Thursday, March 19, 2015

On the Value of Living Composers

Sound and Music, an English organization "committed to supporting new music and developing the audience for it," published results of its Composer Commissioning Survey, conducted during June-July of 2014. Three quarters of the respondents were based in the UK. Here is a summary of their findings, in (mostly) their own words:

Commissions are not a significant income source for a lot of composers.
  • 66% of composers stated that they do not find commissions to be a significant proportion of their income. Given that the respondents had an average of 2.65 commissions in 2013 with an average fee per commission of £1,392 it is easy to see why. 
There is a lot of a variance within the pay scale for commissions.
  • Annual income for 2013 from commissions ranged from £1 to over £100,000 including the single highest paying commission at £60,000. 
  • The best-paid 1% of composers received over 25% of all commission income; once we excluded them from our sample, average commission income fell from £3,689 to £2,717.
  • Over 40% of composers stated that they had earned no income at all from commissions for 2013.
The conditions for commissions are worse than before.
  • 49% of composers feel that there is less rehearsal/preparation time for new works. 
Although there appear to be more commissions available, they appear to be paying less well.
  • 74% of composers received an equal or higher number of commissions in 2013 than they did in 2012, but only 15% earned more income.

What does this mean?

The Guardian, a British national daily newspaper, did a story on this survey, and this was their headline, followed by a couple of excerpts from the article:

The future of new music is at risk if we continue to undervalue composers
Professional composers are being asked to create new pieces for ‘shockingly low’ fees, Sound and Music report finds
"If we believe that music is a living artform then it stands to reason that the creation of new music is vital to its current and future health. However, professional composers are being asked to create new music for very little money in conditions that are too often inadequate. As a sector we have some hard questions to ask ourselves about our priorities. Being commissioned to create a new work (and getting paid for it) is a vital part of life as a professional composer. At Sound and Music, the national agency for new music, we continue to receive anecdotal evidence about the worsening environment for the creation of new music."
"What the evidence implies is that the work of composers (and composing as a profession) is valued far less by the sector than that of performers, conductors and administrators. How can that be right when it is the music itself that communicates with audiences? With a new generation seeking out beautiful and unusual new sounds and experiences, audiences for new music have never been more enthusiastic."

What are your thoughts on any of these points? More specifically,
  1. The above excerpts suggest that living composers, as a rule (although there are very famous exceptions), are undervalued. Do you agree?
  2. Is the future of new classical music "at risk?"
  3. Is the creation of new music vital to the "current and future health" of classical music?
  4. Why are 99% of composers paid so poorly? 
  5. Within the 1% of top-earning composers surveyed (the 1% that garnered 25% of the total commissioning fund pool), how many of them do you think are able to support themselves entirely from composing?
  6. Why are most professional music administrators, orchestra musicians, and conductors paid so much more than almost all composers?
  7. Does any of this matter? Should composers just "suck it up" and be grateful for any remunerative crumbs that come their way? 
  8. Should composers take a pragmatic, "it is what it is" attitude, accepting that they are unlikely to earn a sustainable living from composing alone, and therefore find other means of employment?
  9. Should composers engage in advocacy to create better working conditions? Are there any organizations that advocate for composers?
  10. If composers are undervalued, what are the reasons for this? Do composers bear any responsibility for finding themselves in this predicament?


Duane Andrews said...

Since we're talking economics it could be insightful to look at it from a supply and demand perspective. I wonder if the number of composers today is much higher then ever before. It seems most universities have some type of composition studies component in their programs so the number of undergraduates alone would be fairly substantial and could be an indicator of the number of composers competing for the professional opportunities. On the demand side there seems to be a fairly small market for commissioning new works.

The other important factor is value. I'd say most people would generally give a high value to the creation of new work in general but because of the state of supply and demand it's difficult for the majority of composers to find professional opportunities. What's vital is for composers to understand where their value comes from and this understanding can go beyond the subjective purely artistic value of their work.

Adrian Irvine said...

This was a very interesting read. I had no idea that income from commissions was such an incredibly small source of revenue for composers, but I can't say that I am surprised considering Duane's point on supply and demand. It seems like I hear of a new composer almost every day, which should be incredibly exciting! Unfortunately the economic system within which much of the world operates does not lend itself well to the arts, and in this system there isn't room for everyone to make a living from their craft.

