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.