Of New Music and the 99%

Carr making music at Occupy Wall Street

Photo by Stacy Lanyon

When I was asked to be a NewMusicBox columnist, I understood that one of the many points of the project is to facilitate conversation, and that “debate was welcome.” I’ve decided to embrace the idea and spend a month writing about conflict, specifically the ways in which music makers are agitating for better pay and working conditions in various parts of the industry.

Because this is NewMusicBox, I want to steer towards issues and case studies that speak to new music and its community. That said, I also want to state a belief that I plan to explore this month: that questions about funding, sponsorship, contracts, and payments are generically similar across many musical and creative domains and also across many “precarious work” contexts. Also, that these areas mostly land us in the working and middle classes in the neo-liberal West. I say this because I suspect that most people working in new music have working class or middle class economic situations, regardless of upbringing, education level, or identity. Perhaps I will be wrong in my hypothesis, and I would be more than happy to be wrong if the reality is that most music makers are actually making enough from music to be considered upper class, but I somehow doubt we are all living as “rock stars.” That is what I want to deal with in a more serious and empirical way this month.

Although I was always generically interested in music as labor, it was really my involvement with Occupy Wall Street that showed me what the contemporary struggles were in this field. The rest of this column is a short tour of how I got to the place I am now and why I consider Occupy the foundation of my current attitudes about musical labor.

When OWS sprung up in downtown Manhattan, I showed up to lend support and to hear what was on people’s minds. I was a music journalist who had played in new music and indie contexts for a decade, but I had wandered from performance when grad school took over my life. Within a few days of the occupation’s beginning, I signed an online pledge of support via the site Occupy Writers, led by Jeff Sharlet. I began editing and writing for the website, and visiting the park more often.

After my friend Will Hermes sent us a piece about Jeff Magnum’s Zuccotti performance

—I was both inspired and frustrated by my own work for the movement. I was a writer, but I wanted there to be something like Occupy Writers for musicians, because music is what I loved and music is what I knew about. I lay in bed one night about two weeks after the occupation started, worrying because no one had launched a campaign for musicians.

That night I had a sensation that was new to me. I knew that I wasn’t qualified to do this thing, I wasn’t a “real” musician and felt I thus didn’t deserve to step into the space of organizing a musician’s solidarity campaign, but I decided I was going to try to do it anyway. I had a little of the Occupy spirit in my veins when I popped over to my computer at three a.m. and bought the URL for occupymusicians.net, finding out in the morning that another New Yorker had bought the dot com only a day or two before me. “Why not join forces?” Sharlet wrote, and gave me the guy’s email. And so I met Judd Greenstein, an entrepreneurial young composer who also wanted to show solidarity, and together we launched occupymusicians.com.

When we launched we didn’t know what the site would do, other than that we wanted to show the world that many—indeed tens of thousands—of musicians felt kinship with or were part of the 900+ occupations held around the world that fall. To me it meant that the musicians not only supported the direct action tactic of occupying public space, but also that they had a consciousness about where they fit in the economic space. Most musicians, even the wealthiest among our list—such as Tom Morello or members of Sonic Youth—were the 99 percent. We decided that the list was just a list–a public statement. What musicians and activists did after that step was up to them.

We launched the website, got a lot of media attention, and began collecting a lot of great music and documentation of music (check out this Occupy-dedicated piece “Occupy Air” by Pauline Oliveros, for instance). The site was a global thing, but quickly after its launch I got involved in the New York OWS music working group. This meant coming off the computer and really doing the occupy thing, in the streets. I had to become a street conductor, performer, manager, wrangler, MC, and peacekeeper. I found myself in improvisational action contexts that challenged my comfort and creativity. (For instance: helping opera goers scale police barricades to get on the people’s mic at Lincoln Center, part of an action Alex Ross also wrote about. [I’m the girl in an orange hoodie shouting in front of Alex].) I had to sit in meetings and help hash out what our group’s values were when it came to recording, licensing, sponsorship, and other forms of money and prestige exchange at a moment when big media and corporations really wanted to be part of the Occupy space. I was pretty shy so all this street stuff scared me, but really it was the meetings that were the hardest part. I was at a loss when it came to how to behave, having spent a half-decade in the apolitical, totalitarian miasma of a Ph.D. program—a place where I learned I shouldn’t speak at all (literally, I was told to stay quiet in meetings until tenure), yet alone speak up for my values.

