Composing a Life, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dollar

Composing a Life, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dollar

Knowledge is power, and power is not something that composers have historically enjoyed. If you want to be in control of your circumstances instead of letting your circumstances control you, it might well be time for a different kind of education.

Written By

Ian David Moss

Three years ago, I left my job at the American Music Center, New York City, and the two new music ensembles I had founded in order to begin a full-time MBA at the Yale School of Management. My friends at the time were thrown for a loop. A few clearly thought I was selling out, and many more were simply surprised that I would go to grad school to study something other than music composition, on which I had focused so much of my energies up to that point. In truth, I came to business school with the full intention of returning to the arts after graduation, and thankfully I’ve been able to keep that promise. I even chose Yale SOM in part because its liberal electives policy meant that I could almost have earned a shadow music degree during my time there, if the School of Music had been willing to play along. Yet after a year’s worth of required lectures and seminars in everything but music, it was clear that I had found a new calling. For better or for worse, business school transformed me into a different person.

What changed me the most was the exposure to an endless panoply of other areas of human life beyond contemporary classical music. Sure, I learned about assets and liabilities and how to read a cash flow statement, but I also learned about the auction for 3G wireless ranges, competition between Target and Wal-Mart, why Turkey is an emerging power player in the Middle East, and how colleges and foundations manage their endowments. We heard speeches from the president of the Ford Foundation, the former United States Ambassador to the UN, the CEO of Newsweek, the founder of an IT consulting firm that crashed and burned with the last recession and then rose from the ashes. I became a sponge for statistics, ideas, publications, whole disciplines that I hadn’t even known to exist until that point.

In the course of this sudden immersion into what the rest of the world thinks about and does on a daily basis, I came to realize that my former existence had been focused like a laser on about 0.00001% of everything that matters. It was like the veil had been lifted on my life: the choices I faced when I voted in an election or needed to buy produce or searched for an apartment to rent or, yes, chose a graduate school had all been determined by somebody, or more often a collection of somebodies acting in somewhat predictable ways. It became clear to me that I was never going to have control over my own destiny unless I had the capacity to see and understand the external forces that were influencing my circumstances. And if that’s true for me, it’s true for you, too. So here are a couple of vignettes from my own journey into the belly of the capitalist beast, which I offer in the hopes of connecting my experiences (and perhaps some of yours) to the bigger picture. After all, we are just variations on a theme.

The Pro-Am Shuffle

Back when I was playing bandleader in the middle part of the last decade, I had a six-piece electric chamber ensemble featuring some killer musicians who performed my compositions. Since they were professionals, I paid them for every gig—and if the money from the door wasn’t enough to make for a halfway decent payout for each, as it often wasn’t, I had to make up the difference from my own pocket. (This was on top of rehearsal space rental fees, recording costs, etc.) It wasn’t exactly a recipe for quick cash; my profit margins in 2005 were about -1000%. The low point was when I decided to take the band on “tour” to Philadelphia, driving half of them there in my car with their equipment while the others took a bus or otherwise got there on their own dime. Despite a prime Saturday night slot at a popular hangout with a well-known local band as the headliner, hardly anyone came. At the end of the night, the soundman came up and informed me I had a $10 bill to split up among the performers.

I was very serious about my work as a composer in those days, but the financial return I earned from that work was negligible, if not downright negative. I was not alone. Less than 10% of the 1347 composers who responded in 2008 to the American Music Center and American Composers Forum’s joint survey of composers, Taking Note, indicated that composing represents their primary income; even relatively wealthy composers who considered themselves professionals earned an average of only one-fifth of their income directly from composition-related activities.

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Researchers Charles Leadbeater and Paul Miller (no, not that Paul Miller) came up with a term for these sorts of people in their 2004 monograph for the British think tank DEMOS, The Pro-Am Revolution. Defined as those who “have a strong sense of vocation; use recognized public standards to assess performance; …[and] produce non-commodity products and services” while “spend[ing] a large share of their disposable income supporting their pastimes,” Pro-Ams are seemingly becoming a more and more prominent feature of developed-society life as leisure time becomes a reality for a larger portion of the population and higher education becomes an increasingly attainable goal.

Needless to say, it’s wonderful that more people are interested in creative activities. But that trend has its downsides for composers who harbor ambitions of making a living through music, particularly when combined with the proliferation of technologies that make music easier to produce and distribute to a mass audience than ever before. It creates a new kind of hypercompetition in which composers are not only jostling for attention with greater numbers of their peers than at any time in history—upload a piece to the AMC Online Library, for example, and anyone in the world can hear it, that is if they choose it from among the 4,613 audio samples already available there—they are also competing with every composer who ever lived whose work survived to the present day. (Unfortunately, composers cannot similarly count on dead audience members to be a part of their fan base.)

