In a recent blog post, Jeffrey Parola writes about some of the struggles facing contemporary concert composers in today’s world:
Affirmation from friends, family, and colleagues is scarce – very few people listen to, like, understand, and/or respect your music… material returns for your work are paltry or non-existent, and… it is incredibly difficult to find a secure and gratifying job.
While Parola is talking about his own personal experiences, I’d wager that most composers have dealt with similar issues. I’ve certainly felt discouraged by many of the same things Parola describes, and I find his honest account of these concerns to be brave and valuable.
Meanwhile, Brian M. Rosen argues that composers cannot and should not rely on external affirmation or compensation:
Creation of music that didn’t exist before HAS to be its own reward, devoid of compensation, recognition, or praise. If that drive for creation for its own sake doesn’t exist, I might humbly suggest that a composer should just stop… Money and acknowledgement have to be secondary concerns for a composer.
Rosen’s statement is hard to argue with on its surface. Certainly a composer has to, on some level, enjoy the process of composing. However, in my mind it poses a solution to a non-existent problem, the mythical “composer who doesn’t love composing.” It also omits the fact that external factors like money and acknowledgement can have a profound impact on one’s intrinsic motivation. Furthermore, I think it disguises a deeper and more insidious problem: that our intrinsic love and need for making music can deprecate the real world value of our hard work, and make it all too easy for others to exploit.
As one counterexample, Eric Whitacre was able to redefine what his music was worth to others almost accidentally, through sheer stubbornness:
Whitacre became known for the steep fees he charged for new pieces. A vague mixture of naïvete and instinctive savvy led him to price his work at least three times as high as other composers’. “I just kept pushing the envelope on commission fees,” he said. “It’s just like Craigslist, where if you sell your futon for ten bucks everyone thinks it’s a crap futon, but if you list it for five hundred everyone thinks it’s a great futon. So I just priced myself into a place where it was perceived as more valuable than it was.”
But even more salient than money, I think, is the issue of “relevance” that Parola mentions. It’s all fine and good to make music for its own sake, as Rosen proposes, but that’s not quite enough for me, and I don’t think it should be enough. While composing is a solitary activity, it’s one that radiates outward, as a means of expression or communication. If it doesn’t communicate, or communicate in the way you want it to, that is a definite problem, and I don’t begrudge anybody for feeling discouraged by that. This dissatisfaction shouldn’t be ignored—it’s a wake-up call, and it should be listened to very carefully.
Parola’s account has a happy ending of sorts, upon finding “complete relevance” in his role as a church organist—a role where his music is appreciated and respected. I think every musician worth their salt deserves to find this, and if they don’t have it yet, to keep looking. For me, it’s not any one particular role, but a combination of roles that I find fulfilling in different ways, from playing accordion in a klezmer band to writing soundtracks for video games to, yes, composing concert music. I do all of these things because I love them deeply, but it’s indisputable that some of them carry more extrinsic rewards than others, things like rowdy enthusiastic crowds or fan videos of ridiculous mashups.
If I’d kept my head down and refused to be affected by these “secondary concerns,” I might never have discovered these things that have immeasurably enriched my musical life. It’s even possible that I would have given up composing entirely. Maybe my motives aren’t pure enough and I really should “just stop” as Rosen suggests, but I’d really hate to see many other composers take the same advice. So I have to be contrary: if the drive for creation for it’s own sake isn’t enough on its own, please don’t just stop!