This isn't an issue exclusive to composers, but according to the study it seems to be far more extreme than for performers, conductors, and administrators. It seems as though the income that one should expect is inversely proportional to the degree of subjectivity involved in judging the work produced (except in the case of the 1% which have been deemed exceptional in some regard, not only in the case of composers but also when considering performers).

Even in more popular genres of music, it is still a constant struggle for many artists to make ends meet. Many are now looking to innovative ways of finding funding for their projects, such as crowd funding campaigns through websites such as kickstarter and indiegogo. Perhaps composers need to be looking more towards these routes, where many fans of their work may small investments of their choosing to help support their continued output. Of course this is not a perfect solution, but it would certainly be of aid to some.

Sarah Bartlett said...

This is too often an issue that most people don’t consider. The creation of new music takes a large amount of time and energy that non-composers may not appreciate. The time that goes into the creation of music, all of the hours finding the right chords and rhythms, dynamics and shaping, the editing of score details and the never-ending editing process: all of these are things often taken for granted by performers with little to no serious composition experience. It’s strange how in today’s artistically charged society, with such a large focus on the creation of new art in all forms, we would consider the creation of new music as less valuable than any other art. This issue isn’t new however; when the CBC recently called to graphics designers to participate in a contest to design a new logo for Canada’s 150th anniversary, students and designers alike were outraged at the attempt to exploit young designers ( Apparently we live in a time where art is valued but its creation is not, and it is apparent that the time and effort on behalf of artists is not appreciated.

Kassandra-Anne Demers said...

I find the beginning facts alarming and yet not surprising. I would agree that composers and musicians are often undervalued. Looking at the general publics point of view the newer music scene can sometimes seem inaccessible…which I think this point of view is sometimes just some sort of generalization of what newer music is. Some people automatically think that new music is all atonal nonsense…obviously that’s not the case…and perhaps this "nonsense" is just misunderstood. Which brings me to my next point, I find to be able to appreciate something you must have some sort of general understanding for it.

Before I began my classical studies at the age of 18 (yep, I’m a late bloomer) I did not appreciate the classical genre of music. I'd often expressed how much I hated it. I often blame that on the fact that I wasn’t exposed to it and at the time I obviously had no clue what I was talking about. After 6 years of classical post-secondary studies my views have drastically changed and I really enjoy listening and playing this type of music. It didn't take to long before Classical music became a favorite genre. How did I go from completely hating a type of music to falling in love with it? I think perhaps that I was willing to open my ears. The key fact is also that I know what to listen for. I use to think of classical music as this complex convoluted art form because I didn’t know how to process what I was hearing…Maybe it’s the same case for newer music? Where it often goes unappreciated for the fact that it is misunderstood.

This can also be a reason why composers are paid poorly for the fact that general audiences don’t often understand how much time is put into this craft. It’s obvious from a composer’s standpoint we should be paid for every second we meticulously spend at trying to perfect our piece. But, even I had must admit I had no idea at how long it took to write something to my taste until I began this intro to composition course or walked a few miles in these composer shoes.

I think in general these issues in the composition/musician world revolves around the fact that we are often unaware of how much work and effort goes into this art form and in the end it often goes unappreciated for that factor.

Anaïs Siosse said...

I do not know a lot about how the "classical business" works today. I guess Haydn was very happy at his time to be employed full time to compose, perform, conduct for the king and later publish the music he loved. It seems that Haydn had a secured and well paid job. Do rich families still order new music from composers today? Who decide if the new classical compositions are good or not? Is it the audience? The record companies? The theaters? Do composers have all the same chance to present their work? I feel that there is a lot of competition and that classical musical is not popular enough. I would love to hear it everywhere, in the streets, in the pubs… for example, paying an opera ticket 300$ does not help the "opera industry" to grow. It is even the contrary, young people do not get the chance to see an opera. This is only an example for this unbalanced and vicious circle. I hate to call it an industry… but unfortunately, some people throughout time made the classical music a real industry. Leaders have the power, a minority of people get at least 50% of the benefits… and the others… I have not done studies to confirm these numbers, and I do not pretend to know this business, but this is how someone who is not professional can feel with an outside point of view. I do not know how a composer should feel about that, but I feel that as in any business field, the word balance does not exist. We should try to imagine how a musician in India or in Africa feel about that?

