Working for a Living

Last week was our spring break here at the University of Minnesota, thankfully; I kept myself busy with enough projects, each at a different stage of completion, to keep me constantly on edge for fear of forgetting one of them. Some of these projects are remunerative and some non-, so occasionally it strikes me that I could be prioritizing them accordingly—but of course it’s not that simple.

It’s often said that the definition of an artist is someone who pays for the privilege of making art. At the time of this writing there’s a lively conversation happening elsewhere on NewMusicBox about music and the political, an unavoidable interpenetration I’ve written about in this space many times before and hesitate to do again; however, it’s worth pointing out that one respect in which music is most definitely political is that it is a form of labor that lots of people are willing to do for free. Graduate students like myself are likely to be engaged in a number of different kinds of musical work, some paid and some unpaid. For instance, if I receive a commission, which after all is what the job of being a composer is mostly supposed to comprise, that’s a form of labor in which I produce some amount of value (in the shape of a score) and am compensated accordingly. But let’s not kid ourselves: It would also be possible for the organization that’s commissioning me to get a piece for free, maybe from me or maybe from somebody else, instead of paying for one.

Of course, the composer still draws certain benefits from that kind of arrangement, depending on the performers and the venue. But as the artifacts of musical production—from college degrees to new music ensembles to audio workstations to .mp3s—become more widely available, the cost of musical practices will continue to go down, and hiring a composer represents an inefficiency. At the same time, though, nobody would argue that the immaterial labor of music, even though it’s less costly by the day, is therefore less valuable. This is where the political ramifications of the situation emerge: We have to reconcile the sinking exchange-value of music with its undiminished worth to us as invidivuals and as a civilization. If the experiential fabric of a musical encounter can indeed have social meaning for people—and I hope we agree that it can—then this incommensurability will stay problematic.

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