In the music working group, we had no road map except the strict use of consensus process, and with vastly different world views and the stakes seeming so high, we had huge arguments. We were from the worlds of classical, jazz, folk, hip hop, electronic, indie, Latin, Jewish traditional, street music. We were old hippies, anarchists, socialists, libertarians, liberals, feminists, and curiosity seekers. It was like the first day of college, only where 1,000 cameras were pointed at all the sophomoric choices and inarticulations. While it brought out the grandstander or bully in some, in me the process kept me quiet, observing others for about six months. I had no idea what to say, which as a journalist and wannabe academic, was terrifying. My whole world was shifting. In that time I stopped seeing musicians in terms of genre, stopped seeing people in terms of their class or education level, and gradually began to stop only thinking of how each life decision could support my career. Then, and this is still very much in process, I began to see what I wanted to do.

By the time I figured out what I wanted to do in the movement at least, it was six months in and the official story was that “Occupy was dead.” The mainstream media said it had failed aside from planting a meme of class consciousness in the minds of Americans. Even as I read this pronouncement, I would look around and see that my own world had changed, and that all these new people in my life were changed, too.

It was around that time that I began to see quite a few music-oriented action groups popping up with organizing and agitation plans surrounding issues old (fair contracts) and new (online streaming).

Carr working with Occupy musicians

Photo by Stacy Lanyon

In the three years since the movement began, I’ve seen a definite shift in the tactics used by musicians, organizers, and other people working in the music industry as they attempt to build power and push for fair pay and conditions in the vast and strange landscape of contemporary composition, performance, and recording. As a NewMusicBox columnnist this month, my plan is to write about some of these projects and some of the issues these struggles raise for musicians and music in general.

I certainly am not any kind of expert on the topic, but merely as one who is deeply interested in helping folks in the music industry earn a decent living and have opportunities to present their work. I hope that the brilliant and deep NewMusicBox commenting community will join in on this conversation, so we can get an even greater sense of where these struggles for fairness and dignity are happening, and what we can do as a community to support them.

***

Carr headhsot

Photo by Stacy Lanyon

 
 
 
 
Daphne Carr is a New York-based writer, activist, and educator. She is working on a memoir about contemporary music and activism, using Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night as inspiration.
 
 
 
 
 

13 thoughts on “Of New Music and the 99%

  1. Les

    Here’s what musicians can do to start making a living wage and improve their lot as musicians: Stop playing for free. Don’t give it away on the street. Don’t play for “exposure.” Don’t play for free. If you’ll give it away, why should ANYONE pay you a cent for it? I certainly won’t. I’ve been playing professionally since 1967 and I would NEVER give ANYTHING to a street musician. Nothing. Ever. Why should I when I can hear their “art” for free? Nobody will pay for milk if it’s free. It’s the same with music only worse, because one can live a lot longer without music than one can without food or drink. STOP playing for FREE!!!!!

    Reply
  2. william osborne

    One approach to these problems is to compare the private funding systems used by the USA to the public systems that are the main source of arts funding in all other developed countries. Overall, the stats illustrate that public funding systems are more democratic, consistent, ample, effective, and efficient.

    When the arts are funded by the wealthy, they inevitably gravitate toward the 1%. Ticket prices rise, funding follows the erratic fluctuations ions of the market, and cultural intuitions are concentrated in the few financial centers where the wealthiest live while the rest of the country is neglected.