Mitchel Fleming said...

I believe that the topic of this blog post is a very topical. The future of classical music is unknown and we cannot be sure what the future holds for this art form.
I am going to tackle your points in bullet form:

1) I believe, especially when it comes to popular music, that the performer is generally respected much more than the composer of the music. I would be that the ratio of performers/composers that you could rattle off are roughly 5/1 or even greater! This under-appreciation of composers is not good for the industry and the art because without composers, there will be no music for the performers to perform.
2) Well, I think that with the evolution of music and popular culture, the appreciation for modern classical music becomes more niche and the more niche it becomes, the harder it becomes for people to enter into the modern classical scene and begin appreciating it. Modern classical musicians need to find a way to progress the art form yet still appeal to the masses. With more interest in the art form, modern classical music will have a better chance of survival.
3) Well, I am going to be blunt. I am not the biggest advocate of the continued development of classical music. I find that we have reached the point that if we push any further, we will enter an area that becomes harder and harder to connect with. This constant need to evolve the art form and continuously progress can be good in many respects, but I feel like we may be pushing a little too far. "You can walk and walk until you reach the summit, but go any further and you will fall. Then Bob Barker will take away your 1990 Lincoln Continental." -Price is Right reference. I understand that the evolution of music is important for growth but I think that instead of evolving the art VERTICALLY (exploring new ideas, chords, modes, etc), I think we should expand it HORIZONTALLY by incorporating different cultures, styles and genres into classical music. I believe that this will yield more music that people can relate to but will still progress modern classical music.
4)I believe that 99% of composers are paid so poorly because when you decide to commission a piece, you go to the 1% that will be a guaranteed success. It is unfortunate that people are willing to take the risk on undiscovered composers, but it is their money that they are risking and it is human nature to be cautious.
5) I would say 1% of the 1% (0.01% overall). These are the composers that are NOTORIOUS for writing music that is god tier and will make people run in the streets proclaiming that they had just heard God sing them a lullaby.

Mitchel Fleming said...

6) This is a fact that has always baffled me. I guess you can attribute the monetary differential to how one group (conductors, musicians) are performers and composers are behind the scenes. ALSO, now that I am writing this, I think that it has to do with the quantity of composers. Composers may be a dime a dozen, good composers may be 3 for a dollar, and the best may be worth millions, but the fact is that there are a lot of them and if a composer demands too much for their music, then the organization looking for music can always find a different composer. When people ask me for my music, I literally throw it at them for fear of them finding a different composer. It may have to do with the performers desire to simply have their art performed.
7) Well, I think that "sucking it up" will not benefit the composer OR music in general. With less money in the market for composers, we will have less composers entering the industry which will mean less music being produced (on the other hand, it will create more monetary opportunities for those who do enter the field.) What I DO think we should do, is establish a support system for composers so that they can still afford to live. This would be similar to the SAG (Screen Actors Guild) which offers support to struggling actors. This kind of support will help composers survive and enable them to continue writing music.
8) I think that this idea lies within ones desire to write music for a living. For me, writing music is a past time and a means to express my innermost feelings. But for others who want to make a living at composing, have to suck it up and accept that they will have to work harder than anyone else if they want to make a living. They don't have to accept that they will be poor, but they need to accept the amount of work required to be a professional composer.
9) As I stated before, organizations like the SAG are crucial in creating an environment where composers and musical creation can flourish. Without these support systems, composers will not be capable of committing the time necessary to being full-time composers because they will have to work other jobs to keep them alive.
10) This again, goes back to one of my earlier points. Because composers are behind the scenes, they do not receive the respect they deserve and are not usually present in the spotlight. I do not think that it is an under-appreciation but rather the masses just are not on a first name basis with many composers. If a composer wants to become a public figure, they would have to do a lot of work to market themselves and make sure that their name is associated with everything they write. Ex: Justin Beiber performing Mitchel Fleming's "Wheel's On The Bus."

It is unfortunate that composers are undervalued, but the music they produce never is. As long as we have composers who are willing to put in the hours, we will have no shortage of musical production.

