Composer-musician speed dating.
What Are You Trying to Decide in Your Career?

What Are You Trying to Decide in Your Career?

Composer-musician speed dating.

Composer-musician speed dating at the 2015 New Music Gathering in San Francisco. Photo by Shaya Lyon.

I’m giving a talk at the New Music Gathering in Baltimore this January, and I need your help. More specifically, I need your problems. I want to hear about a big decision you’re trying to make in your career as a musician. My talk is on how understanding a few economic principles, specifically Baumol’s Cost Disease, can help us make decisions in our careers as artists. I’d like to use real world examples if I can, which is where you come in.

If you’re on board and have a decision to make, please drop me a line and include a brief description of the issue you’re facing: kevin@newmusicusa.org.

If you’re curious about what on earth I’m talking about, then read on.

I gave an early version of this talk at last year’s New Music Gathering at the San Francisco Conservatory, and it was a big hit. We talked about some of Baumol’s original work from the 1960s, his updated book from the debate over healthcare reform, and positioning the performing arts alongside healthcare and education as part of advocating for new music. We talked about building a community as an artist, and how to think about the relationship between fans of your work and your bank account.

But the core of our discussion was about time and productivity. Baumol’s key insight was that some work gets more productive over time as a result of technology, and has done so at a fairly consistent rate since the industrial revolution. That would be things like manufacturing, etc. Some other work, like playing an instrument, doesn’t. It takes just as much time for a string quartet to play a piece as it did 200 years ago. Since making art doesn’t get more productive, in the context of the whole economy it gets more expensive over time.

This has all kinds of neat implications that economists have studied for big businesses, but almost nobody has thought about what it means for individual working artists, much less about how understanding this corner of economics can help us to thrive.

That’s what I’m trying to do with this talk at the next New Music Gathering. Right now the music industry is changing so much, and so fast, that nobody has “the answer”. Nobody’s business model seems appropriate to anyone else. But I don’t want us all to have to stumble around in the dark. And the economics of cost disease makes some fairly reliable predictions about how our art making and the business stuff we all have to do these days will relate to each other in the future.

In an arts ecosystem that’s changing as much as ours, I’ll cling to anything with as much predictive power as cost disease seems to offer. And I’m trying to use it to help artists feel confident making big decisions.

Should I get on Spotify? Should I work with a publisher? How much time should I devote to teaching? How much should I work on contest submissions? How many LPs should I press? How much should I charge for my work?

If you’ve got a big decision about this or any other question, I want to hear about it. I want to understand how you’re thinking about it, and try to help. If you’re willing, I might share a version of your story in my talk next month.

I love helping artists (this is part of why I work at New Music USA in the first place), and hopefully our conversation will be useful for you. After the New Music Gathering, I’ll report back on what I learned.

Thanks in advance for your stories and your help! I look forward to hearing from you: kevin@newmusicusa.org.

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3 thoughts on “What Are You Trying to Decide in Your Career?

  1. Paul H. Muller

    “Since making art doesn’t get more productive, in the context of the whole economy it gets more expensive over time.”

    Well this is certainly true for the traditional acoustic instruments and it goes even deeper – it takes just as much practice each day to master an acoustic instrument as it did 200 years ago. So you put 75 or 90 craftsmen out there in a symphony it is very labor intensive effort by highly skilled people – and that means it’s a relatively expensive product in a 21st century economy dominated by automation and mass production.

    But that is not the same thing as saying that efficiency in music creation hasn’t improved with technology. Composing and notation can be done on a computer – even automated. Distribution of electronic music is now world-wide at a cost very close to zero. The outlook for music as art – if not music as business – has never been brighter.

    Reply
  2. Kevin Clark

    Hi Paul,

    Of course you’re right – I’ve skipped a couple interesting technological details along the way to try to simplify things for this stage of the argument. The precise issue you raise, that some of what an artist does benefits from technological advancement (or is in what Baumol calls the “productive” sector) and a lot of it doesn’t (or is in the “stagnant”) sector, is the thing I find most interesting about this line of thinking.

    I’ll try to give a more useful and full account in the talk in January, and then a (hopefully) practical rundown here afterward.

    Thanks!
    -K

    Reply

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