    I compare the European and American arts funding systems in this article. It’s ten years old, and I have a lot of new data, but the article is still useful:

    http://www.osborne-conant.org/arts_funding.htm

    To be brief, I end with some numbers I was calculating just this morning (I can supply documentation if needed.) I hope they aren’t too hard to follow:

    + The USA has fewer opera performances per capita than any European country except impoverished Portugal. We rank 39th in the world. We are in a category only with Third World Countries. Costa Rica, for example, comes in at 40th, just behind us.

    + Per capita government arts funding in Germany is $183/year while in the USA the combined Federal, State, and municipal appropriation is $3.60. German government funding is thus 51 times higher. The results are obvious. Germany has 47 cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year, while the USA with four times the population has 3.

    + Our military budget is higher than the next 20 countries combined. The appropriation for FY2013 was 640 billion dollars. That comes to 73 million dollars per hour. Opera is the most expensive art form, bar none, and yet we spend more in one hour on our military than the entire yearly budget of the Lyric Opera of Chicago (67 million.)

    +1% of our military budget is 6.4 billion. That could fund 64 MAJOR opera houses at their typical budget of 100 million dollars apiece per year. That would be at least 3 times the number of major houses that currently exist on the planet. Just 1%.

    Reply
    1. william osborne

      Sorry, the last part of my post was clipped off.

      + The average yearly operating budget of our better US orchestras is around 22 million. At that rate, 1% of our military budget could fund 290 orchestras.

      5% of the military budget would turn the United States into the Athens of the modern world.

      Reply
  3. william osborne

    This morning I was reading about the Dallas Opera, and so I made some comparisons with the opera house in Freiburg, Germany, a small city not too far from where I live. Actually, there are 9 full time, year-round houses within two hours of where I live: Stuttgart, Freiburg, Karlsruhe, Ulm, Pforzheim, Basel, Zurich, St. Gallen, and Lucerne.

    This sort of arts support bears strongly on the support of musicians, including those who do new music.

    In Freiburg, the average ticket price is about 22 Euros ($30). The most expensive seats, front row center are 50 Euros ($70.) Students usually get in half price, even for the best seats (thus first row center for 35 bucks.) The average price in Dallas, even at subscription rates, appears to be over $100. The best seats are $240. As is often the case in the States, subscriptions in Dallas go on sale long before single tickets, so the wealthier people get first shot at the best seats.

    Last year Freiburg completed 85 performances in a city of 200,000, and Dallas 23 in a city of 1.2 million. Little Freiburg thus ranks 70th in the world for opera performances per year, which puts it 187 positions ahead of huge Dallas which comes in at 257th.

    The programming in Freiburg is often interesting. This month, for example, they’re doing a double bill of Bartok’s “Blue Beard’s Castle” and Puccini’s rarely performed “Il Tabarro.” I would go if I weren’t in the States for the summer.

    Reply
  4. Phil Fried

    The point of “occupy” is to speak truth to power and in the best American sense perhaps level the playing field. For this to work in an arts context there are some real problems to consider.

    Arts its a different kettle of Fish. Unlike the arts no one lives in a “banking community.” For many the arts are their life.
    Also Wall Street and the banks have a lot of customers.
    Musical institutions make very few commissions and they tend to use the same or similar people over and over. Also popular music is a gigantic industry with a very small percentage of successful musicians. In both cases those empowered with success become celebrities, but more important they are the power. At least for the moment. Who are these famous people going to speak truth to? Or for? Certainly they have nothing to risk. Can Philip Glass speak for me and my music? Will he give up a commission so I and others can be performed in his place? I’m not sure he could do this even if he wanted to.

    How can we propose a revolution in classical music when the folks claiming its leadership are the very folks we need to replace.
    The dragon does not slay itself.

    Reply
      1. Philip Fried

        Unlike occupy wall street, its not easy to tell the good guys from the bad guys in the art world.
        Further complications include the fact that the 1 percent are usually arts benefactors, and that no one is in actually charge of the American musical arts scene. There is no donkey to pin a tail on. On the other hand success for an American composer means sponsorship and composers can freely chose to align themselves with the workers or the management.