Ben Taylor said...

1. I find composers in general are not as renowned at musicians and conductors, etc. because the public only really see musicians and conductors at the concert and their had hard work they put, but not the hard work the composer putted in to creating the piece. So, yes, I believe composers are very undervalued.

2. I believe, if the public continues with the attitude that classical music is not needed, then I think it is unfortunately slowly dying out.

3. Classical music needs a jump start. Something to create an out cry that says "hey I'm here listen to me".

4. Skip.

5. The 1% of composers could easily make enough money to support themselves through only composing. Maybe not all of them, but I feel some of them can very well be set if they look in the right place. Example is Hans Zimmerman, who is undoubtedly probably one of the most world renown composers today but that is only because he is in an industry that pays good if the movie does good.

6. (Answered this in question 1)

7,8,9. I really believe that composers should not take the crumbs that are given to them. I think they should rally and create a union of composers, although there is already some in certain countries, it is important that composers else where have an equal say.

10. I believe it started when composers became TOO contemporary. I feel they poisoned the name and turned many people off from classical music. Also, I feel that it is the public's fault because they do not know that writing "a bunch of scribbles" on a paper can actually physically, mentally and emotionally drain someone.

Julia Millett said...

Composers and musicians are completely undervalued. But really we have been on the outs since the Baroque period. When music went from being supported by mainly patrons/church to ticket sales/public concerts it started the decline in musicians value and societal role.

I am certain that all music students have dealt with a scoff in their direction when asked what they're studying by a science student for example.

But to anyone that questions the pursuit of music, they really must consider one thing. Try to imagine living in a world without music.......... Exactly. Not possible.

When someone says they are not a fan of "new music" or "atonality isn't there thing" they need to rethink what they are saying. The amount of new music out there is staggering and people should attempt to be more aware and informed before they dismiss "new music" so quickly.

In conclusion, this blog post brought up some great points and got me thinking!

Andre McEvenue said...

My first reaction to this post was "there's an organization for that!?!". But this excitement quickly dissipated once I read their findings. I think that one of the symptoms of this public attitude towards the value of new composition is that as a composer, I myself feel undeserving of remuneration for the work I do. I suppose this feeling comes from an underlying sense that the merit and value of my work should be based on how many people enjoy my music. As a student of composition, I have very few public performances under my belt. And so I have the sense that there cannot be very many people who enjoy my music, therefore, I feel am not deserving of pay for it. I know this attitude is ridiculous because of how many composers were undervalued in their own lifetimes, and the public reception of your art is not always a measure of success. I'm certainly not suggesting that I'm simply undervalued in my own lifetime, but I do wonder if this feeling ever goes away, and how much success does one need to have in order to be rid of it.

Robert Godin said...

I think part of the problem is the way the public, and orchestra view the symphony. For a lot of people, a night at the symphony is a night at the museum. We get to hear these great master pieces come to life with the new performers. And in that mentality there is little no room for new music or composers. And my experience with the Toronto Symphony kind proves that, the attendance rate for new music concerts is much lower than the average.

I think some of the problem might be the accessibility of the music. Not all new music is easy on the ears. At one point Boulez was new music, and I'd be hard pressed to convince my family to go see that. But Nutcracker? No problem.

So I think a lot of the problem is how we perceive classical music and how accessible the music is.

Flutiano said...

It's interesting to think about the comparison between how well composers and music administrators, performers, etc. are paid. On one hand, most of the time the audience doesn't see the composer. If you go to the symphony, the repertoire they are playing is usually of dead white males. If they do program a modern work, it has probably been paired with a repertoire staple, or at least something from the dead white male category. It's easy to see how the composer could become the least valued contributor to the live classical music scene; there is so much music already in existence, even the administration working to put on the concerts can seem more crucial. I don't want music to be a stagnant art form, and believe in the importance of new compositions. I also see how easy it is from them to be undervalued.

That's ignoring the fact that lots of people don't want to pay for music. Our culture values music and art, but not necessarily those who create it. People listen to the music that is freely accessible online. Between that and sticking to the old favourites that will bring the white-haired crowd returning to concerts, how much hope do composers have?