Making matters worse, composition suffers from the same long-term structural economic challenges that affect the rest of the performing arts (as well as other sectors such as health care and education). As Matthew Guerrieri defined Baumol’s cost disease for NewMusicBox three years ago, “labor costs in the performing arts will always inexorably rise, and at a faster rate than other industries.” Put simply, new compositions are labor-intensive for creator and audience alike at a point in history when everybody’s time is becoming more and more precious. While innovations such as notation software and MIDI renderings can help us increase our productivity as composers somewhat, the productivity increase doesn’t help that much if there isn’t a clear demand for the extra music it makes possible, and even these tools can’t erase the need for countless hours of training and perfecting necessary to meet most composers’ standards of quality.

From an economic standpoint, then, assuming composers don’t want to compromise on the type of music they write, they would do well to live in the cheapest circumstances possible, learn as much of their technique as they can on their own, and look for ways to make their creative process more efficient so that they can use the rest of their time to support themselves with unrelated work. Instead, you’ll often see composers clustering in major urban centers with high costs of living and earning a succession of expensive graduate degrees in order to set themselves apart. Indeed, according to the National Arts Index, the number of visual and performing arts degrees awarded in this country rose an astonishing 51% between 1998 and 2007.

The Grad School Racket

As I mentioned, my friends were confused that I chose to go to business school instead of music school. In fact, I almost did go to music school—in 2003. A year out of college, I applied to six master’s-degree-level programs in composition and didn’t get into any of them. It was the best misfortune that’s ever befallen me.

My top choice that year was New England Conservatory. At last check, tuition and fees for the master of music program at NEC run nearly $50,000 per year. My conversations with the financial aid office in 2002-03 made clear that scholarships were not to be counted upon, so in all likelihood the only way I could have afforded my education would have been to take out loans. Ironically, my loan burden probably would have been far more intense for NEC than will turn out to be the case for my pricier business degree, because my business school offers a loan forgiveness program that reimburses up to 100% of the need-based portion of my loans in exchange for working in the nonprofit sector after graduation. No such program could ever exist at a music school. There isn’t a fresh stable each year of investment bankers, consultants, and marketers going out and making six figures after graduation whose fees can cross-subsidize the minority of us who take less in order to do good work for the world. At music school, nonprofit is a way of life.

Well, it is for most. Some lucky stars in the piano, string, voice, or conducting programs might go on to extremely lucrative solo careers. A few composers might score some film gigs in Hollywood and make a pretty penny. But for the rest, life after graduation and financial prosperity don’t often mix. The best one can hope for, economically speaking, is a stable but obscure home in academia—yet the competition for even third-tier positions is notoriously fierce. Those trying to make it on the DIY circuit in an expensive city like New York or San Francisco frequently find that while opportunities for artistic collaboration are plentiful, a day job (or a trust fund) is essential.

Regardless of outside employment (or lack thereof), nearly half of respondents to Taking Note reported a total annual income before taxes of less than $40,000 over the previous three years. Composers are not a wealthy bunch, at least as measured by their take-home pay. And if you have a heavy sack of graduate school loans weighing you down, that investment in your education could realistically be forcing tough decisions decades later.

This is not a theoretical matter. A landmark study of graduates of arts training programs found that only 37% felt that their schools had given them adequate leadership training, and just 3% felt that they had been well prepared in financial matters. Fully half indicated that their student debt burden had influenced their career choices.

That bit of inconvenient truth is the sort of thing one wishes academic institutions would communicate to prospective students before they make what is likely to be the second-most significant financial commitment of their lives. But it’s not in the interests of those institutions to be giving potential customers (because that is what composition students are, whether they think of themselves that way or not) second thoughts about purchasing their product. After all, the more students there are, the more money there is for faculty positions, which of course represent one of the few oases of job security for the composition field in general. Yet no one seems to talk about the fact that a typical composition department might send three or four newly minted Ph.D.s or DMAs out on the job market each year, but only hire a new professor into its own ranks a couple of times a decade. The viability of the academic job track assumes a continual and improbable expansion of composition programs at every university.

Perhaps all that wouldn’t be so bad if conservatories and music departments were proactive about giving students tools to succeed outside of the academy. A few have taken some admirable steps in this direction in the past decade; Eastman School of Music, for example, established an Institute for Music Leadership during the tenure of former Dean and AMC Board Chair James Undercofler in 2001, and the Manhattan School of Music just announced a new Center for Music Entrepreneurship to begin this fall. So far, though, these initiatives appear to be the exception rather than the rule. Where are the conservatory classes and workshops on writing grant applications? Doing your taxes? Copyright and intellectual property? Marketing and promotion? Time management skills from which any freelance professional can benefit? Like it or not, most composers graduating from these programs who are serious about their careers will need to be entrepreneurs and arts administration professionals of a sort. They should be trained appropriately.

