direction of one’s career, reality is formed by the perceptions we choose. If we absorb negative observations and call them truths, then our artistic and financial lives will be hindered. But we can actively decide to ignore beliefs that are self-limiting– in this case, the perception from some All Powerful and Somewhat Intimidating God of Academia that one can’t be taken seriously as a concert music composer if one makes money from a pop tune.

    Times have changed drastically. Now that composers are often self-published and self-recorded, the need to get approval from the mysterious, aforementioned god has lost its urgency. The internet has allowed all of us to find and create niche markets for what we do. It even allows for a certain amount of schizophrenia: we can put up a different MySpace or CD Baby page for unrelated offerings of our music, and create fan bases and income accordingly. If a composer really wants to bifurcate his/her creative life in a manner akin to entering the federal witness protection program, the Cranky God of Disapproval will never be the wiser.

    But there’s no need to go undercover. We can simply write the music we want to write. Pop, jazz, rave, concert, polka, anything. And if we’re decent business people, we can earn some money from our most popular efforts– whatever those turn out to be– and support our composing habit. Not only will we be far better off as artists, but also as people. More power to anyone who is a talented composer, and also a gifted enough songwriter to be able to sell that material and use it to subsidize a career in nonpop music. Speaking as an unabashed capitalist, I think that’s a lot more respectable than the Fickle God of Artistic Handouts’ socially accepted norm of living off of grants. Even more significantly, it puts a composer in a greater position of control over their potential income. Now I ask you, who would want to believe in a god who doesn’t want the best for music artists? ;-)

    It’s time to break the paradigm. All of us. En masse. One wild, crazy bunch of composers writing all sorts of music and being respected not in spite of it, but because of it. Believing that writing pop songs is a threat to one’s art music career is like thinking that gay marriage is a threat to the institute of hetero-nuptial bliss. To quote the U.K. band T. Rex from 1971: Get it on, bang a gong, get it on!

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  2. justjonathan

    I have to agree whole-heartedly with Alex. Things have changed. Forget being brainwashed into thinking you can’t do whatever you choose as a composer. I came to the same conclusion Alex did only recently. I write blissfully for tv and film (for money), write some pop songs(sometimes for money, do improv. (never any money), write chamber music(rarely money)…Some produce $0, and some produce quite a bit of cash. I’m a better overall person for all of it. I can’t be a useful and resourceful person without cash. It’s hard to live in a major city without some abundance. It doesn’t seem like a conflict of interest to me, as one skill informs the other. It’s all music. It’s as difficult to write a good song as it is to write a good concert piece. Only you have the power to proclaim to yourself “I’m a sellout!.”

    And BTW, why when citing examples on New Music Box that composers write for money is the example Justin Timberlake or Britney? It’s always a discussion of opposites, like silly teenager pop vs. academia. The world is quite a bit more dynamic than that. Would you feel like you were selling out if you wrote string quartet music for a political motivated documentary? Or how about producing a band with non-traditional instrumentation? It’s really slippery, right? Is there a list of composer approved projects that one can make money from?

    Money is important in the arts, but let’s face it – unless you have a trust fund backing you or are one of the lucky few to be backed by grants and/or institutions, isn’t it fine to choose writing music for a commercial instead of sell cars or crunch numbers in a cubicle?

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