One thing that I find interesting is that people go and see new movies all of the time, but they don't want to hear new music. I love the music of the old masters (those dead white males like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven...) but sometimes I wish our audiences wanted fresh, new music continually, so that premieres were a regular occurrence. (I also agree with some of the earlier comments that there is a bit of a fear of new music, and there are chunks of new music -- although I usually find it the older stuff which is more avant garde -- that I simply do not enjoy listening to, although the more I listen the more I come to appreciate it).

Sarah-Beth Cormier said...

A great deal of time, effort, training, emotion, and personal sacrifice goes into the creation of a new work. Composers deserve fair compensation. Unfortunately, like in so many other aspects of life, what a person deserves many not be available, reasonable, or even possible. Small and even midsized orchestras can hardly afford to pay their musicians. If such orchestras commission works, it is a gesture of support for their fellow creative professionals, not a commercial endeavour; they could easily program other works that are available at no cost and are well-known and loved by their audiences. The musicians and administrators are critical to the existence of the orchestra, but sadly, new composers are a luxury they may not be able to afford. Many are living on pittances to begin with. Large orchestras, on the other hand, may have the funds to pay well for commissions, but how many works are they going to commission in a year? The ratio of composers to well-funded orchestras is egregious, as composers remain in the field for decades while universities continue to swell the ranks with hungry new graduates. For composers to regularly make a living wage from their works, orchestras would have to churn out an absurd number of high-paying commissions, and even then, many would go to the “stars”. The “big names” are those who are likely to draw audiences, so it only makes sense that the top names in the field will be taking the lion's share of the most lucrative commissions.
Financially, commissions mainly benefit the composers themselves, rather than the orchestras. Orchestras have many options for their programming, so composers have limited leverage in demanding more. Orchestras can always find a less expensive option, either among the hungry living composers or the inexpensive dead composers. Contemporary composers are hard-working, talented individuals who make an important contribution to the cultural and creative wealth of art music, and are inherently valuable. They deserve better. Unfortunately, that is largely impossible for the majority. It is therefore a relief that universities are able to provide a living wage to many composers while providing them with the opportunity to practice their craft. While the situation is not ideal, commercial pressures make it necessary.

Jack Etchegary said...

My answers to the questions at the end of the post:

1. Absolutely. As described through the statistics mentioned in the blog post, several composers are definitely not getting as much credit or reward for their work.

2. I believe if there is enough of an interest in the performance aspect of new classical music, then this will certainly drive composers to keep composing it. However, the poor conditions in which composers have to create works will most definitely have an impact in the number of active classical composers in the future.

3. Yes, most certainly. There has to be equal representation on all sides of new classical music - from composers, performers and audiences. These three must be strong in order to keep new classical music alive and well.

4. This connects to the notion of musicians doing something for the "exposure" which many people (non-musical people) seem to see no issue with. The expectations one may have for a composer might come from this (the composer will put in the necessary work anyways because they "need the exposure"). The underpayment is most likely also a result of lack of funding from organizations in order to pay these composers.

5. Probably very very few. If the highest amount given to a single commission was $60,000 then others below this are would probably be barely able to afford the costs of living for a year.

6. This is a good question and I really don't have an answer to it. It definitely seems unfair to me though.

7. Absolutely not. All artists of any type deserve to be properly acknowledged for their work - in both exposure and payment.

8. Again, absolutely not. This is a corrupt issue which must be worked on to be fixed. More and more composers should be taking active voices in order to demand their respective rights and rewards as composers. Composing is most certainly a valid career and deserves to be equally respected and represented as much as other careers in the arts.

9. I have answered this already, but again, yes. Absolutely. There probably are organizations that advocate for composers, however I am unaware of them. That probably contributes to the issue in some way.

10. I believe in the "you get what you give" aspect of life, in many ways. If a composer puts in a copious amount of work and is proud of the work they have done, they deserve to be rewarded for this. However, if a composer doesn't put in as much effort as another composer, then perhaps that composer doesn't deserve it as much. It is directly comparable to other occupations. However, I believe that it is rarely the composer who is at fault for being undervalued. It is the existing issue of people/organizations underpaying composers which has become the norm that needs to be addressed and fixed in order for composers to achieve their deserved rewards and acknowledgment.