        Reply
  5. Joseph Blow

    For various reasons, it seems to me the in the USA new classical music is inherently connected to wealthy people. One reason: Tyler Cowen wrote once about the relationship of avant-garde art in general to class/wealth. The gist, if I recall correctly, is that being avant-garde generally means rejecting the mass marketplace and sale-ability – and to do this, an artist must either have very deep pockets (through inheritance, patrons, or taxpayers, or all three) or be willing to starve. This is one dilemma of New Music – you can make money from music only if you make it sellable – otherwise you need wealthy patrons (like those whose fund America’s orchestras), taxpayers (like those who fund Germany’s), or a rich progenitor, or the ability to live in your car. (Of course, digital distribution may be making ALL music unsellable unless you’re Taylor Swift, but that’s another issue). Moreover, in the US, to get the kind of professional training a classical musician needs, you almost certainly can’t come from a poor family.According to a study I should look up but not now, classical musicians in the US are disproportionately the offspring of professionals – college professors, doctors, and the like – and not of, say, convenience store clerks. Why? Partly because instruments and good teachers cost a great deal more than a family earning less than the median income can usually afford, but also because a young person needs a secure financial base in order to risk majoring in music and trying to start a career – if you fail you have something to fall back on. Obviously, there are exceptions, but the trend is clear. This is not a law of nature – it is not true in Venezuela, e.g., and poorish people like Haydn got trained by the Church and Bach and Mozart by their families – but it tends to be the case in the US. Finally, suppose you ARE a wealthy patron and somebody asks you for money to support “new music.” Someone else is asking you for money to provide treated mosquito nets to prevent malaria deaths in Africa or to provide health care and education to poor children in America. Why exactly would you give it to an elite art form instead? That said, I like the idea of artists being able to make a living – and this brings me to one POSITIVE thing to say, which is that big awards like the Nilsson Prize should not be going to the Vienna Philharmonic and Steve Reich and other superstars, but to multiple small-career artists who are starting out. The way to fund the arts is to make it possible for poorer people to participate. OK, shoot…

    Reply
    1. william osborne

      It is only through metaphors that our infinitesimal mind can begin to comprehend the infinite universe. Metaphors build the values of millenniums, like the way the mathematical and aesthetic concepts of Pythagoras shaped the foundations of Western civilization. We see his metaphors in the geometry of our buildings; in the discrete ratios of pitch and the harmony of the spheres in our music; and above all in our approaches to science. Whether it’s Greco-Roman sculpture, the illuminated manuscripts of the dark ages, the glories of medieval tapestries, the shadowed light of Renaissance paintings, or transcendence of Romantic symphonies, metaphors become the sum of our societies and our sensory experience of the world. All of the knowledge we have, both artistic and scientific, flows out of these metaphors created in a large part by art. These metaphors shape how we dress, cook, build houses, and organize our cities. They shape how we love, how we express ourselves, how we relate to others, and even the laws we use to organize society.

      To build knowledge and civilization, the consciousness of human societies must thus be approached holistically in all of its dimensions. Without his violin, Einstein would not have existed. He clearly noted that playing the violin is a way of exploring the universe. It is not possible to fragment the intellect and develop only certain parts. If any aspect of the mind is neglected, the entire organism is weakened.

      So it’s not a question of deciding between art and a cure for malaria. Art and science and all other forms of knowledge and human expression will always evolve hand in hand. To neglect one is to destroy the others.

      I think this might even explain why the 13th and 20th centuries were so horrible. The metaphors of society did not keep up with technological advances and people became lost.

      One of the recognizable patterns of totalitarianism is its reductive concepts of the human: Das Volk, The People, The Faithful, etc. We forget that unmitigated capitalism is also a form of totalitarianism. With a confining narrowness it defines human identity almost exclusively in terms of the marketplace. A Darwinist pragmatism evolves that defines art only in utilitarian terms. Massive parts of human identity are largely demeaned and even lost.