The Social Stratification Blues

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Some of you may be thinking to yourselves at this point, “So, you’re arguing that composers can’t make any money doing new music, and grad degrees are expensive. What else is new? And why should we care?” The major problem is that when success requires not only a daunting investment of financial resources to buy the right kind of training, the right kind of connections, high-quality recordings of one’s work, etc., but also thousands of hours of time not spent earning a living so that one can create and promote one’s own work, that field is not likely to have much in the way of socioeconomic diversity. Arts philanthropists consider lack of diversity in the face of changing demographics one of the biggest crises (perhaps the biggest of all) in the arts today. According to the 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, African Americans and Hispanics are between one-third to half as likely to attend a classical music event as whites and Asians, and people who make over $100,000 a year are more than three times as likely to attend as people who make less than $40,000. These broad contours hold true for most other disciplines as well. All told, traditional participants (i.e., ticket buyers) in traditional art forms represent a tiny, exclusive slice of the American public—in the case of classical music, a predominantly white, affluent, and highly educated 9.3% of adults. Meanwhile, the United States is projecting to be a majority-minority country by 2042, and California and Texas (among several other states) already hold that status. When philanthropists and politicians consider how they can best serve the public through the arts—and increasingly, whether they can serve the public through the arts—classical music is going to appear less and less compelling to them unless its artists and institutions, reversing a decades-long trend, can be more successful in reaching the other 91.7%. And make no mistake: those decisions WILL trickle down and influence the choices and opportunities you have to pursue your artistic ambitions. Are you going to be part of the solution?

Classical music is not alone in facing these dilemmas. Indeed, in some ways composers have it pretty good, relatively speaking of course. According to the NEA, the unemployment rate for actors in 2009 was a shocking 37%, far higher than for any other artistic profession. And in virtually every survey of artists’ incomes I’ve ever seen, dancers and choreographers come out looking like absolute martyrs compared to musicians.

Moreover, the technological changes sweeping industrialized society are affecting creators of all stripes, not just composers. The explosion of free content and the hypercompetition it foments is creating problems for journalists, movie studios, karaoke machine manufactures—even the porn industry! Whatever challenges our brave new world will throw our way, we can be sure that we won’t be the only ones who have to meet them.

The Composer as Citizen

Despite the doom and gloom that pervades the previous paragraphs, composers have the ability and the prerogative to take their situations into their own hands. But we will need to take several proactive steps to ensure that the 21st century does not pass us by:

    • Broaden the focus. As mentioned above, other arts disciplines and creative industries are dealing with many of the same challenges that face composers. You’ll notice that at a number of points in this article I have switched from talking about “composers” or “classical music” to “the arts.” That’s because, in many more ways than not, the arts are all in the same boat. Accordingly, the bulk of the most relevant and important conversations for composers to take part in today have a much broader focus than one obscure subgenre within a small niche of a single discipline. Did you know that the National Endowment for the Arts along with a number of major national arts funders have begun to focus their resources on urban revitalization through the arts? Did you know that many of the country’s local arts councils, including perhaps your own, have engaged in cultural planning efforts over the past decade? Do you attend conferences or networking events or professional development workshops that don’t have “music” in the title?



  • Get involved. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had about the future of the arts in the past couple of years in which no actual working artists have taken part. Sometimes the absence is noted, but more often it isn’t, and one is left to conclude that the health of the field is something that only arts administrators care to talk about. (Perhaps that explains why only 11% of the money funneled through nonprofit arts organizations in this country actually goes toward paying artists.) For whatever reason, musicians—composers included—seem particularly removed from these discussions. For example, the Great Recession has put pressure on a lot of states to gut their arts council budgets, and there have been a number of frantic advocacy campaigns in the past 18 months—including particularly high-profile ones in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and New York State—to stave off drastic reductions in funding. I regularly read about such campaigns on theater- and visual art-focused blogs, but saw nary a peep on any online music publication. People need to know you exist if you expect them to care about your livelihood. Lack of attendance at national conferences is understandable—travel expenses can add up – but these days, thanks to live streaming, blogs, Twitter, etc., it’s often perfectly possible to be part of the conversation without being there in person. Meanwhile, there are probably numerous local panels, lectures, and networking opportunities at your disposal—and if there aren’t, what’s stopping you from organizing one yourself?

So seek out, show up, absorb, interact, speak up! None of the above advice will, on its own, guarantee either artistic or financial success. But I am a firm believer that knowledge is power, and power is not something that composers have historically enjoyed. If you want to be in control of your circumstances instead of letting your circumstances control you, it might well be time for a different kind of education.


Ian David Moss
Ian David Moss

Ian David Moss is Research Director at Fractured Atlas, primarily responsible for the development of the Bay Area Cultural Asset Map (BACAM), a new tool enabling better understanding of the arts ecosystem through the integration of multiple data streams. Moss graduated with an MBA in nonprofit management and strategy from the Yale School of Management. While there, he founded Createquity, a highly acclaimed arts policy blog, and completed an internship with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for which he developed the original blueprint for BACAM and co-created the Foundation’s first logic model for the performing arts. A composer since the age of 12, he was previously development manager for the American Music Center and founded two first-of-their-kind performing ensembles: a hybrid electric chamber group/experimental rock band and a choral collective devoted to the music of the past 25 years.