What is a Successful Composer?
In my column last week, Act Now! (Operators Aren’t Standing By), I argued that composers should work to create our own opportunities rather than relying on the kindness of strangers, positing this as the road to success. In the comments, I was asked how I define success, and I realized that—like music itself—success (and its inverse: failure) is a difficult phenomenon to pin down, and that the more I work to create a specific definition of a successful composer, the more the issue becomes slippery and difficult to grasp firmly.
To a major recording label, success is simple: units sold. Even for a classical artist, they compare units sold to what they consider the artist’s peers.
I’m uncomfortable with this definition for two reasons. First, they measure sales over a limited time period (the #1 album of the week or year or even decade) rather than over the lifetime of the artist. By their rubric, the Monkees were more successful than any number of artists who continue to remain artistically relevant and therefore sell units. (While on tour, the Doors were asked by a flight attendant what their occupation was. Ray Manzerek responded: Rock musician. The attendant asked: Like the Monkees? Ray thought for a moment, then said: Kinda, I guess.) Second, by creating genres for comparison, they turn art into a game with winners and losers. If success is defined by outperforming peers, then it can only be obtained by outperforming the competition. I find this morally reprehensible, since I strongly believe that art is not a zero-sum game; instead I maintain that the accomplishments of my peers help to strengthen our collective position within society.
My personal definition of success has mainly been linked to the joy I experience in the creation of my art. While this might work on a personal level, when I attempt to apply this rubric to others it seems inane. In application, my definition would appear to categorize as failures a variety of giants within the field who didn’t appear to find pleasure in the process of creation, including (among many, many others) Morton Feldman, Bernd Alois Zimmerman, Schumann, and even Beethoven. Obviously, this is no way to separate successes from failures.
Awards like the Grawemeyer Award, MacArthur Fellowship and the Pulitzer Prize traditionally function as signifiers of success, but, as one of my teachers used to say: Competitions tell much more about the judges than about the pieces entered. And I hope that there is a consensus that Ralph Shapey was an equally excellent composer the day before the Pulitzer judging panel called him to award him the prize, the day after, and the day after that, when the Pulitzer Committee rescinded his award. Presumably, performances evince even greater flaws as an indicator, for if it’s difficult to agree on the efficacy of composers judging each other’s works, then other musicians must be even less qualified arbiters.
The more I ponder this question, the less comfortable I become with any traditional definition of success. And yet, like Justice Stewart’s famous definition of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” At least sometimes.
What are your thoughts on this issue? How do you define success? Do you maintain a personal definition, distinct from your approach to the works of others?