      I’ve lived in Europe for 35 years. I’ve never heard continental Europeans ask what the purpose or value of art is, or why it should be supported. They never ask about the relative value of art or medical research. They know the mind cannot be fragmented in that manner. Through long cultural traditions and mixed economies, they know that both art and the human mind are by nature ineffable, that they are beyond definition, and thus beyond strictly utilitarian functions.

      Classical music might improve the economy, make babies smarter, and keep hoodlums from loitering in subway stations, but that is not why we support it. We support the arts because they are an inseparable part of developing the human mind, because they define the metaphors that create our existence, and because it is only in art’s fullness that we truly find the completeness of our human dignity.

      It is unfortunate to the extreme that our concepts of capitalism have become so totalizing and that we no longer understand these fundamental principles.

      Reply
  6. Paul H. Muller

    In the 21st century, maybe choosing between art and making a living isn’t an either/or question. We have already seen advances in technology that allow for extremely low-cost world-wide distribution of music. And there are parallel advances in the creation of music as well. If we presently expect 100 people to practice six hours a day to create the sound of the traditional symphony, perhaps there will be a technical solution that allows for the sound to be created electronically. Similarly, composing tools will advance so that the efficiency of creating and notating the sounds will multiply by orders of magnitude. Given the trends, I submit that being a productive artist will not preclude earning a living doing something that the economy values more. Why should we subsidize the symphony if we do not subsidize clipper ships? Both are exquisitely beautiful and graceful – but the future lies elsewhere.

    Reply
    1. william osborne

      I find orchestras and opera companies almost entirely anachronistic. I refuse to write for them. We should remember, however, that the countries that spend most on traditional art also spend the most on new art. One doesn’t preclude the other. In the arts, the old and new generally work hand in hand.

      That’s why France has many orchestras and opera houses in addition to Ircam and Ensemble Intercontemporain. And it’s why Germany has 83 opera houses plus Ensemble Modern. The USA has very few opera houses, and correspondingly, no new music ensembles with about 30 full time members like the two groups I mention. Nor do we have State Radios like the Europeans have with the specific mission of recording and broadcasting new music.

      With our military literally costing 1.2 million dollars a minute (or 1.7 billion/day,) I guess it makes sense for artists to consider making their money outside their field. Or does it indicate that there’s no shortage of money, and that we’re squandering a lot of it? Doesn’t money makes a big difference for art and artists, just as it does for every other field?

      Reply
  7. Julie Harting

    Thanks for sharing your background and connection to OWS, Daphne. The way I see things is that artists (I am a composer) have been supported in 3 ways – patronage (feudalism), through selling their labor or music products in a “market” (capitalism) or through taxes (socialism). I think the don’t play for free concept comes out of thinking about music as a commodity. If you play for free, the music loses its monetary value. It’s like you are giving away diamonds on the street. I think however that we should move away from the ideas of both of patronage and music as commodity and develop and support socialistic ideas of music making and performance. For instance, we need free or very cheap and plentiful rehearsal and performance space in central areas of New York City (that aren’t part of gentrification plans). We need REAL affordable housing. In other words, we need non-market real estate solutions. Plus…???

    Reply
    1. Elaine Fine

      It seems that in current times (and particularly in the US) capitalism will win out as the biggest source for music to be supported. Take instruments, for example. Most string players can’t afford to buy old Italian instruments, and most of the people who have the ability to invest in them do not play at the level the instruments should be played. The solution has been to match investors with “emerging” players. The musician pays the insurance on the instrument, and the investor retains ownership. There is a broker in the middle who makes a cut.

      The sad thing is that 30 years ago it was still possible for musicians to buy fantastic old instruments through personal loans. Now only the very rich can buy them.

      Rich people sometimes fund musical organizations because they love music, but there are not enough music-loving moguls to make a general live-music-oriented life possible. The interests of the super rich seem to lie elsewhere. The interests of the people who take part in the government also have interests that lie elsewhere. As for socialism (the only form of organization that really makes sense to me, though in reality is impossible given the greed that is woven into human nature) I can’t see supporting live musicians as part of any current socialist agenda. There are too many problems closer to the front of the line.

      Reply

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